A 1300-year-old onion has been discovered as part of a woman’s grave in Denmark. It was found nearly 30 years ago, but it is only now that it has been analyzed by archaeologists from the National Museum of Denmark.
The bulb is dated to 700 AD, which is the time just before the Viking Age, and it is the oldest known evidence of the use of onions in Denmark. The bulb comes from the burial site on Bornholm, an island in the Baltic Sea to the east of the main area of the country.
The unusual find was inside a small bronze box. The box, which was found in a woman’s grave also contained a ball of yarn. Mette Marie Hald, an archaeologist and curator at the National Museum of Denmark, explained, “Normally, an onion degrades away very quickly, but because it has been in a small box of bronze, the metal helped to preserve both the onion and the small ball of yarn.”
To put an onion into a beautiful bronze box, and then into a grave, testifies to this plant’s special significance for these early medieval people. Swedish findings show that the wild onions were being gathered in the Iron Age and was later cultivated as food since this species is often found near old settlements. One can assume that wild onions were also an important part of ancient vegetable gardens in Denmark.
“Onions were an important flavoring for food and testify that the Iron Age people appreciated good food, but onions also had a ritual and magic function in ancient times”, said Mette Marie Hald.
She is convinced that onion was seen in early medieval folklore as being able to ward off disease and evil. The small bronze box with onion was part of the buried woman’s jewelry chain, as she had been in the grave, and it is tempting to interpret the box and contents as an amulet.
“The wild onions, with their strong smell and taste, had most likely a frightening power of evil spirits in the same way as garlic is said to keep vampires away,” she adds.
Onions mentioned several times in Viking soures, such as sagas and Eddas, with the most famous episode perhaps coming in the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok – when Ragnar summoned his future wife Aslaug to meet him, he also commands her to arrive neither dressed nor undressed, neither hungry nor full and neither alone nor in company. She passes his test of wits by arriving dressed in a net, biting an onion and with only a dog as a companion. Mette Marie Hald believes idea that the onion bulb in the woman’s tomb might even have been worn as a reference to a strong female character like Aslaug.
Onions were also believed to have medical benefits during the Middle Ages. The Danish medieval doctor Henrik Harpestræng, who died in 1244, wrote that onion strengthens the lungs and chives mixed with breast milk works against lung diseases.
Archaeologists at the National Museum Denmark hope that new evidence can be found from the site on Bornholm. Known as the Nørresand farm, it was where 60 graves were discovered dating between the years 500 and 700 AD. Female graves were found containing rich grave gifts sucha as jewelry and glass bead chains, while male graves contained weapons.
See also: Vegetables in the Middle Ages