The Migration Period brooches of Norway (research update)


An enormous relief brooch from Dalem, Nord-Trondelag, Norway (length = c. 23cm). This fine illustration is taken from Oluf Rygh’s Norske Oldsager (Fig.259)

During the last few weeks I’ve been compiling a catalogue of 5th- and 6th-century brooches from Norway. Due to the scope of my project, these have only been taken from published sources and compiled with the indispensable help of the Universitetsmuseenes arkeologisamlinger (Norway’s online catalogue of its university collections). By far the largest and most useful of the published catalogues are Joachim Reichstein’s (1975) corpus of cruciform brooches, and Thorlief Sjøvold’s (1993) corpus of relief brooches. No doubt, this leaves out a number of more recent finds, but the numbers are sufficient to show an overview of the kinds of patterns these finds follow. Currently, I’m working on the rest of Scandinavia, the Netherlands and northern Germany.

In addition to relief brooches and cruciform brooches, which were the two largest and most decorative varieties of brooch worn in Migration Period Norway, I have also included a sample of the less impressive types. For the most part, these are small, plain bow brooches usually known as “R243” brooches thanks to their place in Oluf Rygh’s (1885) famous catalogue, as well a variety of plain tiny equal arm brooches that come in relatively late in the Migration Period and do not have a standardised name in the English literature, but are usually referred to as likearmede spenner in the Norwegian (Jennsen 1998). In addition to these four major types, there are also a number of what are probably best described as the Norwegian equivalents of Anglo-Saxon small long brooches, some wonderfully serpentine s-brooches, a handful of Nydam brooches and a few other minor varieties.  Although this is work in progress, the distribution of these brooches in Norway predictably follows patterns of overall burial.


The distribution of just over 800 Migration Period brooches in Norway, focused in the southwest but spreading right up the thin western coastal strip

For someone more familiar with the archaeological record of early Anglo-Saxon England, Migration Period Norway presents its own difficulties, but also some points of exceptional interest. The fact that burial in Norway usually involved barrows means that their location was obvious to the barrow diggers and archaeological pioneers of the 19th century. Hence, a relatively large proportion of the extant record was explored quite early in the history of our subject. Founders of early medieval typology and chronology like Oscar Montelius, Oluf Rygh, Bernhard Salin, Haakon Schetelig and Nils Åberg seized upon these rich resources to create systems and catalogues that are still in use today.

By modern standards, the earliest excavations were scientific only to a mixed degree, and our record of many of these barrows sometimes only comprises a mixed or incomplete assemblage of a number of burials all mixed together into one assemblage. Bone seems to have only rarely survived into the present day. There are very few cemeteries indeed that have been extensively excavated, let alone recorded to modern standards.

On the upside, the mass of material assemblages excavated at such an early stage meant that Scandinavian typologies and chronologies were developed much earlier and on a firmer basis than their English equivalents. Indeed, they still provide a solid basis for ongoing work. On the downside, the nature of Norwegian cemeteries and their frequently piecemeal excavation has made the kind of mass comparisons of grave goods, demography and cemetery structure that have long been staples of Anglo-Saxon and Mervovingian burial archaeology somewhat trickier, though certainly not impossible.

One exceptional opportunity that the Norwegian offer is the potential for looking at long-term continuity. The mountainous terrain of the northwest coast of Norway and the scarcity of agricultural land made continuity of settlement almost a necessity. A large number of these barrow cemeteries span the Roman Iron Age, Migration Period and even the Viking Period – a very rare thing in a period more generally characterised by major breaks in tradition, or at least rapid transition.

The nature of Norwegian brooches also differs from the Anglo-Saxon sample in aesthetic terms. Scandinavia relief brooches, a large number of which come from Norway, without doubt constitute some of the artistic masterpieces of the age. Some of these items, such as the relief brooch illustrated above, are simply quite stunning to behold and represent a higher degree of metalworking mastery than can be found in Anglo-Saxon England at this date.  It is a simple yet highly intriguing fact that a relatively larger number of the the Norwegian brooches are silver gilt as opposed to copper alloy (though I expect the same is true for the Continental brooches too). Norwegian relief brooches, and even more so cruciform brooches, grew into complex three-dimensional forms, deeply moulded and beautifully curved making their Anglo-Saxon equivalents appear very flat and indeed flatter as their development continued.

Of course, cataloguing all this material is only the first phase of my work, but thanks to the accumulated work of other scholars over the last century or so my task has been made immeasurably easier, as there are readily available catalogues for the majority of the core brooch types.  My ultimate task, however, is to begin to combine all of this collected scholarship and see what interest can be drawn out from inter-regional comparison.


Jenssen, A. 1998. Likearmede spenner. Overgangen mellom eldre og yngre jernalder i Norge – en kronologisk analyse. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Universitetet i Bergen

Reichstein, J. 1975. Die kreuzförmige Fibel. Neumunster: Karl Wachholtz.

Rygh, O. 1885. Norske Oldsager: Ordnede og Forklarede. Christiania: Alb Cammermeyer.

Sjøvold, T. 1993. The Scandinavian Relief Brooches of the Migration Period. Oslo: Institutt for arkeologi, kunsthistorie og numismatikk oldsaksamlingen.


One Comment on “The Migration Period brooches of Norway (research update)”

  1. […] I’ve written before about the striking continuity Norwegian archaeology displays through the….  For instance, some small barrow cemeteries continued to be used through the pre-Roman and Roman Iron Ages and into the Migration Period, many even lingering into the Viking Age.  This scale of continuity puts the Norwegian Migration Period in a somewhat different light to that of much of southern and western Europe, which experienced a starkly different series of transitions with the coming and going of Empire.  Furthermore, these cemeteries have always played a prominent role in the landscape, many of them containing monumental barrows, some even marked by standing stones.  They capture the imagination in a manner that the (for the most part) invisible cemeteries of Anglo-Saxon England and Merovingian Gaul do not. […]

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