The story of the impressive and extraordinary Golden Horns of Gallehus, from their creation, discovery, and ultimate loss, is perhaps one of the saddest in European archaeology, specifically Danish.

Both pieces, found separately, were recognized immediately upon discovery as exceptional finds, and the fact that today we can only admire reconstructions of the originals constitutes a great loss.

They were two horns made of gold sheets discovered north of the town of Møgeltønder, in southern Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. One appeared on July 20, 1639, found by a girl named Kirsten Svendsdatter, who wrote to King Christian IV of Denmark to hand it over. She received a skirt as payment.

The girl Kirsten with her horn uncovered, in a painting by Harald Slott-Møller (1906)
The girl Kirsten with her horn uncovered, in a painting by Harald Slott-Møller (1906). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The other, almost a century later, on April 21, 1734, found by Erik Lassen just 20 meters from where Kirsten had discovered the other horn. Lassen gave it to Count Schackenborg, who in turn handed it to King Christian VI, who sent 200 talers as payment to Lassen. Both ended up in the Royal Chamber of Art in Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen.

They were incomplete, missing parts on both. The one found in 1639 was the longer of the two, with seven decorated segments and about 3 kilograms in weight, while the other had only six, five decorated, and one narrower with a runic inscription, but weighed approximately the same.

Researchers are unsure if the horns were used for drinking or for producing sound by blowing through them, though they lean towards the former due to their precious metal composition. What they agree on is that they were likely made around 400 AD, still in the Germanic Iron Age (although in southern Europe, antiquity was practically ending).

Two similar stones with inscriptions mark the places where the horns were found. In the image the one that indicates the place where the first one was found
Two similar stones with inscriptions mark the places where the horns were found. In the image the one that indicates the place where the first one was found. Credit: Hjart / Wikimedia Commons

Both were made with two layers of gold sheets, the inner of lesser quality and amalgamated with silver, and the outer of pure gold. The outer layer consisted of a series of rings covered with cast figures soldered onto them depicting representations of humans, animals, and fantastical creatures. The second horn, the shorter one, contained a runic inscription in Old Norse identifying its creator: ᛖᚲᚺᛚᛖᚹᚨᚷᚨᛊᛏᛁᛉᚺᛟᛚᛏᛁᛃᚨᛉᚺᛟᚱᚾᚨᛏᚨᚹᛁᛞᛟ, which means I, Hlewagastiz Holtijaz, made the horn.

At some point in the 18th century, both horns were moved to the Rigsarkivet, the Danish National Archives, which in the early 19th century were located near the Chancellery building. On May 4, 1802, a goldsmith and clockmaker named Niels Heidenreich from the small town of Foulum (later to become famous because of him) managed to access the warehouse where they were kept using master keys.

Heidenreich took both horns to his house and, to the dismay of scholars and archaeologists, melted them down to obtain the gold. He used it to make counterfeit Indian coins that he tried to sell to his fellow goldsmiths.

Drawing of the period, of the second horn, with the inscription
Drawing of the period, of the second horn, with the inscription. Credit: Nationalmuseet / Wikimedia Commons

However, the guild master of the goldsmiths, Andreas Holm, noticed that the coins were not only fake but made of poor-quality gold mixed with brass. He reported Heidenreich, whom he had seen disposing of coin blanks in the city moat, and the thief was arrested on April 27, 1803.

Three days later, he confessed, and on June 10, he was sentenced to prison, from which he did not emerge until 37 years later, in 1840. He died in 1844.

There was no choice but to try to reconstruct the horns. In the late 18th century, a set of plaster molds had been made of both horns, for a cardinal in Rome, but unfortunately, they were lost in a shipwreck off the coast of Corsica and could not be used.

Set of copies of the golden horns made in 1979/80, now in the National Museum of Denmark
Set of copies of the golden horns made in 1979/80, now in the National Museum of Denmark. Credit: Nationalmuseet / Wikimedia Commons

Instead, drawings and sketches made by scholars who had examined the original horns after their discovery and later at the royal palace during the 17th and 18th centuries were used. One of these sketches was made by the antiquarian Olaus Wormius, who in 1641 wrote a treatise on the first of the horns found.

A reconstruction of the horns was made in 1860, which were exhibited for decades in the National Museum. However, analyses conducted in 1940 determined that this initial set of reconstructions was incorrect, and new ones were made in 1945 and 1979, both more accurate in relation to the original drawings and measurements.

There are also sets of horn reconstructions at the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, at the Sønderjylland Museum, and another at the Kongernes Jelling Museum.

Detail of the runic inscription on the second horn in the Moesgaard Museum copy
Detail of the runic inscription on the second horn in the Moesgaard Museum copy. Credit: Bloodofox / Wikimedia Commons

The 1945 reconstructions are owned by the Danish Royal Family and are kept at Gråsten Castle. Another version from 1945 is exhibited at the museum in Malmö.

The copies at the Moesgaard Museum were surprisingly stolen, just as the originals had been, in 1993. And those at the Kongernes Jelling Museum in 2007. Both copies were later recovered intact, as they are not made of gold but of gilded bronze.

The Golden Horns of Gallehus are today a Danish national symbol, identified with its “glorious lost past”. But what happened to the gold? Heidenreich not only made coins with the gold from the horns but also jewelry, mainly earrings. One of these specimens was donated by his great-granddaughter to the museum in Ringe on Funen, where today the last 10 grams of the Golden Horns are preserved.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 11, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La historia del descubrimiento y pérdida de los Cuernos de oro de Gallehus, creados en la Edad del Hierro germánica

Sources

The Golden Horns (National Museum of Denmark) | Arthur Beer, Hartner and the riddle of the Golden Horns | Morten Axboe & Peter W.U. Appel, De udødelige guldhorn | Guldhorn Malmø Museer | Wikipedia


  • Share this article:

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.