Monday, 20 January 2014

Elite Viking Gold and Silver Jewellery from England

In recent years, metal-detecting in England has yielded hundreds of items of female Scandinavian jewellery dated to the Viking Age. Most of these objects are modest, mass-produced brooches and pendants in base metals (copper- and lead-alloys): more Topshop than Prada. But occasionally we get glimpses of jewellery at the other end of the social spectrum.

For the Vikings, filigree and granulation jewellery was the ultimate symbol of wealth and status.  These pieces used twisted and beaded wires (filigree) and small granules (granulation) in silver or gold to create incredibly elaborate brooches and pendants. Most surviving examples are in silver, but in 2013, a gold brooch came to light in Norfolk, part of the area settled by Scandinavians in England.

Gold filigree and granulation brooch, found in Norfolk
(PAS 'Find-ID' NMS-73CD11), copyright PAS
This lozenge-shaped brooch is made of sheet gold, obtained by hammering out and annealing a gold ingot. It has a flat back-plate and a convex front plate; these have been soldered together, creating a hollow middle. The filigree and granulation decoration applied to the front is based on 4 outward-facing animal heads as seen from above (best seen on the lowermost terminal), arranged around a central cross-like feature. This Borre-style design is a fairly common one on Scandinavian brooches and mounts, and means that the brooch can be dated to the late ninth or tenth century.

Viking gold jewellery is exceptionally rare, even within Scandinavia, making it likely that this piece was owned or worn by a woman of very high rank. But at the same time, it’s clear that this brooch is not the highest quality workmanship. Normally in filigree and granulation jewellery, the granules are the same size, but on this brooch, they are unevenly sized and spaced. Just look at the eyes of the lowermost animal head: the left one is far bigger than the right. The scrolls of the filigree wires are also loose and asymmetrical, and, in some parts, they fail to form the intended design. In short, this has a very amateurish (even shoddy?) feel and that it should be in such a rare and valuable precious metal is therefore perplexing. The brooch seems to have been worn a lot, because the beading on the filigree has been rubbed smooth in places. Is this an early example of an underdeveloped goldsmithing technique? Or does it suggest that there was a much wider spectrum of gold jewellery than the very fine surviving examples (almost all from hoards) suggest?

A silver disc brooch, cast in deep relief and with notching
in imitation of filigree (copyright North Lincolnshire Museum)
This is the only known Viking gold brooch from England, but there are hints that such sumptuous jewellery was more common than the few extant artefacts suggest. There is one further complete filigree and granulation piece of jewellery: a pendant in the shape of a bearded man's head, found in Yorkshire and now in the British Museum. In addition, a few cast silver brooches from England imitate filigree and granulation designs, suggesting that metalworkers had access to such jewellery to use as models. The gilded silver brooch from Lincolnshire shown above is one such example. It emulates filigree, both in the 'notching' of its cast bands and in its unusual deep-casting. 

A couple of artefacts even point to the manufacture of elite Scandinavian jewellery in England. One is this bird-shaped copper-alloy die, found in Lincolnshire. It would have been used to create silver or gold sheets, applied to a pendant back-plate and used as a base for filigree and granulation work. A lead patrix for creating moulds for dies of this type is also known from York.
A copper-alloy die for making precious-metal bird-shaped pendants,
found in Lincolnshire (PAS 'Find-ID' NLM-690F57), copyright PAS
No finished pendants of this type survive in England, but similar bird-pendants were found in the nineteenth century in a famous Viking gold hoard from Hiddensee. The location of Hiddensee, off the Baltic coast of Germany, suggests that the hoard may have been deposited by wealthy Danes en-route between Denmark and the central Baltic.

While actual filigree and granulation gold and silver jewellery is rare in England, a number of different strands of evidence converge to suggest that it was probably more common than the existing archaeological evidence suggests. The new gold brooch from Norfolk is the latest and strongest evidence yet for the availability of such jewellery on this side of the North Sea, and, in turn, for the presence of very high-status Scandinavians in England during the Viking Age.


  1. Do you think gold was (a) less likely to be lost and/or (b) more likely to be 'recycled' and melted down? Or are there other reasons why gold was more common than the existing archaeological evidence suggests?

  2. Both! Gold is worth between 10-12 times the value of silver, so would have been more carefully guarded, with even the smallest scraps being preserved for recycling/ re-use (see the tiny gold ingot from Lejre, in an earlier blog). Nonetheless, there is mounting evidence for single finds of gold ingots and rings, which are *presumed* to be accidental losses. This suggests that even gold items were misplaced. It's a bit like losing a £50 note - rare, but it must happen.

  3. Fascinating--particularly one eye being larger than the other. I wonder if that was deliberate, per Odin iconography suggested by Price and Mortimer in "An Eye for Odin? Divine role-playing in the age of Sutton Hoo" in European Journal of Archaeology...

  4. Fantastic post!