Eagles, Snakes, Romans and Anglo-SaxonsPosted: November 4, 2013
New on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database last week was this highly stylised Anglo-Saxon eagle and snake mount from Dean and Shelton in Bedfordshire, probably dating to the later 6th century AD. It’s significant not only for it’s beauty, but because, to my knowledge, only about five similar objects have previously been found in England (see below). Little animal plaques like this are generally found on shields, though the Portable Antiquities Scheme record raises the possibility that this one may have been for a belt.
In a bizarre coincidence, the publication of this find on the Portable Antiquities Scheme coincided, almost to the day, with the Museum of London announcing an astounding new Romano-British sculpture of precisely the same subject: an eagle clutching a snake.
The eagle clutching/devouring a snake motif was common in the Roman world. The quality of the statue is indeed remarkable, but its artistic merits are not the subject of this blog. My real interest lies in its relationship with the above Anglo-Saxon mount. These new finds, taken together, weaken the cultural disparity we usually perceive between barbaric Anglo-Saxons and civilized Romans. They provide a rare opportunity to make a direct comparison.
Of course, cultural continuity cannot be presumed purely on the basis of a common motif. Symbolic meanings adapt depending on context. So a statue of an eagle from a Roman mausoleum in Londinium would naturally have different meanings to a decorative mount for an Anglo-Saxon shield created 400 years later. Nevertheless, aspects of this symbol were probably shared. Whether or not the Anglo-Saxons of the sixth century AD used this icon in full knowledge of its classical ancestry is an important question. The question as to whether Anglo-Saxons even drew a fundamental distinction between their own culture and that of the late Roman Empire is even more crucial.
We’ve probably heard enough about how, in the Roman world, eagles represented all that was aggressive, triumphant, honourable and good in the world, and how snakes represented the lowly, slithery, weak and vanquished. Rather than talk about Romano-British statuary, of which I know very little indeed, I’d like take this opportunity to offer a few words on the symbolism of snakes in the early medieval world, to show that the this new mount does not necessarily provide a direct transposition of Roman symbolism, but a syncretic transformation of it, surely holding some of the old connotations, but having picked up many new ones too.
Eagles and snakes have a lengthy history in early medieval north-western European iconography. Contemporary eagle mounts like this one are known from Scandinavia, including contemporary examples from Skørping and Jelling in Denmark (Ørsnes 1966, figs.160 and 161), though both lack snakes. Other mounts like this are known from England. There’s a couple from Eastry in Kent, both of which are probably holding snakes, though the ornament is quite devolved (Dickinson, Fern and Richardson 2011, p.34, fig.33). There’s another matching pair from Eriswell, Suffolk (104,232, Dickinson 2005, 134, fig.12c and e). The closest parallel comes from Sutton Hoo (018,868, Dickinson 2005, p.119, fig.4d), which holds a figure-of-eight snake, very similar to this one. There’s another figure-of-eight snake cunningly disguised on the head-plate of this cruciform brooch fragment from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (LIN-58EC66, below). Look closely and I’m pretty sure you can just make out an eye at the top.
Of course, once you’ve connected the s-shape or figure-of-eight to snakes, then there’s a whole series of s-shape brooches found throughout Europe during the 5th and 6th centuries (below). Perhaps importantly, when we’re thinking about the relationship between snakes and birds in the Anglo-Saxon world, many of these s-shaped creatures possess eagle heads (others have the heads of beasts with open, sinuous jaws). Eagles, or at least some form of raptor, dominate the decorative metalwork of this whole period. Birds with hooked beaks are seen on brooches, weaponry, pendants and all kinds of material throughout much of Europe.
One of the earliest examples of ‘Germanic’ art, the Gallehus horns (now lost, probably from the early 5th century AD) featured quite a few snakes. Both snakes and birds decorate the helmet plates on the helm from Mound 1, Vendel, Sweden (for a picture, see here). Here, the snakes are trampled by the warrior’s horse, while birds soar overhead, apparently accompanying the rider in his triumph, in scene potentially analogous with eagle clutching a snake. Birds clutching snakes, however, seem to be restricted to those few mounts described above. Potentially, they were a strictly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. Though their symbolism was probably linked to this wider world of sinuous symbols, these little mounts testify to at least a thread of continuity between the Roman and Anglo-Saxon worlds.
Dickinson, T. M. 2005. ‘Symbols of protection: the significance of animal-ornamented shields in early Anglo-Saxon England’, Medieval Archaeolology 49(1), 109–63.
Dickinson, T. M., Fern, C. and Richardson, A. 2011. ‘Early Anglo-Saxon Eastry: archaeological evidence for the beginnings of a district centre in the kingdom of Kent’, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 17, 1–86.
Ørsnes, M. 1966. Form og Stil i Sydskandinaviens Yngre Germanske Jernalder. Copenhagen: Nationalmuseets Skrifter.