Jewelry illustrates one of the fundamental problems with historical artifacts: some were targeted for destruction and only survived in small numbers through unusual circumstances. Jewelry is wearable wealth; the fashion for wearing it changes, but the wealth is conserved. Gold and silver are melted down and recast, while gems are re-set and perhaps re-cut. The same gems and gold might stay in the family for years, but each century they look different.
The medieval world had no concept of antique fashion having value. We see interest and value in preserving the past only after the Reformation, when civil wars caused so much destruction that people saw severe losses in their lifetimes. They began to search for anything really old that had not been destroyed, like Roman coins and parchment books that were still unburnt. More time passed before old clothes began to have value; cloth was generally cut up and restyled. Worn-out shoes went into the trash in every generation, as they do now. Even now, when antiques are highly prized, many people have outdated jewelry re-designed, and so they continued to do in all centuries.
So we tend to know old jewelry four ways. (1) pictures. People usually wore their best finery in having a portrait painted, and by the late medieval years, portraits were more common. (2) grave goods. It’s very expensive to bury your best things in a grave, never to be seen again. Christian belief said it wasn’t necessary, so for the most part, Christian converts stopped burying jewelry. Thus we only have large amounts of jewelry from pagan times. (3) items treasured for ceremonies, like crowns. Kings always tried to keep treasures, and some hoards were never looted. (4) rare lost and found items. These are the best, since they are the only random samples we have. But they’re rare and often decayed.
Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity during the 600s; by the 700s, grave goods were not as common. The best archeological find was at Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk; it was probably the grave of King Raedwald, one of the last pagans. Grave goods show us a range of wealth, from Raedwald’s dazzling splendor to the much less generous everyday brooches and beads of common graves.
Let’s start with simpler brooches and beads. Brooches pinned cloaks; chiefly they were the stable surface on which to mount a hinged pin, so they had to be thick enough not to break easily under tension. Here’s a simple swastika design, obviously long before it had the meaning Hitler gave to it. The person who owned this brooch could afford iron, which in those times was not cheap. There were many humble brooches made from copper, and also many very small “button brooches” from as early as the 5th century.
Anglo-Saxon brooches of silver and gold used a kind of inlay called “niello.” Niello applied an alloy of lesser metal sulphides to the grooves molded into a design. Its black color made the design stand out much more boldly. This exact technique was not used in later medieval times, so we can date some startlingly shiny and unspoiled pieces to early centuries. Sutton Hoo provides us with some pretty amazing workmanship.
Here are two buckles that show off the high-level craftsmanship available to those who could pay for it. The belt buckle uses niello to outline the tiny dots and lines inside the interlacing. It’s also worth noting that this buckle shows little sign of contact with the Byzantine Empire. Its style is only found in the Irish and Norse cultures. Another belt buckle uses colored inlay, and you can clearly see the gold rivets that once held it to fine leather. One of the most beautiful Sutton Hoo artifacts is this set of shoulder clasps. Their style could be influenced by exposure to Byzantine mosaics, but they also have the interlaced-snake design of the North.
Anglo-Saxon brooches were usually either round, shaped like saucers, or square-headed. Other royal burials provide us with four outstanding examples of fine workmanship. This brooch comes from Kent, where Christianity was adopted by the early 7th century. Even more spectacular is the Kingston Down Brooch, also from Kent. It may have been worn by a royal woman who was included in a burial mound.
We have two splendid niello brooches from the Christian period, and their history has been lost. Both are first known to us in the collections of antiquaries, and these collections provide their names. The Strickland Brooch shows sixteen tiny dogs. The brooch is silver with niello, but it also has gold and even blue glass for the dogs’ eyes. The Fuller Brooch is even more interesting. It’s clearly the product of Latin education, since it carefully depicts the Five Senses of taste, smell, sight, sound and touch. It could even be the work of household craftsmen to King Alfred, the greatest and best educated of the Anglo-Saxon kings.
Square-headed brooches also came in simple, practical forms, which we have from early graves. These brooches made of copper seem to have minimal decoration, but they were stout enough to hold the hinged pin’s clasp under the square end. This copper square-headed brooch is much finer, as well as better-preserved. Notice the niello outlines. Aristocrats could afford gold brooches, though the one pictured here is not as rich as Sutton Hoo’s gold work. The last word in square-headed brooches goes to early pagan Kent; here we see gold set with garnets, a gem native to Europe.
Epics like Beowulf are full of references to arm rings handed out by kings as awards for valor in battle. Warriors probably wore all of their arm rings to major feasts, showing off their awards like Plains Indians with eagle feathers. But very few from the earliest period have survived, probably because they got melted down for other purposes. The only image I could find of an Anglo-Saxon (not Viking) arm ring is this one from the 10th century, a time when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were completely Christian.
Beads seem to have been only for women’s use. Early grave goods have given us many scattered beads, starting on the humble scale with carved bone. It’s clear that Byzantine traders used beads as highly portable trade goods for furs, as American settlers did a few centuries later. Their bright, multi-colored glass beads are found mixed with native amber. Sometimes they are full necklaces, but always with more beads toward the front. Other times, they appear to be strands of beads that may have hung between a set of round brooches.