Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Anglo-Saxon Period, Archaeology, Armour, Artefacts, Belief, Bracteate, Britain, British, Conflict, Culture, Dark Age, Dark Ages, England, Funerary Archaeology, Germanic, Gold, Helmet, History, Identity, Image, Jewellery, Kingdom formation, Kingship, Medieval Period, Middle Ages, Migration Period, Mythology, North Sea Region, Pagan, Pendant, Ritual, Roman Period, Scandinavia, Settlement Archaeology, Silver, Spritual Belief, the Dark Ages
A gold bracteate from Gotland, Sweden. Although hard to make out, it depicts a bird, human head and a horse1
So I am on a predictably overcrowded Sunday train headed back to the metropolis of happiness known as Reading. Now, sarcasm can be difficult to get across in writing, but I’ll leave it up to you to judge that sentence accordingly. Whilst recent blog posts have dwelt on death and destruction, such as our considerations of weapons and armour, I wish to look at something a little bit different this week. You might say that my choice of shiny and easy-on-the-eye objects is on account of my hangover, but I, of course, couldn’t comment.
Bracteates are thin discs of metal, usually of gold but also silver and copper-alloy, which look like coins but had a very different function. The word comes from the Latin bractea, which means ‘thin plate’. This is a fitting derivation, for they are incredibly thin, and were commonly made from a single sheet of gold foil. About a thousand have been recovered from the graves, settlements and hoards of mid-5th to mid-6th century North-western Europe.
Bracteates tend to have loops and are often found associated with beads. This means that they would have been suspended from necklaces and bracelets, as was the case in Grave 203 from Finglesham in Kent, where four bracteates were found alongside a large number of beads. It is true that Roman coins which have been pierced, presumably to wear in a suspended manner, are occasionally found in early Anglo-Saxon graves. However, this is a secondary, later usage of what was clearly an object created for monetary purposes. The fact that many bracteates had attachment loops by design must mean they stood for something else. In this sense, then, they are somewhat similar to a modern-day charm bracelet!
They are characterised by a central image, which can range from Roman-like portraits of individuals in profile – much like modern British coins – to depictions of warriors fighting beasts.
A gold bracteate from Undley Common in Suffolk which shows a fusion of Late Roman and Germanic ideas. The imagery is similar to coins of the Roman Emperor Constantine, but the runes are typically Germanic and seem to refer to a ‘howling she-wolf’ and the object being a ‘reward to a relative’2
The late but brilliant Karl Hauck devoted much of his life to the study of bracteates and their imagery, and is often remembered for his attribution of the scenes and figures on bracteates to Old Norse deities. The main thrust of the argument was that bracteate iconography reflected well-known mythological and folklorist stories to a non-literate population.
Such ideas have fell out of fashion a little in more recent scholarship, though, largely due to issues with attributing 13th century historical myths to 5th and 6th century archaeological artefacts. Despite this, I am still inclined to towards such interpretations, if only perhaps because I love the myths myself.
The most interesting thing about bracteates, at least to me, is that although they appear to have been mostly made in Scandinavia, they are found throughout the North Sea region. This not only attests the existence of long-distance trading networks, but also demonstrates the level of cultural fusion and influence present during the formative years of England.
Scandinavian gifts, and the shared mythological or folkloristic stories they evoked, would have had important influences on the formation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and a shared English identity. Accordingly, bracteates are of seminal importance to our understanding of the formation of England, and provide insight into the foundations of our modern relationships with the Scandinavian counties.
1 Picture credit: The British Museum <https://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/g/gold_bracteate.aspx>.
2 The runes are of Anglo-Frisian origin, and it has been suggested that the object was created in southern Scandinavia and brought to England. Its proximity to the very large and contemporary cemetery of Eriswell is interesting. Picture credit: The British Museum <http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/g/gold_bracteate-1.aspx>.