Viking Tortoise Brooches

Tortoise brooches found beneath the Hekla eruption.

Tortoise brooches found beneath the Hekla eruption.

From the Iceland National Museum

So I took a bit of a detour and showed you some photos from the Vikings exhibit in BC,  (click the tag to read more) but I still have so much to share from Iceland.. so back to Iceland we will go!

The Iceland National Museum had a number of “tortoise” brooches on display from a number of different discoveries. I’ve decided to show them all off on one page, although they all might be from different ages.

Please note, this is a VERY image-heavy post.

Hekla Eruption

In 1104 Mount Hekla erupted, burying farms  in an a valley in south Iceland under pumice. These sites were thus preserved essentially as they lay, providing insight into daily life in Iceland.

Along with a pair of tortoise brooches which were recovered from under the ash and pumice, the site also yielded a number of other artifacts, such as keys, other brooches/pins, a slave collar, spindle whorls, loom or fishing weights, a variety of beads from a half-necklace/festoon, metal objects, tweezers, whetstones, and a needle case along with other things I didn’t photograph.

Tortoise brooches found beneath the Hekla eruption.

Tortoise brooches found beneath the Hekla eruption.

These brooches are quite large – I would guess they’re about 5-6 inches tall and 2.5-3 inches wide at their widest part. They are also very deep/thick.  This display area was much darker than other exhibit areas, which made taking good photos even more challenging.

Tortoise brooches found beneath the Hekla eruption.

Tortoise brooches found beneath the Hekla eruption.

The site that was covered was about 20 km from the volcano, and the pumice was up to 20cm thick – covering between 10-20 farms in the area. Everyday things like these brooches were found illustrating not only the hard work the Icelanders during the Viking Age did to maintain their farms, but that they also had time to play games, that they cared about their appearance, and that they carried weapons/tools.

Tortoise brooches found beneath the Hekla eruption.

Tortoise brooches found beneath the Hekla eruption.

Women’s Grave goods

Grave goods from a Viking female grave including a tri-lobed brooch and a pair of tortoise brooches

Grave goods from a Viking female grave including a tri-lobed brooch and a pair of tortoise brooches

The next set of tortoise brooches I photographed in the Iceland National Museum is from a woman’s grave where many grave goods were found.  The display indicated that graves dating back to the pagan times have been found all over Iceland. Many times these graves included grave goods – such as fine clothing, jewelry, weapons, tools, a dog, or a horse. In less frequent cases people were buried in small boats.  The display also indicated that grave goods found in Icleand were similar to those found in Norway, suggesting that the settlers were likely from Norway – but does note that Icelandic graves were “less lavishly furnished with grave goods than Norwegian ones.”

Tortoise brooches from a Viking female grave

Tortoise brooches from a Viking female grave

Along with the pair of oval brooches, and the trefoil / tri-lobed brooch, the grave also included a twisted wire armband made of bronze, a necklace of glass, rock crystal and amber beads, a ringed pin, a belt clasp made of bronze and a variety of tools including the remains of a sickle, scissors, spindle whorls, and remnants of wool combs.

Grave goods from a Viking female grave

Grave goods from a Viking female grave

The beaded necklace is a full necklace (rather than a half-necklace/festoon) and is very fine – the blue, white, and gold beads are very small compared to a lot of the other chunky beads found on other necklaces/festoons. (Though the focal elements of the necklace are still the larger, chunkier beads – this assumes that the necklace was found laid out as shown, and it hasn’t been re-strung to suit a modern aesthetic.)

Grave goods from a Viking female grave

Grave goods from a Viking female grave

I think it’s note-worthy that these brooches are so incredibly similar (though not exact) to the ones from the Helka eruption find.  They have large nubs sticking out from the surface with holes through them like the others – though they seem to be a bit more flat, and have nubs at (if the brooch was a clock-face) 12, 3, 6, 9 – like the Hekla eruption brooches (and in the center), but also at intervals between. There are marks however on the Hekla brooches where those other numbs might have broken off. (?)

Tortoise brooches from a Viking female grave

Tortoise brooches from a Viking female grave

Main brooch display

Large display of various brooches

Large display of various brooches

Near the entrance of the Viking Age/settlement age exhibit, was a large display full of different styles of brooches.  This display was also accompanied by a book with an illustration of two women, a man, and a male child.

  • The man was wearing loose pants, shoes with pointed toes, a buckled belt (with a purse and sword hanging from it), a long tunic with a slit neckline, a knee-length cloak held together around the neck at the shoulder with a pin, and a hat trimmed with fur.
  • The (older?) woman wears a loose pleated shift with long sleeves, a high, round neckline, a head scarf, a panel of fabric for the ‘apron’ trimmed on all four sides with oval brooches and a festoon. She’s also wearing shoes, but with a less pointed toe.
  • The boy holds a small toy horse, and is wearing similar boots, pants, belt (without purse/sword) tunic and hat (without fur) as the man.
  • The (younger?) woman is shown from behind and is wearing a pleated shift and a triangular shawl. her “apron” isn’t visible, and her hair is in a high ponytail.
Illustration in a book explaining different Viking Age brooches

Illustration in a book explaining different Viking Age brooches

The book states that “no garments have been discovered from the early days of Iceland’s history, but probably they were similar to those worn elsewhere in the Norse world.” (Thus I am guessing their illustrations are speculative, or based off other finds elsewhere – but it doesn’t say.) It goes on to say that “many different clues from archaeological research, such as textile fragments, the location of ornaments in graves, contemporary figurines and descriptions in old texts, are brought together to give an idea of clothing in the Settlement Age.”

The book says that “men’s clothing appears to have been rather simple, comprising a kirtle and breeches. They wore a cloak on one shoulder, generally fastened with a ring pin or circular brooch. The collar of the [shirt] was sometimes buttoned together with a small glass bead.”

“Women wore a kirtle or robe, and over it a sleeveless tunic. The kirtle was generally tightly pleated linen, or wool. The tunic was fastened together by shoulder straps and large domed brooches on the chest. Between the domed brooches hung a string of beads of glass or amber. Most women appear to have worn an apron, and on their shoulder they wore a shawl or cloak, pinned together with a brooch.”

“Although it is difficult to be certain about the type or design of garments, textile fragments which have been preserved provide various evidence.” “Ornaments were decorated in a variety of styles at different periods. The principal styles are named after places where artifacts have been discovered.”

The book then has some illustrations of different styles with their styles, relevant dates, and descriptions including:

  • “Oseberg style (750-850): [Stylized] relief animal images. Interlace and knots which break up into ribbons.”
  • “Borre style (825-975): Gripping beasts with human and animal faces. Interlace and loops, either as pure ornament or zoomorphic pattern.”
  • “Jelling style (875-975): Typified by interlaced ribbon and S-shaped creatures with head, feet and tail.”
  • “Mammen style (950-1050): Large [stylized] animal images. Foliage-type patterns on animal limbs ending in a whorl.”
  • “Ringerike style (975-1075): Large individual animal images. Other animal images have largely disappeared from ornament. Artificial-looking tendrils intertwined with spirals and knots.”
  • “Urnes style (1050-1150): Extremely [stylized] quadrupeds as well as ribbon-like animals and snakes.”
Side view of the brooches

Side view of the brooches

The display of the brooches discusses that the main works of art that have survived from the Settlement Age are jewellery and decorated weapons. “The most common finds are brooches made of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin.”

I don’t know how else to describe the different styles accurately, so I’ve named them something that just “sounds good” to me – so I can group the photographs of the same brooches together.

Ribbon Brooch

Tortoise Brooches with "loops" possibly for attaching ribbons

Tortoise Brooches with “loops” possibly for attaching ribbons

These brooches are described as “two oval brooches of Berdal type, believed to be among the oldest artifacts found in Iceland, dating from the early 9th century”.

Pyramid-decorated Brooch

Tortoise brooches with pyramid-types of decoration

Tortoise brooches with pyramid-types of decoration

These ‘nubs’ are pyramid-shaped and don’t have holes in them like the Hekla or woman’s grave  – or “ribbon” style above.

These pyramid-decorated brooches are described as “two matching oval brooches, with a crown-like motif in the centre”. (The crown is visible in the one on the left, but it seems to have broken off of the one on the right.)

Tortoise brooches with pyramid-types of decoration

Tortoise brooches with pyramid-types of decoration

Nub-decorated Brooch

Tortoise brooches with pyramid-types of decoration

Tortoise brooches with nubs

These brooches are two different styles  – the greenish one on the right has five nubs without holes (for ribbons?) while the one on the left is more like the Hekla brooch, with nubs with holes. The nubs at (clock face) 12,3,6,9 and in the center are still there, but there are spaces where the nubs in between may have broken off. (?)

A third ‘nubbed’ style is below.

Nubs decorating this brooch

Nubs decorating this brooch

Domed Brooches

Domed Tortoise brooches in the Iceland National Museum

Domed Tortoise brooches in the Iceland National Museum

These brooches didn’t have any description at the museum. Look at the interlacing/woven border on the brooch in the photo below.

Domed Tortoise brooches in the Iceland National Museum

Domed Tortoise brooches in the Iceland National Museum

From the Saga Museum

Tortoise brooches on the figure representing one of the first women settlers in Iceland

Tortoise brooches on the figure representing one of the first women settlers in Iceland

The Saga Museum exhibit space was very dark, and it wasn’t possible to get close to the figures, but I wanted to show off some of the brooches they had as well – like the fairly simple domed brooches in the figure above – or the more ornate, nubbed brooch on the figure below.

The Volva at the Saga Museum

The Volva at the Saga Museum

Something I found interesting at the Saga Museum was the different clothing styles as well as the different brooch styles – they didn’t seem to be displayed the way I thought they would be based on the reading I’ve done.

For instance, the larger, more ornate brooches that I usually think of as being “Viking”, on this Volva figure, are worn with an apron-dress that I would have either associated with a much earlier Norse style, or a Finnish example from the same time period.  Unfortunately I don’t know if this is thanks to research on the topic, or if they were more interested in a “look and feel” and the combinations weren’t represented with other research in mind. I discuss this a bit more in another post about apron dresses at the Saga Museum.

I also visited the Settlement Museum in Iceland, but they didn’t have any complete tortoise brooches, so I’ve opted not to picture them here.

Sagamuseum – The Saga Museum
www.sagamuseum.is/
Grandagarður, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
+354 511 1517

National Museum of Iceland
www.nationalmuseum.is
Suðurgata 41, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
+354 530 2200

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