Viking Jewellery | Saxon Jewellery | Ancient Antique Jewelry History
Saxon and Viking jewellery
The jewellery preferences of the Anglo-Saxons were very similar to the tastes of many other inhabitants of mainland Europe. Among the descendants of the various tribes that were labelled by the conquering Romans as “barbarians,” there existed considerable appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship that went into the making of Saxon and Viking jewellery.
See our current selection of Viking jewellery here and our Silver rings here.
The prevailing view was that these so-called barbarians prized the value of the gold that went into this early jewellery more highly than the beauty of the design features. In Anglo-Saxon culture – and many other cultures, both earlier and later in history – the main attraction of old gold jewelry was its ability to impress and its recognised value as a status symbol. Necklaces for women were usually decorated with beads, crosses, precious stones and pendants. The pagan Saxons were particularly keen on pendants made from rock crystal, as they believed they had special properties.
Brooches were functional as well as decorative. They were used to fasten and secure cloaks and other items of clothing. The main metals used in Saxon and Viking jewellery were bronze, gold and silver. Bronze was most prevalent, with gold jewellery and silver jewelry being popular among people of higher status. Bronze was the second most common metal used by the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, after iron. It is an alloy of copper and tin, and occasionally a small amount of lead is included in the mix.
Bronze was used in the production of a variety of useful and decorative objects, but it was particularly prevalent in the jewellery of the era. Brooches, belt ends, buckles, decorative pins and rings were all made from bronze.
Manufacturing Saxon and Viking jewelry from bronze was a complex and specialised procedure. When the copper ore had been excavated, the waste material had to be removed by smelting the ore in a furnace with charcoal and sand. When the temperature rose to around 1100 degrees Centigrade, the copper would melt and fall to the bottom of the furnace, where it was extracted and made into ingots.
Crafting Saxon and Viking jewellery
Copper ingots could be used in various ways by Viking and Saxon craftsmen. If a number of similar items were being produced, a model could be constructed from lead or wood, from which a clay mould could be made. Alternatively, a mould would be made by carving a shape directly into an antler. Using these moulds, the craftsman would then make a wax cast to serve as the master for the bronze casting of the antique jewelry.
For a one-off casting of Viking jewellery, the jeweller would make a wooden or beeswax model of the item for casting. The wood would then be pressed into clay to make the required shape, before firing the clay and burning away the wood. What remained was a clay mould into which the copper could be poured.
If a wax model was used, the craftsman would wrap clay around the model, making a spout through which the molten copper could be poured. This would then be fired, or left in a warm dry place to dry out naturally. The wax would then melt and be poured away to leave a hollow mould.
The next stage in the process was to melt the copper for the piece in a crucible made of clay. The jeweller would then add around 10% of tin to the copper, and occasionally a little lead to facilitate free flowing in the manufacture of the jewellery. The resultant bronze alloy was then poured into the mould, and should there be any wax left behind, it would be displaced by the molten bronze.
Once the bronze had cooled, the mould was broken away and the casting was cleaned and polished for use. A poor quality casting was not wasted – it could be melted down again and recycled.
Moulds were also made from stone by carving soapstone or slate. Some moulds were quite sophisticated, comprising of two parts, while others were crude but functional, and were mainly used as ingot moulds. Other moulds have been found which were cast as blanks. When these moulds were used, the cast would be cleaned before decoration by engraving or punching. These blank moulds were usually made of clay or stone, but an iron mould was found on an excavation site at York.
Bronze was an extremely versatile metal. Items could be manufactured from bronze wire, or by cutting sheets of bronze which then had designs stamped onto the surface using iron tools. It was also used as a coating material for iron. The object in question was coated with tallow, and then covered in bronze foil, before being covered in clay and fired. Hollow objects would also be filled with charcoal. Using bellows, the temperature was raised until the bronze melted and covered the object. As well as adding decoration, bronze coating prevented the iron from rusting, so it was a very practical procedure.
Bronze – and also gold and silver – foils could be embossed with a bronze die. These decorative foils were then used to enhance various objects including engagement rings. The most notable examples of this technique are possibly the Saxon helmet plates and jewellery found at Sutton Hooe in Suffolk, England, and also those artefacts discovered at Valsgarde in Sweden.
Foils could also be tinned or silvered, and used to support and strengthen delicate and elaborate filigree decoration of the ancient silver jewellery. Another decorative option was to carve a channel in an iron object using an engraving tool, and then hammer bronze wire into the channel.
Other than iron and bronze, both the Saxons and Vikings used other metals – mainly in the manufacture of jewellery. Silver, gold and pewter were often used. Silver was a common choice for rings, brooches, buckles, strap ends, and the mounts into which drinking horns were inserted. Additionally, silver was used for coinage.
The production process for silver jewelry was very similar to the manufacturing method for bronze items, although there were some variations. A dark paste known as niello, or silver sulphide, would be rubbed into the finished design to contrast with the shine of the silver. Iron items could also be inlaid with silver decoration, or completely covered in the metal. Silver jewellery could also be decorated by a process of gilding – applying gold foil to all or part of the surface.
In addition to silver ingots which had been mined or acquired through trade, silversmiths also worked with hacksilver. This was essentially scrap metal, for example old or damaged silver jewellery and coins, including foreign coins.
The Vikings in particular were very fond of silver arm and neck rings. These could be made by plaiting and twisting silver wire into a design or by hammering out a ring from a silver ingot and decorating it with a punched design.
Silver coins were produced by craftsmen called moniers, who were licensed by royal appointment. They made coins from silver discs of the correct weight. The discs were placed between two engraved steel plates, and then hit with a heavy hammer to stamp the required design onto the surfaces of the coin.
At this time, gold was also used for Saxon and Viking jewellery, and the manufacturing process was similar to that of silver and bronze. Granulation and filigree work were commonly used for decoration, and semi-precious and precious stones such as garnet would be inset into the jewellery.
Gold was also used for gilding, either to suggest that the item was made of gold, or to produce a contrasting shade. There were various gilding techniques available to craftsmen, and mercury found in excavations at York and Hedeby provides evidence of fire-gilding. Gold and silver was widely used for religious articles such as portable altars, reliquaries and altar crosses. These precious metals were also used in the making of embroidery thread and in the weaving of braids. Often, these items were also used for ecclesiastical materials and garments.
Pewter was mainly used in the making of cheap jewellery, and was normally cast in moulds made from antlers. There are also examples of stamped pewter jewellery from the Saxon and Viking periods.
Jewellery making in ancient times was a highly specialised craft. It was often carried out under royal patronage, with the jewellers working at various royal manors throughout Europe.