Zoomorphic and Skeuomorphic Brooches in Roman Britain

Principal investigator: Alex Sorgo
Level: Masters degree

Brooches found in Britain and dated to the Iron Age and Roman eras come in a range of forms with three main categories: bow, crossbow and plate. In this last category are two subtypes, zoomorphic and skeuomorphic brooches, which take the shape of animals and objects. They range from representations of hares, dogs, horses with or without riders, and birds to lamps, sandals, knives and axes among others.

In their study of adornment in the ancient world, Colburn and Heyn have shown that dress was an important part of the interactions within society, constructing communal and personal identities. The pins on the back of the brooches, which are often missing, suggest that the pieces were made to be worn and, consequently, send messages about the wearer. Several approaches have been taken to attempt to interpret these objects and what they communicated. Johns and Allason-Jones have used several specific findspots close to religious sites and comparative iconography in Romano-British art and the Graeco-Roman koine of art to connect the pieces with religious practice. This is an approach also taken by Crummy for chicken, fly and sandal brooches which she connects with Mercury. Allason-Jones concluded that the representational brooches can be interpreted in a similar way to Roman intaglios as symbols of a wearer's religious ideology while Johns has suggested that they may have been pilgrim badges. Both scholars, however, leave many examples of animals and objects, such as the popular duck type, without explanation which casts doubt on their interpretations.

A further approach that has been taken which incorporates far more brooch data is analysing the distribution of the pieces to determine the contexts in which they were used. Acknowledging that many of these brooches are found out of their original contexts of use or deposition because they, as with other metal objects, are often found through metal-detecting, Allason-Jones studied distribution through the zoomorphic brooches recorded through the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Through this, she suggested which animal brooches may have been connected to the military or civilians but relied on the former approach for interpretation. On the other hand, using the brooches in Hull's unpublished catalogue of brooch finds, Eckardt assessed the distribution of the Horse-and-Rider brooches over site types to show that 53% are connected with ritual sites but contrasts them with pilgrim badge distributions and suggests that they were more likely votive deposits.

I intend to use Mackreth's corpus of brooches together with the Portable Antiquities Scheme finds to develop social distributions for other forms of brooches which will be compared and contrasted to see how different iconographies were used. I will then explore the adornment capacities of the brooches and their iconographies more widely to attempt to approach an understanding of what it would have meant to wear a zoomorphic or skeuomorphic brooch.

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