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.... 

Any discussion of Migration Age art must arguably begin with Carl Bernhard Salin ¹, a Swedish archaeologist and art historian who, in 1904, published his ‘Die altgermanische Thierornamentik’, in which he defined three consecutive styles of Migration-Age Germanic animal art. These have become known as Salin's Style I, II and III. Although it is arguably essential to differentiate these further, Salin's simple tripartite scheme of classification provides a useful starting point and remains very widely used. 

The Origins of Salin Style I

Günther Haseloff ² argues convincingly that Germanic zoomorphic (ie. animal-form) decoration derives directly from late Roman art. Late Roman chip-carved belt-fittings were ubiquitous in the late 4th century CE and featured geomorphic and plant motifs on their surfaces. These mounts also featured quite naturalistic animals on their edges. These animals may well represent mythological creatures, as some are obviously hybrids or sea-monsters. Haseloff goes on to suggest that craftsmen from Roman Provinces may well have been kidnapped by roving bands of Saxons and brought home to work for their new masters. He argues that there is no other explanation for the well-known Saxon equal-armed brooches, typical of Saxony but bearing decoration very similar to late Roman chip-carved ware. The Saxons took this style of brooch with them when they migrated to Britain thus providing the well-known examples from Haslingfield, Little Wilbraham and Mucking. 

Quoit-Brooch Style

This is the earliest ornamental style of the "Anglo-Saxon period" in Britain. Its main decorative features are incised bordering, shallow chip-carving, zoomorphic and simple geometric patterns with punch-marking being the predominant decorative element. The decoration corresponds to the Roman forms of spiral- and meander-pattern. The bordering animals also occur here, sometimes on either side of a human mask but quite different from the style of the late Roman chip-carved bronzes, particularly with regard to the border animals and the mask, which do not possess the same rounded, sculptured quality as the chip-carved bronzes; rather the details are shallowly engraved on the surface. Quoit-Brooch style dates to the early 5th century CE, and its origins probably reflect Roman motifs being artistically reinterpreted by Germanic craftsmen using strictly Germanic decorative techniques. Examples are uncommon and almost only found in South-East England, in particular in Kent, where it occurs mainly in quoit brooches and occasionally, elaborate heavily Roman-influenced belt sets such as from grave 117, Mucking cemetery 1.

The “type specimen” of this art style is arguably the famous 5th century brooch from Sarre (Thegns replica pictured) which had shallow friezes of animal decoration, enhanced with areas of differential gilding to produce a polychrome effect. Quoit-brooch style looks to have gone out of fashion with the arrival of true Style I in the late 5th century.

Thegns replica of the 5th century Quoit Brooch from Sarre, Kent.  (Original in British Museum).

Nydam Style

Haseloff ² suggests that the successor to the late Roman chip-carved style comes from southern Scandinavia, examples of which have been found in the bog deposits of Nydam and Ejsböl. Nydam style dates to between the early and late 5th century CE. Nydam Style schemes of decoration display many features common to Late Roman Style including geometric motifs like spirals, palmettes, stars and zoomorphic motifs like sea creatures, sometimes fantastical hybrids. It is, however, perhaps a little more "barbaric" than Quoit-Brooch style, and can clearly be seen to have exerted more direct influence on the development of true Salin Style I than the former. Angles from southern Jutland familiar with this style migrated to Britain in the 5-6th century.

4th-5th century Nydam-Style scabbard mount from Ejsbøl mose, Denmark. (Museum Sønderjylland)

Gilded copper-alloy Nydam-style mount from Ejsbøl mose (National Museum of Denmark)

Salin Style I

Style 1 was used in Scandinavian / Germanic art from around CE 475 and coincided with the introduction of the chip carving technique in copper alloy and silver ². It was popular in England between 500-550 CE and most widespread in Kent. The three basic Style I motifs are helmed profiles, biting beasts and crouching quadrupeds.

Pair of gilded early 6th century saucer brooches from East Shefford (British Museum)

Style I motifs were typically composed of a heavily stylised segmented animal, usually with a triple stranded ribbon-like body, sometimes combined with a crouching leg motif with three claws. The rounded head resembled a helmet (Hence Kendrick referred to this as "Helmet Style" ³). Heads could be single or doubled. However, Salin ¹ showed that the most typical aspect of the style was the emphasis on individual body-parts (elements) which enabled animal images to be transformed into abstract patterns; a process termed "degeneration". Haseloff ² later described three major transformative processes: "addition", "abbreviation" (reduction or "pars pro toto", as well as compression in detail) and "reassembly" (producing, what Haseloff ² called ‘Tiersalat’ or "animal salad"), with, of course, all designs having to satisfy the ubiquitous principle "horor vacui" (leave no space empty). Leigh ⁴ added a further factor, that of "ambiguity", which shows itself in the prevalence of dual images of various kinds ⁴.

Reproduction 6th century Anglo-Saxon brooch with Salin Style I decoration, based on a brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight (in British Museum).

 Haseloff ² proposed to separate Style I into four phases (A to D); however, these cannot really be understood to correspond to individual time periods and are thus best considered as variants of Style I. It is, further, not unusual to find objects which exhibit characteristics, or components corresponding to multiple phases.  The Haseloff Phases'  characteristic features are the following:

Style-I decorated square-headed brooch, Bidford-on-Avon cemetery (Warwick Musuem)
Phase A – depictions of animal-human hybrids (Tiermenschen), no zoomorphic figures in the central area of the composition, which, like the earlier Nydam Style, is reserved for geometric or plant motifs. In Phase A, the more prominent features, especially the limbs and heads of the beasts, are modeled in rounded relief bordered by contour-lines.

Phase B
– Here the zoomorphic ornamentation fills the surface of the object and the bodies of the animals are flat rather than rounded, being distinguished by closely set parallel ridges, bodies are often filled with hatching.

Phase C – Characterised by the contours, which are of double or triple lines, with the bodies of animals often elongated into "ribbons".

Phase D – Characterised by beasts with undulating ribbon-like bodies composed of parallel lines, terminating in an animal or human head.

In the archaeological record in England, as well as much of Scandinavia and Germany ² ⁵ the overwhelming bulk of Anglo-Saxon Salin Style I decoration can be found on feminine brooches, particularly those of the saucer and square-headed types ⁶.

Huge style-I decorated 6th century great-square-headed brooch from Alveston Manor, Stratford-on-Avon. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).

The dominance of Style I on feminine material, even as the newer, more 'international' Style II was emerging predominantly on martial, masculine gear, has been cited as evidence for inequality of access to artistic development ⁵ , and representative of social changes taking place in the late 6th century, with access to the work of sought-after artisans working in the latest techniques monopolized by an increasingly entrenched, powerful, masculine warrior elite. A notable exception, in Anglo-Saxon territories in Britain, is the corpus of predominantly Anglian Style-I shield decoration (discussed at length by Tania Dickinson ⁷ ) which appear associated with moderate status, but pale in comparison to the state-of-the-art sophistication of Style-II fittings from the unique, rather 'international' shield from Sutton-Hoo Mound 1.

Thegns replica of decorated shield boss from Bidford-on-Avon grave 182, showing enigmatic Salin Style-I / Haseloff A decoration

It seems likely, then, that as Style II arrived, practiced by elite artisans supplying elite warrior chiefs and traded beyond tribal boundaries, Style-I continued to be practiced by more local craftspeople, supplying less sophisticated items to more local markets.

Salin Style II

This second major phase of zoomorphic art emerged around 560-570 CE and coincided with the end of the Migration period. From an English perspective, Style II is the dominant decorative style of the most famous Anglo-Saxon archaeological material - that of Sutton Hoo Mound 1, Taplow, Prittlewell, and the Staffordshire Hoard ¹⁰.

Solid gold Sutton Hoo mound-1 great buckle.  Complex Anglian Salin Style-II interlace augmented with niello (black) inlay to bring out the detail. (British Museum)

Close-up of the above. Note contoured snake-like bodies, biting beast-heads, tear-drop shaped shoulders, occasional claws, and "hats" on the bird heads (top right). (British Museum)

This new style remained popular until around the middle of the 7th century CE, and became incorporated into more sophisticated crafts such as gold-filligree work, pressblech, silver and gold inlay (tauscheringwork) or even incorporated into garnet cloisonne designs.

Replicas of Style-II bird-head terminals, gold and garnet cloisonne, from Staffordshire Hoard. (By George Easton, www.danegeld.co.uk).

Style-II is broadly considered to have gradually replaced the earlier zoomorphic styles which had become devolved and increasingly simplistic by the mid-6th century CE, although the latter may be an artifact of the abandonment of Style-I by elite artisans, continuing only to be practiced by less skillful hands ⁵.

Salin Style II ¹ was composed of back-biting interlacing ribbon-bodied animals (hence Kendrick’s name "Ribbon Style" ³) with snake-like heads with no pretense of naturalism and rarely any legs. The animal-shape often became almost lost in the ornamental patterns, typically using interlace. For example, on the Sutton Hoo purse-lid, two animals confront each other in perfect symmetry forming the shape of a heart. However, often it is possible to tease out individual beasts; birds’ hooked beaks and clawed feet being easy to spot.

Devolved Anglian Style-II interlace in gold filligree - a sword pyramid found near Bury St Edmunds (Moyses Hall Museum)

Although, looking across any collection of Style II items, clear variation can be seen across space and time, Style-II has nevertheless proved a greater challenge to further classify. The best effort in this direction has been by archaeologist Karen Høilund Nielsen ⁵ ⁸ ⁹, using sophisticated statistical methods. Here, it is the shape of beasts' heads, limbs, and feet which are particularly diagnostic ⁸.

C7th silver-gilt sword-fittings from Crundale Down, Kent, showing "Kentish" Salin Style-II biting beasts (British Museum).

Høilund Nielsen's work suggests that Style-II can be divided into two parallel, evolving artistic schools - one focused on Kent, and the other on East Anglia ⁸. These two schools / seriations encompass great variation over time, as both progress from their origins in the late 6th century to the sophisticated insular art of the 8th (discussed in the next installment of this series). Broadly, the Kentish school can be seen to be heavily influenced by, and to some extent also, in turn, influencing artistic developments in the Frankish Empire ⁸, ¹⁰. Conversely, the Anglian school of Style II can be seen to be more heavily influenced by the art of Scandinavia (particularly Denmark) ⁹ .

Gilded copper-alloy plaque displaying mature Scandinavian style-II interlace (National Musuem of Denmark)

The correspondence of artistic style between particular consolidating Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their continental counterparts is considered evidence of diplomatic ties and alliances across the North Sea ⁹, ¹⁰.

Frankish great buckle decorated with Salin-Style II interlace in tauscheringwork (silver inlay into iron) from the Netherlands.  (Valkof Museum, Nijmegen).

As we will see in the next chapter of this series, throughout the 7th century, and particularly into 8th, Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms would lead to a collision of Germanic art styles with more "Celtic" or "Brythonic" art that had been developing in isolation since the Roman collapse. This collision would lead to some of the most spectacular art in European history, represented in whole new types of media.

(1) Carl Bernhard Salin (1904) Die altgermanische Thierornamentik.

(2) Günther Haseloff (1972) Salin's Style I.

(3) T.W. Kendrick (1934) Style in Early Anglo-Saxon Ornament.

(4) Leigh, D. (1984). Ambiguity in Anglo-Saxon Style I art. The Antiquaries Journal, 64(01), 34-42.

(5).Høilund Nielsen, K. (1997) The Chronological and Social Analysis of Archaeological Burial Data

(6) Dickinson, T.M. (2002) Translating animal art: Salin’s Style I and Anglo-Saxon cast saucer brooches.

(7) Dickinson, T.M. (2005). Symbols of protection: The significance of animal-ornamented shields in early Anglo-Saxon England." Medieval Archaeology 49.1

(8) Nielsen, K. H., 1999. ‘Style II and the Anglo-Saxon élite’,

(9) Nielsen, K. H. (1997). Retainers of the Scandinavian Kings: An Alternative Interpretation of Salin's Style II (Sixth-Seventh Centuries AD). Journal of European Archaeology, 5(1), 151-169.

(10) Nielsen, K. H. (2010). Style II and all that: the potential of the hoard for statistical study of chronology and geographical distributions


Frans Theuws, Janet Laughland Nelson (2000) Rituals of Power: From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages edited by Frans Theuws, Janet Laughland Nelson.

Rosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum (28 May 2014) Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

Laing, Lloyd, and Laing, Jennifer (1979) Anglo-Saxon England.

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