Friday, August 11, 2006

Gold Bracteate Chronology

Before the summer holidays, I made a few deeply satisfying, although geeky, discoveries in the course of my research. It's about gold bracteates. They're beautiful little things, not well known except to hardcore archaeology enthusiasts, found mostly in Denmark, southern Sweden and southern Norway. Made in the later part of the Migration Period (about AD 450 to 540), gold bracteates are little pendants bearing detailed mythological images, including the first recognisable scenes from the Scandinavian polytheistic mythology codified much later by Snorri Sturluson. Bracteate imagery borrows heavily from Roman medals of the 4th century, but is full of Scandinavian idiosyncrasies.

One of the most common motifs has a quadruped looking a bit like a horse, with a huge bodiless man's head sitting on its back. We call them "C bracteates". The man's lips often touches the horse's ear, and according to one interpretation the scene depicts Odinn in his role as healer of Balder's collapsed horse. This idea comes down to us through the Merseburg Incantations.

Bracteates are very nice, but I didn't really look into them for their own sake. The reason had more to do about my general ideas of archaeological methodology, and there was a personal reason too.

One of the books that has had the strongest influence on my way of thinking about archaeology is Mats Malmer's 1963 collection of essays Metodproblem inom järnålderns konsthistoria, "Problems in the Methodology of Iron Age Art-Historical Studies". A main point argued there is that no scholarly statement is worth anything unless the terms used are well defined and unambiguous -- for instance, when an archaeologist assigns source material to various types. Another important section analyses and establishes the theoretical background of typological seriation, one of the main tools used by archaeologists to order finds and sites in chronological phases. The book's central case study, where Malmer demonstrates how he thinks things should be done, concerns the chronology of the gold bracteates.

Ever since the 60s, many archaeologists have felt that while Malmer's ideas are sound in principle, and though he applied them successfully in other studies, still there's something wrong with his bracteate chronology. And since the late 70s, Danish scholar Morten Axboe has been studying the bracteates, with their chronology being a central line of inquiry. I've known since 1999 that Axboe's results aren't at all compatible with Malmer's, even though he uses an updated, computer-supported version of Malmer's methodology. And since then, I've been itching to find out why.

I know Malmer and Axboe, both are really nice guys, very supportive of younger colleagues such as myself, and I have the greatest respect for them as scholars. Malmer is in fact my number one archaeological hero. So I really needed to find out what was wrong.

Last year, Axboe finally published an extremely solid study of the bracteates' chronology. As soon as I'd read it, I started fiddling with the data. I tweaked Axboe's system a bit to make it work even better, and I juxtaposed it with Malmer's system.

What Malmer said in 1963 is basically that C bracteates can be divided into a) an early group, where the man has one of two particular hairstyles and the horse sometimes has a goatee beard; and b) a late group where a range of other hairstyles are seen, where the horse never has a beard, but where it sometimes throws a hind leg up over its rump. The beard and the thrown-up hind leg hardly ever occur together, and Malmer argued that the only likely explanation was chronology.

Axboe could process a far greater number of details thanks to computer supported multivariate statistics. He only recorded the details of the men's heads in order to be able to study bracteates without any animals as well. I collected data on the horses' beards and hind legs too, stuck them into Axboe's database and re-ran the stats.

What came out was really cool. Turns out that Malmer's two groups are both in fact very long-lived and contemporanous. The reason that horse beards and certain hairstyles cluster together and avoid thrown-up hind legs and other hairstyles must be that the two groups of traits are depictions of two different men, each with his own individual horse. Combining their characteristics would apparently have been like drawing a Disney character with a duckbill and mouse ears. The beard and the hind leg are what art historians call "iconographical attributes".

So my appreciation of both scholars is undiminished. Malmer's principles are indeed sound, he just chose the wrong material to apply them to. Gold bracteates are enormously complicated iconographical objects with lots of details, most of which are not relevant to chronology. And, from an archaeological point of view, they were made during a very short period of time, during which little dramatic change could take place.

Archaeology can usually place an object in the right century on stylistic grounds, but Malmer was trying to subdivide a group of finds that were all made during less than a century. Axboe, thanks to computer support and years of work, finally succeeded in dividing them into four phases.

Axboe, M. 2004. Die Goldbrakteaten der Völkerwanderungszeit. Herstellungsprobleme und Chronologie. Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde 38. Berlin.

Malmer, M.P. 1963. Metodproblem inom järnålderns konsthistoria. Acta archaeologica Lundensia, series in octavo 3. Department of Archaeology, University of Lund.
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Blogger Candy Minx said...

Fantastic and congratulations on deciphering the codes of two different men. I love this stuff. I come at it ina different way perhaps through art history and stories.

I am guessing that the horse must be representing a constellation, no?

Have you ever read robert Bringhurst? He is famous for his work on typography but he has written a couple of incredible books on Haida mythology one called A Story Sharp as a Knife. He learned Haida and found a translator. Haida is a small group of Canadian west coast Indians. Well, I am sure you already know that, sorry.

12 August, 2006 14:18  
Blogger Martin said...

That I know of, nobody's suggested before that the bracteate motifs had anything to do with constellations. But we do know that ancient Scandinavians believed that the sun was pulled across the heavens by a divine horse.

Sorry, never heard of Bringhurst before and know hardly anything about the Haida! But I love Ursula LeGuin's Always Coming Home, a fictional ethnography of the Haida's successors many thousand years into the future...

12 August, 2006 21:02  
Anonymous Mattias said...

Interesting. So if these bracteates depict 2 different men, that it was really important to separate, the question that interests me is:
Who where they?

And how does this relate to the functions of other braketates and the reason for their display.

Somehow, it seems not so likely that these depicts mythological men, since I cannot really attribute the stuff to any, if the one with the Goat-horse is not Tor and the one with the kicking up hindleg could be Freyr on his horse, whatever his name was.

But I think that we here might have depictions of two contemporary and maybe competing "kings" or "warlords". If you think of later seals, and also on how a ruler where portrayed, they where portrayed on horseback.
Now, for an artist working in quite a limiting style and possibly circumscribed with many conventions about how things should be done, gets a problem.
He wants to represent his "king" like the roman emperors, with a head in siluette. But these men are not roman emperor but germanic warrior kings, and since the horse is a most important attribute for the wealthy warrior of the day, he must be depicted on horseback.
Hense the head on horseback sollution.

But how to distinguish? Well, making an idealistic presentation makes it difficult to give a good portrayal likeness and it might not even be wanted. It is the ideal warrior king that is supposed to be depicted, so ho solve the problem of recognition?
Well, attributes becomes necessary.
If one looks at viking and medieval names, they often had describing nicknames, saying something specific about the person. Such a nickname or even the meaning of the person normal name, could be an exellent base for an attribute.
The meaning of names and their proper use are sadly neglected on todays fragmentating society. But back then, such things where important and mattered.
So lets say a king was known as "Fancy-haired" or "goatbeard" representing that on the brakteate could help in identification for an outside onlooker (, that man is a follower of Goatbeard!) and so on.
The fact that the beard is put on the horse might have to do with space, and maybe the horse itself is a symbol and part of the person represented. A symbol of rulership. Compare with the mounted statues of Charlemange and Theoderik the great.

Can these men be identified somehow and during which period would they have been active? My knowledge on bracteate chronology sucks...

13 August, 2006 21:45  
Blogger Martin said...

Bernhard Salin believed that the two men were Odinn and Thor. And Malmer agreed that they were most likely gods, although their names and characteristics in AD 500 may have been different from what Snorri wrote more than 700 years later.

As these motifs survived for almost a century, and as they do not form territorially separate distributions, I don't think they depict real people.

13 August, 2006 22:54  
Anonymous Mattias said...

But... to be sure of some Odin representations, we would like to see Sleipner, not a mere horse...

Therefore I think that Freyr might be the person.

And do not go sceptic and dismiss the living person out of hand, as is easily done. Even if they survived a century, the men need not have been alive all that time, but could very well have become "founding fathers" for clans or such that competed for power.

Neither does the territorial distribution really contradict allegiance based spread.
Remember that power where more based on persons rather than territory in those days, and over some time, the "broders" can move back and forth.

Do you have proper spread that I could look at?

Curse you Martin, now you got me hooked on silly migration period when I was going for some proper stone age and maybe some roman iron age!

14 August, 2006 09:06  
Blogger Martin said...

No evidence for Sleipnir until the 9th century.

People owned territory back then, so the distinction is redundant. I don't know why scholars keep repeating that silly sound bite about power over people.

Sorry, I don't think anyone's done a distribution map of the two guys + horses. But they mix, everywhere there are bracteates.

There's been a huge amount of work published on bracteate iconography, mainly by Karl Hauck.

14 August, 2006 09:45  
Blogger Candy Minx said...

Very good stuff, here the questions and the motifs. Odin and thor, I believe represent celestial activity...but perhpas I'll post something about that. For now I am madly catching up with all the incredible posts you have made.

Martin, you are ON FIRE!!!!!!!!

and I'm supposed to go play law clerk today oh dear!

17 August, 2006 16:38  
Blogger Martin said...

Thanks, that's very sweet of you!

I'm on fire? Well, in that case I must quote Chef from South Park:

Hey, wait a minute, what's that smell?
Smells like something burning
Well, that don't confront me none
As long as I get my rent paid on the Friday.
Baby you'd better get back in the Kitchen...
Cos i've gotta Sneaking Suspicion...
Oh man baby, baby! You just burnt my balls!

17 August, 2006 17:46  

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