Beautiful Vendel Period Jewellery


I'm happy and relieved. A 73-page paper that I put a lot of work and travel into and submitted almost five years ago has finally been published. In his essays, Stephen Jay Gould often refers to his "technical work", which largely concerns Cerion land snails and is most likely not read by very many people. Aard is my attempt to do the essay side of what Gould did. The new paper "Domed oblong brooches of Vendel Period Scandinavia. Ãrsnes types N & O and similar brooches, including transitional types surviving into the Early Viking Period", though, is definitely a piece of my technical work.

The most iconic Viking Period jewellery type is the tortoise brooch. They're big clunky things worn pairwise on your clavicles, fastening a dress with built-in suspenders over your shoulders. A number of standardised types were mass-produced during the 9th and 10th centuries, reflecting Viking Period Scandinavia's beginning urbanisation and the concomitant changes in how craft and trade was organised. The standard work on tortoise brooches is Ingmar Jansson's 1985 PhD thesis Ovala spännbucklor.

Far less well known are the 8th century ancestors of the tortoise brooches, belonging to the Late Vendel Period. Much smaller domed oblong brooches in fact show up already about AD 700 and develop a bewildering variety of styles and design that lasts a few decades into the 9th century before standardisation takes over completely. They're lovely, almost every one of them unique. There has been no concerted study of them - until now.

I finished my own PhD thesis on social symbolism in Gotlandic burials of the 1st Millennium AD toward the end of 2002. The preceding year I had been to the Sachsensymposium in Lund and seen the amazing metal detector finds from Uppåkra. That project's leaders were handing out artefact categories for study to various scholars, and I signed up for two brooch groups: the 6th-7th century snake-shaped ones and the 8th century domed oblong ones. I did this for two main reasons: I wanted to get into the metal-detectors & elite-settlement field of research and I hoped to establish a new university affiliation in Lund after my viva. Note the sociology of science aspect.

I began data collection on the two brooch groups in September 2002. My 25-page paper on the snake brooches was swiftly completed and published in late 2003. But the domed oblong ones took more time: there's a greater number of them and they're spread over a much larger area. For the second paper I ended up travelling to Lund, Copenhagen, Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, Tromsø, Uppsala, Helsinki, Mariehamn and Ribe. I photographed and measured hundreds of brooches and read reams of obscure literature.

I have mixed feelings about this paper now. From a scientific point of view, I'm very proud of it. It is solidly empirical work with good statistics, I think my arguments are clear, there are two properly done seriation chronologies in it, and at the end is a detailed catalogue that will be useful to students of 8th century Scandinavia indefinitely. Rundkvist 2010 will be the one-stop-shopping reference for this kind of jewellery. I wish more research archaeologists were doing this sort of thing with their research time instead of being such... humanities writers.

From a career-strategical point of view, however, I have to say that it was a failure. The two brooch papers took 2½ years to write and were for all intents and purposes my post-doc project. I chose a type of investigation that is not common or fashionable these days, because it suited my scholarly ideals and it was encouraged by a well-funded research project with friendly directors at another university. But as it turned out, the longer paper took five years to appear because one of the directors fell gravely ill for a time. And the work did not open doors for me as I had hoped. I still have no affiliation with a Scandy university. Instead Exeter and then Chester in England have taken me on as visiting researcher.

Anyway. I never counted on writing an entire book on Ãstergötland's elite settlements of the 1st Millennium before the domed oblong brooch paper was published. I had no idea that by the time the paper appeared, I would have finished up my 1st Millennium projects and turned to Bronze Age studies. But now it's out, on paper and on-line, and I am much relieved.

Rundkvist, M. 2010. Domed oblong brooches of Vendel Period Scandinavia Ãrsnes types N & O and similar brooches, including transitional types surviving into the Early Viking Period. HÃ¥rdh, B. (ed.). FrÃ¥n romartida skalpeller till senvikingatida urnesspännen. Nya materialstudier frÃ¥n UppÃ¥kra. UppÃ¥krastudier 11. Dept of Archaeology, University of Lund.

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I find it a shame when what used to be willful art is quickly under-appreciated into a formulaic, transforming unique and priceless events into the memory of a new gestalt, one that cheapens the past by being "good enough" for "long enough" that we forget where it came from, and why.
I would think it safe to say that anything with mass appeal started with a note of distinction, and atrophied from there. It would be rewarding to attempt a catalog of all the initial, emergent events that gave rise to massive social trends throughout history. Real treasure hunting!
What would you say is the most striking, fascinating or beautiful piece you've come across in your studies, and why?

I have a less idealistic view of art. It is possible to mass-produce beautiful things. Many Viking Period tortoise brooches are lovely, depending on the level of skill and care with which they were made.

I come across strikingly beautiful pieces all the time in my studies. That's one of the reasons that I study small finds!

That is a really beautiful brooch. I know of several hundred people who would likely be delighted to read your paper, actually. There are an awful lot of lay enthusiasts out there who are quite fascinated with Norse jewellery of that approximate period. :)

Also: You have something against humanities writers? (...she says, as the author of several popular articles on history...) ;)

By Interrobang (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink

Beautiful things, certainly. And in some cases, we could even argue that with better available resources and a refined process, mass-produced things can be MORE beautiful, better-made, and longer-lasting than their inspiration. No argument there. I'm looking toward the abstract in this sense.. whether it be the first snow-motor to today's snow-mobile, or the first of some random artist's street-jewelry to their adopted line in catalogs, or the first hand-carved bone flute to today's pieces... there's something there worth finding, is all. The history itself becomes more valuable in a way, after it is forgotten. I'm not sure "sentimental" or "idealistic" would be the rights words... maybe just "curious", I think. Knowing that there is both a source and a reason for curiosity to exist, in tandem with the results of its own progeny, makes these "first things" more intriguing to me. Of course, without the evidence of the more common things that caught our attention in the first place, we'd not know about their forebears at all.
If asked the same question, I'm not sure I could come up with a specific example, at least not without feeling like I was doing a dis-service to other things of excellence. But I'd still like to know of a specific piece, or discovery, that you found inspirational (either mass-produced or of a singular nature). I'm not comparing notes here, as I'm not an archeologist; I'm just curious.

And one new one.. I've always been fascinated by Norse mythology, but until now I hadn't really seen any examples of authentic workmanship (I've seen some stone carvings and wood cuttings, but no jewelry or other "daily use" items). Dr. Rundkvist just corrected that. I've been looking online all morning. I'd find his paper interesting just to know how the skills progressed from era-to-era, to say nothing of what I don't know yet.

I'bang, strictly speaking, I am a humanities writer. Archaeology isn't a Social Science in Europe. What I meant was the tendency of many academic archaeologists to write their papers in the library without digging or looking at finds, and without a scientific approach. My discipline suffers destructive influence from the aesthetic disciplines.

ENT, I found some interesting designs hidden on the back side of a beautiful brooch once and wrote a paper (in English) about them. That moment of discovery was very tasty.

My first impression is that the motifs represent components in a series, as a mural depicting movement.. perhaps the slaying of the beast? Its posture changes, its arm looks to rise up in an attack or a defensive block, and its head and body appear to fall and slacken on the right-most disc. Does anyone know what this means? (Phases of life? A depiction of battle? A hero's song? Some form of commendation? A familial depiction, like joining bloodlines through marriage?) I wonder if the three glyphs were commissioned by the owner? Maybe they had some special significance, like a talisman or ward. Did the style of the beast's depiction occur as a result of the mechanics of etching in metal, or was that secondary to the shape of the thing (and if so, what in the heck was it?)

Well, I've found today's timesink! :)

I'll also be pointing it out to my SCA friends.

I am, in fact. Quite interesting... I really like the distinction between the first few you show and the Type N1d variant NSV. BO Nørre Sandegård Vest. L 46 mm. NM C10269 (Fig 8b). I'm only on the 15th page, but so far the table data is pretty clear and well-explained by the text. I'm wondering if the paired brooches found in graves signify bonded vows (like wedding rings).. they seem to come into fashion later, there's a HUGE dispersal of styles within groups, types and variants, which to me would indicate location, chronology, and social group... maybe broach styles were indicative of ruling regional families? You did mention that animal motifs were the domain of royalty or aristocracy, so my guess (as of page 15 ;) is that each distinction is analogous to a coat of arms, or some other genealogical indicator. Don't answer though, finding out is half the fun!

Hrm... Now wondering (pg 31) if they may also have been related to extended military campaigns. Epaulets, perhaps? Between what you said about their emergence prior to fashion, and the time spans during which similar kinds are found... too long for fickle fashion, too long even for a single regime at times, but not too long for an extended campaign... Also trying to think of exactly how many main archetypes of quadrupeds would be well-known in Scandinavia at the time (I can only think of about ten, including "monster"). Some show snakes and humans, but I wonder why there were so few insects, arachnids, sea creatures and avians depicted? Reading on...

I really appreciate the chance to read information like this.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink

Paired brooches most likely signifies the fact that your dress has two suspenders. Which in its turn simplified breast feeding. Awkward to have to get out of your floor-length dress every time the baby starts crying.

Being worn by women and never to my knowledge occurring with weapons in graves, the brooches seems to have no military connotations.

Not prior to fashion! Without fashion we wouldn't be able to date stuff from its appearance. Everything would just be bare-bones functional.

Oh, but Martin, What's-her-name Larsson says the brooches were actually sexy bras and that they had nothing to do with functionality...

Seriously, though, thank you for this. It's nice to see something new that you've written, not only because I know I'll enjoy it, but because I know that I can trust your methodology, and I can forward it to my friends knowing that it's a paper that will stand up to my expectations of how an archaeological paper is supposed to be written. It's papers like this that make the rest of us archy-types (not to be confused with Jung's archetypes) look like we actually know what we're doing.

By Christina (not verified) on 27 Feb 2010 #permalink

Martin, were these brooches typically only worn by women?

Indeed, ENT, brooches are exceptionally rare in 8th century male burials and the domed oblong ones never occur there.

If it weren't people like you we wouldn't have any history of previous cultures. Congratulations. On my fathers side we have vendel heritage[Germany-silesian]They don.t wear black to funerals, they wear white.

Very interesting to hear your thoughts on devoting post-doc time to artefact studies. While there is increasing interest in this field in general, most scholars are concerned with how such items were used/ what they communicated etc, rather than straightforward typologies. It will be interesting to see where this field is in 10 years time.

Typology is a necessary tool in order to be able to talk about artefacts as classes of object rather than as a myriad individual cases. In my paper I covered typology, use and the meaning of the brooches.

I agree - its essential in order to read meaning into artefact patterns. In recent years, I feel that some typologies haven't been very successful (eg. button brooches), normally when the writer reads far too much into minor details, which wouldn't have been relevant to the original wearer. Very much looking forward to reading your article (have just ordered the book!). BTW, have you seen the Vendel-period oval-shaped brooch from Great Dunham in Norfolk? It's PAS Find-ID NMS-F26AB7 (though is difficult to track down on the database for some reason). Would very much like to hear your views on it!

I could have sworn I had already commented on this article. Great stuff Martin, good work. I shall be checking out your paper as I find the history of jewellery incredibly interesting.