Bringing up the (Anglo-Saxon) bodies

Body

A reconstruction of early Anglo-Saxon feminine dress. The outer garment is a cloak dual-fastened by a pair of cruciform brooches (illustration by L. Martin, © L. Martin).

A few months ago a paper of mine came out in print called  ‘(Ad)Dressing the Anglo-Saxon body: corporeal meanings and artefacts in early England’.  It was published among a collection of papers edited by Paul Blinkhorn and Chris Cumberpatch called The Chiming of Crack’d Bells: Recent Approaches to the Study of Artefacts in Archaeology (see here). The paper was the result of a presentation I gave during a session at the 2012 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference run by Lisa Brundle, called Archaeologies of Bodily Gesture: Exploring Representation and Performance.  That paper was all about early Anglo-Saxon women’s bodies and dress, but in the published form I also wanted to explore some ideas about masculine bodies.

As far as I know, this is the first explicit application of body theory to the dress and jewellery of 5th- and 6th-century Anglo-Saxon England, which I find quite surprising given the prominence of actual bodies and their accoutrements in the archaeology of the period.  My approach was largely social anthropological, the starting point being Marcel Mauss’ classic 1934 essay ‘Les techniques du corps’.  I also wanted to explore some of Rodney Needham’s ideas about left and right from his edited (1973) volume Left and Right: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification.  I readily admit that neither of these sources of inspiration is particularly cutting edge, but in my opinion both still have a lot to offer.

The paper itself was an offshoot of my work on Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches.  I realised that there were quite a few under-explored aspects of how these objects were actually worn, and how dress assemblages taken as a whole can help to reconstruct aspects of the dressed body, its shapes and sizes, its possible movements and its habits. Brooches in the archaeology of this period are often treated in quite a dry and technical manner. It’s my ongoing objective to try and put these items back into their lived context, in this case as intimate and formative elements of women’s bodies.

I explored a few different areas in the paper, the major topic being how dress and its accessories shape, conceal and expose areas of the body.  Dress is a means of not only making bodies culturally intelligible, but garments also create the actual, physical bodily form as it appears on an everyday basis. There is something almost theatrical about this performance of what is hidden, what is exposed, when and where.  The ‘why’, of course, is the crucial question. As you might imagine, what we can know about this from the evidence is pretty minimal, but the little we do know  is pretty valuable.  It may well be a cliché, but for me these kinds of questions are crucial to bringing these rusty old items back to life.

I was also interested in the position of glittering items on women’s bodies, and how these positions on the shoulders, throat, breast, wrists and occasionally the waist create constellations of signified body parts which were not only gender-specific, but also seem to have varied with age.  I also considered the depiction of gendered bodies in contemporary iconography of the period, which is almost entirely masculine, and quite explicitly so, and far more focused on heads (resplendent with curled moustaches) than it is on either male or female bodies.  Movement is the final aspect that I explored, looking at the kinds of movements that may or may not have been possible in different costumes, and the noises that some items of jewellery would have created during movement.

Of course, a lot of this kind of research is relatively (and necessarily) speculative, but I think it’s important that when we think about dress and jewellery, we envision it as both dynamic and interdependent on the various bodies that it shapes and creates.

Martin, T.F. 2014. ‘(Ad)Dressing the Anglo-Saxon body: corporeal meanings and artefacts in early England’, in Blinkhorn, P. and Cumberpatch, C. (eds.) The Chiming of Crack’d Bells: Recent Approaches to the Study of Artefacts in Archaeology, 27-38. British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2677. Oxford: Archaeopress.

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Bacon’s fragments

william blake

Francis Bacon A Study for Portrait III (after the life-mask of William Blake), 1955 (taken from tate.org.uk)

Francis Bacon was a frequent visitor to the British Museum where he repeatedly went to see the Parthenon Marbles.  Bacon said that they “were always very important” to him, but he wondered if that was because of their delapidated state, “whether if one had seen the whole images they would seem as poignant as they seem as fragments” (Harrison comments on this in “Bacon and Sculpture”, p.34, the original quotation is from David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, see below for full references).

Fragmentation imparts both meaning and emotion to objects.  It represents the inexorable forces of decay and collapse in a literal sense, as well as figuratively in terms of human lives and relationships.  The inevitability of fragmentation pokes fun at the permanence material culture is often supposed to represent, showing it to be a vain pretence.

There is also a sadness and a sense of loss among the broken and forgotten. Objects once lovingly crafted and jealously curated ultimately become lost, unremembered, and uncared for.  This process of forgetting is ultimately linked to the vicissitudes of human life: the innocence of childhood is lost along with its material trappings, gifts given in love become painful reminders before they are cast out, death, either as an individual event or as a gradual accrual of loss in whole communities, inevitably contributes to the discarding and at least partial destruction of objects. Most frequently, something is simply broken by accident and rendered valueless. The archaeological recovery of these neglected, forgotten and fragmented objects invites us to imagine their orphaned time out in the cold, after their ancient ownership and before their adoption by our museums.  Fragmentation implies an anonymous, meaningless, and timeless period.

Francis Bacon - Sand Dune

Francis Bacon Sand Dune, 1983 (taken from all paintings.org)

Francis Bacon’s paintings do something similar to their human subjects.  To a greater or lesser extent they alienate the composed and comprehensible body into an ambiguous mass of fleshy clay.  The psychological root of fragmentation and alienation most often cited in accounts of Bacon’s work are the horrors of the Second World War he lived through and his own turbulent life (e.g. see Hammer 2012).  Tom Lubbock wrote that Bacon takes us “into strange regions of flesh and matter and flux” (Lubbock 2010).  He also commented that Sand Dune (above) represents the transformation of flesh into undulating topography.  In terms of genre, the picture is half nude, half landscape.  It evokes the return of human clay into the geological clay from which it climbed, like the entropy that drives fragmenting or composting objects backwards into their raw, unworked states.  There are fragments of body in the painting: perhaps a knee, a shoulder, a buttock, in approximate anatomical order.  But they are all de-composing, they are dissociating, becoming lost and on the verge of meaninglessness.  Perhaps that’s where the strange melancholy of Bacon’s paintings comes from, and perhaps there is some connection here with his fascination with ancient relics and the dissipating, dissolving processes of decay they embody.

Although ancient fragments are steeped in the melancholy of loss, there is beauty in the way they inspire creative thought.  They force us to build a partial, selective, and edited story; partly edited by us (the narrators) and partly edited by the random ravages of time.  We don’t have to deal with the whole ugly mess of human life, the enormity and ambiguity of which makes little sense even at the best of times, to the sharpest of minds.  The partial nature of fragmented objects will only ever allow us to construct a partial, reimagined version of the past.  The past is lost forever, and that’s why it fascinates us. In our scramble to recover it we wrestle with our own mortality, the fragmentation of our own bodies, possessions and relationships.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion circa 1944 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c.1944 (taken from tate.org.uk)

Fragmented archaeological objects are fetishised.  They are set on podiums in museums, designated identities with labels, ordered carefully and obsessively in filing cabinets, databases and catalogues.  Bacon’s subjects are often similarly laid out like specimens for our inspection: lonely figures against chromatic backgrounds. The soft, blending textures of his subjects risks their complete dissipation, and perhaps that’s why he sometimes gave them a cuboid frame to restrain them (his so-called ‘space frames’), like in Sand Dune (above).  Martin Hammer (2013, 11) suggests that these frames, as well as the gilded literal frames in which Bacon often mounted his paintings imply a kind of pseudo-formalism – an at least partly sincere link between Bacon’s creations and works of the old masters.  The frame provides an exhibition space, like a glass case in a museum.

But there’s a tension in this.  Just as Bacon places his strikingly modern paintings in a restraining, traditional context, fragmented objects are placed on pedestals behind glass as if they were treasured works of art, rather than the often quite banal, everyday objects that most of them are.  Bacon’s subjects are forced and restrained by similar contextualisations, just like the object in the museum is captured by its curator, no longer out in the cold and devoid of meaning, but guided or even forced into a particular set of meanings.  Francis Bacon rejected the suggestion that his paintings had any specific intended meaning.  But that cannot quite be true, the symbolism in his work is rampant, whether he was aware of it or not (and I suspect he probably was).  Just as Bacon’s framing restrains the potential chaos of his subjects, the fragmentation of the object in the museum case is arrested, giving a false impression of timelessness.  It is false because fragmentation has only been temporarily paused: things, inevitably, fall apart.

 

References

Hammer, R. 2012. Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda. London: Tate.

Hammer, R. 2013. Francis Bacon: Phaidon Focus. London: Phaidon.

Harrison, M. 2013. ‘Bacon and sculpture’, in Bacon/Moore, 31-47. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Lubbock, T. 2010. ‘Sand Dune’, in The Independent, 30th April 2010, read the article in full here.

Sylvester, D. 1987. Interviews with Francis Bacon: the Brutality of Fact. London: Thames and Hudson.


Field notes 2: The Viking ship museum, Oslo

On Sunday I had a free day in Oslo.  I had arrived at the decision some time ago, thoroughly cemented after visiting the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition in the British Museum where the somewhat sad remnants of the Viking ship Roskilde 6 were displayed in their rather more impressive aluminium exoskeleton, that if I could do only one thing in Oslo it would be to see the Viking ship museum.

The museum displays the spectacularly preserved carcasses of three ships and their associated finds from burial mounds at Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune.  I’m not going to repeat much information about them here, as you can get that from the far more reliable source of the museum’s website, which I’ve linked to above.

According to the information boards, the decorative metalwork that may have accompanied these burials was seemingly robbed long before their excavation in the later 19th and early 20th century.  The notable exception being the horse gear from another ship burial at Borre (the ship does not survive), which has lent its name to a whole style of Viking art.

In my last post, I talked briefly about the power of material culture to inspire intellectually.  Perhaps because my knowledge of the Viking period is rather limited, these vessels did no so much provoke insight as evoke emotion.  No quantity of photographs can communicate the sense of sheer, dark mass that these colossal vessels evoke, rising in such graceful yet powerful curves to tower over the viewer.  Even as ancient museum pieces they don’t exactly appear fragile.  I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that intimidation, whether through conspicuous display or actual violence, was the purpose behind the construction of these hulks, but that’s certainly how I read them.

The decorative wood carving and its level of preservation on the Oseberg ship was remarkable.  Once again, the motifs combine grace and elegance with the lurid and menacing world of the Viking mythos.  This was also impressive on the four sleighs and other smaller items found alongside the Oseberg ship.

As a final comment, if you ever happen to visit the museum make sure to save some time to squint in frustration at the textile remains in their little darkened room, it’s worth damaging your eyesight for, and I’m half blind as it is.

Oseberg2

The Oseberg ship

Gokstad1

The robust hull of the Gokstad ship

Tune1

Grizzled remnants of the Tune ship

Oseberg1

Detail of the Oseberg stern

Oseberg3

Knobbly attachment (technical term) of the Oseberg rudder

Oseberg4

Leather bindings on the Oseberg rudder

Oseberg5

Detail of the Oseberg ship stern

Oseberg6

Detail of the Oseberg prow

Oseberg8

Internal detail of the Oseberg prow

OsebergPole1

A decorative post (one of four) from the Oseberg burial

OsebergSled1

Detail of one of the four Oseberg sleighs

OsebergSled2

A further detail of the same Oseberg sleigh


‘Odin’s breath’ and a New Type of Cruciform Brooch

During my ongoing research on early Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches, I’ve come across a number of frustratingly unclassifiable fragments, so far only recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database.  Although they looked so much like they came from the so-called “florid” series of cruciform brooches (and the PAS recorded them as such), this was not strictly demonstrable.  Nothing larger than these little plates, to my knowledge, had yet been found (I link to all 10 of these fragments at the bottom of this blog).

One of the mysterious fragments recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (NMS-312CA1)

One of the mysterious fragments recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (NMS-312CA1)

Among the cruciform brooch series they seemed unusual.  They have an uncharacteristic square outline, and the decoration is strikingly realistic among the more abstract and compositionally complex decoration that is typical of the period.  They are decorated, quite clearly, with unambiguous human faces, staring out at us with wide eyes, chubby cheeks and occasionally open mouths, apparently focusing a stream of breath towards us.  Occasionally, this motif is referred to as a ‘divine breath’ or a ‘tongue of fire’.  Some (perhaps overly imaginative) accounts have even referred to this motif as the breath of Odin, probably referring to the story where he breaths life into Ask and Embla, the equivalents of Adam and Eve in Norse mythology.

Needless to say, these items were produced considerably earlier (5th-6th century) than the Norse myths were written down (13th century), which makes such a specific link extremely tenuous.  That is not to say these motifs did not have specific symbolic significances, but we might equally see the mask as singing or shouting, especially in those other cases of the motif where from the mouth seems to issue forth a plethora of symbols (in a form of animal art known as Salin’s Style I).  This is depicted in the drawing of another cruciform brooches below.   A triangular field containing two crouched beasts (perhaps amphibious ones judging from their tapering bodies) erupt from the mouth of the moustachioed human mask.

Another example of the open-mouthed human mask motif, from a cruciform brooch from grave 81, Empingham II, Rutland (drawing by T. Martin)

Another example of the open-mouthed human mask motif, from a cruciform brooch from grave 81, Empingham II, Rutland (drawing by T. Martin)

The one thing that I did note down as important on the unclassified fragments was the occasional presence of up-curled eyebrows or fringes, a feature seen among a small group of “florid” cruciform brooches (which happen to fall into my sub-group 4.6).   I used this observation to loosely associate these fragments with that classification.  The other unusual thing about that sub-group, is that they have perfectly square head-plates, lacking the flanking wings seen on nearly all other cruciform brooches.  For these two reasons, I grouped them all together in the hope that one day a complete example would be found that shared similar traits.

Lo and behold, a larger example has finally arrived on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database with both of these features: a square head-plate and a human face with up-curled eyebrows.  It’s still a pretty fragmented specimen, but in my opinion it’s enough to conclusively identify these fragments as parts of cruciform brooches.  Interestingly, it’s only the knob at the top of the head-plate that is furnished with up-curled eyebrows (or hair), which explains the rarity of this feature among the other examples.  Differential treatment of the top-knob among the “florid” series of cruciform brooches is a relatively late trait.

Cruciform brooch head-plate from Marham, Norfolk (NMS-13B110 on the PAS database)

These new cruciform brooches actually represent quite an important group, probably being among the latest in the whole series, dating approximately to a point around the mid-6th century AD.  However, among this group they are very unusual for not being gilded and silvered (a decorative technique known as “bichrome”).  Based on that fact, one might be able to make an argument for them being a little earlier than this.  There is little unusual about their distribution, which is concentrated in Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

The only downside to this discovery is that I found out about it pretty much the day I submitted my manuscript that details a new typology for cruciform brooches…

 

Known examples of the new type

NMS-13B110PAS record number: NMS-13B110

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/597117

LIN-FE8EA4

 

PAS record number: LIN-FE8EA4

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/154169

 

ESS-0C29F8ESS-0C29F8PAS record number: ESS-0C29F8

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Essex

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/79085

 

NCL-C90E94PAS record number: NCL-C90E94

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: North Yorkshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/384278

 

NMS-E911A6PAS record number: NMS-E911A6

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/141708

 

NMS-5D0970PAS record number: NMS-5D0970

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/235055

 

NMS-55AC65PAS record number: NMS-55AC65

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/181112

 

NLM-CDB1D0PAS record number: NLM-CDB1D0

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/51263

 

NMS-312CA1NMS-312CA1PAS record number: NMS-312CA1

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/383504

 

NLM4175PAS record number: NLM4175

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/11545

 

NCL-D4DF11PAS record number: NCL-D4DF11

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: North Yorkshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/108656

 

Finally, there is a single possible lead example, though I think I am now more inclined to see it as a fragment of some kind of mount, quite possible from a horse harness given its stylistic similarity to some other examples:

 

LIN-7E9045

PAS record number: LIN-7E9045

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/143676

 

 


A new ‘eagle’ mount from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

NLM24984

The new eagle mount from Lincolnshire, recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database as NLM-53E540 (the colour has been adjusted slightly from the version on the PAS database, copyright North Lincolnshire Museum)

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.

UPDATE (10/9/2014):

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.

References

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.

 


Eagles, Snakes, Romans and Anglo-Saxons

WMID-E4F0C5

The gilded and silvered copper-alloy bird clutching a snake mount from Dean and Shelton, Bedforshire. Recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme as WMID-E4F0C5 (image copyright Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery)

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.

Romano-British eagle and snake statuette (image from here)

Romano-British eagle and snake statue from London (image from here)

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.

LIN4327

Copper-alloy fragment bearing a snake motif, probably from cruciform brooch head-plate of the late 5th or 6th century AD. Recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database as LIN-58EC66 (image copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme).

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.

An Anglo-Saxon copper-alloy s-shaped brooch of the 5th or 6th century AD.

An Anglo-Saxon copper-alloy s-shaped brooch of the 5th or 6th century AD.  Recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database as NLM-908608 (image copyright North Lincolnshire Museum).

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.

References

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.


A New Quoit Brooch Style Scabbard Mount from the PAS

SUR-029B13PAS record number: SUR-029B13
Object type: Scabbard
Broadperiod: Early Medieval
County of discovery: Hampshire
Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/565209

Of the few items recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme decorated in Quoit Brooch Style (QBS), this recent find of a scabbard mount from Cheriton in Hampshire is without doubt the finest.  Every object decorated in QBS is important because they are so rare: probably fewer than about 60 or so finds are known.¹  As the database record suggests, the best parallel for the little crouching beast is from the famous belt set from Mucking, grave 117, which sets the bar pretty high in terms of quality and also implies a remarkably early date at some point in the first half of the 5th century AD.  A detailed description is given on the PAS website so I am not going to go into much technical detail, but rather take this opportunity to write about what I see as the significance of QBS.

CheritonQBS_reconstruction02_web

Proposed reconstruction of the Cheriton scabbard mount, based on the photographed fragment on the PAS database.  The total length would have been about 8cm. Drawing by T. F. Martin.

Given the rarity of items that can be confidently dated to this dimmest of dark ages, there is a heavy weight resting upon the shoulders of QBS to tell us rather too much.  While late Roman material fades out gradually from the end of the fourth century, most typically Germanic material arrives somewhere around the mid-late fifth century, leaving an approximately fifty-year hiatus to which we can date very little material indeed.  QBS objects probably date within this period and most likely span the rest of the fifth century, though their dating evidence is pretty slim.

The PAS database record makes clear that QBS owes its greatest stylistic debt to Frankia.  By now, I imagine that most would agree with this, but the situation is not quite that straightforward.  Alternative origins have been put forward in the past, including sub-Romano-British, Jutish and Anglo-Saxon.  Put simply, this is not simply a Frankish product shipped to British shores.  I’m not sure if it’s terribly important to pin down and quantify these degrees of cultural influence.  Of course, it is all useful information to consider, but it’s a highly subjective exercise.  Opinion will always differ.  Overall, QBS attests to hybrid cultural connections during this intensely transitional period.

Personally, I find rather more interest in the objects to which QBS was applied.  The Cheriton mount, being sword equipment, is especially interesting.  To my knowledge, the only other piece of sword equipment decorated with QBS is a chape mount from grave 31 at Brighthampton in Oxfordshire.  The mount from Cheriton would have sat at the other end of the scabbard, edging the slot in which the hilt would have rested.  Either way, these two examples from Cheriton and Brighthampton show an obvious connection between swords and belts, the latter being more commonly decorated in QBS.  Both, however, were predominantly masculine items in the late Roman world.

At some point down the line, however, QBS began to be applied to brooches.  Not just any brooches, but some of finest products of the first millennium, including the famous example from Sarre with its beautifully moulded doves.  Whether these brooches were necessarily worn by women is open to question.  This might indeed not be case during this early period.  Nevertheless, most other Anglo-Saxon brooches featuring animal decoration were used by women.

The key point is that during the fifth century, animal decoration, a symbol previously of masculine military power, migrated onto feminine jewellery.  QBS objects may well capture the moment of this transition in the products of a limited number of workshops, which to me is fascinating.  It opens up a whole realm of presently unanswered questions. Did any of the martial symbolism carry over onto these brooches? Did they continue to be symbols of a violent male elite despite the fact they decorated female bodies?  How did the relationships between men and women permit this leap from swords and belts to brooches? Answer these questions and I think we’d be considerably closer to understanding the role of women in the transformation of the late Roman world.

¹ Suzuki’s The Quoit Brooch Style and Anglo-Saxon Settlement (2001, Boydell Press) lists 38 items and I count no more than 10 finds on the PAS database.