The Weight of Necklaces: Some insights into the wearing of women’s jewellery from Middle Saxon written sources

‘The Weight of Necklaces’: Some insights into the wearing of women’s jewellery from Middle Saxon written sources

By Barbara Yorke

Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G. Welch, edited by Stuart Brookes, Sue Harrington and Andrew Reynolds (BAR British Series No.527, 2011)

anglo saxon necklace

Abstract: Written sources have a limited, but potentially useful, contribution to make to current debates about the significance of Anglo-Saxon women’s jewellery. Extracts from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and other contemporary Anglo-Saxon and Frankish sources concerning queens and princesses who went into the church, show that these authors were aware that in the seventh century necklaces could be an important part of the identity of high status women. The authors seem also to hint that the wearing of such jewellery might be connected with religious roles of elite women, and so might represent an adaptation of pre-Christian practices in the conversion period. Such observations are relevant to current debates about whether certain elaborate female graves with jewellery from the later seventh century could be those of religious women.

Introduction: Martin’s important work on early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries naturally included the study of women’s jewellery which formed a significant element of wealthier female graves between the fifth and seventh centuries. His many publications have shown the wide range of information that can be deduced from the study of jewellery especially when viewed in the context of the entire grave assemblages and the cemetery as a whole. The recent project ‘Beyond the Tribal Hidage’, of which Martin was director, has brought together all the known jewellery finds from southern England (as well as other artefacts), and its database has been drawn upon for this paper. In addition to information about the raw materials, and the technology applied to them, there are potentially wider implications to be drawn from the form and decoration of jewellery about wealth and status, or family, regional and religious affiliations.

It would appear that jewellery could be an important signifier of a woman’s identity, and correlation with age at the time of burial suggests that different items may have been bestowed at significant age-threshold events such as puberty or marriage. Written references that are contemporary or, at least, written within living memory of the period of the Final Phase of burials with grave-goods in the later seventh century, are sparse compared to the finds of jewellery from burial or other contexts. At first glance they may not seem particularly relevant to the topics that have been illuminated from the archaeological study of jewellery. Nevertheless a careful analysis may enable some contribution to be made to current debates.

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