Archive for October 17th, 2020

The mnemonic powers of disc-on-bow brooches

Saturday, October 17th, 2020

Between the 6th and 8th centuries, high-status Scandinavian women wore distinctive pieces of jewelry known as disc-on-bow or button-on-bow brooches. Intricately gilded and inlaid with red garnets from Sri Lanka and India, the fibulae have been found exclusively in female burials or as stray finds divorced from their original contexts. A new study published in the European Journal of Archaeology contends that the brooches, introduced at the dawn of Viking raids on Ireland and Britain, and used a hundred years after they were no longer being produced, were not just luxury goods telegraphing the wealth of the wearer, but symbolism-laden connections between the elites, their past and their religious beliefs.

The first examples of them date to the late 6th century, and there’s a clear evolution from smaller, simpler pieces to large, elaborate ones. By the end of the 8th century, they were so big and heavy that they could not have been worn with ease and are thought to have been intended for use only on special occasions.

Ritualized or extraordinary costumes, including jewellery, are intrinsically linked with class, social roles, or certain forms of behaviour or postures. Dress, power, and ideology are, thus, mutually integrated elements. Found in what seems to be exclusively female burials, the brooches may have been particularly important as family heirlooms, passed down between women in the same lineage. In this perspective, the disc-on-bow brooches may represent objects associated with the perpetuation of stories relating to genealogy and family identities, and hence the control and perception of time. […] Such objects would be particularly effective if they possessed exclusive identities referring to ancestors, genealogies, and origin myths.

Disc-on-bow brooches make notable appearances as iconographic motifs on objects associated with ritual. Women wearing the brooches are carved on amulets and the gold figure foils engraved with images of important people/deities that have been found at aristocratic dwellings and sites of religious significance in medieval Scandinavia. In these depictions, the brooches are worn horizontally on the neck just below the chin with the head plate pointing to the right of the wearer. This placement matches the position of the brooches found in graves in Norway.

One of the most stunning examples is actually a stray, having been found atop a boat burial mound in Melhus, central  Norway, in 1901. Later excavation of the tumulus found it was a double burial of one man and one woman, so while it was not found in situ around her neck, it was almost certainly part of this noblewoman’s funerary accessories. The Melhus brooch dates to the late 8th century when these types of jewels reached their apex in size and complexity. Of the 53 disc-on-bow brooches discovered in Norway, 24 were made in the late Merovingian period, between 725 and 800 A.D. At 9.4 inches long, the Melhus brooch is the largest ever discovered in Norway, which means it was made at the end of the period of production.

The dating, context, ornamentation, and fragmentation of the disc-on-bow brooches points to an increase in such complex referential practice, with a marked change in attitude towards these brooches and their separate parts from around ad 700. During Phase 3, the development of the brooches becomes quite extreme: they reach almost unwearable proportions, the garnets, interlace, and Style III decoration increasingly covers all possible surfaces. This, and the growing number of carefully divided brooches and re-used fragments, suggests that the disc-on-bow brooches became gradually more significant as social and symbolically-charged objects actively integrated within ongoing political and social practice. […]

[T]he context and use of the disc-on bow brooches entail aspects of power and hierarchy. Mnemonic objects benefit those families and individuals that have access to and ownership of the inalienable objects in question. As not everyone has equal access to such objects, their possession and display may be perceived as representing a noble good, legitimizing social hierarchies, privileges, and distinction. Access to such heirlooms could, thus, be associated with family memories and personal identities, but also remove signal rank, distinction, and authority.

The possession of heirlooms associated with high social status or genealogy may increase in significance at times when inherited status is threatened by groups or individuals who have acquired higher status through, for example, new political institutions, new forms of economic transactions, or the vagaries of war (Lillios, 1999). This would fit the context of Norse society in the late Vendel period and early Viking Age, from the early eighth into the ninth century. The intensification of the North Sea trade, and the raiding and colonization on the British Isles may have contributed to a more volatile political situation in the Norse homelands, compromising traditional inherited status. This could have resulted in an increased emphasis on the mythical concepts and social distinction represented by exclusive objects. This could explain why the brooches grew to enormous sizes and featured increasingly lavish decoration during the eighth century, and why they were kept in circulation by some families well into the Viking Age. This could, in turn, indicate that similar ideas are detectable in other material categories, as notions and definitions of relevant timeframes and pasts could affect different social groups, with varying reactions and counter-reactions.

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