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Medieval and Roman Jewelry

This is a Roman-era necklace excavated in London and now housed in the Museum of London. As best I can recall, the placard actually didnít mention what kind of beads these are, but it definitely mentioned that they are still on the original string. To think that someone just pulled a necklace completely intact from the ground!

Try as I might, I could not determine what the stringing material was made of, and I know the placard did not tell me. I know from medieval excavations that linen rarely survived in the ground surrounding London. While the beads themselves help protect the string from contract with the microbes in the soil that decompose natural materials, I think it unlikely that the entire string survived intact if it was made from linen. Wool survived much better in the soil, but I donít know that wool has ever been widely used as a bead-stringing material; I wouldnít imagine it to be sturdy enough, although wool thread was certainly used to sew clothing in the middle ages. Hemp was much more widely known and used in the middle ages (and I assume the Roman-era as well) than it is today, however, like linen, it is a plant-based material, and so is likely to have a similar decomposition rate. The last possibility, therefore, is silk. Silk has been used to string beads for agesóall the way up to present-dayóis known to be strong, and, like wool, survived much better in the London soil than did linen. I canít say that the string looked particularly silk-like to me, but after being buried for 1,600 years or so, I donít doubt it looks a little worse for wear.

Itís hard to see scale in these pictures, but you can see two brooches on display under the necklace that actually give it a bit of perspective. The brooch on the left is what I would consider an average-sized brooch compared to modern pieces. If I were to hazard a guess, I might guess that the smaller beads in the necklace were around 8mm in size, and definitely oval in shape. Most are orange, with some venturing towards red (which makes me think that these are glass instead of amber).

After staring at a close-up of the picture for a while, I have decided that the beads are strung on two or more strands of material. All of the strands come together through a doughnut-shaped bead and are all braided together in some manner. I think that braid was then doubled up on itself and knotted back up at the top to keep the braided string from slipping back through the doughnut bead. IF that is the original closure (big ďifĒ, even if the string itself is original), then why is that braided piece so long? The necklace is, I think, too short to be slipped over the head. What if the knot is some sort of slipknot that slides down the length of the braid somehow, allowing the necklace to open up and slip over the head? At this point, itís nothing but a conjecture, but, unless someone beats me to it, I think I will try to recreate what I think Iím seeing to see if it indeed works. Or, it could just be as simple as the necklace was found with the string broken and some beads missing, at which point the preservationist just knotted the string together in whatever way pleased him that day, to keep the remaining beads from falling off.

This is another beaded necklace from the Roman period, also in the Museum of London, this time definitely made from glass. The beads are a nice, dark green, and are only slightly larger than your average, modern-day seed bead. They are definitely smaller than an ďEĒ (8/0) bead. I would guess that they are around a 10/0, with some possibly as big as 9/0 (with your average, modern beads being 11/0). Unlike the orange necklace, there was no way to see how the strings were joined originally. Were they just tied together in a knot and slipped over the head, or was there some sort of hook-and-eye clasp? The placard didnít state that these were still on their original string, but that doesnít mean that they arenít. The white sections that you see amongst the beads are not white beads; they are merely gaps in the beads. It could be that whoever put the necklace on display did not push all of the beads together (there is clearly a good deal of slack in the string, as evidenced by the string showing on the right-hand side of the display, where the necklace hangs on it). It could also be that the string had a small knot in it and the beads were separated due to that. If this was a modern stringing job, then they didnít do a very good job of it, which makes me suspect that this might be an original string, or at least a patched-together original string.

You may be asking, ďWhat does Roman jewelry have to do with medieval stuff?Ē Well, from my observations of Roman jewelry, both in the Museum of London and the British Museum, there was not a whole lot of change that took place during the centuries that separate the two eras. After all, a glass bead is a glass bead. Likewise, bracelets and rings were much the same, especially the more simple designs. I canít recall seeing any enamel work among the Roman pieces, but Roman brooches were just as likely as the medieval pieces to have very fine wirework and similar stone cuts and settings. I saw some unbelievably fine braided chains in the Roman displays in the British Museum. However, the entire collection of medieval artifacts from the 1000ís through the Renaissance were closed, so my exposure to medieval jewelry artifacts was rather limited this trip. I did not see the equal of the Roman necklace chains in the Dark Ages stuff, however, the wirework of the enameled Dark Ages pieces was so fine and detailed as to make me think that fine chain necklaces wouldnít have been beyond the skill of the average Dark Ages or even medieval goldsmith. A shortage of those pieces may be an indication that fine, delicate chains just werenít fashionable, rather than them not being producible.

As best I can remember, these British Museum pieces are Anglo-Saxon. At any rate, they are pre-1000 Western European, as everything 1000 and beyond was closed. Unfortunately the pictures blurred due to the lighting and the glass case, but you can get a sense of the intricate wire-work inlay on the buckle, as well as see the cabochon settings in the larger brooch. I believe that the red pieces on the cross are also cabochons (as opposed to enamel), but itís too hard to tell what the white pieces are and unfortunately I didnít examine these pictures the day they were made and make notes as to what things were that arenít terribly obvious from the photograph.

I believe that these brooches and buckle are similar in size to the ones shown above (also in the British Museum). You can see a string of beads in the picture as well, which gives you some idea of scale; these are not very large pieces. The brooches are inlaid with red enamel. I think the bigger of the two had a stone set in the center; the smaller one may have also had a stone in the center at one point in time, but itís clearly not there now. I think the disk with the chain through it was an earring. The other metal object appears to have been a ring, although it was rather large; I think it must have been a manís ring.

This is another very nice piece in the British Museum, made even nicer by the fact that the picture came out good and crisp. It matches the one brooch in the picture above, but is bigger and has multiple red (looks like garnet, but could be ruby) stone cabochons in addition to the enamelwork. I donít know if all of these pieces are from one find, or if this was simply a fairly popular design in brooches. Behind it is a string of tumbled, but otherwise unshaped, amethyst. I have no idea if this was originally strung as a necklace in this manner, or if these were just a collection of beads found in one spot, which were strung together by the collector who assumed they should be a necklace. I am not sure what the silver piece is; I think itís a brooch made to resemble a thick buckle.

(British Museum) The brooch on the left appears to be missing the stones that should be in the outer circles and possibly one in the center; the one of the right is missing one or two as well. And check out the bottom brooch: when they were on a roll, they were on a roll. It is of the same basic design as the smaller, blurrier ones taken in the two other display cases. The left and right pieces are bigger than any of the other previous pieces. On either edge of the picture, you can catch a glimpse of bracelets. I would estimate that the two largest brooches were rough the same circumference as the bracelets, perhaps a tad-bit smaller.

These two pictures show some Dark Ages beads in the British Museum. While I assume they are some sort of ceramic, they look everything in the world like polymer clay beads. I do not know if they were strung in this manner (as bracelets) originally. These pieces were in a special exhibit which looked at how people compile private collections of antiquities, rather than focusing on the antiquities themselves, so information on these pieces was rather lacking. And because pretty much anything could be in a case with anything else, donít assume that the glass bowl in the one picture is from the same era (or even from Europe; there were Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities also on display in the same room).

This was an absolutely gorgeous piece in the British Museum, but again, sadly, the picture blurred. I managed to salvage it a bit, but the color did get slightly distorted during the process of sharpening it. The green enamelwork is a much lighter green in personómore of a sage green. The white dots are inlaid pearls.

(British Museum) My husband was actually taking a picture of the sword, so thatís why thereís not a close-up on the jewelry in this picture. But you can see several large brooches which are so popular in the SCA for Viking apron dresses, and there are also a number of gold twisted bracelets and rings. See picture below for a close-up of a very similar gold-twisted ring.

What a horrible case this was in; it was open from both the front and the back, which means you got twice the glare and had no solid background for contrast. Luckily Stuart was able to get in such a position that he was able to use a sign in another case as a backdrop, but we still suffer from the double glare. Ah well, such is life.

These are more medieval pieces in the Museum of London. They could be from any point in the middle ages, from the Dark Ages up until the 1500ís; I canít remember if the sign positively dated them or not. In any event, we didnít get a picture of the sign (or else, it was one of the illegible ones), so youíll just have to content yourself that these were London, England pieces from the middle ages.

Beginning at the top, on the left, we have a metal brooch which I believe is either stamped or cast. In any event, it is all metal; there is no stone cabochons set into it. Next we have a larger brooch of gold with inlaid red or purple gems. It is a bit wider at the bottom than at the top, but this is because it is broken in on section at the bottom and bent open slightly. Behind it, on the other side of the case, is a horn, but I donít remember its purpose. Finally, if you look very closely, we have a tiny little brooch just to the left of the Number 6 case marker. As you can tell, it is much smaller than any of the finger rings in Section 5 below, so I have no idea what itís purpose was. May have served as a buckle for a very small strap (purse strap?), or may have been for a babyís garment. I donít know if it was common in the middle ages to adorn small babies, so it could go either way. It is plain, though, and made from either gold or brass.

Now we move down to the second section. To our left is the most extraordinary piece of them all. This elicited some dancing and inarticulate mumblings from me in the museum. Itís glass! Yes, folks, a yellow glass ring. I had no idea they had such things in the middle ages. The next ring is of tarnished silver or something cheaper. It had a decorative diamond-shaped top of metal, thatís been bent out of shape. The next ring is of thickly twisted gold, while the last ring would be at home on any modern manís finger, with its peaked top and inset stone (blue or green, I think it was; couldnít see it well enough to know if it was cut or smooth).

I seem to recall that all but the one bent metal ring were rather large and made me think of menís rings, although it must be remembered that in the middle ages, women wore rings on their thumbs as well. I think any of these could serve as a thumb ring for me. The bent metal ring is so small as to definitely be a womanís ring.

Go to another section:

Medieval and Roman Jewelry
Medieval Fabric Pieces (including knit)
Medieval Shoes, Pattens and Misc. Wearables
14th and 15th Century Clothing (representations only)
Late Medieval Armor (as it relates to fabric only)
Medieval Home Furnishings
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