Wearing Anglo-Saxon saucer brooches

In my book, A Companion to Beowulf, there is an artist’s reconstruction of how the brooches and beads might have been worn.

At Pannebaker Press’s website you can see a discussion of how we came to decisions about them, with preliminary sketches.

All we know about saucer brooches comes from their position in a grave. There aren’t any contemporary pictures of women or men wearing them. When they’re found in a grave, they are always in pairs, positioned near the skeleton’s chest and shoulders. The ground shifts over time, and after many centuries the flesh and cloth that held them in place is quite gone, so it’s hard to tell just what they were pinning.

Most artists base sketches of saucer brooches on Viking-age aprons, presuming that the brooches pinned shoulder straps to the apron. We tried this idea out, but it didn’t feel right for the 6th century in a king’s feast hall. Instead, we used the brooches first as pure decoration, with strings of beads between them.

Our final development sketch was based on a practical guess about the climate and fabric weight. If a wool cloak or veil was positioned at the back of her body, to cover her head, back, and shoulders, the brooches may have acted as counter-weights to balance the fabric. The mantle or cloak may have been pinned to the dress underneath, or not; the brooches themselves, pinned to the cloak, might be heavy enough to keep it from falling back.

The artist had some amateur experience with historical costumes and knew that heavy cloaks tend to drag backwards. The wool’s weight pulls whatever is clasping it tighter against the wearer’s throat. If the cloak were pinned to the woman’s dress, it might have pulled the neckline of the dress uncomfortably against her throat. Saucer brooches were heavy enough that pinning them to a dress, alone, would make them, too, drag downward. So what if the wool’s weight and the brooches’ weight evened out, making it effortless for the wearer to keep her back warm and her arms free, with the mantle ready to pull around her if she needed to step out into the frosty air for a few minutes?

This use would explain the strands of amber and glass. They aren’t full necklaces, instead they just show off a necklace-like effect at the front of the costume. The rest of the necklace would be lost in the folds of the cloak.

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