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Unearthing Viking jewellery

By Jane Kershaw

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the Vikings who raided and then settled in England. The main documentary source for the period, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, simply tells us that Viking armies raided Britain’s coastline from the late eighth century. Raiding was followed by settlement, and by the 870s, the Vikings had established a territory in the north and east of the country which later became known as the ‘Danelaw’. Here, the Chronicle famously records, Scandinavian armies ‘shared out the land… and proceeded to plough and to support themselves’.

Despite over 50 years of research, many fundamental questions about the Scandinavian settlements remain unanswered: which areas of England saw the greatest settlement? How many settlers were there? Did they get on with the locals? Were they all men? Until recently, there was little in the physical record to provide answers. Archaeological traces of Scandinavian settlement were notably few: just a handful of Scandinavian-style burials and rural settlements have been found in England, for instance, while the Scandinavian contribution to urban development and certain strands of material culture, such as stone sculpture, remains elusive.

Within the last 20-25 years, this picture has changed dramatically. Thanks largely to metal-detecting, there has been an explosion of new finds of Viking-Age metalwork recovered from areas of known Scandinavian settlement. Surprisingly prominent within the new finds is female jewellery in Scandinavian styles: brooches and pendants worn by women in everyday dress. To date, over 500 such items have been found, scattered across large swathes of rural England.

The date of the jewellery chimes exactly with written accounts of the settlement (c. 870-950). Its careful study reveals that while some items were made locally after a Scandinavian fashion, others are likely to have been imported from the Scandinavian homelands, probably on the clothing of female settlers. Although Anglo-Saxon women also wore brooches, they were of a very different style to those favoured by Scandinavian women, so it’s clear that the new jewellery finds represent a distinctly ‘foreign’ dress element. The jewellery being unearthed in England is strikingly similar to that found in Scandinavia, particularly its southern regions: there are disc, trefoil, lozenge, oval, and bird shaped brooches decorated with animals and plants from the Scandinavian art styles of Borre, Jellinge, Mammen and Urnes. Encountering women on a walk around tenth-century Norfolk, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in Denmark.

Viking-Age Scandinavian-style brooches from England

The discovery of such artefacts is unexpected, not only because such jewellery was unknown in England a generation ago, but also because it helps to elucidate a population group with has, until now, been largely invisible. Faced with a dearth of both archaeological and written evidence for Scandinavian women in England, historians have tended to assume that settlement was carried out entirely by men, who took wives among the local population. The jewellery offers the first tangible archaeological evidence for a significant female Scandinavian population in Viking-Age England, potentially numbering in the thousands. In this way, it is revealing the presence of women we never expected to see.

Women were not merely participants in the settlement process; they were active agents in negotiating relationships with the existing, Anglo-Saxon population. Their jewellery became a platform for the expression of cultural values, usually in a way that maintained Scandinavian traditions. One observable trend is that female dress in the Danelaw preserved Scandinavian preferences for particular brooches long after they had fallen out of fashion in the homelands. This deliberately archaising suggests that articulating historical ties via jewellery was important in a new settlement context, when cultural memories were likely to be challenged. The fact that it was done through women’s dress highlights a role for women as bearers of cultural tradition in Danelaw society.

The jewellery also provides a fresh perspective on one of the most elusive of topics regarding the Viking settlements, namely, their location. We tend to think of Yorkshire and the north-east Midlands as Viking hotspots, due in part to the areas’ Scandinavian-style place-names and stone-sculpture (as well as the success of the Jorvik Viking centre). Yet female jewellery here is rare, being concentrated instead in rural Norfolk and Lincolnshire. These areas are not commonly associated with Viking activity, but it is clear that they were exposed to strong Scandinavian cultural influence, at least in terms of female dress. Of course, the distribution pattern has to be interpreted with care: jewellery is eminently portable, and levels of metal-detecting can vary from county to county. Nonetheless, it does seem that East Anglia and Lincolnshire were vibrant centres of Scandinavian culture in ninth- and tenth-century England, to an extent not previously recognised. Once again, the jewellery shines new light on this historically dark period of British history, revealing the presence of peoples in areas we never knew were there.

Jane Kershaw is a British Academy Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at University College London. Jane Kershaw is the author of Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellery in England (OUP, 2013).

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Image credit: Both images © Norfolk County Council; do not reproduce without permission.


Recent Comments

  1. Nick

    If you study the history books over these Viking raids, you will see one of the first was the attack on the abbey at Lindisfarne in 793. We know about this because of a letter of reply to bishop Higbald, which Alcuin (about see earlier) wrote from the Frankish royal court, after receiving notification of this attack. However, if you also study the words of Latin that he wrote, there are no Vikings, no Norsemen, no Danes, Swedes or Norwegians. In fact he doesn’t mention any foreigners, purely the word “pagani”, which about 100 years later is translated in the Chronicles as “heathens”. Also historians date this as 8 June 793, because Alcuin’s actual abbreviated date is 8 January and they presume it unlikely that raiders would set off to cross the North Sea from Denmark at the beginning of January. Alcuin didn’t lie; these were local Pagani.

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