A new ‘eagle’ mount from the Portable Antiquities SchemePosted: April 15, 2014
I’ve written about about early medieval ‘eagle’ mounts in a previous blog (Eagles, Snakes, Romans and Anglo-Saxons). Since then another related artefact, this time from Lincolnshire, has been published on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database.
This example doesn’t have any good parallels in the extant corpus to my knowledge. Strictly speaking, it isn’t really an ‘eagle’ mount. Beyond the head with its curved beak, which is not even especially aquiline, I can make out no particularly avian features. More typical of these mounts are curved, grasping claws, fanned tails and furled wings. On this example, the construction of the head (the only avian part of the mount) actually bears some resemblance to the hippogryphs on a pair of mounts from Bergh Apton in Norfolk. Although the complete form is unparalleled, the interlaced ovals at the base are paralleled on the double-ended ‘aquatic beast’ shield mount from Bidford-on-Avon grave 182 (pictures of these mounts can be found in Dickinson’s article linked to below, freely available online).
The suggested date on the PAS record (AD 650-700) seems rather too late. The interlace on the body is not fully developed Anglo-Saxon Style II, but something more akin to the very simple entwined strands found alongside devolved Style I on the latest great square-headed brooches of the mid to late 6th century. I would rather place this mount between the mid-6th or early 7th century, which is the conventionally accepted date for similar mounts.
These little mounts have traditionally been interpreted as decorative flourishes for shields, perhaps simply for the sake of ostentatious display, but potentially also due to a belief in the amuletic protective power of such symbols (see Dickinson 2005). As I have blogged previously, predatory birds in the early medieval mindset probably had all kinds of complex meanings and they are pretty much ubiquitous on all kinds of objects throughout Europe in this period. The massive mounts from Sutton Hoo and Vendel are good examples of those that decorated shields.
Recently, much smaller Anglo-Saxon avian mounts have been associated with horse gear (see Dickinson, Fern and Richardson 2011, 45-49). Indeed, the little lugs on these smaller examples are most suited to attachment to leather, although that does not necessarily rule out their attachment to leather-covered shield boards. Continental examples from Alamannic and Frankish regions seem to have made the transition from horse gear to female attire, decorating both chatelaines and purses (see Böhner 1989, 464-5, who also illustrates a few additional examples on p.481), as well as brooches. The purse from the (most likely male) grave in Sutton Hoo Mound 1 features particularly elaborate garnet-inlaid mounts, whose predatory birds themselves seem to be (ahem) mounting ducks.
These little mounts are fascinating because they represent rare instances in early medieval art where the subject stands almost alone, not forced into the confines of the geometrically confined fields of a brooch, scabbard or other item whose shape was essentially dictated by function. This lends their composition a certain freedom, clarity and forcefulness not seen in much else from the 5th-7th centuries. This particular mount, however, maintains much ambiguity of form, and is therefore more typical of Anglo-Saxon taste.
I do wonder whether these rare beasts would have stood out quite so prominently in the later 6th century as they do today, or whether they were in fact painted onto the boards of many other shields, embroidered onto purses or depicted using other media that do not survive. That, I suppose, is something we may never know.
There is in fact a far better parallel to the examples I give above – a mount, almost precisely the same diminutive size and with comparable (though certainly different) internal decoration, from grave 123 at Butler’s Field, Lechlade in Gloucestershire. This mount was found on the shoulder of a 20-25 year old woman also buried with a button brooch, a disc brooch, 55 amber beads, a copper-alloy bead, a copper-alloy ring-headed ping, some intriguing iron objects looking something like a chatelaine (?), and an iron knife (Boyle et al 1998). The Butler’s field example had a small amount of silver inlay on it, as well as two perforations, which the one from the PAS lacks. Despite its well recorded context, the mount from Butler’s Field was still of an unknown purpose, especially given its unusual position in the grave.
Böhner, K. 1989. ‘Germanische Schwerter des 5./6. Jahrhunderts’, Jahrbuch des Bodendenkmalpflege in Mecklenburg 34(2), 411-491.
Boyle, A., Jennings, D., Miles, D. and Palmer, S. 1998. The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Butler’s Field, Lechlade, Gloucestershire. Oxford: Oxford Archaeological Unit.
Dickinson, T. M. 2005. ‘Symbols of protection: the significance of animal-ornamented shields in early Anglo-Saxon England’, Medieval Archaeology 49, 109-163 [free download from the Archaeology Data Service here].
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.