Carrying Coals to Newcastle!

“Carrying Coals to Newcastle.” Exactly what do I mean by that? Well, it may be a slightly obscure reference for many, but Newcastle was a major coal producing area of England. Therefore trying to import and sell coal there would have been a futile effort. But back to that in a moment.

For those who have known me for a while, my interest in the accurate reproduction of pieces of period jewelry and accessories comes as no great surprise. I have always been interested in history, and with a Masters in Anthropology with a specialization in Archaeology, accuracy seemed like a natural thing. I know that my art teachers were often confounded by my unusual questions and projects. Fortunately for me they were mostly concerned with me learning specific techniques and not with what I actually made. And many years later I am still working on adding new, and very interesting, items to my shop collection.

Since I actually make my living making historically accurate items that people want, I obviously listen to my customers about what they would like to see in my shop. Sometimes that feedback is very direct, emails, and people who actually walk into my shop and make requests. Other times people “vote” with their wallets, and I have to admit some of those “votes” over the years have really made me smile.

And some of that “voting with their wallets” is why hubby and I have discussed “Carrying Coals to Newcastle”. It would never have occurred to either of us that the items that I sell might not be available in the countries in which they were originally made. One of the first of those sales was the lady from Sweden who purchased my reproduction of a key from the Swedish National Museum. As a reenactor she wanted a key that was as close as possible to the original one in the museum. All she could find in Sweden was “charm” sized keys. Mine is within a millimeter of the size of the original.

Etsy 29

And then there was the gentleman from Norway who bought one of my plain cast silver Thor’s hammers. He wanted a plain, solid silver Thor’s hammer, and had not been able to find one.

And the lady from Greece who purchased a batch of my brass fibulae and was totally delighted when she received them – Carrying Fibulae to Athens?

And the dozens of batches of dress pins that I have shipped all over Europe, including to a British TV production studio. Really? No one there makes these?

At Potrero War, a gentleman that I see at several events every year informed me that he loves my stuff, but that he is always amazed at how little stock I have in my shop. Really? I will admit, it is not your typical crowded and cluttered shop, but that made me wonder. Just how many separate items do I usually have in my shop (not counting backstock)? And because it was a new shop layout, and I had taken good pictures, I was able to count! Over 523 separate items, with a pair counted as one, and ranging in size from individual bronze buttons to knights chains, and Viking swags to Medieval spindle whorls, and with absolutely no attempt made to count the hundreds of glass topped veil pins. That will just have to be good enough…for now.

What Size Were Brooches in the Middle Ages – Part 12 – Figuring out Earlier Cultures

So last time we asked the question – but what about earlier time frames? What can we do to understand cultures like the Romans and the Vikings?

To be blunt, the less figurative art that we have (art with actual life-like representations), the harder it is to be completely confident of our interpretations. Cultures like Rome, Greece, and Egypt, despite having existed a very long time ago, actually left an amazing collection of sculpture, frescoes, paintings, and mosaics.

An excellent example of using this sort of information to help us understand a culture, is the Camomile Street Soldier. I found a single line reference in a book about this being a source of information on the use of buttons in Roman Great Britain. So I Googled it. I quickly discovered that it was a carving that is believed to have been part of a frieze on a tomb. This sculpture clearly shows the clothing of a soldier. I found a small collection of pictures of the carving. You can see the buttons on the front of his tunic, as well as how he wore his sword and how his belt was decorated. In addition, through the generosity of the internet, you can read J.E. Price’s original report on the discovery.

And you can read a follow-up report that reevaluates the frieze in modern terms.

All from one search based on a single reference in a book. Now obviously this was a lucky find.

But sometimes we make our own luck.

The Egyptian tombs had wonderful paintings in them. The Roman frescoes in Pompeii and Herculaneum are legendary for their details. If the culture that you are interested in does not have any surviving carvings or paintings with that level of detail, look at archaeological reports. Join (FREE) and start reading the articles that are posted there. You can even set up your preferences so that every time an article is posted in one of your areas of interest, you are notified. Many theses and dissertations will do all of the extensive research that is necessary to interpret the archaeology that is available. Don’t be afraid to let someone else help you do your research – just always approach any research with at least a little healthy skepticism.

Many of the earliest large burials were very poorly excavated by treasure hunting antiquarians, but occasionally we find someone, like Johann Karl Bähr, whose original training was as an artist. He recorded every inhumation grave that he excavated in extreme detail. Unfortunately, his records were for Livian graves, not Vikings, but records like these can provide us with insights into cultures that did not leave good pictures of their members.

Professor Bӓhr’s work is also a good example of a problematical area of study – Vikings vs. Scandinavians vs. Finno-Ugaric cultures. Now this could be a blog series all by itself, but my point is that the Vikings were not a unified culture. They were a generalized group of people who started out in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and northern Germany and spoke the same language – Old Norse. Each area had different influences – the Hanseatic League, the Finno-Ugaric cultures, the Slavs…and different levels of access to imported goods. I would expect the different groups to have dressed and looked differently, with different dress accessories and styles.

But going back to our original theme – what other things are little? More next time!

Territories and voyages of the Vikings

Territories and voyages of the Vikings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Size Were Brooches in the Middle Ages Part 4 – Buttons and Toggles

Buttons and Toggles. When did they appear, and is everything that looks like a button or toggle actually used to close your clothes, or are they just decor? What size were they and what were they made of? Who wore them? And does your definition of a button require that the button actually be pushed through a hole in fabric or leather, or can the button be used with a loop?

toggles and buttons(photo credit: Irene Davis 2015, from the Eirny Historic Collection)

This picture shows some typical ancient artifacts. On the left we have a Celtic or Roman toggle, the middle six buttons are typical medieval buttons and the right most button is a fancy Tudor button.

Lots of questions, and not as many definitive answers as I would like to have. One of the problems that we deal with is that the older the button, the less likely we are to find it attached to a piece of clothing. In Egypt, for instance, we find a lot of “button-like objects” some of which are made of really beautiful blue faience. Many date from 1479 to 1458 BC. But when they are found in well-preserved burials we see them used as part of necklaces.

By the time we get to Persia, in about the 3rd to 7th century AD, we are seeing hundreds of button-like objects, most taking the form of round disks, made of ivory or bone, and some have simple carved designs on them.

Could these disks have been used as buttons? Sure. Were they? No clue. We know that by the early 1500’s we find tons of Persian Miniature Paintings that show buttons in use on clothing. In this Painting “Standing Youth with Staff”, we can see that his outer coat is closed with a row of buttons, probably anchored closed with loops – not pushed through button holes.

The Romans and Celts both appear to have used toggles. Here is a Celtic Iron Age Toggle. And here is another toggle where they are uncertain if it is Roman or British.  The Roman carving that is known as the Camomile Street Soldier shows the use of both buttons and toggles on his clothing.

And what about colder climates? Logically keeping your clothes tighter around yourself would be more important if the weather was colder. We find buttons in the graveyard in Birka, Sweden. These look like standard Medieval buttons that you could find anywhere in Europe. This pdf includes a picture of the buttons along with a picture of a leg wrap hook and some other assorted artifacts.

The Skjoldehamn bog find includes a shirt. This page has a diagram of the shirt, which has been carbon dated to 995-1029 AD. The striped square (actually strips of trim on a flap) that covers the neck opening on the shirt, is closed with a bead that is used as a button, and a loop.

And then there is the question of who wore them. I just got a message from a friend asking about buttons on women’s dresses. We do see them sometimes on the outside layer of a Gothic fitted gown, but all of the structural “stress” is controlled by the underlayer, which is laced. The expansion and contraction that most women experience every month (not to mention pregnancy) is controlled by lacing or the use of pins to hold plackets in place. So most buttons in Europe, prior to the 1600s were worn by men.

Next Time: Fibulae, Dress Pins, and Misc Brooches