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IVth and Vth centuries brought big changes to Western Europe. Although Germanic tribes, often called “barbarians” took control of vast areas they allowed old traditions to carry on and craftsmanship achieved high levels.
The goldsmiths used Late Roman’s techniques producing beautiful and complex jewelry. Thanks to pagan beliefs many precious items were buried with dead, which resulted in the survival of pieces across social hierarchy.
Germanic jewelry was characterized by polychrome inlay, colored glass. The favorite stone was garnet, very often cut in different shapes.
Until XIIIth century gold was the material of choice however, after its supplies dwindled jewelers started using silver imported from Arab empire. For cheaper jewelry bronze was chosen and decoration was usually done at the time of casting.
The function of jewelry hasn’t changed and it still served mainly decorative purpose. Brooches and various clasps were used as buttons to fasten garments. Brooches usually had simple shapes of circles or ovals. Women wore them in pairs on shoulders to secure dresses.
First Germanic jewelry was found in 1653 in the tomb of Childeric I, a founder of Merovingian dynasty who was buried with vast amount of golden ornaments including bee-shaped bracelets, buckles and a sword. One of the best known collections of Germanic jewelry is the Guarrazar Treasure which includes precious stones, pearls and eleven crowns of gold decorated with heavy gold chains, which suggests use of the crowns purely for ceremonial use or that they hung at a religious shrine.
In 1939 during excavations of a burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk a magnificent collection of Anglo-Saxon jewelry was found. The jewelry buried with King Raedwald consisted of large gold belt buckle, fittings for a sword and sword belt, purse lid and pair of hinged shoulder clasps. Many pieces were also decorated with precious stones and featured geometric and animal motifs. The motifs were executed in thin section of garnet and multi-colored glass, skillfully cut and enhanced by the use of patterned foil behind the translucent garnet.
In Anglo-Saxon society wearing of jewelry was not confined to the nobility. Everyone was allowed to wear jewelry despite social status. Men, in addition to cloak brooches and gold arm rings very often decorated their swords with gold. Woman wore bracelets, necklaces and rings. Earrings were not too popular. Spread of Christianity introduced cross as a popular design.
By the early VIIIth century the custom of burying jewelry with the dead had been abandoned in most parts of Europe and very little has survived from the late Anglo-Saxon period. However, the pieces that had been found show that the level of craftsmanship was very high. Difficult techniques like cloisonné and niello were used on gold and silver jewelry.
The Vikings developed an unusual decorative technique called “chip-cutting”, where the surface of the metals is worked with a chisel to created facets which glitter in the light. Ribbed gold collars found in Sweden belong to the finest pieces dated from VIth century. The collars are made of gold tubes soldered together to form a broad band. Majority of Viking jewelry was made of silver because gold supplies from Byzantine Empire diminished in VIIIth century.
The typical Celtic jewelry included ring brooches, pins and latchet dress fasteners, which were used to secure garments and were worn by men and women. Jewelry pieces were usually cast in clay moulds and decorated with animal or floral patterns.
One of typical Celtic design was the penannular brooch. The purpose of this brooch was to fasten the heavy cloaks of the Celts. The brooches were generally large and fine in detail. The decorative patterns were rather geometric, comparable to the mosaics of the Arabs.
Another Celtic original was the torque. This was a neck ring of twisted gold, usually massive in form. Most of them were worn around the neck, but it is conjectured that those of close to five feet in diameter were worn from the shoulder across the chest, probably for ceremonial purposes.
In VIIth century Celtic craftsmen adopted complex interlace as the principal decorative motif and developed it to very high level.