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Sunday, 25 November 2012

Anglo-Saxon Scabbard Bosses

Anglo-Saxon Scabbard Bosses

In the Migration Age, swords indicated high status and personal wealth, and were worth protecting. Though extant remains of scabbards are rare (largely organic, only surviving under rare conditions) it is beyond doubt that all swords would've had a sheath.
It stands to reason that sheaths would also be used to display status, yet eye-catching metallic fittings are relatively rare in the archaeological record. Of course, our ancestors' love for recycling must bear its portion of the blame for this, and we know that, in many cases, Anglo-Saxon sword sheaths would've been decorated using foundation-moulding and leather-tooling, and by application of finely woven coloured braids instead. However, one example of quintessentially Anglo-Saxon metallic scabbard decoration from the 7th Century may have been much more common than has previously been supposed...


The term "Scabbard Boss" is used to describe various pieces of Anglo-Saxon jewellery that are believed to be associated with scabbards. In many cases such finds have been glossed as "buttons" or "studs", or in place of better identification, bundled into the over-used and unhelpful dustbin category "mount". Such finds are in all known cases made of gold, decorated with the garnet cloisonne technique, and would've been attached to another object via an elongated loop which tends to be continuous with the reverse side. Artistic style and context suggest such pieces were a fashion of the late 6th and 7th Centuries.

Scabbard-bosses from Sutton-Hoo Mound 1

Arguably the most fantastic example of these tiny yet eye-catching decorative pieces originates from the kingly burial at Sutton-Hoo Mound 1. These are the largest examples, and arguably the most informative, being found in close association with the organic remains of a scabbard. It is clear from Sutton-Hoo that such pieces attached on the upper third of the scabbard, possibly to the strap, either side of what may have been a scabbard-slide. H. R. Ellis Davidson suggests the strap would've 'buttoned' onto these, but experimentation has shown these pieces may have also served the minor function of preventing the strap from slipping too far through the slider and allowing the scabbard to rotate with respect to the strap, causing irritation to the wearer. It is reasonable to assume that in the gradually evolving world of Anglo-Saxon scabbard design, form should follow function, and the bosses are ideally designed for use in the way described, although their importance from the point of view of wealth-display should not be understated. Various reconstructions have shown the positioning of bosses as described to be both visually effective, and helpful for ensuring comfort.

Replicas of Staffordshire-Hoard Scabbard-Bosses (danegeld.co.uk) demonstrating position and function
The Sutton-Hoo bosses appear to have been mounted through "washers" of another substance. The loop would, it is believed, pass through such a washer before the leather of the strap, to then be retained using a pin through the loop-end, and indeed, the loops suggest this would've been the case, being longer than any sensible thickness of leather strap.
The design of the decoration of the Sutton-Hoo bosses is highly complex and disciplined, with a geometric pattern radiating from the centre, with pointed "petal" garnet cells pointed toward the edge, surrounding a region of stepped garnets within. Around the outermost face are two bands of rectangular garnets, which, notably, are serrated rather than with single facets. The style, it is argued, is highly consistent with other items within the burial, most notably the buckles and mounts from the Mound-1 sword strap.

Replicas of the Staffordshire-Hoard scabbard-bosses (danegeld.co.uk), here mounted on the scabbard of Notung

Another pair of bosses was discovered in the Staffordshire Hoard, most likely also of Anglian (Mercian, Middle or East-Anglian, or possibly even Northumbrian) origin. The Hoard bosses are arguably less complex and less disciplined with respect to application of the cloisonne technique than those previously mentioned, though notably, once again stepped garnets can be found at the centre with vaguely pointed garnets radiating outward toward a border of beaded filigree. These are much smaller than those of Sutton Hoo, perhaps an indicator of the wealth or status of the original owner. Though the messy context of the Hoard does little to improve our understanding of how such pieces were used, the other items within the collection, particularly those which are stylistically similar, again support the notion that such pieces were a fashion of the 7th Century.

A lone scabbard-boss uncovered from Grimston in Norfolk is interesting due to its similarities to both examples previously mentioned. Smaller and less intricate than the bosses of Sutton Hoo, a similar pattern with respect to the "petal" arrangement of garnets can be seen. Again, stepped garnets occupy the centre with pointed garnets radiating outward, in this case in "hoof-print" shapes, also seen on the Hoard bosses. Crucially, in this case, they meet an outer border of beaded filigree not unlike that of the Hoard bosses. This piece was found in an isolated context by a metal-detectorist and was likely subject to accidental loss by its owner. It is reasonable to assume it belonged to a pair.

These finds, beautiful though they are, are not sufficient for a case to be made for the widespread use of such decoration during the 7th Century, and it is troubling that a great deal of online resources list only these three finds. In fact, thanks largely to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the invaluable contribution of legions of canny metal-detectorists over the last few years, we now know of a great deal more examples that allow us to suppose that, at the time in which they were in fashion, these fabulous pieces were not so rare after all.

The most impressive example to come out of the Portable Antiquities Scheme shares some of the complexity of those from Sutton Hoo, with a central area of geometric shapes, and pointed petals (in this case mostly as single garmets with four outward prongs) toward an outer border that, like Sutton Hoo, consists of two rows of rectangular garnets which encircle the piece. The Cotgrave/Rushcliffe boss from Nottinghamshire (DENO-2A0601) and now in the Ashmolean Museum was found out-of-context but again can be assumed to be one of a pair, subject to accidental loss by its owner. The reverse side shows clear evidence of an attachment loop that has since been lost.

Replicas of the scabbard-boss from Cotgrave, Nottinghamshire (danegeld.co.uk)

Further examples include a scabbard-boss from near Mildenhall in Suffolk (SF-CB7620) and two from Northamptonshire (Rushton NARC-77D046 and Nshire Area NARC-2CE634). The Mildenhall and Rushton examples are both highly damaged, and their attachment loops have been lost. However, in each case the holes left behind give away these pieces as scabbard-bosses and not, as might otherwise be supposed, circular mounts from brooches. The "Northhamtonshire Area" scabbard boss is interesting in that it is flatter in profile than other examples, and its decoration is composed entirely of stepped garnets, with no radial elements or border. A number of other cases (PAS-A78288, NARC-05D4C1 etc) fit the profile of scabbard-bosses with respect to size and design, but were attached to another object via folding of a central cut cylindrical protrusion, rather than an attachment loop. These have been identified, therefore, as circular fittings from brooches, though the similarity of such pieces to scabbard-bosses is noteworthy.

Archaeologists have noted that finds of scabbard-bosses or similar objects are becoming increasingly frequent, and this is largely thanks to metal-detectorists and the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It is likely, therefore, that additional finds will accumulate over coming years and help to improve our understanding of this fashion. It is likely, also, that many examples have been found in the past and have simply not been catalogued, but rather absorbed into private collections, never to see academic scrutiny.

From the examples now available, it seems clear that scabbard-bosses were a favoured decoration for high-status scabbards in the late 6th and 7th Centuries and frequently subject to accidental loss. Sutton Hoo scabbard remains provide clear evidence for how such pieces were used. What, if anything, they were meant to represent remains a mystery. Some have argued these pieces descend from attachments used to secure sword beads, though the design of the attachment loops suggest they were never used in this way. It is noteworthy that these pieces appear to have been used in pairs, yet sword beads are always found alone. Further, (with the exception of a questionable lone example from an otherwise complete grave in Wickhambreaux) all scabbard-boss examples have been found in East-Anglia and Mercia, while sword bead finds seem more common in Saxon kingdoms and in Kent, and tend to pre-date scabbard-bosses by one to two centuries.

Vendel XIV foil
To what extent pairs of Scabbard-bosses were used in other kingdoms remains unclear, though the lack of finds might suggest these were a solely Anglian fashion. H. R. Ellis Davidson did note, however, that depictions of scabbard-bosses positioned precisely as seen on the remains of the Sutton-Hoo Mound-1 scabbard can be seen on pressblech foils from the helmet of Vendel grave XIV. The appearance of such a depiction on an iconic find of the Vendel culture is troubling, as such pieces, or the impressions of them, are notably absent from the few finds of ornate scabbards from Sweden in this period. This is certainly not the only feature which makes the Vendel XIV helm peculiar from an artistic point of view, but it is difficult to know what to make of the scabbard-boss depictions. 
 
Replicas of the Cotgrave scabbard-bosses (danegeld.co.uk) set in washers of green horn

Though the use of the term "boss" for such items results simply from their domed shape and protruding loop, it is worth conjecturing that the resemblance of these pieces to ornate shield-bosses, often with decorative features radiating outward from a central button towards an outer border, might not be merely coincidental. When set within a washer of horn or bone, itself gently domed, it is hard to ignore the resemblance of such pieces to a gently concave Migration-Age shield. Perhaps the wealthiest Anglian warriors sought to defend their valuable blades from rust and damage with the most potent symbol of protection they knew?



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