Object in Focus: The Saxon 6th Century Square Headed Brooch

The 6th century square headed brooch in our collection may not be as glamorous as the other Brooches; however it draws interest for other reasons. It is the biggest of all the other Brooches and its surface is covered in an abundance of different shapes and figures worked into the metal. Rosie Weetch, a Curator for The British Museum wrote a blog in 2014, which understood that the patterning on this type of Brooch had a multi-layered symbolic meaning to them which tell a story. For what purpose however, Historians are unsure of and have offered a few different explanations for it. Universally, it is accepted that the Saxons were a very religious and superstitious people and a lot of the symbols can be traced back to Norse Mythology.

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Social Significance of Square Headed Brooches

When Saxons settled in Britain during the 5th century, Brooch design had changed dramatically from the basic pin designed Brooches of the Romans. Instead, the Saxons often wore Brooches with pride as the size and quality of the Brooch reflected the wearer’s status in Saxon society. Saxon Square headed Brooches were one of the biggest accessories, much rarer to obtain than their cruciform counterparts. These are believed to have been worn by women over the age of eighteen as they came of age. The Historian Toby Martin looked extensively into the Women’s roles in society and believes that the Cruciform and Square Headed Brooches were a way of distinguishing a woman’s position in the Saxon social hierarchy, discrediting previous believes that Women were placed based on their family’s status or their ability to bare children. He claimed that the strange markings on them were a hidden code that contained knowledge passed down to women as a passage of rites when they reach a certain age. The fact that the Square Headed Brooch was larger, more elaborate and rarer to discover from burial sights suggests that those who wore them were ranked a lot higher in the social sphere than those with normal Cruciform Brooches.

What do the patterns mean?

The jumbled array of patterns and symbols worked into the metal of a Square headed Brooch may resemble a mess of shapes which cannot possibly amount to any kind of symbolism at first glance, however after looking at it intently for weeks; one can see that there is a method in the madness. In 1904, Bernhard Salin created a classification system to categorize these strange designs on the Brooches. According to him, our Square headed Brooch is a ‘style 1’ type of Saxon Jewellery, as it has an abundance of zoomorphic patterning, with jumbled limbs and faces of animals divided into different quadrants, also human faces are etched into the design both bare and helmeted, accompanied by serpent like creatures. Weetch claims that Saxons loved riddles and The Square Headed Brooch is no exception, as one could look at it for long periods of time and will often find something new on it that they hadn’t realised before. To fully appreciate the designs one must observe it from all different directions to work out the story it is trying to tell.

The German Historian Haseloff called it ‘Tiersalat’ or ‘Animal Salad’ in English, as it was a mixture of body parts from many different animals. The animals often used in this design however, are not entirely random. Often you find creatures like Serpents, Canines, Ravens, Boars and fish; animals that have their own significance in Saxon society. Historians find that these Brooches are often used as talismans, as animal imagery mixed with human faces (which are often assumed to be Gods), are often symbols for good luck. As animals are predominant in Saxon everyday life, it could be good luck for things like hunting or harvest, as you see on some Square headed brooches pictures of Boars and types of cattle. Fish can also be seen on these and Cruciform Brooches for the same reason, which allows us to assume these Brooches, were from a coastal settlement where fish would have been a key resource.

Close inspection of the Artefact allows you to notice a great serpent encircling a good portion of the Bridge and the head of the Brooch. The significance of the Serpent supports the belief that our Square Headed Brooch was made in a coastal region, as pre Christian Saxons believed that there was a great Serpent in the sea that surrounded the entire world. This Serpent’s name in Norse Mythology is Jormungand. He was a child of Loki, Grandson to Odin (Wodin in Old Saxon). Thor was seen to be his Nemesis, and once tried to fish Jormungand out of the sea to kill him, however his attempt was in vain. Rosie Wreetch believes that the snake is a symbol of power and authority, with the snake’s ability to shape shift. Toby Martin on the other hand, claims that the Snake is symbolic for medicine in Saxon times and its relationship with venom and other chemicals, relating to the use of serpent symbolism in the Rod of Asclepius, which represents medicine and healing even in today’s society.


Snake focus: Jormungand surrounding the edge of the Brooch, as people believed he engulfed the world.

Not like any other Square Headed brooch?

The design of the Brooch on display in our Central Museum goes against the grain of other Square Headed Brooches found around the country. Where the head itself is usually smooth square (hence the name), it is instead bordered with shapes that resemble helmeted heads, which was a very typical design used by Germanic cultures of that time, but in a very unusual place. On the ends of these heads stand sideways looking animals, which, in the condition it is in, is hard to identify. I even asked my colleagues what they thought and I had a different answer almost every time. They came back with human features, pig heads, goat heads and every head under the Sun. I believe that they are Canine heads, and after researching Saxon Brooch designs and Mythology, my theory was becoming more and more credible. Canines in Norse Mythology often reference Hel, Goddess of the Underworld and the Creatures that guard the gates to her Kingdom. We often hear the phrase ‘the Hounds of Hell’, without thinking of its origins, and it can be traced as far back as ancient Greece with the creature Cerberus. Norse Mythology is very similar as dog-like creatures still continue their role as guardians of the underworld, ensuring that no souls trapped there escape. This perhaps could have been crafted onto the Brooch for the purpose of ensuring that the hounds do their job so that evil spirits do not come and bring ill fortune to the wearer.



Photo source: https://blog.britishmuseum.org/decoding-anglo-saxon-art/

Comparing the Brooches: The usual smooth Square head is instead lined with helmeted heads and canine-like creatures.


The Mystery continues…

Studying this object, and reading into the Historiographical debate which surrounds it, along with my own thoughts on what the symbols mean, it is clear that the object presents more questions rather than answers. Historians are unable to come to an agreement about just how closely you can relate the symbolism scratched into the Square Headed Brooches to either Mythology, or the purposes they served. This simply adds to the intrigue of these objects, and if anyone else had a go at researching what these symbols mean, you may find it difficult to achieve. Instead one will find themselves enjoying delving into the complex and interesting belief systems and societies of Scandinavian and North Germanic peoples around the 6th century, and come away with more questions rather than answers.


Photo source: https://blog.britishmuseum.org/decoding-anglo-saxon-art/

Decoding Saxon art: British Museum did their own examination of their silver gilded Square Headed Brooch.


Liam Reah – Museum Officer



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