Scandinavian animal art starts in the late 4th century AD and goes through a long series of innovative styles until it’s abandoned in the 12th century and a naive version of Continental Romanesque takes over.
One of the weirdest, funniest and most abstruse varieties of animal art is what Bernhard Salin called Style I. It was invented in Jutland about AD 450 and flourished for less than a century in its South Scandinavian central areas. Wilhelm Holmquist characterised it as the “style of dismemberment”, and that pretty much tells you what it’s about. Most Style I artwork comes down to us as small pieces of cast copper-alloy or silver metalwork with decorative relief panels, densely packed with something that looks like ramen noodles. If you take your time and know what to look for, you’ll find bits of animals in the noodles, and after a while entire beasts will coalesce out of the mess. Usually they’re fighting each other rabidly. In some cases you’ll see them brooding among bits of human bodies, as if they had just made a meal of some would-be dragon slayer. Bente Magnus has suggested that these compositions are about the Twilight of the Gods, a complex of myths that may have felt quite believable in the chaotic Migration Period after the collapse of Western Rome.
My dear colleague Barry Ager at the British Museum sent me an off-print the other day of a paper he’d just published. It’s a study of a piece from the workshop of a Style I artisan: a lead model for a sword pommel of c. AD 500, measuring 93 by 18 by 10 mm. The pommel sits at the end of the sword grip and keeps the weapon from flying out of your hand when you swing it. Lead models were an intermediate stage on the way from an original made of boxwood or beeswax to the finished cast metalwork. They were intended to have a very short life span before being re-melted, and are thus very uncommon finds. This particular piece is unique but unfortunately decontextualised, that is, we don’t know where it was found or what kind of site it was. But it’s most likely a clandestine metal detector find from southern Scandinavia or southern England.
In his analysis of the decoration, Barry has been following the minds of an artist and an audience of aristocratic connoisseurs who died almost 1500 years ago. Scandinavian animal art is almost impossible to take in at a glance: the pieces are tiny and the complexity is staggering. You have to learn to read the style, and we must imagine that the ladies and noblemen of the time would spend hours admiring each other’s ornaments and figuring them out. Many contain pictorial jokes, where a composition can be read in several ways.
The drawing is by J. Farrant, and I’ve coloured it in following Barry’s analysis. The noodles on either side of the pommel model are actually made up of two complete beasts and three bodiless beast heads, all seen from the side. (To find a head in Style I, look for an eye and a jaw.) The complete beasts are hunkering down on their haunches and elbows with their bellies to the ground, both facing right. The red one’s hind quarters are being attacked by the blue head, and it presses the ridge of its muzzle against the hind quarters of the green beast. The green one’s neck is being attacked by the yellow head. The orange head actually belongs to the right-hand complete beast on the other side of the pommel.
The Early Medieval room at the British Museum has recently been redesigned. Go see the pommel model in room 41, case 43!
Ager, Barry. 2006. A lead model for a late 5th- or early 6th-century sword-pommel. Medieval Archaeology 50 (2006). London.
[More blog entries about archaeology, migrationperiod, animalart, swords; folkvandringstiden, arkeologi, djurornamentik, svärd.]