Secrets in the Stones: Decoding Anglo-Saxon Art. Part 2
Follow the Lozenges
Due to the decline of furnished burials the fashions of the late 7th to 8th centuries were previously largely unknown to us, but a growing number of finds reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme has allowed a previously unknown brooch type to be categorized. These were bizarre - fragile, and of a radically different design than earlier types, but were of a very specific, highly conserved shape, and appear to have become the main high-status dress item of the period. Why were they designed in this way? What, if anything, did they signify?
Our team began discussing this strange fashion in 2020. Little did we know where the trail of the lozenge brooch would lead....
While circular or radial arrangements appear to be a popular theme running continuously through Anglo-Saxon personal artworks, we also see radical changes in fashion and even apparent discontinuities. Some are driven by technical or economic factors - for example, the quite rapid shift from cast copper-alloy jewellery toward jewellery fabricated directly from gold and silver in the late 6th to 7th century seems to have been substantially driven by a sudden influx of these precious metals through trade; a trend which is reversed in the late 7th century (Fern et. al 2019). Others are driven by cultural contact, such as the re-seeding of 'Celtic' motifs such as the trumpet-spiral into Anglo-Saxon art leading to 'Insular' and 'Mercian Style', generally attributed to the growing cultural contact between 'Celtic' and 'Anglo-Saxon' spheres following Christianisation of the latter. The most important, and problematic discontinuity in the early middle Anglo-Saxon period is the end of the furnished burial rite; while in the 6th and early 7th century we can study a rich sample of personal items (biased by the selective choices people made to include objects in graves) from roughly the mid 7th century onwards, when folk were generally not buried with grave-goods, we have a much weaker sample of personal objects to study. Those we do have were usually subject to accidental loss (often following breakage) and later recovered by metal-detectorists, so are subject to different sampling biases. It is for studying trends in this period that the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme is particularly important; as the database of finds from the late 7th to 8th centuries grows, previously unnoticed trends come into focus.
As we move into the 8th century a radically new type of brooch appears, again almost entirely represented by stray but confidently dated thanks to characteristic, highly dateable Mercian-style decoration. These objects could hardly appear more different than the equivalent items which preceded them, thus representing quite an abrupt discontinuity; without prior knowledge it would be easy to imagine they belonged to an entirely different culture than the dress-items worn by Anglo-Saxon women only a few decades before.
These brooches - the 'lozenge' / 'strip' brooch (Weetch Type 31) have only been defined as their own type relatively recently (Weetch 2014), substantially thanks to the growing number which have been added to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (Geake, 2018). There has thus far been very little commentary on this peculiar fashion; how these bizarre objects evolved and what they mean or represent. The adoption of this design as the main high-status dress-item of the age, at the expense of almost all others, was a non-trivial choice; what was its meaning? The most important class of dress items confidently dateable to the early 8th century - a time which is otherwise an evidentiary bottleneck - its clear that if only we could understand these objects better, we might gain a clearer understanding of this turbulent period during which Anglo-Saxon Christianity and monasticism was refined, and petty kingdoms developed into increasingly well-organised proto-states. As a design which grows from seeds in early Anglo-Saxon material, while so many other designs and motifs are allowed to wither and die out, understanding the lozenge-brooch might give us insight into the priorities of folk of the middle Anglo-Saxon period; which aspects of their cultural repertoire were prioritised for conservation, or into which they invested more of their identity, as their world transformed around them.
Discussion of the mystery of the lozenge-brooch among our team in 2020-21 led to many of the subsequent discoveries upon which the remainder of this series will focus, and so it seems appropriate that a partial review of the corpus of these brooches be presented first, together with an examination of related motifs from before and after the 8th century, to build a picture of how this design evolved and what it informed. Future instalments will explore the meanings behind the design and their wide-ranging implications.
The Lozenge Brooch / Weetch Type 31
These were small, flimsy and all made in one piece, with pin-spring and pin-catch continuous with the opposite tips of the brooch body. The eschewing of the busy decoration of earlier styles, on these brooches, could be viewed as a meaningful statement in and of itself, but they were not necessarily austere - many of the extant examples were made of silver. Archaeology provides little insight into how these brooches were worn, or for what purpose; the best documented are a matching set of five from a high status late c7th burial at Swallowcliff Down, Wiltshire (Speake, 1989) but frustratingly these were actually stored within a box beside the body, rather than worn as part of the burial dress. The sideways orientation of these brooches would have allowed them to sit extremely flat against whatever fabric they pinned, which might be suggestive of the use of finer fabrics and/or tighter tailoring at this time.
Moving into the 8th century, related strip-brooches emerge, with the functional elements continuous with the body, much the same as the aforementioned safety-pin brooches, but with the elements re-oriented back to the traditional arrangement, allowing the body to expand into a flat plate which somewhat hides the pin.
Although often found in relatively poor states of preservation with dull surfaces, lozenge-brooches appear to have often been of the highest quality of craftsmanship of the period, mercury / fire gilded and sometimes integrating extremely fine chip-carved 'Mercian Style' interlace designs which have been invaluable for dating the type. XRF analysis of one example, commissioned by Corinium Museum Cirencester (Schuster, 2012) revealed its composition to be a lead and zinc-rich copper alloy with added silver, and with design interstices enhanced by a non-niello black paste which could not be identified.
'Mercian style' is typified by very crisp and carefully planned interlace of fine lines, cut with deep voids between, and is descended from earlier Anglo-Saxon animal art, but also often incorporates swirling elements descended from 'Celtic' motifs. Far from exclusive to Mercian finds, it is so named as it was the dominant jewellery style across Britain for much of the 8th century when the kingdom of Mercia was politically dominant. Although coding in the PAS database is currently insufficiently rigorous to allow for spatial analysis, at a glance, lozenge brooches do appear unusually highly represented in the core counties of the kingdom of Mercia, and particularly around c8th Mercian power-centres, particularly around Repton and Leicester, along with the Mercian vassals of Lindsey and Hwicce. It's therefore not impossible that these very distinctive brooches were a signifier of Mercian cultural affiliation, political, or even religious power.
Often, though, the lozenge-brooch plate is subdivided into four or more lozenge fields of precisely the same proportions; effectively they are tiled with miniature versions of themselves. These in turn are filled, often, with concentric or 'Greek Key' designs, again creating a kind of corridor-illusion.
Unfortunately as they are not found in grave contexts, we have no idea how, or by whom, these brooches were worn, but as they clearly are in dialogue with the manuscript illuminations of the same period it is worth examining.
Among the manuscripts packed with lozenges and lozenge-patterns it is the Book of Kells Folio 7v which is probably the most useful to us, providing us with our only depiction of the wearing of one of these strange lozenge brooches. This is thought to be the earliest depiction of the Madonna and Child in Western manuscript art, and corresponds closely to a similar, though cruder, representation on the Coffin of St Cuthbert (698 CE). The brooch sits flat on the right shoulder of the voluminous outer garment, and unfortunately, as it is highly stylized we cannot get a sense of whether the brooch pins that garment together or is merely being worn as a badge.
Other Middle Anglo-Saxon Lozenges
Among the countless variations of Offa's silver pennies lozenges are found as the main motif on the reverse of the majority of them. Sometimes the lozenge frames a cross, an asterisk or rosette, and sometimes itself serves as the central part of a 'floriate cross' design which spans the full surface of the coin. In contrast, Charlemagne's coins featured lozenges less prominently. A smaller lozenge was, however, placed at the heart of his 'signum manus' - his personal Chi-Rho style ligated monogram, in which the central lozenge represented the vowels in "KAROLVS". It seems, then, that both Offa and Charlemagne - both reforming and well-educated rulers by the standards of the time, had chosen to identify with, or had become identified with, the lozenge as a symbol of legitimacy or power. In England the central lozenge design (often referred to as "cross-and-lozenge") becomes particularly associated with mints in Canterbury and London.
Fewer coins were minted under the turbulent reign of the short list of lesser Mercian kings who followed Offa's reign, and lozenge designs feature less prominently. As we will see later, however, they do make a resurgence under the reign of another Anglo-Saxon 'philosopher king'.
Early Anglo-Saxon Lozenges?
Certainly the interlaces of the 7th century often have the 'lozengy' quality, though adhered to less rigidly than in Mercian style. These include, in particular, wire filigree decoration such as that which decorates the majority of weapon fittings in the Staffordshire Hoard (Fern et. al. 2019); we might also see the 'lozengy matrix' reflected in the famously carpet-page-like lapidary work of the Sutton Hoo shoulder-clasps. The main feature of the mysterious iron 'standard' from Sutton Hoo Mound-1 (carver, 1998), which some consider to be an armour stand, was a concentric arrangement or grill of iron lozenges.
Looking further back, to cemetery material of the 5th and 6th centuries there are far fewer items where lozenges feature. The division of space on the footplate of square-headed or other bow-brooches of the 6th century sometimes produces a concave lozenge field for decoration but it's unclear whether this was done 'knowingly'. A number of late 6th century brooches, particularly radiating from Kent, appear to incorporate lozenges more deliberately - the footplate sometimes includes a lozenge-shaped gem setting (albeit alongside settings of other shapes, where they fit in the classic design) and it is not unheard of for the footplate to incorporate the fractal 'lozenges within lozenge' design we have already seen so much of from the 8th century (eg. Chatham Lines, see below).
"Lozenges within lozenges" certainly show up often among early Anglo-Saxon textiles. In Penelope Walton-Rogers' sample of textile remains from early Anglo-Saxon graves (Walton-Rogers, 2007), around 11% of ZZ twills (both linen and wool, n=99) and over 32% of ZS twills (both linen and wool, n=112 +/-11) were patterned weaves with reversal of twill diagonals - ie. chevron or diamond/lozenge twill. Elsewhere she clarifies that when it is possible for chevron and diamond twills to be distinguished, diamond twill is at least twice as common as chevron twill, and that these textiles are more common in, though not exclusive to high status burials. Based on remains from later contexts she suggests diamond twill remained popular throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, relatively abruptly dying out "during the Anglo-Norman period" (Walton-Rogers, 2007).
Trace evidence of tablet-woven braids or borders are common among textile remains but pattern is almost never discernible. One exception - from an early Anglo-Saxon grave in Laceby, Lincolnshire, certainly featured lozenges, as did a controversial pattern of threaded-in diamonds adhering to an undecorated strap-end found in Cambridge (known as the "Cambridge Diamonds" pattern, this is widely regarded as being of post-Anglo-Saxon date). To these we can add at least eight of the fifteen smaller gold-brocades from 6th century Kentish graves reconstructed by Crowfoot & Hawkes (1967), the wider elements of gold brocade from the Taplow princely burial, and the more recently published gold brocade from the Prittewell Princely burial (Blackmore et. al. 2019) all of which featured lozenge patterns.
In the case of the Prittlewell brocade (shown below) gold lozenges alternate with un-brocaded lozenges of the ground-weave; these are separated and highlighted by paired triangular elements of the gold brocade-work; these two triangles are two complementary halves of the lozenge.
This being said, tabletweave and brocade are techniques which naturally lend themselves to producing diamond/lozenge patterns. We should probably not read too much into this except to note that Anglo-Saxons appear to have enjoyed lozenge patterns as part of their dress long before the advent of the lozenge-brooch craze. Lozenge patterns also occur in early Anglo-Saxon glasswork, seen among the patterns of expensive polychrome beads (see below) and in the trailed decoration of glass vessels, such as the palm-cups from Broomfield and Prittlewell princely burials (Blackmore et. al. 2019).
Late Anglo-Saxon Lozenges
Two intriguing finds of extremely fine gold rings in the form of nested lozenges, intricately decorated with filigree around a central setting, from the West Yorkshire Hoard and from Priory Park Hitchin, Hertfordshire, respectively, both date to the 9th-10th century and are suggestive of continued significance of the lozenge as a symbol of royal or religious power.
From at least the 9th century, lozenges and lozenge-patterns are seen on monumental stonework, both in Britain and Ireland. A substantial lozenge framing a cross is hidden or woven into the interlace on the south side base of the Bewcastle Cross shaft, and, more clearly, a column of lozenges can be seen on one of the Sandbach crosses, variously infilled with human, animal, vegetal and interlacing decoration (Hawkes, 2003).
It should also be acknowledged how lozenges and lozenge-patterns do feature prominently in late Roman and Byzantine art - two dimensional marble relief slabs from the 8-10th centuries being a particularly rich pool of examples, where lozenges were worked into abstract arrangements with other shapes, which have long been considered to have carried obscure spiritual meanings. Such designs show up in early medieval manuscripts, sometimes annotated, as visualisations of theological or metaphysical concepts, but many remain obscure. Skipping ahead we see the lozenge, as a symbol, and its associated patterns becoming increasingly important in heraldry, and in stately architecture (as discussed in much more depth in the upcoming book on which this series is based) having been extensively seeded during the first millennium, and in religious art, it becomes increasingly common to depict 'Christ in Majesty' in a lozenge frame.
The artistic traditions of the medieval world were highly networked, and although a review of such patterns beyond Britain is outside of the scope of this work, we note that the visual language we are grappling with is part of a wider shared heritage. It is therefore very likely that there remain key pieces of this puzzle known to others, especially in parts of the artistic network we cannot be so familiar with, that remain unknown to us. Hopefully, however, this also means that the learning perspectives offered in future chapters of this series might be helpful to those studying the art and achievements of other historic cultures and encourage further discoveries.
What do Lozenges Mean?
Through the 8th century the prominence of the lozenge on elite jewellery, and increasingly, on coinage, suggests its status as a symbol of identity and/or power - its use propagandistically identifying the ruler with whatever concept it represented, in a way which reinforced their legitimacy, just as the inclusion of a cross on a coin sought to imply that the king on the coin had divine support. The timing suggests an association with Christianisation and the growth of capacity for scholarship, and while the lozenge's significance is, at least in part, religious, we have seen how it shows up in both pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon art, and the distinctive art styles of the early 'Vikings'.
Previous discussion of the significance of the lozenge in Anglo-Saxon art has concluded that it symbolically expresses "the fourfold nature of the cosmos centred on the 'Creator-Logos' Christ" and the "fourfold nature of the universe" (Hawkes, 2003) which (see below) is partly true, yet not entirely satisfying or sufficient, given that the natural, obvious and well-established shape for exploring and representing quartile relationships (as already discussed, See Chapter 1) is the rotating square, and that lozenges clearly have significance in non-Christian art too.
In future chapters we will explain what we believe to be the true meaning of the Anglo-Saxons' obsession with the lozenge, which may be the key to unlocking other hitherto unexplained aspects of their art. In the meantime however we want to end with one more lozenge:
Anglo-Saxon scholars were fascinated by natural philosophy (including the work of Classical thinkers such as Ptolemy, already discussed) and produced elegant 'Computus diagrams' for visualising patterns, harmonies and balance in the natural world and in scripture, and in some cases for aiding calculation of key dates in the religious calendar. These diagrams are often built on the 'tetrad' / quaternities - the observation that many natural phenomena appeared to exist in groups of four, reinforcing the sense of a balanced and harmonious order of the Cosmos. The pleasing harmony of these designs was itself thought to evidence the divine geometry of God.
Although often arranged within a circle (after Ptolemy, and giving rise to a long-lived tradition of 'magical' polygrams), the influential Computus diagram of Byrhtferth (11th century, Romsey Abbey) which comes down to us via at least 5 different manuscripts, instead is built around a lozenge, with the consequence that its outer ring (which simultaneously represents the signs of the zodiac, the calendar months, and lunar months) is forced to take the form of four arches rather than a continuous ring (Baker 1995).
Byrhtferth's diagram is just one of many, more typically circular diagrams produced by late Anglo-Saxon scholars, which together provide a fascinating insight into how they viewed the world. Among these, though, Byrhtferth's diagram appears to have been particularly popular and influential, judging by the number of copies which survive. We are left wondering; why did he chose to arrange the various natural phenomena- the elements, the zodiac, the four winds, and time itself, all revolving around a lozenge?
Bayliss, A., 2017. Anglo-Saxon graves and grave goods of the 6th and 7th centuries AD: a chronological framework. Routledge.
Carver, M.O.H. and Carver, M., 1998. Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings?. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Crowfoot, E. and Hawkes, S.C., 1967. Early Anglo-Saxon gold braids. Medieval Archaeology, 11(1), pp.42-86.
Dickinson, T.M. and Härke, H., 1992. Early Anglo-Saxon Shields (Vol. 110). London: Society of Antiquaries of London.
Fern, C., Dickinson, T. and Webster, L., 2019. The Staffordshire Hoard. An Anglo-Saxon Treasure (p. 640). Society of Antiquaries of London.
Gannon, A., 2019. Art in the Round: Tradition and Creativity in Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage. Reading Medieval Sources.
Geake, H. 2018 Portable Antiquities Scheme recording guidelines: Brooches. [Online] [URL="https://finds.org.uk/counties/findsrecordingguides/brooches-2/#Introduction"] [Accessed 20/03/2023]
Hawkes, J., 2003. Sculpture on the Mercian Fringe: The Anglo-Saxon Crosses at Sandbach, Cheshire. Friends of All Saints' Church.
Owen-Crocker, G.R., 2004. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Boydell Press.
Schuster, J. 2012. Analysis of an Anglo-Saxon lozenge-shaped brooch for Corinium Museum, Cirencester. AsF Report 0001.02.
Speake, G., 1989. A Saxon bed burial on Swallowcliffe Down (Vol. 10). Historic Buildings & Monuments Commission for England.
Swanton, M.J., 1974. A corpus of pagan Anglo-Saxon spear-types. BAR Publishing.
Walton-Rogers, P., 2007. Cloth and clothing in early Anglo-Saxon England, AD 450-700 (No. 145). Council for British Archeology.
Weetch, R., 2014. Brooches in late Anglo-Saxon England within a north west European context: a study of social identities between the eighth and the eleventh centuries (Doctoral dissertation, University of Reading).