Migration Period Beast Noodles

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.

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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.

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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.
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Comments

  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 20, 2007

    Wow! This is clear evidence that FSM worship goes back further than most people imagine.

    May you be touched by his noodly appendage.

  2. #2 furiku
    January 20, 2007

    …see, this is why people claim archaeologists mostly make things up as they go along. :P

  3. #3 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 20, 2007

    I don’t know why, but the word Rorshach just popped into my mind.

  4. #4 Martin R
    January 21, 2007

    I know! The only way to support statements about this kind of art is to first look at 50 pieces of it and notice the recurring patterns.

    It’s like looking at text in an unknown language: one sample of text with the character sequence KGKIUHYITLOJ doesn’t tell you much, but if you find more inscriptions and notice that the sequences KIUH and ITLOJ keep popping up, then you know you’ve identified words.

  5. #5 Toaster Sunshine
    January 21, 2007

    Not Rorshach, it seems to me to make sense in the context of Scandinavian folklore and mythology. When I was younger, my Ukki (Finnish for “grandpa”) gave me a series of children’s books that were populated with characters like rock spirits and will’o'the’wisps and ghosts of snow dead people and gnomes and trolls. These stories, along with other things like “The 7 Brothers” and “The Kalevala”, all evolved from a more primeval Scandinavian lore. In them, a connective web of nature, life, and death seems to be a very common theme. So the “Ramen noodle” style makes a lot of sense to me. If the reigning paradigm was that everything was connected, if not immediately apparent, then to twine together the very elements of animals in art is a logical step of expression.

  6. #6 Martin Rundkvist
    January 22, 2007

    As Dirk Gently is fond of saying, “I believe in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things”.