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Cover of British Archaeology 115

Issue 115

Nov / Dec 2010


All the latest archaeology news from around the country


On the Trail of Viking Women

Jane Kershaw reports on an astounding quantity of Viking-style jewellery found in England

THE BIG DIG: Bestwall Quarry

At this large site in Dorset local, largely unfunded amateurs were nominated to manage the archaeology with fascinating results

Life Between the Nations

The wartime correspondence of German refugee archaeologist Paul Jacobsthal

Excavating the Living Dead

Alistair Barclay examines the stories of the many people who were buried on Boscombe Down, Wiltshire

The Human Remains Crisis

Change is promised, but fieldwork continues under conditions that many are unhappy with

The Little House by the Shore

The directors of the Star Carr excavation update readers on the endangered organic remains

The Varmints Show

In the Varmints' third exploration, we introduce Great Excavations – The Musical

on the web

Neolithic excavations online and the Cranbourne Chase gets an overhaul

CBA Correspondent

From CBA Director, Mike Heyworth on academia


Your views and responses


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


On the Trail of Viking Women

Viking history can seem to be all about men. Recently an astounding quantity of Viking-style jewellery has been found in England by metal detectorists. Jane Kershaw reports.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives only a brief account of England's Viking settlement: after coastal raids in the late eighth century, Viking armies returned in the mid-ninth to conquer and settle in a region later known as the Danelaw. Here, famously, they "shared out the land... and proceeded to plough and to support themselves".

The Danelaw was defined in a late ninth-century treaty – preserved only in a later, 12th century source – between Alfred the Great and the defeated Viking leader Guthrum. It was an area governed by Danish, rather than English rule, north and east of a line stretching from the Thames, via Bedford, to Watling Street, thus excluding Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria (settled by Norwegian Vikings rather than Danes). This "boundary", separating the Vikings and English, is likely to have shifted over the years in the face of continuing political and military conflicts.

Linguistic, archaeological and historical sources for this time are diverse and often contradictory, and opinions are split on the impact of the Scandinavian settlers and their contribution to English society. On current evidence, many questions seem unanswerable. Which areas of England saw the greatest Scandinavian settlement? How many settlers were there? How Scandinavian were new "colonial" communities? Were all the settlers men?

Archaeological evidence for Viking settlement has traditionally been thin. There are few Scandinavian burials and rural settlements, for instance. Socalled "Viking" burials, identified principally by grave goods, have been found at fewer than 30 sites in England, despite excavation of increasing numbers of ninth to 11th century cemeteries. Moreover their study, like that of Scandinavian-style stone sculpture, is beset by problems of interpretation. What, if anything, makes a burial rite or settlement type "diagnostically Scandinavian"? How are we to understand stone carving with both pagan Scandinavian and Christian motifs?

Over the last 20–25 years this picture has changed dramatically. Metal detectorists have fostered an explosion of new finds of Viking age metalwork from the Danelaw. Items of female jewellery – brooches and pendants in Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian styles – are particularly prominent. Logged by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and county Historic Environment Records (HERs), these objects add an entirely new dimension to the limited evidence for Scandinavian activity in Britain.

The new Scandinavians

Over 500 brooches and pendants in late ninth and 10th century Scandinavian styles have been reported as found on English soil. This represents an astonishing 20-fold increase in the number known a generation ago, from over a century of prior excavation and antiquarian research. They reveal for the first time the explicitly Scandinavian character of many dress items of the time.

Around half the brooches preserve distinctly Scandinavian forms and styles, making them easy to spot among the huge number of late Anglo-Saxon finds being recovered by detectorists, independently of provenance or context. Scandinavian brooches possess distinctive oval, trefoil, lozenge and convex-disc shapes and carry motifs drawn from pre-Christian, Scandinavian art styles. Common designs are in both "Borre style" (ringchain and knot motifs, together with cat-like animals with symmetrical, gripping bodies) and "Jelling style" (profiled animals with open jaws, ear lappets – pigtails – and S-shaped bodies).

They differ from indigenous brooches not only in form and decoration, but also in the arrangement of their pin fittings and, in some cases, their metal content. Limited X-ray fluorescence tests suggest that Scandinavian brooches were often composed of brass (a copper-zinc alloy), unlike Anglo-Saxon brooches which were frequently lead alloys: metalworking practices in Scandinavia and England seem to have been different.

The brooches encompass a wide range of types worn by women in Scandinavia, particularly in Denmark. These include oval brooches, worn exclusively with a Scandinavian-type apron dress, in addition to other large, elaborate types, such as trefoil and equal-armed brooches, used as cloak clasps. Small brooches, such as disc, lozenge and small trefoil brooches, are commoner, with over 150 examples: they were worn at the neck or on the chest to fasten a lightweight shift. Such small brooches are known from Viking age Danish sites such as Lake Tissø, Uppåkra (now in Skåne, Sweden) and Hedeby (now part of Schleswig-Holstein) and look identical to the brooches found in England. Scandinavian pendants are also being recorded in increasing numbers, despite the fact that this form of jewellery had long been out of fashion in Anglo-Saxon England.

The stylistic diversity of these brooches is striking. Those found in England cover all the main types known from Scandinavia, as well as many of the variants and subtypes. For instance, a convex disc brooch series decorated with three cat-like animal heads in the Scandinavian Borre style, occurs in England in a number of variant forms, including types with stylised animal heads and added pellets. Trefoil brooches are similarly varied and are found with stylised plant, animal and knotwork designs.

Notably, the English finds also include a number of Scandinavian brooch types which are rare or even unknown within the Scandinavian homelands. For instance, a clearly Scandinavian lozenge-shaped brooch with rare stylised animal heads is known from London as well as Suffolk, but not Scandinavia.

The circulation of such Scandinavian brooches is important, for it suggests that significant numbers of women in England dressed in an overtly Scandinavian fashion. This runs counter to earlier suggestions that brooches in explicitly Scandinavian forms and styles, previously thought to be "missing" from England, were abandoned by early settlers in an attempt to integrate with local fashions. Scandinavian brooch styles are likely to have made a considerable impact on fashions and personal appearance in the Danelaw: by comparison, native, Anglo-Saxon female dress was conservative, and made use of just one brooch type, the disc brooch.

Since brooches and pendants were personal objects, worn to enhance an individual's appearance, it is possible that such "foreign" accessories had a role in communicating difference within the Danelaw's culturally-diverse communities. They may have been chosen to mark out the Scandinavian affiliation or allegiances of the wearer, whether she was ethnically Scandinavian or not.

However, while brooches in explicitly Scandinavian forms and styles make up the lion's share of this recent metal-detected jewellery, the fields of eastern and northern England have also yielded finds that combine native and foreign influences. These "Anglo-Scandinavian" brooches, manufactured in the workshops of the Danelaw, appear to be products of cultural integration. Rather than expressing difference, they may have communicated likeness.

Most brooches in this category belong to just one series, which combines an Anglo-Saxon form (a flat disc brooch) with an interlacing tendril motif from Scandinavia. Although restricted in type, the series is remarkably prolific – over 200 examples are currently known, mostly from East Anglia. Together with the brooches' clear combination of styles, this seems to suggest that the Anglo-Scandinavian brooch functioned not simply as a dress accessory, but as some sort of symbolic badge. While it is unlikely that we will ever know with certainty who wore such jewellery, we may imagine second generation settlers of Scandinavian descent, but Anglo-Saxon upbringing, expressing their mixed cultural heritage.

Where are the women?

The wearers of Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian jewellery are nonetheless elusive. The discovery of jewellery in burials in England is extremely rare, with the widespread distribution of finds implying instead that most items come from rural settlements.

Of course, you do not have to be Scandinavian to wear a Scandinavian brooch. Such objects may have been imported as trade goods, or manufactured locally to meet a demand for Scandinavian-looking jewellery. Owing to their recessed pin, oval brooches could only be worn with a Scandinavian-type strap dress, but there is no reason why other, small Scandinavian brooches could not have been adopted by Anglo-Saxon women.

A close look at the brooches themselves can provide some clues. Several found in England show modifications to the fittings on the reverse, with an Anglo-Saxon-type pinlug replacing a Scandinavian one. In effect, this development would have enabled brooches which looked Scandinavian to have been fastened to clothing in the traditional, Anglo-Saxon way – Scandinavian-style jewellery, perhaps worn by local women.

Overall, however, the varied nature of the finds, their overtly Scandinavian character and their widespread distribution (considered below), suggest that explicitly Scandinavian brooches were imported. This is further implied by the fact that, unlike Anglo-Scandinavian finds, there is as yet no evidence for the manufacture of purely Scandinavian brooches in England.

Brooches identical to the types found in England were mass produced at sites such as Hedeby (Schleswig-Holstein) and Birka (Sweden), where moulds and miscast and unfinished items have been recovered. The English finds may have been imported via trade with such locations. However, we might then expect the Scandinavian brooches here to be restricted to one or two main types, whereas the prevailing pattern is for assorted styles. In addition, we may expect Anglo-Saxon jewellery to have been traded in return, and such finds to have turned up in Scandinavia. Again, this is not the case: contemporary Anglo-Saxon artefacts are notably rare within Scandinavia. The traffic in female jewellery was one way.

Alternatively, many of the brooches could have arrived in eastern England on the clothing of female settlers. Indeed, if we compare the relative frequency of certain types found in Denmark and England, it becomes clear that brooches which were most popular in Scandinavia were also most popular here. This pattern holds for a range of different subtypes too, suggesting the wholesale transferral of fashion preferences from Scandinavia to England.

The idea that women accompanied the Scandinavian settlement of England should not come as a surprise. Female Scandinavian graves, identified through their inclusion of oval brooches and other jewellery, are known from most Viking colonies, including in Ireland, mainland Scotland and the Scottish Isles and, further east, in Russia. Why should Scandinavian women have settled in these colonies, but not in England?

The recent discovery of two Scandinavian burials at Cumwhitton, Cumbria (feature, Nov 2004) and a Scandinavian grave at Adwick-le-Street, near Doncaster, South Yorkshire – where a middle-aged woman was shown by isotope evidence to have grown up either in north-east Scotland or Norway (News, Jan 2004) – has almost doubled the number of such female graves known from England. They hint at a greater female contribution to the Scandinavian settlement than has traditionally been appreciated.

A close reading of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reveals that women are mentioned in association with Viking camps in England. The Chronicle's account of 893 tells how the English stormed the Danish fort at Benfleet, Essex, seizing "everything inside it, both property and women and also children". Two years later, the Danes "placed their women in safety in East Anglia", before continuing their raiding activity. There is no explicit mention of these women's ethnicity and, since this particular army came to England following raids on the continent, it is possible that they had taken wives among the local population.

However, as Judith Jesch of the University of Nottingham has demonstrated, several places and fields in England preserve female Scandinavian names. Examples include Gerðr in Gerdeswelle, Norfolk, and Bothild in Botildetoft, Leicestershire. These might point to the presence of potentially high status women of Scandinavian origin. Other recent studies have argued from Scandinavian placename evidence for a sizeable Norse-speaking population, one element of which must have been Scandinavian-speaking females able to pass on their "mother tongue" to their children. The evidence of linguistics and metalwork is beginning to reveal a population group which has, until now, been almost invisible.

At home in the Danelaw

Just as the circulation of Anglo-Scandinavian jewellery demonstrates the popularity of Scandinavian styles within the Danelaw, the presence of large numbers of explicitly Scandinavian brooches is likely to reflect Scandinavian settlement on a substantial scale – whose locations may be revealed by the distribution of such finds. Of course, Scandinavian brooches are small and highly portable, and may have been carried by their wearers or traded over some distances. It is thus all the more remarkable that almost all Scandinavian brooches are found within the Danelaw.

This seems to confirm the Danelaw as a distinct Scandinavian (Danish) cultural zone. Anglo-Scandinavian brooches, with a fusion of cultural styles, reveal a similarly restricted distribution and a marked concentration around Norwich, where it is likely such items were produced.

Notably, there are few brooch finds from the north-west, where placenames and DNA evidence point to a strong Norse (Norwegian) presence. This pattern is likely to reflect differences in dress styles between Norwegian and Danish settlers, but may also be attributable to lower levels of metal detecting in predominantly pastoral or heavily urbanised regions, where access to searchable land is more restricted than in the – mainly agricultural – south and east.

Within the Danelaw, female dress items are heavily concentrated in rural areas of Norfolk, with a significant number of finds also from Lincolnshire. Here artefacts are widespread, consistent with the diffuse rural settlement documented in Viking age Denmark. There are no finds north of the river Tees, and relatively few in Cambridgeshire and central midland counties such as Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, despite frequent detecting in these regions. Even in Yorkshire, Scandinavian metalwork is relatively uncommon, beyond a cluster of finds on the Yorkshire Wolds. Among a sizeable corpus of metalwork just two Anglo-Scandinavian brooches are known from York, raising questions as to the impact of Scandinavian jewellery styles in the Viking kingdom.

The concentration of finds in East Anglia is notable, since this region is not a traditional focus for studies of Scandinavian settlement. With just a scattering of major Scandinavian placenames (mostly in Flegg, in southeast Norfolk), East Anglia has even been excluded from some definitions of the Danelaw. However, the Vikings targeted East Anglia in raids during the 840s, and, following the defeat of the East Anglian King Edmund in 869, appear to have settled in the region. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the year 880 a Viking army "went from Cirencester into East Anglia, and settled there and shared out the land". This region, with a history of settlement from Scandinavia, may have been more receptive than other regions of England to renewed immigration from across the North Sea.

The wealth of information provided by this up-to-date map of Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian jewellery provides a fresh perspective on the character of the Danelaw. It shifts attention away from traditional areas of focus – northern England and the east Midlands, where placenames and sculpture are concentrated – towards East Anglia and Lincolnshire.

Dress accessories are just one part of an expanding body of Viking age metalwork, which also includes weaponry, Scandinavian coinage, hacksilver and weights, as well as male dress fittings such as buckles and strapends (interestingly found in far fewer numbers than female jewellery). Nonetheless, female accessories in overtly Scandinavian forms and styles contribute uniquely to our understanding of the Scandinavian settlement. In doing so, they generate a new archaeological dataset for the study of the Danelaw.

Jane Kershaw is the Randall-MacIver research fellow in archaeology at The Queen's College, University of Oxford

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