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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay

In the year 516, King Hygelac of the Geats, a tribe in (probably) the southeast of Sweden, raided Frisia. Back then, this part of the Netherlands was an impenetrable land with big rivers, little streams, swamps, peat, bog, and damp forests covered with moss. Hygelac's expedition into Frisia was less fortunate, since he was killed and not one of the other Geats made it home with booty.

From the Old English epic poem Beowulf, we know that King Hygelac was wearing the famous Brosing neck-ring, better known as Brōsinga mene or Brísingamen. After he was killed, his body was stripped of weapons, armour, and jewellery. His bones were piled up on an island in the River Rhine to ward off future intruders. A different version of the scarecrow. Besides this Apocalypse Now-esque story, and more importantly, what happened to the beautiful Brísingamen? Well, most parts of the collar have been found, and the collar is nearly reassembled! Only a few pieces are still missing. Coordinates of the find location are 53.19664N, 5.4701E. Please, do not tell. But, before you rush off with your GPS, shovel, and metal detector, please read the information below first.

Beowulf (verses 1201-1208)

þone hring hæfde - Higec Géata

nefa Swertinges - nýhstan síðe

siðþan hé under segne - sinc ealgode

wælréaf werede - hyne wyrd fornam

syþðan hé for wlenco - wéan áhsode

faéhðe tó Frýsum - hé þá frætwe wæg

eorclanstánas - ofer ýða ful

ríce þéoden - hé under rande gecranc.

That ring [i.e. Brísingamen] had - Hygelac of the Geats,

grandson of Swerting, - on his last adventure,

when under the banner he - defended riches,

warded slaughter-spoils; - him Fate took away

after he from pride - sought misery,

feud with the Frisians; - he then wore the ornament,

the mysterious stone - over the waves’ cup [viz. the sea],

the mighty prince; - he fell under the rimmed-shield.

It must be noted that the epic poem Beowulf is ambiguous concerning who owned the Brísingamen when. Not only does the poem mention it in relation to the death of King Hygelac, but it also states that the Brísingamen was given to the warrior Beowulf by Queen Wealhtheow, the wife of King Hrothgar, also written as Hroðgar, while Hygelac was still alive. When Queen Wealtheow gave it to Beowulf, she asked him to be dreamhealdende 'a preserver of joy' and to be good to her four sons because she feels great danger is at hand (Shippey 2022).

Not only the epic poem Beowulf testifies to the faéhðe tó Frýsum 'feud to the Frisians' undertaken by Beowulf's nephew Hygelac. The raid and the seeking of misery in Frisia by King Hygelac is mentioned in other early-medieval sources as well. These are the Historia Francorum 'History of the Franks' written by the generously quoted Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, and the anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum, also known as Gesta Francorum 'deeds of the Franks', written in the first quarter of the eighth century. Hygelac is called Chlochiliach by Gregory of Tours, by the way. Lastly, Hygelac is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Liber Monstrorum de diversis generibus 'book of different kinds of monsters' written around the year 800. In much younger, high-medieval Icelandic sagas, Hygelac is known as Hugleikr.

The common thread of the early-medieval texts is: after having raided Frisia somewhere in the lower River Rhine area, King Hygelac was killed just after his ships had set out to deep sea and o silly Hygelac was still ashore, pretty much unprotected. Ships loaded with booty and slaves taken from the Frisians and/or Chatuarii. It was the Franks who killed the king of the Geats, and even got their stuff and captives back from the ships. The conclusion must be it was an ill-prepared raid. Read our post The Raider’s Portrait of Appels how a raid back then was executed properly.

The scene of the crime must have been near the mouth of the River (Old) Rhine (Porck 2014). Therefore, near the former Roman castellum Lugdunum Batavorum. A fortress that has been swallowed by the North Sea in the meantime. Locally, the fortress is known by the Dutch as Brittenburg 'burh of the Brits'. Brittenburg was located near the settlement of Hrothaluashem or Rothulfuashem meaning 'Radulf’s home'. Hrothaluashem was located near the present-day towns of Rijnsburg 'Rhine burh' and of Katwijk in the province of Zuid Holland. The island in the River Rhine where the remains of King Hygelac were 'exhibited' to deter future raiders might have been Waardeiland near Leiden (Lugt 2021).

Hrothaluashem is also the location where possibly the great pharus ‘lighthouse’ of Caligula once stood in the Roman period, often named the Tower of Kalla in ancient literature (Dhaeze 2019). It was Emperor Caligula who ordered the construction of an impressive lighthouse comparable to the famous lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt. Sightings of the remains of the fortress Brittenburg at exceptional low tide continued until the eighteenth century. Hence, at the time of King Hygelac, the ruins of the Roman fortress and of Kala's Tower maybe still have been there.

Castellum Lugdunum Batavorum aka Brittenburg, Katwijk the Netherlands
impression of the Roman castellum Lugdunum Batavorum aka Brittenburg near modern town of Katwijk

From all this we can conclude that the Brísingamen neck-ring or necklace was on Frisian territory in 516 when King Hygelac, wearing the gemstones and well-wrought gold, bit the dust. A date of death, by the way, generally assumed by scholars, and also based on the text Historia Francorum mentioned earlier.

The looting of Frisia by King Hygelac is also considered to be the last twitch of five centuries of endemic piracy in the region. Check our post It all began with piracy to have an image of this crucial period for bringing forth a common southern North Sea culture, and to realize what and who set the example for the Vikings many centuries later.


Battle of Finnsburh – In our post Tolkien pleaded in favour of king Finn we told a bit about king Hygelac already and, of course, we told about the legendary Battle at Finnsburh leading to the Freswæle ‘Frisian Slaughter’ that took place in that same era too.


Besides the famous Brísingamen necklace mentioned in the epic poem Beowulf, the Edda does too. The Edda is a medieval compilation of Icelandic poems, poetics, and mythical stories written in Old Norse in the thirteenth century. The Brísingamen is mentioned several times and described as the necklace of the goddess Freyja. In Norse mythology, Freyja is the goddess of beauty and fertility, and - relevant for this post - also of war and death. In one of the stories, the god Heimdallr, who can do without sleep and sees in the dark, is portrayed as 'the Recoverer of Freyja’s necklace,' the one who finds back the beautiful ornament after it was lost. Besides the Edda, the Flateyjarbók, an Icelandic manuscript or yearbook written in the fourteenth century, also makes a reference to the Brísingamen.

Part of most stories is that the beautiful and coveted Freyja, and other women, receive beautiful jewellery in exchange for favours. When promises were broken or, for example, a candidate for marriage was unsuitable, they would break or smash the jewellery. That way elegantly giving expression to their pent-up disappointment and anger. Etymologically the word brísingamen can be explained as ‘red-fire neck-ring’ or ‘shining neck-ring’. We will come back to that later. Keep it in mind, though.

Folk tradition among the Frisians of today wants Freyja to be the goddess after which the Frisians are named. Although there is not much actual support for this oral tradition (read also our post A severe case of inattentional blindness: the Frisian tribe’s name), graceful Freyja does come into play regarding the Brísingamen. There is, namely, an image preserved of the neck-ring that goddess Freyja wore. This image concerns a silver pendant found at Aska in the province of Östergötland in Sweden. Indeed, more or less where probably the Geats of King Hygelac lived, as mentioned earlier. The silver pendant is dated between 800 and 1050. Below the pendant where we are talking about, which can be admired in real life in the Swedish History Museum:

Freyja pendant disc-on-bow fibula
Freyja pendant

Let’s zoom-in at her neck (and please do not stare at her little belly too much):

Freyja pendant disc-on-bow fibula
disc-on-bow fibula - Freyja pendant

by Bengt Händel

"What the ...?" Indeed, a big disc-on-bow fibula!

Indeed, a big disc-on-bow fibula! An early-medieval type of fibula found along the south-eastern coast of the North Sea. Thus in former Frisia as well, which is the northwest of Germany and the Netherlands today. Frisia then roughly included the coastal zone stretching from Sincfala in Flanders, up to the River Weser in the region of Ostfriesland in Germany, including the central river lands in the Netherlands.

These big fibulas were high-end status jewellery and, in contrast to other types of (smaller) fibulae, not worn in pairs on, for example, shoulders, but as a single priceless item. The big disc-on-bow fibulas probably closed a beaded string around the neck (Schoneveld & Zijlstra 1999). In Frisia, disc-on-bow fibulas have been found especially in the central river area of the River Rhine, in the area called Kennemerland or Kinnlimasiðe, and, above all, in the old pagi 'territories' Austrachia 'eastern island' (current region Oostergo), and Uuistrachia 'western island' (current region Westergo) both in the province of Friesland. All these productive sites were part of Frisia during the Early Middle Ages. These fibulas are generally dated to the first half of the sixth century.

“Hold on and wait a minute!” we hear you think, “That is exactly the time when King Hygelac found his peace near Rijnsburg after his plunder-blunder travels in Frisia!”

Indeed, it is. The plot thickens.

The most exquisite, cloisonné, disc-on-bow fibula of the Vendel Period ever found, is the one found in the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma terp. A terp being an artificial settlement mound made of clay and/or dung; read our manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps. The location is near the small village of Wijnaldum in the old pagus Uuistrachia (territory of Westergo). The terp itself has been continuously occupied from the second century all through the Early Middle Ages, until around 950 (Kaspers 2016). It was a terp of a single household. The fibula was nicknamed Finn's Fibula twenty years ago, in a failed effort to connect it with the famous King Finn son of Folcwald known from, among other, the epic poem Beowulf.

When looking at the detail and the density of inlays, experts agree it is even more detailed than the jewellery found at Sutton Hoo in England. More than an amazing 300 individual pieces of almandine garnet have been used. This makes it also the largest early-medieval inlaid piece of jewellery found in Europe, as far as we know. The red almandines originate from Rajasthan, India. The mysterious stone from oversea "eorclanstánas ofer ýða ful", as the epic poem Beowulf (quoted above) spot-on described it. Underneath each tiny piece of almandine, foil of gold was laid. The highly qualified craftsmanship is evident too from the very fine spacing of the grid on the foil. That way reflecting light even stronger. Therefore, when sun rays touch it, making it a true fire-red, shining neck-ring. Even the bronze stencil to stamp the foil has been found. Lastly, the gold content is outstandingly high with 97%, nearly the maximum, and significantly higher than most objects found at Sutton Hoo for example.

All in all, a Freyja-worthy ornament.

Wijnaldum fibula, Frisia
Wijnaldum-Tjitsma disco-on-bow fibula, ca. AD 625

Even archaeologist Bruce-Mitford, who researched the immeasurable impressive Sutton Hoo material, was impressed. The fibula was excavated in parts over different years and still is not complete. First, in the year 1953. The farmer who found it, put the fibula part, i.e. the footplate, on his barn. Later it ended up at a windowsill at his sister's house in the hamlet of Hatzum in the province of Friesland. But it was too shiny and too impressive to stay unnoticed. It was 're-discovered' by a family doctor. The footplate, thought to be a buckle back then, was exhibited for the first time in the autumn of 1959 in the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden. Part of the exposition Van Friezen, Franken en Saksen 'Of Frisians, Franks and Saxons'.

In the years 1991-1993, a large-scale excavation took place at the terp of Tjitsma near the village of Wijnaldum, and more pieces of the fabulous fibula were recovered. The last piece, for now that is, was found in 2009. Yes, this ornament has many Heimdallrs. Total length of the fibula is seventeen centimeters, and it can be admired in the Fries Museum in the Netherlands. But stay away from it! Like the Hope Diamond, this treasure might bring bad luck too. It was the possession of the goddess of beauty, and of war and death. Remember that the king, or pirate depending on your perspective, who last wore it, died at the sandy shores of western Frisia. Whose bones were piled up like a scarecrow on an island in the River Rhine.


Adding everything up, the fibula of the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma terp must be the famous and legendary Brísingamen neck-ring. Everybody, three times hurrah!

And, the fact that the fibula was broken, must have been due to the unpredictable behaviour of goddess Freyja. Not because of ploughing the clay, as archaeologists do often blame local farmers. Always easy to blame farmers, for many things. No, Freyja must have smashed it after gotten angry for some reason. Or, when King Hygelac was killed at the River Rhine, not only his skull was damaged. In any case, a simple farmer's plough cannot hurt or break this divine ornament.

We dare to go beyond imagination. Namely that the person who forged this divine piece of art is none other than the famous blacksmith Wayland, known from Germanic mythology. He too is mentioned in the epic poem Beowulf. Blacksmith Wayland gave himself away being the creator of the fibula through a golden solidus found near the village of Schweindorf in the region of Ostfriesland in 1948. The coin is dated late-sixth century. On it is written in runes the name in Frisian language 'Weladu'. Indeed, Wayland. The coin is kept in the Ostfriesische Landesmuseum Emden. Check out our post Weladu the flying blacksmith for more on this brilliant but devilish goldsmith.

disc-on-bow fibula Frisia
Wijnaldum-Tjitsma disc-on-bow fibula


Of course, our conclusion might be a bit firm. However, the many links and connections between this specific big-type fibula, the fire-shining treasure, the red-mysterious stone from overseas (India), King Hygelac, his death at the mouth of the River Rhine in Frisia, the Norse mythology of Freyja, the pendant depicting her with the fibula, the Edda’s and the Beowulf's references to both the costly ornament and to Frisia, the region southeast Sweden of the Geats and, of course, Frisia itself; all together compose a fascinating early-medieval history.

All these elements come together in the first half of the sixth century. Just like how the snake-like creatures are entwined on the footplate of the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma fibula. And, if it was not thís specific fibula, albeit it is the most impressive big disc-on-bow fibula we know, they had something very similar in mind back then in the sixth century, in the Vendel Period, when kings, queens, warriors, bards and audience were talking, singing and bragging about the Brísingamen.

Some might argue that it is difficult to reconcile Beowulf and the Edda. The first text clearly states that it was men, i.e. King Hygelac and warrior Beowulf, who were wearing the Brísingamen. The latter text, the Edda, says it was a goddess, i.e. Freyja. Thus a woman who was wearing it. Well, maybe that is because we project a modern-conservative and not overly inclusive way of thinking onto a sixth-century society.

The thing King Hygelac and goddess Freyja both had in common was that they were associated with war. These big type disc-on-bow fibulae might, therefore, have been ornaments (for leaders) of war and battle. King Hygelac wore it proudly on his chest when he went into battle against the Frisians and the Franks, as described in the epic poem Beowulf. Freyja was the goddess of beauty and war. Besides, are we not gaining more and more archaeological evidence that early-medieval women played an important role in warfare too? We also know that a neck-ring was worn by men. Lastly, we know that a disc-on-bow fibula was, or at least could be, part of a neck-ring. In the eyes of early-medieval people, war and beauty were two sides of the same coin, like the three Morrigens. The Iron Age or Celtic goddesses of war and fate, and at the same time of fertility and sensuality (Clerinx 2023).

Now go go go! Check out waypoint 53.19664N, 5.4701E, and who knows you will find some of the still missing bits. If you are a real Heimdallr, who knows you even step on the still missing disc.

find location Wijnaldum-Tjitsma fibula

Go with one last word of advice. If you are a man, do not mingle with Wijnaldum beautiful women! Read our post Expelled from regal grounds to understand why.


Note 1 - Famous scholar and writer, Tolkien, was inspired by the mythology of pre- and early-medieval mythology surrounding beautiful crafted ornaments. In his book The Silmarillions, it was Fëanor, son of King Finwë, who crafted the three shining Silmarils. It is not without reason Tolkien created the name Finwë based on the name Finn, the king of the Frisians as among others mentioned in the epic poem Beowulf too. Read also our post Tolkien pleaded in favour of King Finn to learn more about this all.

Note 2 - Although nearly everyone regards the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma fibula as a disc-on-bow, there is a minority report doubting it, and argues that this fibula originally might have had no disc at all (Olsen 2006). Mainly because the splendid filigree decoration on the bow would justify not to be covered by a disc. Well, who knows how much more beautiful the disc might have been, or still is.

Note 3 - At the village Hallum in the province of Friesland, twenty-five kilometers from the spot where the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma fibula has been found, parts of a so-called Vendel helmet also have been found dated sixth or seventh century. Furthermore, near the town of Dokkum, another fifteen kilometers from Hallum, a sword ring was discovered. Again, dated the sixth or seventh century. Similar sword rings indicating prestige, i.e. two rings clinging together and attached to the pommel of the word, have been found in a large area stretching from southwest Finland, Uppland and Gotland in Sweden, Denmark, mid and southern Germany, northern France and southeast England.

Note 4 - According to other sources than Beowulf, the anonymous eight-century Liber Historiae Francorum, Hygelac raided the pagus 'district' Hetware or Hattuaria more upstream the River Rhine, east of the city of Nijmegen. Unaware he is being chased by a Frankish army, Hygelac sends his fleet with the booty out to sea at the mouth of the River Rhine in Frisia, and is then being killed. Also, the year the raid took place was not 516 but 526 (Lugt 2021).

Furthermore, according to Lugt, the mouth of the River Rhine was not inhabited by Frisians, but by the Warini who originated from the region Thuringia in the center of modern Germany. Lugt prefers to speak of North Sea Germanics and Rhinelanders, and where possible avoids, just like Willemsen, to speak of Frisians too much (read our review Three books reviewed ‘on Frisia’: Is history evidence based? how Willemsen avoids the words 'Frisia' and 'Frisian' just a bit too evidently). Dijkstra, however, compared the material culture of Zuid Holland with that of the coastal north and concludes it was similar to that of the Frisians (2011).

Apart from all this, the Warini are indeed an intriguing and obscure people, known from legends and old texts. Truth is, they are very obscure and will stay so.

Recommended music

Marilyn Monroe, Diamonds are a girl's best friend (1953)

The Beatles, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (1967)

Further reading

Alexander, M., Beowulf. A verse Translation (1973)

Besteman, J.C., Bos, J.M. & Heidinga, H.A., Graven naar Friese koningen. De opgravingen in Wijnaldum (1992)

Besteman, J.C., Bos, J.M., Gerrets, D.A. & Koning, de J. (ed), The Excavations at Wijnaldum. Reports on Frisia in Roman and Medieval times (1999); Schoneveld, J. & Zijlstra, J., The Wijnaldum brooch (1999)

Buijtendorp, T., De gouden eeuw van de Romeinen in de Lage Landen (2021)

Bremmer, J.H., Frisians in ‘Beowulf’ — ‘Beowulf’ in Frisia: The Vicissitudes of Time (2004)

Bruce Mitford, R.L.S., Gold and Silver Cloisonné Buckle from Wijnaldum, Friesland (1974)

Carmiggelt, A., De ‘Koningsterp’ van Wijnaldum. De Friese elite in de vroege Middeleeuwen (2000)

Clerinx, H., De god met de maretak. Kelten en de Lage Landen (2023)

Dhaeze, W., The Roman North Sea and Channel Coastal Defence. Germanic Seaborne Raids and the Roman Response (2019)

Dijkstra, M.F.P., Rondom de mondingen van de Rijn en Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3de en de 9de eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (2011)

Eerden, van R. & Nicolay, J.A.W., Wodans mythische vogels. Mythologische symbooltaal op een Domburg-fibula uit Heiloo (2021)

Görman, M., The Necklace as a Divine Symbol and as a Sign of Dignity in the Old Norse Conception (1996)

Heeren, S. & Feijst, van der L. (ed), Fibulae uit de Lage Landen. Brooches from the Low Countries (2017)

Heeren, S. & Willemsen, A. (ed), Fibula’s. Vondsten, vormen & mode (2017)

IJssennagger, N., Nicolay, J., Hattenberg, T. & Amsterdam, E., Gemeten goud. Een onderzoek naar goudgehaltes van vroegmiddeleeuwse objecten uit Friesland (2016)

Jørgensen, L., Manor and Market at Lake Tissø in the Sixth to Eleventh Centuries: The Danish ‘Productive’ Sites (2003)

Lasance, A., Wizo van Vlaanderen. Itinerarium Fresiae of Een rondreis door de Lage Landen (2012)

Kaspers, A., It all started with the pieces of one brooch. A new way of looking at the brooch of Wijnaldum-Tjitsma (2016)

Kramer, E., De Hada-runensolidus opnieuw bekeken: eremetaal voor moed, godsvrucht en smeedkunst? (2016)

Kramer, E. & Langen, de G., Van Vikingschat naar Finn en andere Friese koningen. Jan Zijlstra (1941-2018), oudheidkundige tussen eigenbelang en dienstbaarheid (2019)

Looijenga, T., Runica Francia (2018)

Lugt, F., Rijnland in de donkere eeuwen. Van de komst van de Kelten tot het ontstaan van het graafschap (2021)

Mitchell, S., Beowulf (2017)

Nieuwhof, A. (ed), The excavations at Wijnaldum. Volume 2: Handmade and wheel -thrown pottery of the first millennium AD (2020)

Nicolay, J.A.W. & Aalbersberg, G., Wijnaldum; koningsterp aan de Ried (2018)

Nicolay, J.A.W., Odin in Friesland. Scandinavian influences in the southern North Sea area during the Migration and Early Merovingian Periods (2017)

Nicolay, J.A.W. & Boer, de J., Roem voor de eeuwigheid. Een vroegmiddeleeuwse zwaardknop uit Friesland (2019)

Nicolay, J.A.W., Oortmerssen, van G., Os, van B. & Nobles, G., Een Vendelhelm uit Hallum? Verslag van een archeologische zoektocht (2017)

Olsen, V.S., The development of (proto)-disc-on-bow brooches in England, Frisia and Scandinavia (2006)

Ottema-Kingma Stichting, Fibula from North East Frisia (2019)

Otten, M., Edda. De liederen uit de Codex Regius en verwante manuscripten (1994)

Porck, Th., The Oegstgeest bowl and the bones of a giant king mentioned in Beowulf (2014)

Russchen, A., New Light on Dark-Age Frisia (1967)

Shippey, T., Beowulf and the North before the Vikings (2022)

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Silmarillion (1977)

Tulp, C., Tjitsma, Wijnaldum: An Early Medieval Production Site in the Netherlands (2003)

Tuuk, van der L. & Mijderwijk, L., De middeleeuwers. Mannen en vrouwen uit de Lage Landen, 450-900 (2020)

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