Discovering the truth behind the Beowulf legend

The background behind England’s earliest literary masterpiece, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, is being explored in a major archaeological investigation in Denmark

The background behind England’s earliest literary masterpiece, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, is being explored in a major archaeological investigation in Denmark.

Experts working in Lejre, the royal centre of Denmark in the sixth to tenth centuries AD, are revealing the reality of life in the great royal feasting hall – “the greatest hall under heaven” – in which many of the poem’s pivotal events are said to have unfolded. The remains of seven separate buildings used for feasting, all of which would have stood at various points across a period of around 500 years, have been identified by the project team. The earliest of these may have been the hall named in Beowulf as Heorot, in which warriors loyal to Hrothgar – a king who may have ruled over early Denmark – would have met, feasted and drunk. The poem describes how the noise of these festivities provoked a murderous attack by a monstrous creature known as Grendel.

Beowulf is often cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature. The story was first brought to Britain by Scandinavians who had formed part of the fifth- and sixth-century AD Germanic settlement of what later became England. The area in Denmark being explored by archaeologists has long been associated with the exploits of the titular character, a hero from southern Sweden. The story recounts how Beowulf, having heard of the attack, travels to Denmark and offers to kill Grendel. After pretending to be asleep in the hall, the young nobleman succeeds in ripping off one of the monster’s huge arms in fierce hand-to-hand combat. According to the poem, the beast then flees to await death in a nearby cave.

Following the most recent stage of the project, archaeologists now believe that the design and, in some cases, the dimensions of the succession of feasting halls at Lejre remained constant over a period of 500 years, from approximately 500 to 1000 AD. The team has also confirmed that the halls were indeed used for vast feasts. In a study completed earlier this year, analysis of feasting debris – particularly from the area around the site of the feasting hall that dates from the era associated with Beowulf – has pointed to the remains of hundreds of individual animals including suckling pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, deer, chicken, geese, ducks and fish.

Recent analysis of bronze, silver and gold treasures found during excavations in the area has also identified as many as 40 pieces of jewellery, including some made of solid gold, together with pottery drinking vessels imported from England and Germany. Other finds made during the past four years have included a hoard of 20 fragments of gold rings and bars, a silver figurine of the ancient Nordic god Odin and the remains of an eagle. Archaeologists believe that a large animal jawbone found at the site, meanwhile, is from a brown bear given to a Danish king by a foreign ruler as a diplomatic gift. A full report on all of the discoveries is due to be published by early 2014.

Tom Christensen, curator at Denmark’s Roskilde Museum and director of the Lejre project, said: “For the first time, archaeology is giving us a glimpse of life in the key royal Danish site associated with the Beowulf legend.”

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