Anglo Saxon jewellery had styles and themes so strong and unique that jewellery is still crafted in the same styles today. As we already know, the custom of wearing jewellery originates far back in history. The ancient Egyptians and Romans both adorned themselves in rich bejewelled ornamentation, and the Anglo Saxons were no different. Comprising of many Germanic tribes, the Anglo Saxons inhabited Britain from the 5th century. Their customs, designs, and jewellery took inspiration both from their Roman predecessors and from Germanic art.
During this period, jewellery was worn in order to impress. Not only would people choose to wear jewellery for its bright colours, statement shapes, and intricate metalwork, but also for the status that came with it. Primarily, jewellery was a display of wealth. It said a lot about your rank within society and it was therefore of the utmost importance that your jewels were impressive and eye-catching.
Various methods and materials were used to achieve this bright, eye-catching effect. Perhaps the most obvious way of showing off your wealth was gold, gold, and more gold. This precious metal was very high value and therefore demanded respect. Because of this, goldsmiths were highly revered members of society. They were therefore allowed the freedom to travel anywhere around the Anglo Saxon kingdoms. Apart from gold, silver was also a popular choice. Anglo Saxon women of a high rank would have worn necklace crafted in either of these metals. Alternative options were glass beads, amber or amethyst.
Many polychrome effects were harnessed to make colourful pieces. The inlay of precious stones such as garnet was common as were these other techniques:
Mock champlevé: A form of enamelwork in which hollows are made in a piece of metal and then filled with colourful enamel.
Lidded cloisonné: A method in which enamel is applied to a metal background and fired in raised cells.
Inlay effects: A way of fixing gemstones to jewellery by inserting them into specifically hollowed out spaces.
Filigree: Ornamental work of fine metals into delicate tracery.
Granulation in gold: A technique in which the surface of an item is covered in spherules or granules or gold.
Metal finishes were also important in Anglo Saxon jewellery. For example, gilding, silver plating and niello inlay (niello is a black mixture, usually of sulphur, copper, silver, and lead).
When it came to design motifs, the ‘zoomorphic’ style dominated. Zoomorphic items featured depictions of animals, or gods in animal form. This theme was created by many of the above techniques; zoomorphic filigree pieces were particularly popular.
As well as being eye-catching and grandiose, many pieces of Anglo Saxon jewellery were also utilitarian. Belt buckles for example, worn by men around their tunics, were large and often highly ornamented. Similar, smaller buckles would also be used for gartering men’s shoes. Additionally, women used brooches both as ornament and as a practicality. These decorative pieces would be worn on the shoulder, pinning up the fashionable tubular dresses of the time. The brooches also let women adjust their dresses as they pleased.
One question remains: how do we know all this? We’re talking about fashion customs from as far back as the 5th century and it is hard to even imagine what life was like then. Thankfully, archaeological sites such as Sutton Hoo, give us an insight. Sutton Hoo is the site of two 6th and 7th century cemeteries near Woodbridge, Suffolk. It first began to be excavated in 1939, and was found to contain many Anglo Saxon wonders, including an undisturbed ship burial. This site, among others, has given us an interesting insight into the life of Anglo Saxon people, their customs, and of course their jewellery.
Perhaps the most impressive piece found at Sutton Hoo is the Fuller Brooch, which is now housed in the British Museum. This impressive brooch was made in the 9th century, from hammered sheet metal in a circular, slightly convex shape. It was inlaid with niello as was popular and depicted motifs of the five senses. The theme of the senses is otherwise unknown in Anglo Saxon jewellery, which makes this piece all the more intriguing. ‘Sight’ is the dominate sense, taking centre stage with piercing, staring eyes. He is flanked by personifications of taste, smell, hearing and touch.
It is always incredibly interesting to research our ancestors and discover how they chose to decorate themselves. It also makes you wonder how our current jewellery will betray our customs to historians in centuries to come. I hope you’ve enjoyed our little rummage through Anglo Saxon history, and that you continue to browse all the historic items here at AC Silver with keen curiosity!