Broaching the subject: the geometry of Anglo-Saxon composite brooches

Broaching the subject: the geometry of Anglo-Saxon composite brooches

By Anna Luella Isbell

Master’s Thesis, University of Iowa, 2015

milton north field brooch - Photo by Kotomi_ / Flickr

Abstract: The glittering and gleaming artifacts that can be found in Anglo-Saxon archaeological sites capture the imagination, conjuring up images of a warrior culture that displayed its wealth through wearable objects. Although many people still believe that creativity and learning were largely lost during the so-called “Dark Ages,” standards of craftsmanship remained high and works of art were expertly planned and executed. This is especially apparent in the jewelry of the Anglo-Saxons, more specifically their composite inlaid brooches.

These items of prestige not only demonstrate the desire for public displays of importance in society but also exhibit the talent and skill of the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths. Such craftsmen worked for years to hone their craft and undoubtedly designed their works in advance so as to not waste precious materials. The different facets of the brooches’ construction and planning show how these Kentish composite brooches are intricate works of art and reflect their importance to the Anglo-Saxons. Surprisingly, no one has conducted a full geometrical analysis of these brooches to discover the design process preceding the casting and decoration. This thesis endeavors to rectify this through a geometrical investigation of the sophisticated geometrical planning principles used by Anglo-Saxon craftsmen in the creation of these elaborate brooches.

Introduction: This thesis describes the sophisticated geometrical planning principles used by Anglo-Saxon craftsmen in the creation of elaborate brooches, which rank among the most impressive specimens of early medieval metalwork. These techniques have been little studied to date, and the art of the Anglo-Saxons and other migratory, “barbaric” peoples of Europe remains poorly understood more generally. Many people still view artworks of that period as products of the so-called “Dark Ages,” in which creativity and learning were supposedly minimized by greater physical needs in a struggle for survival. Such views lead to misconceptions about the design of artwork at the time, causing some to believe that pieces were created without a solid plan or guide. While the art did not have a template as such, each piece was thought out ahead of time and some reflect workshop practices.

While certain facets of classical learning were admittedly less apparent in Britain after its abandonment by the Roman Empire, standards of craftsmanship remained high during this time. The design and manufacture of illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, and jewelry attest to this fact. Artisans were especially careful in creating symbols of prestige, such as the renowned disc brooches. Such attention to detail reflects the fact that Germanic art has a long history of skilled artistry. Indeed, several Germanic peoples coexisted with the Romans in England, serving as both mercenaries and craftsmen in England even before the advent of Anglo-Saxon rule.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Iowa

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