Anglo-Saxon Brooches

In 2003, the town of Southend revelled in a wonderful discovery; the uncovering of a high profile Saxon burial, affectionately referred to by local Southendians as ‘The Prittlewell Prince’. However, it is easy to forget in the excitement of such an important find that the Prittlewell Prince was buried at the highest point of a Saxon cemetery which contained dozens of Saxon warrior graves and many female graves with 3 notably wealthy examples buried quite close to the Prince himself. Female Saxon graves present us a huge insight into Saxon society and a large part of this comes through the brooches they are buried with. There are five main types of brooches found buried in Saxon graves (Cruciform, Square-headed, Disc, Saucer and Button). However, this week we shall feature three in our collection we deem important. These items include a Saxon disc brooch and saucer brooch, both dated to the early 7th Century AD that were found in burials in the Prittlewell Saxon cemetery. As well as, a square-headed brooch which dates from 6th Century AD, found in the hamlet of Paglesham. These brooches present a wealth of information when studying the Saxon period, primarily because historians find that there are very few written contemporary sources, and so rely heavily on information from excavations, primarily from graves.

The Disc Brooch

The disc brooch featured in this week’s blog article is dated circa 610 AD; a time internationally which comes together to tell the story of Saxon metalworking in the 7th Century, and subsequently the story of our beautiful, ornate disc brooch. Our artefact sports a plethora of stunning garnet gemstones, typical of brooches of the time – however, they are distinct in their use from the 7th century onward as the colour of garnet begins to associate itself to the spread of Christianity in Britain.

Brooch1

Garnet Inlay remains one of the most beautiful and striking aspects of early Saxon metalwork, and the methods used to create garnet infused metalwork, including our highlighted brooch, showed off the creativity and expertise employed by Saxon metalworkers. Between the 6th and 8th centuries, garnets could be found all over Europe but few of these stones were suitable for use in jewellery, placing most of the supply of garnets used in Saxon jewellery to areas as far from England as India, Sri Lanka and Bohemia.

brooches2

  1. [http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=1613032018&objectid=96180#more-views]
  2. “The Milton Jewel” (http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O111113/the-milton-brooch-disc-brooch-unknown/)
  3. Found in Faversham, Kent. Closest stylistically to our own brooch; an earlier creation than both 1 and 2 (as they show use of shell and glasswork – a technique that became more common 5-10 years after)

Garnet has no natural cleavage, making it impossible to simply split thin plates off of the base. To enable them to cut thin plates of garnet or smaller flat square garnet pieces (as used in our Saxon brooch), the garnet would be sawed using an abrasive substance such as sand applied with a soft iron or copper blade. The blade would be moved back and forth between two pairs of pegs and the sand grains, having become embedded in the soft metal, would cut the garnets. When cut, groups of stones were stuck, using resin, on to the face of a flat stone and successively fine abrasives (again using sand) were applied to a second stone which was worked across it. In this way, large numbers of stones could be polished and cut to thickness at once. These were then set within thick-walled cloisonnés, which in our disc brooch’s case have been made of gold; however depending on social status these could have been made of bronze or copper alloy.

The Byzantines perfected a unique form of cloisonné icons, a technique in metalworking where gold strips are soldered to a metal base plate making the outline of an image. The recessed spaces between the gold filigreed wires are then filled with a colored glass paste, or flux, that fills up the negative space in the design with whatever color chosen. Byzantine enamel spread to surrounding cultures and a particular type, often known as garnet cloisonné, is widely found in the Migration Period art of the “barbarian” peoples of Europe, who used gemstones, especially red garnets, as well as glass and enamel (which became typical from around 650 AD), with small thick-walled cloisonnes.

The Saucer Brooch

brooch3

The use of garnets extended to various objects aside from jewellery, such as ornamental dagger/sword hilts, helmets, and musical instruments and very rarely on shields. These were all additions that pointed to wealth and status, as they were purely cosmetic additions to represent affluence and had no practical use – some were created specifically for ornamental burials.  However our Saucer Brooch, featured below, is a fine example of a cosmetic lift given to an everyday, practical item. Saucer Brooches were used at the top of female Saxon garments to secure a woman’s dress. They featured a pin on the reverse side to fasten the front of the garment to the back, flowing naturally from one side of the collarbone to the other. These were often decorated with a technique known as repoussé; a metalworking technique which involved hammering a raised pattern into the back of the metal. Our saucer brooch is interesting in that the design transcends this basic design, showing various tribal animal patterns (a feature of early pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England) set with three garnets. Not only does this show high affluence and eminence in society at the time; but the animalistic designs pre-dating the introduction of a major faith allows us to date this brooch to the 6th century, possibly between 560 and 580 AD, before the introduction of Christianity in the first decade of the 7th century.

Red garnets and gold made an attractive contrast of colours, as shown in our Disc Brooch, and for Christians the garnet was a symbol of Christ. These metalworking techniques are  thought to have originated in the Late Antique Eastern Roman Empire and to have initially reached the Saxons as diplomatic gifts of objects probably made in Constantinople, then copied by their own goldsmiths. This makes sense as Germanic tribes often invaded and settled in large numbers during and after the eventual fall of what is known now as the Western Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire (or Eastern Roman Empire) was formed to redouble Roman administrative efforts, reclaim lost lands in the West and protect currently owned territories; thus an overlap in the use of cloisonné techniques in Anglo-Saxon Britain. However, instead of using traditional Byzantine enamel techniques, they often employed a chip-carving technique, where stones such as garnets are cut to fit into a wire frame. This has the appearance of cloisonné, but is more similar to the Ptolemaic Egyptian style. The appearance of cloisonné jewelry from Germanic workshops in the mid-5th century is a complete break with the culture’s traditions, signaling that they likely picked up the technique from the east, where the Byzantine Empire was gaining a foothold as the center of the Late Roman Empire.

The disc and saucer brooches, like most others of their type, were most likely made in Kent, specifically in Faversham. There is archaeological evidence to suggest that Faversham was a summer capital for the Saxon kings of Kent. It was held as royal lands in 811, and is further cited in a charter granted by Coenwulf, the King of Mercia – one of the 7 Saxon kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon Britain. Coenwulf described the town as ‘the King’s little town of Fefresham’, while it was recorded in the Domesday Book as Favreshant. The name has been documented as meaning “the metal-worker’s village”, which derives from the Old English fæfere, which in turn comes from the Latin “faber” meaning “craftsman” or “forger”. Faversham as a site was an important trading route for the Roman Empire and continued to be one of the key port towns for trading for the Anglo-Saxons. Most garnets would have been brought through this route for ornate metalworking. Trade routes began to widen across towards the east with the spread of Islam (Muhammad having been born in approximately 570 AD), which originates around 610 AD. With the arrival of Arab traders in the 7th century A.D., Islam began to flourish in Sri Lanka and India. The first people to profess the Islamic faith were Arab merchants and their native wives, whom they married after having them converted to Islam. This saw a marked rise in the trade of excellent quality gemstones, which explains the relative scarcity of the use of garnets in the 6th century in Saxon metalworking, and a subsequent explosion of use of garnets in a large number of artifacts dating from 610 AD. This disc brooch, however, presents aesthetically one of the clearest examples of a ‘star brooch’ – which could hint to naval elements within the owner’s family (alongside the wavy gold filigree that features throughout the brooch) and towards certain deities to whom this brooch could have paid homage. Saxon society placed a lot of importance in their various Gods, based on Norse Gods, and this brooch could actually be in reference to Freya, or Freo, who is said to be the most beautiful of all the goddesses, and is therefore described as the goddess of love. It is likely that Freya directed Woden’s Waelcyrge (valkyries) onto the battlefield to claim the dead soldiers. Like her brother, Fréy, she is connected to abundance and wealth; however, her wealth was specifically in metals and gems. In combination with the star motif of the piece most likely denoting an early form of crucifix, potentially alluding to the conversion to Christianity by the Anglo-Saxons soon after the visit of Augustine in 597 AD, this brooch becomes a very important insight into Anglo-Saxon society, helping us create a living timeline of a period of British history largely lost due to the Saxons illiteracy as a people.

After King Aethelberht of Kent’s conversion to Christianity by St. Augustine in 597 AD many other Roman Catholic missionaries, including Mellitus (who arrived to Britain in 601 AD), were sent to convert the various Kingdoms to Roman Catholicism. King Sledda of Essex is converted to Roman Catholicism, as is his son Sæberht. Due to the finds found outside Priory Park, Sæberht remains the strongest candidate for the identity of the ‘Prittlewell Prince’ burial of 2003 – and the quality of the gold used and its craftsmanship in both this burial and that of our disc brooch are not too dissimilar. It seems very possible, through Sæberht’s relation to his uncle, King Aethelberht, that the splendid Kentish golden artefacts enjoyed in his own burial extended to those female graves that surrounded him, where these brooches were found. From this we can deduce that these female graves were very eminent women, possibly relations or even royal concubines.

This is where, from all the historical and archaeological evidence, our brooches stories end. However, from a few beautifully ornate pieces of Saxon Jewellery, we have gained more knowledge than even the venerable Bede (the first to attempt to write a written history of Anglo-Saxon Britain) would have dreamed to share. Its legacy underlines the important of archaeology in giving those in the present day the means to discover and learn from the peoples of the past. What once was a clear indication of material wealth now sits on display in Southend Central Museum as a key source of historical wealth, a reminder that our country’s history lies ever-present at our feet, waiting to be unearthed.

Tom Kanani – Museum Officer

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