Monday, 3 April 2017

Art Styles - Part 3; Insular Art

Art of the Anglo-Saxon and Vikings -

                 Part 3: Insular Art

-Dr Andrew Thompson

In Part 1 of this series we discussed the rudimentary decorative styles which were used by craftspeople throughout the Migration Period and "Viking Age" to decorate everyday objects, while, in Part 2, we discussed the origins and evolution of animal style art (glossed as Salin Style I and II) which dominates the sophisticated archaeological material of the Early Anglo-Saxon period in Britain, and of contemporaneous Germanic tribes across North and western Europe.   

While this evolution of so-called "Germanic" art had been taking place, so-called "Celtic" art had continued to flourish and evolve, in a degree of isolation, in Ireland and the fringes of Britain. Cross-fertilisation of art between the "Germanic" world and the Hiberno/Celtic/Brythonic one appears to have been limited, following the Western Roman Collapse and on into the 7th century. However, as the elite of the emerging Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain converted to Christianity in the 7th century, strongly under the influence of Irish missionaries, a new cultural bridge was formed between these two very different artistic cultures. The result, in the 8th century, would be some of the most spectacular art in European history...

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Art Styles - Part 2; Migration Animal Styles

Art of the Anglo-Saxon and Vikings -

     Part 2: Animal Styles of the Migration Period

-Dr Andrew Thompson 

In the previous chapter (link) we discussed a number of rudimentary decorative styles used throughout the Migration Period and Viking Ages by a range of north and western-European cultures. These styles represented efforts to personalize or embellish usually more every-day items, by non-elite craftspeople. In contrast, the more sophisticated art styles, used and developed by generations of elite, specialist artisans, have been the subject of more study. From the Migration Period through into the Viking Age, discussion of these sophisticated art styles is dominated by the so-called "animal styles", many of them quite abstract, which set apart the art of these periods from the more classical, or Romance artistic trends which dominated European fashions both before and after.

To some extent, these artistic styles were confined to particular crafts or materials, but by no means always, and while, for the sake of avoidance of embarrassing mistakes, many reenactor handbooks caution members against carrying decoration from one archaeological find to recreations in other materials, there is no doubt that extensive cross-fertilisation of artistic styles across different crafts and media did take place, especially moving into the Middle Anglo-Saxon period and Viking Ages.

This illustrated discussion of the various artistic styles of the period concerned, begins with the famous Animal Styles of the Migration Period. Springing principally from the material culture of southern Scandinavia and northern Germania during the late Iron Age, and the collision of their home-grown artistic styles with the prevalent decorative styles of the mid to late Roman Empire.  The fortunes of these artistic styles (themselves, at this time, almost exclusively focused on small portable, personal artworks and dress-items of metal and jewellery-work) would reflect the fortunes of the tribes who concieved them; flourishing, spreading, and diversifying, as the Western Roman Empire declined.  The styles which developed are so carefully applied, and distinct, that they can be used to confidently date archaeological finds.
As previously mentioned, it is not our intention, with this series, to advance the ever expanding, complex field of animal-art studies. For those wanting more authoritative, detailed analysis and discussion we recommend the references included at the end of each chapter. However, we hope that this series provides an accessible, entertaining and intelligible tour of the art these historic periods have to offer.
With the scene set, and taking a deep breath, let us dive into the typology of Migration-Age animal art.... 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Art Styles - Part 1

Art of the Anglo-Saxon and Vikings -

     Part 1: Introduction, and Rudimentary Decoration

-Dr Andrew Thompson

It is clear that the creation of art is one of the defining characteristics of humanity, and civilization. In its strictest sense ‘art’ refers to works made with the intention of being aesthetically pleasing rather than serving any other function, however, a broader definition would include the decoration of functional objects such as tools (what might now be referred to as “arts and crafts”), and the majority of works of ‘art’ from Northern Europe during the what we in England call the 'Anglo-Saxon' and 'Viking' periods would fall into this latter category.

In this context, decoration may have served to personalise objects, or have even greater significance - perhaps serving as an emblem for a particular group identity, or serve as a focus for story-telling, much as stained-glass windows did in later medieval churches. The Anglo-Saxons, 'Vikings' and associated Northern European cultures in this period seem to have enjoyed stories, riddles and puzzles, and it may be that their artwork often had a layer of meaning that would be easy for them to tease out, but is extremely difficult for us, who are not steeped in their mythology.

For those studying, or (like us) hoping to recreate the material culture of these peoples, a broad, working understanding of their art styles is arguably essential. To that end it is hoped this series of articles, containing annotated summaries of the broad artistic styles of these cultures and periods, will be useful.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Shields: How small is too small?

Shields: How small is too small?

 Few, or perhaps no items of personal warrior gear are more important to our image of an Anglo-Saxon, or Viking warrior than the shield. Our understanding of this most essential piece of war-gear is informed, to some extent by pictoral depictions and written references, but, mainly, by patchy but nonetheless reliable inferences from cemetery archaeology.

Of the studies of Anglo-Saxon shields, arguably the most frequently cited, and informative, is Dickinson and Härke (1992) which, among other issues, seeks to shed light on the murky subject of shield size. Many readers, particularly those from the reenactment community, will be surprised to read that shields could often be as small as 34cm – certainly of no use for building interlocking 'shield-walls' described in later poetry, which we are led to believe was the dominant combat strategy as far back as the period of pagan burials.

Over 20 years on from the publication of this still critically important work, this observation has gradually exerted influence on some modern impressions of warriors from the period, and even beyond, given the limited evidence for late Anglo-Saxon shields, and limited availability of information on 'Viking' ones. It is further, not uncommon to hear, repeated by respected historians, the assertion that most early Anglo-Saxon shields were “little more than bucklers”. To what extent is this statement accurate? Just how small were Anglo-Saxon shields?