ORP: Square-Headed Brooch


Pre-conversion (5th-7th centuries) Anglo-Saxon fashion is rather elusive, as there is little to no documented evidence from this period. What evidence we have comes almost entirely from the material record, and much of this evidence comes from burials. However, the predominance of certain buried fashionable items, especially in women’s graves, gives us some idea about what the early Anglo-Saxons wore and what those items may have signified for the wearers.

The square-headed brooch is one such fashionable item. The brooch is a rather common find in women’s graves from the early period, and this suggests that it was a popular ornament, at least in certain social circles. I recreated a square-headed brooch from the cemetery at Little Eriswell, Suffolk, and much of my research on the brooch centered around the cemetery itself and the rest of the grave goods buried with the brooch.

The Little Eriswell cemetery is an early (mid to late 6th century) East Anglian cemetery. It does not seem to have been linked to an inordinately rich cemetery; the only notable markers of exceedingly high status are a high-quality sword and textile. Moreover, the degenerate condition of the brooches and ornaments at the gravesite corroborate this modest picture. This does not mean, however, that there was no social stratification at Eriswell. Certain graves have few or no grave goods, while other graves, like the one I researched, hold more grave goods, many of which appear to be luxury items.

The grave I researched holds a female in her twenties. Along with her brooch, she is buried with two cruciform brooches, a collection of amber, glass, and jet beads, an ivory ring, girdle hangers, and a collection of odd metal trinkets. These trinkets may have had spiritual significance to the owner, since they seem to have had no pragmatic or aesthetic purpose. The gilding on the square-headed brooch, the beads, and the ivory ring all indicate that, while the owner was not excessively wealthy, she had some moderately high status. The ivory ring also indicates that Eriswell was likely connected to some international trade route.

The brooch itself is pretty typical for its time period and location. It is adorned with abstract animal ornamentation, a hallmark of early Anglo-Saxon art. The patterns on the brooch, at first glance, seem purely abstract, but if one looks closely, one can begin to pick out certain anthropomorphic shapes: faces, serpents, horses, etc. As earlier mentioned, the brooch is gilded, indicating some modest wealth. Indeed, square-headed brooches are thought to have been markers of status; they likely held together a gown similar to the peplos-style gown of ancient Greece, which could have been held together by simple pins. That these brooches, then, were used instead indicates that they were likely a marker of status. Gowns themselves may have marked status in Anglo-Saxon England, since the more practical tunic could also have been worn.

                               The square-headed brooch from Eriswell.


I modeled my brooch using Agisoft Pro 3-D modeling software. To do this, I uploaded pictures of the brooch from various angles into the computer program. I then “masked” the pictures, essentially cropping out everything in the picture that wasn’t the brooch itself, like the base and black background. I separated the pictures into different “chunks”; since different groups of pictures showed the brooch in different positions (right-side up, upside down, for example), the program would have meshed different positions together in the model if I had made one model alone. I then generated my sparse point cloud, the first layer of modeling, and then the dense point cloud, the second layer. I then manually trimmed away and combined my different chunks to form one cohesive model (sort of like photoshopping different images together, but with models). I finally created the mesh, so that the model became a 3-D shape, not a collection of dots, and textured it. At that point, my model was complete.

                                     Front and back sides of my model.
The process above seems rather smooth and streamlined, but many problems came up in the modeling of the brooch. Most of these stemmed from my ignorance of the software. I hadn’t used Agisoft before and was having to learn the system as I was modeling. For example, I didn’t realize I had to mask and was very confused when my model incorporated the black background. To troubleshoot, I consulted video tutorials, Dr. Mason, and a classmate, Brittany Johnson. I did not make my model in one go. My process was riddled with restarts and editing.

I also made a rough sketch of the front of the brooch. My goal in sketching was not to get a good 3-D image of the brooch, since that was what my computer model did. Rather, it was to get a better idea of the animal ornamentation on the front of the brooch. That ornamentation was extremely rather abstract, and my hope was that by drawing it out, I could notice more patterns and forms in the brooch.
                                                                               My sketch.

I found that both models, 3-D and sketch, offered different insights into the brooch and its making. I found that while my finished sketch was little help, the process of drawing helped me to understand the brooch much better. As I had presumed, I was able to pick up more and more patterns in the ornamentation. While I had already noticed the faces on different poles of the brooch, I hadn’t noticed, for example, the parallel serpentine designs on opposite sides of the “square head” of the brooch. I also thought that drawing the brooch gave me a better idea of what making the brooch may have been like. While Anglo-Saxon metalworkers would not have been sketching their designs using pencil and paper, they did carve it into the clay mold for the brooch, a process very much akin to my sketching. This in turn made the brooch-making process more human in my head; sketching the designs felt rather improvisational, and I could imagine myself as the brooch-maker, carving what designs I thought looked fitting into the brooch.

Whereas the process of sketching the brooch gave me an insight into the brooch-making process, I found that modeling the brooch did not help me at all, but my finished product certainly did. The abstract, distanced nature of running a program distanced me from the brooch. Copying and pasting images and commanding the program to run various, abstract tasks did not bring me closer to understanding the nature of brooch-making. However, my finished 3-D model, which I could turn around and look at from all sides, like I would a physical object, was exceedingly helpful. First of all, it was the most natural possible way for me to understand my object. I could look at different pictures of my brooch, but the 2-D nature of these images kept the brooch disjointed in my mind—I found that that spatial incoherence made it harder for me to retain an idea of the brooch’s form while I was researching. Having a coherent, 3-D image greatly helped me subconsciously fit together the brooch in my head while I was researching.

On a more fundamental level, though, having a 3-D model allowed me to have a semi-tactile connection with the brooch. A common argument against technological developments is that they distance the maker with the made. If I write with a computer, for example, I am not having the touch-based connection with writing that I would have if I were writing with pencil and paper. I am not actually crafting the letters. Yet if I hadn’t 3-D modeled my brooch, I would have had even less tactile avenues for understanding my brooch. The only other resources at my disposal were pictures, which only offered a visual connection with the brooch. Even if I traveled to the museum where the brooch is held, the brooch would be behind a glass case. I wouldn’t be able to turn it around and inspect it on my own terms. My 3-D model, however, does give me that experience, even if it is virtual. I can turn around my brooch at will and zoom in where I want. This is a much more natural process than the others at my disposal. Furthermore, if I wanted a physical connection with the brooch, I could 3-D print my model, and that way I could have a true physical, tactile connection with the brooch. Technology, then, can make archaeological work more natural, not necessarily less. This is an important insight for the future of the digitalization of archaeological work. If it is prioritized, we can use technology to make archaeological work more natural for more people, not just those that have the resources to go on digs and have tactile connections with artefacts. This furthermore can be used to make historical education more natural, and indeed, museums are increasingly creating accessible 3-D models to supplement their exhibits.


Hutchinson, Patricia. “The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Little Eriswell, Suffolk.” Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society 59 (1966).

Ingold, Tim. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art, and Architecture. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013.

Leahy, Kevin. Anglo-Saxon Crafts. Stroud: Tempus Publishing, 2003; reprinted Stroud: History Press, 2010.

Meaney, Aubrey L. “Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones.” BAR British Series 96 (Oxford, 1981).

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988; reprint, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004.


Craft Fair: Early Medieval Calligraphy in the British Isles

While the book can be traced back to the second century AD, calligraphy did not come to the Anglo-Saxons until their conversion in the late sixth century. Calligraphy and book-making existed almost entirely in the ecclesiastical sphere, and we have no evidence for English books before the arrival of the Christians. However, manuscript writing had come to Ireland centuries earlier with the arrival of St. Patrick’s mission in the fifth century. The unique, geometric Celtic art style would be integrated into the Britons’ illuminated manuscripts, cultivating a unique illumination style known the Insular style. This style of illumination was used famously in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Monks made their books out of parchment, pages made from the skins of animals, commonly those of cattle, sheep, and goats. The parchment-making process was very similar to the hide-making process; the skin would be soaked, scraped, treated with lime to get the fat out, and dried. Vellum was a fine and costly type of parchment, an extremely soft page made from calf skin. Since parchment was dependent on animal skin, bookmaking was an extremely expensive process in early medieval England; it has been argued that a single page of vellum would have been the product of 400 hectares (almost 1,000 acres) of land.

While no quills survive from Anglo-Saxon England, they were almost certainly used by scribes. Quills have been depicted in contemporary descriptions of early medieval scribes and alluded to in Anglo-Saxon riddles. Commonly a swan or goose feather, the quill was made by cutting out the fletching and outer tissue of the tube. Scribes would then carve the tip of the quill out of the front of the feather with a small knife and cut a small incision in the center of the nib for an ink font. Scribes are often depicted holding this naked quill in one hand and a knife in the other. The knife was very likely used to quill sharp over the course of the transcription.

Black ink would have been made by mixing charcoal with gum or alternatively by combining tannic acid, found in oak galls (those small, apple-like growths one can find on oak trees), with ferrous sulphate. Anglo-Saxon books were usually written in Old English or Latin, although monks occasionally wrote in Greek and Hebrew. The Old English alphabet was originally a runic system, but runes were gradually supplanted by a variation on the Latin alphabet in the ninth century.

I did not want to focus my recreation on book-making. As such, I used modern paper instead of parchment and my ink was store-bought, not handmade. My intent, rather, was to have the visitor try their hand at writing in Old English script with a quill. To do this, I printed and laminated two pages of the Beowulf manuscript, dating back to the 10th-11th centuries. This manuscript is in Latinized Old English, so it would allow visitors not only to try out medieval transcription, but also to do so in the vernacular language of the Anglo-Saxons.

I then made three quills out of goose and turkey feathers. To do this, I trimmed away the fluff near the bottom of the feather. I then made a diagonal incision at the base of the feather and scraped out the inner tissue. After this, I soaked the feathers overnight. This process makes them more malleable for the coming carving jobs. I next heated up sand in a pan over a stove and heated the tubes of the feathers in the sand. This hardens the edge, so that the feather won’t have to be constantly sharpened.

Finally, I made a longer diagonal cut along the grain at the base of the feather and carved down the sides of the tube so that I had a flat nib. Then I made a cut across the feather, giving the nib the flat shape of the tip of the quill. Lastly, I made a small cut down into the nib to make an ink well.

At the Fair
I set out these quills, the laminated pages, two bottles of ink, a penknife, and scrap paper out at my station. I also had three unmarked feathers and intended to demonstrate quill-carving at my booth. Many of my visitors were very happy writing with ink and quill. However, not very many tried their hand at copying the Beowulf manuscript. More wanted to write in modern English or runic script. However, it seemed that the chance to write with ink and quill enticed many visitors.


Cutting away the fluff.

Making the first diagonal cut.

Soaking the feathers.

Heating the feathers.

Making the longer cut.

Making the square cut.

Making the ink well.

The calligraphy booth.


Further Resources

For more information on book-, quill-, and ink-making:

Anglo-Saxon Crafts, by Kevin Leahy, pp. 89-93

On monastic life in Anglo-Saxon England:

Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070, by Robin Fleming, Chapters 6 and 12, “Missionaries and Converts: The Later Sixth to Early Eighth Century” and “Clerics, Monks and the Laiety: The Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Centuries”

On quill-making:

An excellent tutorial on modern-day quill-making processes by the New York Public Library.