Saturday, October 2, 2010

Minor Mystery 2

While re-reading Thor Ewing's Viking Clothing last night, I came across a passage discussing a couple of the Birka grave finds that I had never focused upon before.  The passage, which I will quote here, discusses large penannular brooches found in a few of the female graves--specifically, graves that contained tortoise brooches.
Larger [i.e., than 2.5 cm or 1 inch in diameter, such as those found at the neck in certain graves] penannular brooches can be worn on the side of the body and always below the height of the twin brooches. Perhaps the most typical position was at the elbow on the outside of the arm, in such a way that the cloak would have constricted movement in the upper part of both arms; this is most clearly the case in [graves] Bj.605A and Bj.860A.  It seems that the larger form of penannular brooch might not have been worn without tortoise brooches; if the brooched dress is worn only by married women, then perhaps the typically male penannular brooch might have a special value in women's costume, either symbolic or sentimental, representing the woman's husband. In Bj. 981A a penannular brooch is apparently used in the place of one of the oval brooches. (p. 62) (emphasis mine).
 I cannot imagine why anyone would wear a largish penannular brooch on the *outside* of the elbow, since there are warm ways to wear any kind of cloak that do not constrict the arms that much, but I can think of several reasons why a gravefind might contain a brooch at that location:
  1. The brooch was used to fasten a blanket or shroud around the body, and was not part of the dress worn while the woman was living. 
  2. The brooch fastened a rectangular cloak at the shoulder, and slipped down to land near the elbow while the body decayed.  This might not be very likely if the woman was buried lying on her back, but there were Viking burials of people sitting up; in that case, such an outcome might be very likely.  This possibility strikes me as the most interesting, since it suggests that women--or at least some women--wore rectangular cloaks on occasion instead of shawls or coatlike garments.  Ewing's speculation that such brooches were worn by married women as "symbolic" of their husbands is interesting.  Perhaps rectangular cloaks were worn by widows who were, in effect, the head of house? 
  3. The brooch was not part of the woman's clothing at all, but was simply laid in the grave at her side, for reasons either "symbolic or sentimental", as Ewing remarks.  It would be useful to know whether textile remains were found around the pins of the penannular brooches in Bj. 605A and 860A; if that was the case, it would tend to rule out this possibility.
The grave find where a penannular brooch was found as an apparent substitute for a tortoise brooch strikes me as a reminder that even the wealthy folk of Viking times were not as wealthy in possessions as most of us today.   Ewing also takes note of this.  He mentions a wealthy Viking age burial of a woman in Orkney whose grave included paired tortoise brooches "and a very fine Celtic cross, among other jewelry."  But her spine showed that "she had spent her life carrying heavy loads on her back," something wealthy women do not typically do today.  (p. 43)  It seems to me important to keep this type of fact in mind when we attempt to recreate any aspect of life in the Viking age.

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