Ill-Understood Relics

A Group of Early Anglo-Saxon Artifacts in The University Museum

By: Genevieve Fisher

Originally Published in 1986

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It was the labour of four long days to cut entirely through the barrow, but we who were not absolutely diggers contrived to pass our time to the full satisfaction of all the party. A plentiful supply of provisions had been procured for pic nicking on the bill, and we remained by the barrow all day. watching and directing the operations…We contrived to pass our time, at intervals between digging and picnicking, ill games of various descriptions…. and in other amusements. The season was fortunately exquisitely fine, and it was only once or twice that we were visited with a heavy shower from the south-west, when the only shelter was afforded by the hole we lied ourselves dug. . in which we managed to interlace parasols and umbrellas—much as the Roman soldiers are said to have joined together their shields when advancing to the attack of a fortress—so as to form a tolerably impenetrable roof over our heads…(Gentleman’s Magazine, Dec. 1852569)

In 1890, The University Mu­seum received a group of early Anglo-Saxon artifacts from Francis Campbell Macauley. Macauley, a founder and early bene­factor of the Museum, was instrumental in the development of its European collection. His obituary in The Philadelphia Public Ledger of March 17, 1896, recorded that Macauley gathered objects For the Museum “with rare taste and discernment from various parts of the world.” Nothing is known of the circumstances by which these Anglo-Saxon objects came into Macauley’s hands: presumably, he acquired them during one of his collecting trips. Macauley correspondence in the Museum Ar­chives indicates that he often bought from antiquities dealers, and it was probably through a com­mercial channel that Macauley pro­cured these artifacts.

The group consists of a ceramic vessel, heads of glass, amber, and “meerschaum”, a bronze pin, bronze tweezers, a pair of bronze sleeve clasps, a bronze “T-shaped ornament,” and three bronze an­nular (ring-shaped) brooches. The jar, tweezers, and “T-shaped orna­ment” cannot be located among the holdings of the European Section.

Bead necklaces, pins, tweezers, sleeve-clasps, and annular brooches are personal dress items that adorned Anglo-Saxon women in life and in death. Ceramic vessels often furnished Anglo-Saxon graves. The composition of the Macauley group, then, is not inconsistent with the contents of a woman’s burial of this period. All of the ex­tant artifacts are of types whose popularity centers on hut cannot be restricted to the 6th century A.D. Because so few American museums can claim any Anglo-Saxon objects, The University Museum is fortu­nate to possess the Macauley group.

The Accessions Book, housed in the Museum Archives, records that these objects were found in an En­glish barrow. Regrettably, we have no way of demonstrating that these objects were associated with each other in a single burial or, even so, that they represent all of the grave-goods found.

Barrows are mounds of earth and stone erected over the burials of one or more individuals. Well over 30,000 surviving barrows, ranging in date from the Neolithic period (ca. 3700 B.C.) to Viking times (A.D. 800-1000), arc known in Britain. These monuments have long captured the imagination of antiquarians. Although barrow-dig­ging in England is recorded as far back as the 12th century, excava­tion reached a frenzied pitch during the 18th and 19th centuries (Fig. 1). Not all of these zealous anti­quarians—who were capable of opening up to 31 barrows in a single day—bothered to note even the most rudimentary details of their discoveries. Charles Wame, a 19th-century antiquary, chastised others for “desecrating these . . . [barrows] for no better purpose than the indulgence of a craving ac­quisitiveness and the adornment of glass cases with ill-understood relics, to be paraded for the empty admiration of those who may de­scend to flatter the equally vain and ignorant collector” (1866:2).

Anglo-Saxon Archaeology

The early Anglo-Saxon period in England is conventionally dated A.D. 450-650. In re­cent years, the traditional image of the transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England as a time of turmoil and warfare has been supplanted by a more modulated picture of immigration and settle­ment. The Anglo-Saxon “invasion” is not viewed as a single event, dat­able to the mid-5th century from documentary sources, but, drawing on archaeological evidence, as a gradual migration beginning in the first half of the 5th century, if not before. Despite the failure to iden­tify any clear continuity of urban life and the evidence for a break­down of the rural villa system, which would indicate a change in the economic structure, land utili­zation patterns may have been maintained from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England. Crop and animal husbandry evidence indi­cates that the early Anglo-Saxons practiced a mixed agricultural economy. Plant cultigens included barley, oats, wheat, rye, hemp, wood, vines, and possibly beans. Cattle, pig, sheep, and goat were the primary animal domesticates. Settlements show a range of forms from clusters of small sunken-floored huts to villages of long-houses to royal complexes.

It is through the cemeteries rather than the settlements, how­ever, that the archaeology of early Anglo-Saxon England is best known (Fig. 2). More than 30,000 burials from over 1,500 sites have been ex­cavated. The early Anglo-Saxons practiced two different burial rites: cremation, in which the body was burned on a pyre and the ashes usually buried in a pot, and inhu­mation, in which the individual was laid in a grave pit. Occasionally, wood fragments or soil discoloration in inhumation graves indicate that the body was enclosed in a coffin or by wooden planks. At Bergh Apton, Norfolk, bracken impres­sions on the upper surface of iron weapons in grave 66 suggest that the body was covered! with plant fronds (Green and Rogerson 1978:43). Although many ceme­teries contain both cremation and inhumation burials, the latter rite is found more frequently in eastern cemeteries belonging to the earlier part of the Anglo-Saxon period!

Most of the cremation and inhu­mation burials occur in flat-grave cemeteries, where topography gives no indication of the burials below. The dead were occasionally placed in harrows, either secon­darily in a mound of prehistoric date or primarily in a newly built mound. Cemeteries of small barrows, each usually sheltering a single primary burial, are concen­trated in the southeastern counties of Kent, Sussex, and Surrey. In contrast, large isolated barrows ex­hibit an almost complementary dis­tribution, with significant clusters in the Derbyshire Peak District and on the Wiltshire Chalk Downs (Sheppard 1979).

Anglo-Saxon Women’s Dress

How would the dress ornaments collected by Macauley have been worn by an Anglo-Saxon woman? Because no Anglo-Saxon garment has survived, a reconstruction must be based upon indirect evidence. Doc­uments occasionally refer to women’s costume. Our literary sources for this period are largely ecclesiastical and do not reflect as many secular concerns as we might wish. It is clear from these writings, however, that garments were made of linen and wool. The abandonment of these fabrics is a conspicuous feature of early Anglo-Saxon saintliness. The 8th-century cleric Bede recounts that St. Ethel­dreda renounced linen in favor of woolen garments upon entering re­ligious life (Historia Ecclesiastica IV.9). St. Guthlae was even more virtuous: his biographer claims that the hermit forsook clothing of linen and wool for that of skins (Colgrave 1956, Felix ch. 28). While Guthlae’s choice of skin garments is offered as an example of his abstinence from worldly comforts, an otterskin robe was tendered, apparently as a luxury gift, between less ascetic clerics (Tangel 1916:251).

Ecclesiastical writers occasionally mention specific garments worn by the laity. Bede records a miracle in which a paralyzed girl, restored to health, “arranged her hair, covered her head with a linen kerchief. . . [and returned] home” Wistaria Ecclesiastical 111.9). In his protest against the luxurious costumes worn by men and women in reli­gious orders, St. Aldhelm describes aristocratic dress of the 7th century:

This sort of glamorization for either sex consists in fine linen shirts, in scarlet or blue tunics, in necklines and sleeves embroidered with silk; their shoes arc trimmed with red-dyed leather. . Dark-grey veils for the head given way to bright and co­loured head-dresses, which are sewn with interlacings of ribbons and hang down as far as the ankles (De Virgini­tate 58). (Crowfoot and Hawkes 1967:57)

Gold fragments from brocaded ribbons have been found in a few luxuriously furnished early Anglo-Saxon women’s graves of the 6th century (Crowfoot and Hawkes 1967).

The Anglo-Saxons apparently en­joyed brightly colored costumes. The dyes used to tint the clothes described by Aldhelm may have been of local derivation (e.g., wood): Bede praises the scarlet dye made from indigenous shell-fish (Historia Ecclesiastica I. 1). In the 8th century, Paul the Deacon, perhaps referring to the Anglo-Saxons, mentioned “garments . . . loose and mostly linen … orna­mented with broad borders woven in various colors” (History of the Langobards, bk. IV, ch. XXII). These colorful borders may have been similar to the fragments of tablet-woven braid tinted yellow from Mitchell’s Hill, Stuffolk (Crow­foot 1952), red or purple and blue or green from Fonaby, Lincoln­shire, and red, blue and possibly yellow from Mucking, Essex (Crowfoot in Cook 1981:98-99). Grace M. Crowfoot reconstructed the design of a tablet-woven braid found in the cemetery at St. John’s College cricket field, Cambridge, as a row of pale-colored diamonds outlined and bordered by a line of white against a darker-colored background (1951:28-30). The original dyes could not be identi­fied.

Although the Franks Casket, a carved whalebone box of kite 7th-or early 8th-century Anglo-Saxon manufacture, depicts women garbed in hooded cloaks and long dress (Fig. 3), feminine attire is rarely portrayed in insular artwork prior to the 10th and 11th centuries. Consequently, continental artwork often serves almost as a medieval pattern book for modem dress historians. Germanic women represented on the late 2nd-cen­tury column of Marcus Aurelius are dressed in long sleeveless garments belted at the waist and gathered at each shoulder (Hald 1980:figs. 445, 446). A similar tubular garment of wool was preserved in a peat bog in Huldremose, Rahten, Denmark (Glob 1969:129-130). It is conjectured that this cloth was arranged as a peplos by securing the fabric at each shoulder with a fastener. First- and 2nd-century A.D. tomb­stones from the Roman frontier provinces of Noricum and Pannonia in central Europe show women dressed in such draped garments (Fig. 4). Under these dresses ap­pears a longer shift, portrayed both with and without sleeves (Garbseh 1965:plates 1, 6, 7). Although the Norican and Pannonian tombstones are sculpted in a Roman idiom, ar­chaeologists argue that the women’s costume illustrated is clearly Germanic (Hald 1980:364).

Most of our evidence for Anglo-Saxon dress is archaeological. The position of dress items around the body in inhumation graves provides a framework on which specific gar­ments may be draped. In addition, textiles buried in contact with metal objects, such as brooches and belt buckles, are occasionally pre­served by the replacement of their-organic constituents with metal oxides. Regrettably, the water­logged conditions responsible for the preservation of entire garments in Scandinavia are extremely rare in England.

The Macauley Group

The three annular brooches given to The University Mu­seum by Macauley are each constructed from a flat bronze ring (Fig. 5). The smallest, measuring 4.7 centimeters in diameter, widens slightly to accept the hole through which its pin was originally attached. This brooch is so worn that the presence or absence of dec­oration cannot be confirmed. The face of the second brooch, which measures 5.0 centimeters in diam­eter, is separated into quadrants by transverse incised lines. Between these lines, a row of punched dots rims along each edge of the brooch. The pinhole contains the remains of an iron pin. Rather than at­taching the pin through a hole in the body of the brooch, as is the case with the first two brooches, one end of the pin belonging to the third would have been wrapped around the body of the ring at the point where the outer edge of the brooch is indented. This brooch, with a diameter of 4.8 centimeters, is decorated around both edges with a row of irregularly punched linear stamps.

When found in burials, annular brooches generally occur in pairs with one resting on each shoulder of the deceased. Occasionally, an­nular brooches are encountered singly or twinned with a different type of brooch. From their position on the body, it appears that these fasteners secured the neckline or shoulder straps of the dress. Fre­quently, a third brooch accompanies the two found on the shoulders. The location of this addi­tional brooch varies: it may occur overlying one of the shoulder brooches or may be found near the midline of the body at the neck, chest, or abdomen. Although the three annular brooches found in Little Eriswsell, Suffolk, grave 2 (Hutchinson 1966:23) and in Spong Hill, Norfolk, inhumation grave 12 (Hills et al. 1984:60-61) were all simple, the additional brooch is frequently more elaborate than the pair worn on the shoulders. Judging from the large size of the brooch pin, these additional brooches probably fastened a cloak or blanket around the body (Vierck 1978:248; Crowfoot in Cook 1981:99).

Although the pin shanks are missing from all of the Macauley annular brooches, we know from intact examples that the pin lies across the front rather than fitting behind the body of the brooch. Be­cause the brooches lack a spring mechanism, there has been some uncertainty as to their function as dress fasteners; however, an an­nular brooch could easily secure fabric if the cloth was inserted over the pin from behind the brooch (Fig. 6). The pull of the cloth on the pin shank from behind would close the pin against the brooch ring.

Inhumation burials at Spong Hill indicate how annular brooches, such as those in the Macauley group, secured clothing. Twill frag­ments on the annular brooch in in­humation grave 14 are folded in loops around both ends of the brooch pin (Fig. 7). In inhumation grave 38, the pin of another annular brooch pierces a fragment of tablet-woven braid. This decorative braid would have been sewn to the neck­line or upper edge of a garment. The Spong Hill annular brooches may have secured an overdress ei­ther by fabric straps or by catching the cloth at the shoulders (Crowfoot in Hills et at. 1984:18-19).

This reconstruction is supported by textile finds from Birka, Sweden. Some of the Viking-period Birka brooches exhibit strips of fabric on their reverse side draped in a similar manner to the Spong Hill fragments. The Birka fabrics, which generally form a loop encir­cling both ends of the brooch pin, have been interpreted as shoulder straps that were attached to the upper hem of a long overdress (Fig. 8). This overdress is thought to have been formed by wrapping a square of cloth around the body (Geller 1983:98).

The position of textile remains in graves at several cemeteries indi­cates that Anglo-Saxon women wore a long-sleeved garment under this overdress of solid fabric. In Spong Hill inhumation grave 24. flax twill fragments on the two an­nular brooches are thought to have come from an underskirt or shift. Coarser twill fragments found on chatelaine items from the same grave may represent the overdress (Crowfoot in Hills et r11. 1984:19). Evidence that women sometimes wore a cloak as well as a dress conies from a grave at Berinsfield, Oxfordshire. Here, the woman was buried with a dish-shaped saucer brooch on each shoulder and. on top of the brooch on the left shoulder, an elaborate square-headed brooch. On the back of the two saucer brooches were frag­ments of woolen braid thought to have decorated the dress. On the front of the saucer brooches and the back of the square-headed brooch were linen fragments be­longing to an overgarment which must have covered the dress be­neath (Brown 1978:24-25). Tabby weave fragments found both softly folded on the front and tucked softly behind the back of the larger brooches at Swaftham, Norfolk (Crowfoot in Hills and Wade-Martins 1976:29), and Spong Hill (Crowfoot in hills et at. 1984:19) may be the remains of veiled head­dresses.

The bronze pin from the Ma­cauley group is 11.7 centimeters long. The circular perforated head (now broken) and projecting neck are flattened (Fig. 9). Below the neck, the shank section of the pin changes from rectangular to round. The rectangular portion of the shank is decorated on all four sides with an incised “X” above three in­cised transverse lines. Similar bronze pins with perforated, flat­tened heads are known from the Anglo-Saxon cemeteries at Broadway Hill, Worcestershire (Cook 1958:70, fig. 9, 12), and Col­lingbourne Duds, Wiltshire (Gin­gell 1978:fig. 19, 3).

In the Collingbourne Ducis burial, the position of the pin—on the chest between a pair of brooches—indicates that it secured a garment. From the 5th to the early 7th centuries, a pin often was part of the brooch suite worn on the chest.

The bronze sleeve-clasps in the Macauley group form a functional but decoratively unmatched pair (Fig. 10). The hook portion is orna­mented around the edges with in­cised lines and punched dots, while the eye is decorated along its length with two rows of punched crescents. When found in inhuma­tion burials, sleeve-clasps are com­monly positioned in pairs at the wrists, suggesting that they secured the bottom of the sleeve in a manner comparable to modern cuff links. Fortunately, a reconstruction of their function is facilitated by textile remains on several ex­amples. Fragments of woolen fabrics on an eye-clasp from Mil­denhall, Suffolk, indicate that the long sleeve of the twill garment was banded with a cuff of tablet-woven braid (Fig. 11). The metal sleeve-clasp was sewn on the cuff braid (Crowfoot 19511. The cut edge of the cull braid, turned under and stitched down, is visible on a sleeve-clasp from Fonaby (Crowfoot in Cook 1981:99). On a more elabo­rate pair of clasps from Mitchell’s Hill the edge of the cuff braid was buttonholed in a blanket stitch (Crowfoot 1952). The tablet-woven fragment on a clasp from Spong Hill inhumation grave 5 is addition­ally decorated with surface bro­cading or embroidery (Crowfoot and Jones in Hills et at. 1984:19, fig. 7.6).

Around the neck or between the brooch on either shoulder was often strung a necklace of beads. Thanks to careful excavation of a grave at Berinsfield, the position of three rows of beads across the chest of the interred woman could be re­constructed. Strung between the brooch on each shoulder was a short strand of glass beads and two longer festoons of amber beads (Brown 1978:24).

Rather than encircling the neck. the Berinsfield beads appear to have been suspended from shoulder to shoulder between the brooches. Because of the way in which annular brooches functioned the bead string could he attached to the brooch with a simple loop around from the back of the brooch pin: the closed pin would secure the bead string, just as it would the dress fabric. A more elaborate fix­ture occurs on a pair of annular brooches from Newnham, Cam­bridgeshire. Here, each brooch is pierced with a small ring from which, it is conjectured, was sus­pended a string of beads (Vierck 1978:246-247). Fragments of linen and woolen strings from bead neck­laces were found in two graves at Fonaby (Cook 1981:81).

Some 39 beads are among the Macauley group (Fig. 12). Of these. 5 are of glass and 17 are of amber. The glass heads are common Anglo-Saxon types: a green and a blue long square-sectioned cylinder (Beck 1973, type IX.D.2.b), a black short barrel bead with a white wave around the perimeter (type A.1.a), an aqua and yellow swirled cir­cular bead (type I.C.1.a), and a yellowish-green fluted bead (type XXII.A). Although amber beads are common in Anglo-Saxon graves, the source of this resin has not been identified. The amber for these beads may have been col­lected locally from the North Sea coast of England or acquired from well-known Baltic sources. The chemical composition of the meerschaum” bead is of consider­able interest, for the nearest sources of meerschaum are Asia Minor, North Africa, and Spain. Several Anglo-Saxon beads of meerschaum” have been claimed, but only two, from Fonaby, Lin­colnshire, are indeed of this mate­rial (Cook 1981:83).

The missing artifacts—the tweezers, “T-shaped ornament,” and ceramic vessel—provide a tan­talizing complement to these items of feminine dress. Tweezers were carried by both men and women during the early Anglo-Saxon pe­riod. From the description of the “T-shaped ornament” this missing artifact is probably an item of Anglo-Saxon women’s dress called a “girdle-hanger” (Fig. 13). Bronze girdle hangers, singly or in pairs, were suspended with other chate­laine objects from a belt. In addi­tion, metal, bone, and ivory rings, often found at the hip probably served as the frameworks for cloth or leather hags; simple open-mouth or drawstring pouches, which have left no traces, may also have been popular. These bags appear to have contained a miscellany of animal, jests whose purpose has been in­terpreted as amuletic (Meaney 1981). A plain weave fabric frag­ment on an iron hook lying at the hip of the woman buried in Swaffham grave 1 may be the lining of a small bag (Crowfoot in I fills and Wade-Martins 197(i: 29).

The ceramic vessel is catalogued as a brown ware jar with stamped decoration. This ovoid-shaped, flat-based pot with a wide mouth is re­corded as measuring 132 by 154 millimeters, although it is not spec­ified to what dimensions these figures refer. A Merovingian origin is ascribed to the vessel; although not common, wheel-thrown vessels of continental manufacture are oc­casionally found in English barrows, as at Bruncliffe, near liar­tington, Derbyshire, Asthall, Ox­fordshire, and Sutton Hoc), Suffolk (Evison 1979).

Particularly perplexing about the Macauley group, if it does indeed represent the contents of a woman’s grave, is the lack of iron dress items, such as knives and belt buckles, which are so common in graves of this period. Anglo-Saxon women frequently wore one or, less frequently, two belts around their midriff. On her belt, almost every woman carried her own knife. The absence of these small iron objects may be attributed to the excavation conditions under which the extant artifacts were likely recovered. In the search for glittering prizes of bronze, amber, and glass, these rusty lumps of iron—as the knives and belt buckles would have ap­peared to be— may well have been consigned to the spoil heap.

The Distribution of Annular Brooches

Annular brooches, traditionally ascribed to Anglian taste, are found predominantly in eastern England; within this area, how­ever, their distribution is not uni­form. The types of dress fasteners found in closed burials from the traditionally Anglian regions of Lindsey and East Anglia (which approximate to the modern counties of Lincolnshire/South Humberside and Norfolk/Suffolk respectively) were examined. Using the chi-square test as a measure of association with a sample size of 126, the number of graves containing annular brooches was compared with the number furnished with other types of dress fasteners. A statisti­cally significant difference in the number of graves with annular brooches between Lindsey and East Anglia was identified (p < .005, x2 = 8.287, elf = 1). Thus, annular brooches appear to have been a more popular feature of feminine dress in Lindsey than they were in East Anglia, where other types of dress Fasteners were favored.


Cite This Article

Fisher, Genevieve. "Ill-Understood Relics." Expedition Magazine 28, no. 1 (March, 1986): -. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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