ORP: Eriswell Girdle-Hangers
This class focused very closely on material engagement as a way of understanding the culture and people of the past. Individually, we each chose a specific artifact to reconstruct either physically or digitally with the intent that focusing closely on a specific object and performing the steps of making a model would teach us about the process that the original makers of the objects would have experienced. I chose the 6th-century bronze girdle-hangers from the Eriswell cemetery in Suffolk for my reconstruction project. Through the process of researching and recreating the artifact, I learned not only details about how it was originally made but also how it served a wider culture of displaying one’s status and identity on their body in a visible manner.
Beginning in the 5th-century, Anglo-Saxons buried their women with accessories and ornamentation to indicate who they were while alive. The growing inequality between the rich graves and poor graves throughout the 6th-century indicated changing power dynamics in society as individual families grew more powerful and wealthier than others. Styles of dress became an important vehicle through which to display one’s status, and regional styles of dress began to develop across Early Medieval England. A shared elite style of dress began to spread as well as contact between the powerful Anglo-Saxon families increased. Girdle-hangers were a part of this growing shared elite culture.
Girdle-hangers were a symbol of status that powerful women would have worn. The distinctive shape of these specific girdle-hangers was meant to resemble that of keys, signifying that the woman who wore them was the keeper of her household. These objects were discovered across England, from Little Eriswell on the eastern side to Cowdery’s Down in the west. It becomes evident through burial archaeology that the women, many of whom wore brooches and other jewelry in death, likely served as walking cultural symbols. Their regional-style dress made it instantly recognizable where they came from, and their level of finery indicated their place within society.
My reconstruction of the Eriswell girdle-hangers led me on an adventure in which I encountered many of the problems, complications, and limitations that the makers of the original girdle-hangers would have faced. When I began my reconstruction, I had planned to make a digital model with Agisoft Photoscan, but the program was unfortunately unable to orient the photos of the artifacts correctly. Lacking the technological prowess to fix this problem, I decided to make a physical model. Lacking the knowledge and ability to cast things out of bronze, I decided to make my models out of wood. Already I encountered some common problems with which any maker must contend: the limitations of my own set of skills and availability of my materials. These limitations would shape the form that my finished girdle-hangers would take.
During my initial design process, I attempted to sketch out the exact dimensions of the girdle-hangers when I realized how little this would have mattered to the original makers. Exact measurements did not matter when it came to these objects. What really mattered was their distinctive key shape, since they had no actual functional purpose at all beyond sending a visible message. The designs I had made turned into a rough guide for the creation process, but by no means were they a step-by-step manual. I knew that when I began the process of making the models, I would need to mostly just think on my feet and, as before, allow my particular skill set and the materials available drive the project, which they did indeed. While making the models, I found myself constantly running into problems and reacting to them, adapting always to what my materials and tools would allow me to do.
One of the best insights I gained when making the girdle-hangers was the fact that each key must have been made either from two different pieces or had a transition cast in the metal. Halfway down the shaft of each key, they turn 90-degrees to fit onto the crossbar that holds the two keys together. This transition, either a twist or a seam, occurs on a part of the key that appears to be wrapped with bronze wire. It was my conclusion that the bronze wire served to hide the 90-degree transition from view. I came to this conclusion when attempting to recreate this part of the models; I chose the two-pieces approach, attaching an eye bolt 90-degrees to the broad side of the wooden key and wrapping them with string to strengthen the seam.
While my process and the end results of my project were not perfect – from the materials and tools used to the processes that I created in my mind – creating these girdle-hangers helped me engage with the objects made centuries ago and allowed me to step into the shoes of the original makers to experience the limitations and complications that they experienced.
Kevin Leahy, Anglo-Saxon Crafts (Stroud: The History Press, 2010).
Robin Fleming, Britain After Rome (New York: Penguin Group, 2011).
Gale R. Owen-Crocker, “Dress and Identity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, ed. David A. Hinton, Sally Crawford, Helena Hamerow (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Christopher Scull, “Social Transactions, Gift Exchange, and Power in the Archaeology of the Fifth to Seventh Centuries,” in Hinton, Oxford Handbook.
Patricia Hutchinson, The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Little Eriswell, Suffolk (Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 1966).