Painting the past in 19th-century Norway

The 5th and 6th centuries AD have quite different meanings around present-day Europe.  The fact that we have multiple names for the period is telling.  In the Mediterranean East, for instance, this is the Byzantine era.  In the West it’s Late Antique.  Around the North Sea it’s often called the Migration Period.  In Scandinavia it’s also the Iron Age (albeit the post-Roman one).   The romanticised connotations of these names are diverse and important. It’s a time of faded glory (Late Antique); wandering tribes (Migration Period); a convoluted and tired Empire, tinged with an oriental mysticism (Byzantine); or a slow accumulation of processes begun halfway through the first millennium BC (Iron Age).  The 5th and 6th centuries, though their shadows are sometimes cast by broadly comparable evidence, project themselves variously onto the screen of our imagination.

I’ve written before about the striking continuity Norwegian archaeology displays through the long Iron Age.  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.

These prehistoric mounds and megaliths did not escape the attentions of the 19th-century re-inventors of the Norwegian landscape: painters.  Norway, at the beginning of the 19th century, had a growing sense of identity and an impetus to establish a distinct cultural footprint.  Formerly under Danish control then Swedish, the Norwegian constitution was drawn up in 1814.  Twenty-two years later the national museum of art was founded in Oslo (then Christiana).  A key figure among its founders was the painter Johan Christian Dahl, who gave the purpose of the new museum as not only for providing model examples for art students in the capital, but also for the refinement of public taste.  The foundation was to grow a sense of worth, not just among its citizens, but also to establish the Norwegian landscape itself as a worthy subject of romantic landscape painting (Lødrup Bang 1987, 125–6).  Most accounts make Dahl out to be a man working for the common good, setting out to open Europe’s eyes to the potential of Norway as an artistic subject, a landscape inhabited and worked by farmers following ancient traditions, fighting a millennia-old battle against an unforgiving landscape with an heroic past of its own.

Dahl himself was a painter of considerable talent and ambition.  Indeed, he is generally credited as the father of Norwegian landscape painting.  Furthermore it was Dahl, followed by his two most famous students Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, who championed this subject.  A number of Dahl’s paintings feature Scandinavian (Norwegian or Danish) prehistoric remains.  Consequently prehistoric Norway, which includes the Migration Period, was present at the quite intentional moulding of modern Norwegian identity.

Flicking through Dahl’s complete works (Lødrup Bang 1987), I came across the following 17 paintings that contained obvious examples of Scandinavian prehistoric monuments:

  • Dolmen near Vordingbord in Moonlight (1816) [Denmark]
  • Dolmen near Vordingbord in Winter (1825, 1829) [Denmark]
  • Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827) [Norway]
  • Fjord Landscape with a Menhir (1833, 1837, 1839) [Norway]
  • Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1835, 1838) [Norway]
  • Grave by the Sea with a Menhir (1838)
  • Menhir by the Sea (1838)
  • Danish Winter Landscape with Dolmen (1838) [Denmark]
  • Haymaking between Menhirs at Nornes (1839) [Norway]
  • Landscape from Voss with Grave Mound and Menhir (1840) [Norway]
  • Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1840, 1841, ?1842) [Norway]

All of these paintings sit quite comfortably alongside his equally numerous renderings of castle and church ruins, variously from Norway and Germany.  The thing about Dahl’s paintings of prehistoric remains though, is that the barrows and megaliths tend to sit integrally with the landscape; they become part of the natural environment.  Dahl’s aim was to paint nature and his human subjects were very few.  Because he often made human figures diminutive, their presence lends a sense of imposing scale to the landscape.  People are not the subjects of the painting, and they usually have their backs to us.  Their engulfment in the landscape stands in for our own.  Because of Dahl’s emphasis on nature the barrows and megaliths become an inseparable part of the landscape, lending it chronological depth and a sense of the romanticised mythological past.

Johan_Christian_Dahl_-_Megalith_Grave_in_Winter

Johan Christian Dahl’s Domen near Vordingbord in Winter (c.1825). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Johan_Christian_Dahl_-_Winter_at_the_Sognefjord_-_Google_Art_Project

Johan Christian Dahl’s Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Symbols abound in Dahl’s paintings.  Dead trees and rainbows are so ubiquitous they verge on cliché.  He was also known to have observed and drafted landscapes in the summer, and then painted snow over them, to achieve a sense of melancholy and perhaps the hope of renewal.  Prehistoric monuments fulfilled similar roles.  In the painting “Vordingbord in moonlight” (in Denmark, above), the moonlight, winter and stones all stand for death and the past.  In “Menhir at Sognefjord in Winter” (also above) the megalith symbolises the antiquity of the winter landscape, as well as disconsolation and death (being a grave marker).  Nevertheless, the ray of light that peeps over the mountains and strikes the apex of the standing stone is perhaps our symbol of rejuvenation in this otherwise sombre painting (Lødrup Bang 1987).

Modern human settlements also feature in Dahl’s paintings, sometimes placed in juxtaposition with ancient remains.  They reference the deep legacy of Norwegian farmers.  They connect the apparent mundanity of the present with an heroic past.  This is true for the various versions of “Birch Tree at Slinde” (below), but more obviously for “Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal” (also below), where the barrow and its megalith impose themselves upon the little farmstead, their nearby tree finding some kind of life-force in the ancient tumulus, while the tree in the foreground withers.

Slindebirken,_Vinter_(I.C._Dahl)

Johan Christian Dahl’s Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1838). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Tessungdal

Johan Christian Dahl’s Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1841). Source: Project Muse.

None of this is to say that Dahl knew an awful lot about Norwegian prehistory, or that he particularly cared to learn.  Here we are not dealing with an archaeological understanding of the past, but an artistic one.  During his time in Dresden Dahl would have been in touch with antiquarian circles, but this was long before the academic discipline of archaeology was formed.  As such, scientific understandings of the ancient past were less separable from popular understandings informed by the visual arts, poetry and literature.  Dahl’s paintings must have struck a pre-existing chord with their audience (Caspar David Friedrich, a colleague of Dahl’s, was using similar devices in Germany at the time), but they also reinforced a particular understanding of prehistory, as one that was seamless with the natural landscape, and continuous with the present. In doing so, Dahl pulled the past and the present together, affecting both with a sense of the other, whilst simultaneously diminishing four uncomfortable centuries of external rule.

As explored in a recent article by Mari Lending, Johan Christian Dahl had some intriguing opinions on the preservation of ancient barrows, which is where we arrive some of the more familiar subjects of this blog: grave goods and jewellery.  While Dahl was beginning to explore ancient monuments with his palette and brush, his antiquarian contemporaries commenced theirs with spades and pick axes.  Dahl was resolutely against these excavations, declaiming museums of finds from these monuments as a force for destruction, and championing the barrows as “museums” in their own right, intact and set in their landscape context.  The removal of artefacts from these tombs to the Oldsaksamlingen (Collection of Anquities) in Christiana he saw as profoundly destructive.  Rather than the preservation of grave goods as purely material objects, Dahl focused on the preservation of the landscape, integral to the barrows, and integral to them their hidden and buried treasures.  Though unseen, artefacts like elaborate brooches were nevertheless inseparable from the landscape for Dahl.  Like a building indicates an inhabited landscape through the knowledge rather than the explicit depiction of its human inhabitants, a barrow could only really be a barrow if it contained its material assemblage.  With that removed, the barrow was a mere reconstruction or imitation.

Though Dahl’s opinions now seem antiquated and perhaps even a little naive, I think we’ve all felt a bit like this after visiting excavated sites.  For instance, similar feelings might be expressed upon viewing the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, where we know that the sunken barrows are at least partly reconstructed and have been pillaged variously by treasure hunters of centuries gone by as well as 20th-century archaeologists.  Their neatly mown grass and roped fences add further layers of alienation and artificiality to the modern visitor.  Obviously both excavation and conservation are fundamental to both our knowledge of the past and its material preservation but that doesn’t mean it isn’t self-contradictory as Dahl himself observed more than a century and a half ago, and it doesn’t mean that these inevitabilities are trivial in how we create knowledge about the past. The choice is paradoxical, but would we rather envisage a Migration Period as a continuous, tangible presence in the world we inhabit, or as a roped-off reconstruction?

Bibliography

Lending, M. 2009. ‘Landscape versus museum: J. C. Dahl and the preservation of Norwegian burial mounds’, Future Anterior 6(1), xi-17 [available online from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/future_anterior/v006/6.1.lending.html, accessed July 2015].

Lødrup Bang, M. 1987. Johan Christian Dahl 1788-1857: Life and Works. Vols 1-3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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


The Migration Period brooches of Norway (research update)

R259

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.

Norway

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.

References

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.


Attila the Fraud and the Politics of Burial

467px-Atilla_fléau_de_dieu

A 16th-centiry re-imagining of Attila on a silver medallion (image source: wikipedia)

A few weeks ago a very strange story was doing the social media rounds: Hungarian archaeologists had found the tomb of Attila the Hun.  Now, if this was really the case, it would certainly represent one of the most important finds in the history of archaeology.  Strange then that it was only reported by what can only be described as a fringe news source, the World News Daily, which has previously reported allegations that Indonesia’s horned beast man had been captured, a mermaid skeleton had surfaced in New Zealand, and that a half-sasquatch girl had been born in the US (don’t think about that last one too hard).

Stranger still that accompanying the story was a photograph not of a Hunnic burial, but of a Chinese mummy.  I’m sure that very few people were actually taken in by the story, but that did not stop quite a few archaeological Twitterers, Facebookers and even some institutional accounts hitting that ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ button.  In fact, if you look at that story today, more than 136,000 people shared that story on Facebook.

Needless to say, the story was a load of old tosh.  I don’t know whether it was based on any truth whatsoever, if the quoted authorities were real or had had their identities hijacked.  Neither do I know if indeed a rich ‘Hunnic’ burial had been found in Budapest, which would be a newsworthy discovery in itself.

If we can salvage something from this nonsense, it’s an excuse to recount the little that we do know about Attila’s demise.  Priscus (a contemporary Roman diplomat who had earlier encountered Attila) reported that Attila’s death in AD 453 was the result of an over-enthusiastic celebration of his most recent marriage, which ended with a particularly severe nosebleed (a later and probably less reliable account by Marcellinus Comes implicated a wife in his demise).  Following this undignified exit, Attila’s corpse was allegedly put into three successive coffins of gold, silver and iron.  A river (we don’t know which one) was temporarily diverted and his tomb was dug on its bed.  Afterwards, the river was set back on its course, forever concealing the grave.  I don’t think we need to contemplate the logistics of diverting the Danube in Budapest.  We can probably rest easy, the scourge of God remains securely tucked up in his tomb.

Although the hoax tells us nothing about Attila or archaeology, it does reveal the way in which this kind of rubbish can be promulgated by social media.  This is only possible because of the excitement generated by two combined factors: (1) we have disturbed the dead, a practice not exactly encouraged in our society and (2) the dead has a name.  Currently, such exhumations have captured the imaginations of the public and the media in an especially acute manner.

But perhaps they have always aroused such excitement.  Excavating the graves of historical leaders stokes the myths upon which contemporary identities are built.  If you want a slightly depressing taste of this, you can read the discussion below the Attila news story.   However, all burials tap into a very special kind of morbid fascination.  Strangely personal connections are drawn between the digger and the deceased, partly because digging up dead people is a strange thing to do in our society, and partly because it’s a reminder of our own mortality.  I wrote about this in my very first blog, and returned to the theme in a later post.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about the peculiar power of names.  With a name, bones that were previously numbered specimens become re-inhabited by personality, even if that personality is largely one of our own creation (take Richard III for example).  That can be a personal name, but it can also be an identity label: woman, man, child, Saxon, Roman, slave, prince.  It all goes back to that most basic human act of needing to classify things, to fit them into our world view and attribute them some kind of value.  We pull something from the ground and ask “but what is this worth”?  But is that a fair or even useful question to ask of the named and the anonymous dead?


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.


New European Horizons

These Fragments have been a little quiet of late.  That’s because in September I was fortunate enough to commence a new research project and have been rather busy settling into a new city and a new place of work.  This also means a slight change of direction for this blog, which will from now on be broadening its horizons from Anglo-Saxon England to the wider European Migration Period.

Europe. Unfortunately missing an important bit.

Europe. Unfortunately missing an important bit (taken from here)

The new project I started in September 2013 is a three-year postdoctoral junior research fellowship generously funded by the British Academy, during which I will be based at the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford.  The title of the project is Origins of a European Community: Creating Identity and Networks with Dress in Post-Roman Europe. It’s all about looking at the role of women’s jewellery and dress in the context of the Roman-Medieval transition.  Here’s the ‘official’ abstract of my project:

The 5th and 6th centuries AD saw the collapse of the Roman Empire and the origins of many of the European nations we know today. During this period, particular women, from an area that stretched from the North Sea and the Baltic all the way to the Black Sea, began to dress with large, elaborately decorated brooches. This phenomenon lasted little more than a century, but because many of these women were buried wearing this jewellery, thousands of brooches survive and provide one of the richest sources of information for the period.

Archaeologists have studied these brooches since the 19th century, but up until recently their investigation has been limited to the technical aspects of classification and chronology and the outmoded concerns of culture-history. This project examines the social context of these items for the first time in an holistic international perspective. My key questions are about who wore these brooches, why they became so popular, how they were used to demonstrate power at a local level, and how they demonstrate the rise of a trans-European community.

Obviously, I’m extraordinarily excited by the prospect of this new research.  Though I’m sure I will continue to write more of the same miniature articles I’ve been offering here so far, I’m also going to be using this space to record my research progress, as a personal record for myself, but also to provide insight into what actually happens during an archaeology postdoc and the development of ideas and methods therein.

I shan’t be leaving the Anglo-Saxons behind.  Far from it.  A major aspect of my task now is to assess the expertise I’ve gained in Anglo-Saxon studies from a European perspective.  I’d like to explore what an in-depth understanding of 5th and 6th century England can offer our understanding of Europe during the same period, as well reveal the shortcomings and limitations of my previously essentially insular approach.

Wish me luck!