Friday, September 18, 2009

Omega Brooch Mystery

A little while ago, I became aware that some Viking Age archaeological finds in Russia have turned up an unusual kind of penannular brooch that has been referred to as an "Omega" brooch for its shape, which resembles the Greek letter omega. They sometimes show up on sites specializing in the sale of antiquities: a nice example may be found here.

An American vendor of reasonably priced reproductions of cast bronze pieces who trades as Raymond's Quiet Press (no relation of mine; Raymond is the proprietor's first name) now sells reproduction Omega brooches. He claims that the one he's reproduced is made from an actual antiquity loaned to him by a customer, and says this about it on his website:

The middle one shown here is from a customer who lent us his medieval original from Russia (Lake Logoda [sic] region, 90 miles east of St. Petersburgh). These brooches were used on the Women's Apron Dresses. The shell and bead are original.

I have no basis on which to question his claim (or his unnamed customer's) that the old brooch that appears in the picture shown about two-thirds of the way down on this page is a genuine Russian Viking age find. My only question is this: Is there any basis for the claim that such brooches were, in fact, used on apron dresses? The Quiet Press blurb is the only place where I've heard this claim, and it does not seem plausible to me, given what I know of apron dress construction. Moreover, the only "apron dress" find I've seen documented in Russia is the Pskov find, which was associated with classic tortoise brooches, not Omega brooches.

Does anyone have any thoughts or insight on this subject?


  1. The originals I have seen in person are only big enough really to close the slit on a keyhole neckline. I'm not sure they would stand up to anything heavier.

  2. Thanks. That's useful information; the photos I've seen of Omega brooches don't give good indications of scale, so I was not aware how small they are.

    Do you know anything about whether they have been found singly or in pairs?

  3. I honestly know nothing about the context the brooches are found in, just that they are very pretty-looking. :)

    You might have some luck if you e-mail Sandy on the Frojel website, since it's his personal 'museum' collection I saw it in.

  4. To my eye, the Omega brooch on the Quiet Press site looks like Baltic jewelry. Baltic peoples sometimes traded with Vikings and sometimes fought with them. And the Baltic women didn't wear Viking apron dresses, either. Details of their garb are sketchy, because very little cloth has survived in graves and early tribes weren't into illuminated manuscripts and sculpture. But here's one take on early Latvian clothing: (sorry, you'll have to plug that into Google Translate). My guess is that the omega brooch might have pinned the chemise neckline closed.

    Also, the trapezoidal parts of the brooch look like the dangly things on the jewelry on this page:

    I will keep on looking....

  5. Re: pearl's last comment--I think that, better than e-mailing Sandy personally, I will post a query about omega brooches to the Norsefolk2 group. That likely will get his attention and may get me information from other list members also. (If that doesn't work, I'll try posting a query about omega brooches on the Slavic Interest Group list also.) Thanks.

  6. Re: Patricia's comment--

    I think I see why you think the Omega brooch that RQP reproduces looks Baltic, and that one comes from the Lake Ladoga area--does that count as part of the Baltic region? All of the references to them name find locations somewhere inside of Russia, which would explain the lack of available information--most scholarship by Russian archaeologists gets published only in Russian, not in English.

    Thanks for reminding me of the page, but even having it translated, it doesn't really answer my questions, and the reconstructed costumes feature true penannular brooches, not Omega brooches, holding the necklines closed.

    Thanks again for your comments and links so far!

  7. From the Google map of the area, Lake Ladoga doesn't look all that far from the modern Baltic nations. I don't think Lithuania or Poland/Lithuania (in any of its incarnations) extended that far east, but there may have been some trading going on. Or maybe the people in what is now Finland had similar jewelry.

    I will definitely keep my eyes open for anything else that could help!

  8. From the Google map of the area, Lake Ladoga doesn't look all that far from the modern Baltic nations.

    Indeed it doesn't--looks about 100-150 km to me. The interesting question, though, is how far it was from the Baltic area in terms of culture. Probably not too far for a fair amount of sharing--judging by the Baltic influences on Gotland, for example.

  9. I don't have any archeological reference for this, but a friend has a set she uses for a viking dress, and frankly- they don't work well for that purpose. The straps don't sit well in the pins, and unless you have some substantial bead strands hanging from the bottom, they don't lay very flat.

  10. Re: anonymous's comment: Thanks for the information. I figured Omega brooches (or penannulars in general) would not work well with apron dress straps. Now I don't need to get my own pair to confirm that. :-)

  11. I'm aware that this is quite an old discussion at this point, but I stumbled across it while searching for information on Rus' mens' brooches and figured I might weigh in. The omega brooches were made by Finno-Uralic cultures - ie, not the Norse, Slavs or Balts, but rather Finns or Estonians. I am no expert on Finnish women's costume but the reconstructions I've seen seem similar overall those worn by Norse women, except that instead of the apron-dress a peplos was worn, similar to very early Anglo-Saxons or the ancient Greeks. (The Viking Answer Lady, who I am sure you're familiar with, has a link to a very nice handout on Finnish women's dress on her website.) Such a peplos could be secured very nicely with such a brooch, I would think, since there is a lot more fabric to hold in place than the slim straps of a Norse apron-dress.

    1. Hi anyway! Welcome to my blog!

      You make an interesting point and your guess is pretty close. One of my other commenters discovered additional information that appears to settle the point. The brooch type is Mordovian, and its use by women wearing Norse apron dresses likely is due to antiquities dealers characterizing the brooches as Viking. See my post here and the links in it for further details. This post also contains further links and information. See also the PDF available at this site.