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Finnish history buff finds Viking-era sword on lake shore

A metal-detection hobbyist discovered a treasure trove of late Viking-era artefacts in a shallow grave on his land, including an intact sword dating back about 1,000 years. The items are to go on display at Helsinki's National Museum next year.

A remarkably well-preserved Viking-era sword has been found in a previously-unknown level-ground cremation cemetery in Loppi, southern Finland. The find was made last spring by the landowner, an amateur history buff, using a metal detector.

Viikinkiaikainen miekka laatikossa
Researchers say the sword is remarkably well preserved. Image: Marianna Niukkanen / Museovirasto
 

Tuomas Pietilä discovered the weapon near the north shore of Lake Loppijärvi. The National Board of Antiquities excavated the site and announced the find on Tuesday. Loppi is some 90 km north of Helsinki, near the border of the Uusimaa and Häme (Tavastia) regions.

”I looked on a map and found where the lake shore used to be located and went along it with a metal detector,” he tells Yle.

Pietilä first found an axe blade and a firesteel from the Iron Age. When his excavations began to reveal the blade of a sword nearby, Pietilä stopped digging and contacted Reijo Hyvönen of the Kanta-Häme amateur archaeologists’ association. He and a colleague visited, agreed that it was a sword and contacted the Board of Antiquities. Pietilä says this may be the only complete sword ever dug up in the Loppi area.

According to Dr. Anna Wessman, an archaeologist at the University of Helsinki and the University of Chester, level-ground cremation cemeteries, also known as flat cremation cemeteries, were used in the late Migration and Viking periods in Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Russia’s Karelian Isthmus.

She notes that weapons were often scattered among the stones and ashes in these shallow burial sites, but that they were usually “deliberately broken either before or after being laid on the pyre. The same custom is also known from Sweden and Estonia.”

Reality show sparked interest

Pietilä says he became interested in metal detecting as a hobby after seeing an Yle reality TV series broadcast this year, focusing on the Kanta-Häme amateur archaeologists’ group. He invited the group to visit his property last spring, when they found a woman’s burial site in a field. Since then he has been going over the property carefully.

Arkeologit nostavat viikinkimiekkaa maasta Lopella
The gravesite is near a former lake shore. Image: Marianna Niukkanen / Museovirasto

”About 99 percent of what you find is trash, but if you’re lucky you can find something like this,” he says.

The Board of Antiquities carried out a dig at the site in late August and early September. It says the cremation cemetery and the sword date back to the late Viking era, around the year 1000.

Found next to the sword’s handle was a sheath containing a knife, a circular brooch and a comb made of bone. Also found at the site was a fragile ash urn along with many burned bone fragments. A bit further away was the blade of a work axe.

According to Board of Antiquities researcher Jan-Erik Nyman, until now there has been little information about cremation cemeteries in the Häme-Uusimaa border region.

Researchers 'pleasantly surprised' by grave’s condition

The bones will be carbon-dated to determine their exact age, and undergo other analysis that may reveal the gender of the person or persons buried at the site, and whether animals were burned there. Soil samples, meanwhile, will be tested for clues such as which time of year the burial occurred.

”This adds to the general picture that we have of life during the Iron Age,” says Nyman. “Locally it tells us about the prehistory of the Loppi area during the late Iron Age, when permanent settlements began and developed on the cusp of the prehistorical and historical eras.”

”The grave is really well preserved; that’s a pleasant surprise for us. It’s quite rare to find such an intact burial within a cremation cemetery. There are quite certain to be other graves in the same location, but it’s difficult to guess how many,” says Nyman.

So might this latest find have any links to the 2013 discovery of a buried swordsman with two swords in Janakkala, some 40 km away?

”This sword is about the same age as the older one found in Janakkala. Otherwise there is a gap of a few centuries between these grave sites. This is older, dating back to the late Viking era whereas the Janakkala find is from the late Middle Ages,” Nyman explains.

On show next year?

According to the Board of Antiquities, the Loppi site is a good example of cooperation between metal-detection hobbyists and officials – but stresses that potentially significant finds must be left as they are until they can be examined by a professional archaeologist.

The sword and other objects will undergo conservation with the aim of exhibiting them at the National Museum in Helsinki next year.

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