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A social analysis of Viking jewellery from Iceland

A social analysis of Viking jewellery from Iceland

By Michèle Mariette Hayeur Smith

PhD Dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2003

viking jewelry - British Museum

Abstract: Viking Studies has, until recently, dedicated a significant portion of the study of jewellery to typological scrutiny and the analyses of style and design. While important and necessary components of archaeology, the social aspect has frequently been overlooked. Jewellery as an element of adornment is part of a greater symbolic system used to convey subtle messages of social and cultural identity.

This thesis is original in attempting to decipher the social messages conveyed in jewellery. Using former research on jewellery typology and design, I have also incorporated adornment theory, the study of the body, as well as the saga literature. Furthermore, I have focused on Viking material from Iceland in hope to reach a better understanding of the social dynamics at work in early Icelandic society of the landnam. As jewellery is part of adornment, I have chosen a broad definition of jewellery and included under this heading traditional forms as well as less typical items of jewellery such as elements of weaponry.

Stemming mostly from burial data-sets, it was demonstrated that jewellery during the landnam played a significant role in three realms of society: in gender roles and as gender identifiers, in social status and social rank distinction, and in the magico-religious dimension of society.

The technological aspects of jewellery production were also considered revealing that the technological attributes of jewellery, such as metals used, and quality of craftsmanship further enhanced these same social concerns and messages discussed above. As part of the technological analysis, the question of local Icelandic jewellery production was explored reviewing older data-sets and conducting experimental trials on mould-making and casting techniques of the Viking period, in order to verify if these methods could be easily applied to the new colony.

In this thesis Icelandic jewellery from the landnam was reviewed under as many different angles as possible demonstrating that jewellery and material culture carry social messages which can contribute to a better understanding of past societies.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Glasgow

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