Viking Age Animal Art as a Material Anchor? A New Theory Based on a Head Motif

Viking Age Animal Art as a Material Anchor? A New Theory Based on a Head Motif

By Michael Neiß

The Head Motif in Past Societies, edited by Leszek Gardela and Kamil Kajkowski

Fuller Brooch as displayed in the British Museum

Introduction: What are the mechanisms behind picture perception? This question seems to be of particular relevance, both for the insider perspective of the Viking Age people and the outsider perspective of modern archaeologists. Clinical research, psychology and cultural anthropology offer overwhelming evidence that our individual ability to perceive and decipher pictures derives from learning processes that differ from culture to culture.

Primarily, picture perception is based on the viewer’s inclination to accept certain objects as a ‘canvas’ for pictorial signs. Within research history, there have been repeated attempts to establish a connection between the figurative language of skaldic poetry and the pictorial language of animal art. Yet archaeologists have long remained unenthusiastic, for various reasons. Firstly, the structure of animal art does not meet our expectations of what meaningful art should look like. Secondly, Scandinavian research has traditionally been reluctant to embrace iconographic interpretations.

The starting point for my reflections is a special kind of female dress adornment, characterized by a very dramatic design. Therefore, archaeologists sometimes referred to such adornments – rather anachronistically – as baroque shaped brooches.

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