Migration period brooches

Disc-on-Bow and Cruciform Brooches

New research points to the role distinct brooches played in the formation of  “ethnic” identities in the North Sea region during the migration period and in the Early Viking Age; and the role women played as custodians of their cultural and mythological heritage.

Disc brooch featuring saint from ca. 800- 900. Hamburg Archaeological Museum. Wikipedia
Disc brooch featuring saint from ca. 800- 900. Hamburg Archaeological Museum. Wikipedia
Valkyrie Brooch from Tissø ca. 800. Source: National Museum in Copenhagen/Roberto Fortuna og Kira Ursem CC-BY-SA
Valkyrie brooch from Tissø ca. 800. Source: National Museum in Copenhagen/Roberto Fortuna og Kira Ursem CC-BY-SA

Already in the 6th and 7th centuries, Merovingian women discarded the peplos-style garments of their Germanic ancestors. Instead, they donned the long tunic, which was fastened at the neckline with a singular disc, square or cruciform brooch. The same shift took place in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England as well as Germany. These “new” brooches might differ from time to time and place to place. For instance, a widespread type of brooch in the region between the rivers Rhine and Elb was the enamel discs sporting a saint.

However, across the border and moving into Denmark, brooches took another form. It appears, the Scandinavians forged a different tradition. Well-known are for instance the tortoise-shaped brooches indicating the perseverance of the peplos-style dress, which was elsewhere discarded as either unfashionable or unfavourable ethnic markers.  Usually these tortoise-brooches – also called domed, oblong brooches – were decorated in the differing artistic animal-styles contributing to their “Viking” look. Although the majority of these brooches were made to order according to the taste and tradition sported by the customer, the design was quite distinct.

At the neck, the woman might wear a small fibula to keep together the neckline of the tunic worn beneath the peplos. Alternatively, this was also used to keep the cape together, which was worn above the garment. Some of these brooches were relatively plain; others were decorated with fantastic raised ornamentation. However, in the Viking world, the majority were formed like birds, snakes, or ships; or took the form of a trefoil. A rare type was the Valkyrie-brooches. Setting them beside the enamel-brooches, mentioned above, the difference in design appears evident. On the one hand, we find the Christian enamel or cruciform brooches; on the other hand, the brooches referring to the Norse mythology.

In general, archaeologists have for a long time been wary of allowing different forms of material culture to designate “specific “cultures”. However, the pagan motives on the brooches found in Viking Scandinavia (8th to 11th century) as opposed to the cruciform ornamentation on the Carolingian or Ottonian jewellery is a significant sign of “opposing” cultures. As is also the continued use of the peplos-style dress – as witnessed by the tortoise-brooches – between 750 – 950. In this connection it may be pertinent, also, to point to the conclusion from Anglo-Saxon England that, indeed, the regions settled by Anglians traditionally sported the large cruciform brooches, while the Saxons preferred the saucer-brooches.

Disc-on-Bow Brooches

Fibula from Galsted. Norice the orientation of the face on the disc, which indicates how to wear the brooch beneath the chin. National Museum of Copenhagen/Lennart Larsen CC-BY-SA
Fibula from Galsted. Notice the orientation of the face on the disc, which indicates how to wear the brooch beneath the chin. Ca. AD 400-450 National Museum of Copenhagen/Lennart Larsen CC-BY-SA

A particular type of a North-Scandinavian brooch is the disc-on-bow (button-on-bow) brooch known from ca. AD 525 –800. Intricately gilded and perhaps early on inlaid with coloured glass or red garnets from Sri Lanka, these brooches were a particular flashy part of the dress of an elite woman in the Vendel-period and Early Viking Age.

According to the depictions on the small golden foils found in the pagan holy sites (temples) from the same period, they were worn horizontally beneath the chin with the head plate pointing to the right of the wearer. Such is also the burial context, in which they appear.

These brooches belonged to the luxurious material culture of the upper echelons of society. Their typological ancestor – the square-headed brooch – was also found in Northern Germanic, wealthy contexts in the 5th and 6th centuries. During this period, in non-Christian contexts, a disc or a ring became attached to the bow. Some of these discs were attached as an afterthought. Others were forged from the beginning, as part of the overall design of the brooches. During the very early period (5th and 6th centuries), these brooches were deposited in burials in Kent, East Anglia, Frisia, the Netherlands as well as in Scandinavia. It has been stipulated that the artistic commonality of these brooches represented the continued network of interregional contacts between the tribal groups of Norway, Denmark, Saxony, Frisia, and England. Later, the disc-on-bow brooches continued to be present in Scandinavia, while the Anglo-Saxons adopted a cruciform model of the same type of brooch; thus parading a distinctly different cultural association, namely to the Christian Church.

It is tempting to understand the development of the attached disc or ring as part of a general preoccupation with rings as “door-openers” to the holy or sacred halls of the pagan Scandinavian world. Perhaps as part of this design, we may understand the occasional masks of a bearded person decorating the rings or discs, and maybe flanked by two writhing animals or  – more often – horses neighing in front of another mask. Usually placed on the head or foot, the mask might also decorate the ring or disc itself. It is generally believed to be a depiction of Wodan surrounded by his two sons or horses (Hengist and Horsa), a legend told by Bede. Or they might be understood as his two bird of prey, Hugin and Munin.

Mnemonic objects?

At the beginning of the 20th century, a number of objects appeared in and around a burial mound at Melhus. Later excavated, the collection from the 9-meter long boat-burial contained several significant artefacts, indicating the boat had held a couple of both a man and a woman. The objects counted a reliquary, two thin-shelled oval brooches, a disc-on-bow fibula from the same period, an unusually long necklace (137 beads), fragments of an insular bronze mount reworked as a fibula, a whalebone plaque, a whalebone weaving sword and a spindle-whorl, two swords, a bearded axe head, a shield boss, a spearhead and a whetstone. All the objects have a time-horizon covering the period ca. 770-840. The archaeologists believe the shrine may have been one of the very early looted items from a monastery in England.

The Melhus brooch is one of 69 disc-on-bow brooches found in Norway, believed to be produced between AD 525-800. With a length of 24 cm, it is the largest specimen of these curious pieces of jewellery ever found in Norway. Another large group is from Sweden, consisting of 119  and primarily from Gotland. Over time they grew in size – from 6-10 cm and up to 15-30 cm with a weight up to two kg. As with the other types of brooches among the Vikings, they may have signalled an increasing richness and wealth by flaunting ever more metal. In Gotland, the production of disc-on-bow brooches continued well into the Viking Age and later (11th century).

It now appears that a majority of these brooches were antiquarian at the time of their deposit. Some were made up to a hundred years before they were deposited (gifted to the dead). Also, the later and larger specimens seem to have adopted “old” and more conservative ornamentation; again signalling a marked historical affiliation with the past. These brooches were carrying highly visible narratives about the past, the present and the future. The authors of this study, Glørstad and Røstad, write that “the disc-on-bow brooches may represent objects associated with the perpetuation of stories relating to genealogy and family identities, and hence the control and perception of time” (p. 12). Further, the Glørstad and Røstad speculate that this custodian task was the special prerogative of the Goddess Freya and the women, responsible for the “cosmological authentication” of the ancestors and their powerful position in society.

Large fibula (Length 240mm), possibly produced in the area of Gotland, Sweden. From a burial at Melhus, Overhalla. © NTNU, Vitenskapsmuseet
Large fibula (Length 240mm), possibly produced in the area of Gotland, Sweden. From a burial at Melhus, Overhalla. © NTNU, Vitenskapsmuseet


Amulet from Aska. Historiska Museet in Stockholm. Source: Wikipedia
Amulet from Aska. Historiska Museet in Stockholm. Source: Wikipedia

Disc-on-bow brooches figure prominently on the Aska- amulet from ca. AD 800 and some gold foils, the tiny golden images, which were perhaps a kind of visiting-cards stuck up on the central posts in the holy “temples” attached to the chieftains elite complexes.

On these depictions, we see how the disc-on-bow brooches were part of a magnificent display carried by particular women involved in celebrations, memorial events or ritual and social events of a highly choreographed character, where the myth of about Brísingamen plays a central role.

According to this myth, the goddess Freyja possessed a torc or necklace called Brïsingamen, which had been forged by the four dwarfs, Alfrigg, Berling, Dvalin and Grerr. The identification of the disc-on-bow brooches with Brínsingamen is corroborated with the find of the so-called Aske-pendant, which was discovered in a burial of a Völva from ca. AD 1000 in Hagebyhöga at Östergötland. In her grave was found her wand, horses, a wagon and an Arabian bronze pitcher. And the pendant showing Freya with her pregnant tummy and her fabulous brooch.

Sign of ethnogenesis?

These new studies complement earlier studies of a cousin to the disc-on-bow brooches, namely the Anglian Cruciform brooches from the migration period. These brooches show a three-tiered design somewhat akin to the brooches discussed by Glørstad and Rørstad. With a cruciform shape of the headplate with its three knobs, the undecorated bow formed to gather the cloth, and the decorative foot. The latter is moulded in the form of hybrid of an animal or person with scrolled nostrils and perhaps even a moustache. These brooches were common in the period between AD 420-570 and began as small, simple pins of the Nydam type. Later, they developed into the large and flamboyant brooches, which are well-known from burials in especially the eastern (“Anglian”) part of Anglo-Saxon England.

At the beginning of this period – the Migration Period – they were ubiquitous in not only Anglo-Saxon England, but also the Netherlands, Northern Germany, and Scandinavia. However, at the end of the 5th century, they ceased to be worn in Northern Germany, then Frisia and Scandinavia. It seems a likely hypothesis, the disc-on-bow brooches with their more prominent masks took over in Scandinavia, while the Anglians in the North-sea region continued fora short time time to preserve and develop the cruciform type. With more than 2000 brooches (or fragments thereof) from Anglia, Mercia and further north, it was a common sight until the new Frankish fashion took over in the 7th century.

Martin, who has studied these brooches in exhaustive detail, concludes that they were “central to Anglian identity”. As such, they played an important part in the ethnogenesis of the Anglian ethnos during and after the migration period (until Christianity offered a new set of designs as vehicles for identification). Much as was also the case in Visigothic Spain where a “Gothic revival” took place in the 7th century. Also, Martin has demonstrated that the elite women, who carried these brooches, were otherwise buried with substantial assemblages of additional grave-goods and were slightly elderly. It is tempting to see these women as “custodians” of the ethnic or mythological heritage of their lineage and community in the same manner as in the new study by Glørstad and Rørstad, where the woman wearing disc-on-bow brooches have been identified as curators of the heritage and lineage of their ancestors.

Cruciform Brooch. From: Timeline auctions
Cruciform Brooch. From: Timeline auctions


Collage of three types of brooches: 1) Square-headed brooch from Isle of Wight, ca. AD 500. ©Trustees of the British Museum. 2) Cruciform Brooch © Toby F. Martin 3) Norwegian. © Tromsø Museum/ Adrian Icagric


Echoes of the Past: Women, Memories and Disc-on-Bow Brooches in Vendel- and Viking-period Scandinavia
BY Zanette T. Glørstad (a1) and Ingunn M. Røstad (a1)
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 August 2020

The development of (proto)-disc-on-bow brooches in England, Frisia and Scandinavia
By V.S. Olsen
In: Palaeohistory 47/48 (2005/2006), pp. 479-528

The Immortal Brooch. The tradition of great ornamental bow brooches in Migration and Merovingian Period Norway
By Ingunn Marit Røstad
In: Charismatic Objects. From Roman Times to the Middle Ages. Ed. By M. Vedeler, I.M. Røstad, E. S. Kristoffersen og Z. T. Glørstad. Oslo, Cappelen Damm Akademisk  2018

The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England
Toby F. Martin
Boydell & Brewer 2015







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