Badges of Identity – women’s dress fittings in Viking Age Scotland

Badges of identity - women’s dress-fittings in Viking-Age Scotland

By Susan Freeman, MLitt graduate at Institute for Northern Studies

The great majority of women buried in Viking-Age graves across Scotland, including Orkney, were interred with dress-fittings originating from both Scandinavia and the insular areas of Britain and Ireland.  Particularly well known are those accompanying the woman in the Scar boat burial and the woman interred in the Westness cemetery with her newborn.  The Scar dress-fitting is a Scandinavian equal-armed brooch and, that at Westness, an Irish silver brooch-pin with gold filigree and inlaid amber. What is the significance of such dress-fittings to the cultural identity and status of the women who were buried with them?

Genetic evidence based on modern day populations suggests that Scandinavian women were present throughout the North Atlantic but that their genetic influence was greater nearer the Scandinavian homelands, as in Shetland and Orkney, than in Iceland where the greater maternal genetic influence was from British and Celtic women.  Runic inscriptions commemorating the names and familial relationships of both Scandinavian and Celtic women in the Isle of Man, Bressay in Shetland and Kilbar in the Outer Hebrides provide contemporary evidence for the presence of women of both Scandinavian and British / Irish / Pictish heritage. Isotope analysis of teeth and bones used to identify first generation immigrants in new areas suggests that in the Viking-Age women in the North Atlantic region appear to have been displaced from their childhood places of origin more frequently than men.  If this is the case, did such displaced women express their cultural identity through wearing insular dress-fittings related to their place of origin?

Traditionally regarded by scholars as indicative of female clothing, oval brooches, worn one on each side of the chest, are thought to have been used to fasten together the back and front straps of a dress. Single brooches such as the equal-armed brooch were probably used to fasten a cloak or shawl together. In addition to their practical purpose, dress-fittings also held symbolic values because they were worn on the outer surface of clothing and were clearly visible to other people. Skeletal evidence which can be osteologically interpreted rarely survives in Scottish Viking-Age graves and the assumption is often made that a pair of oval brooches indicates a woman’s burial. Previous research in the Scandinavian homelands and Iceland has demonstrated that women buried with oval brooches were of high social standing. These brooches were made in Scandinavian homeland trading centres using brass, an alloy of copper and zinc. Their decoration of relief ornament of gripping beasts, enhanced with silver wire, gilding and domed bosses may have had protective power or included visual riddles. Equal-armed brooches were also of Scandinavian design and were similarly embellished.

Overall, oval brooches suggest women of a particular social standing and those with a cultural Scandinavian heritage. The woman buried at Scar had no oval brooches but her equal-armed brooch and burial in a boat with her companions and a range of elite possessions suggests that she was perhaps of even higher social standing. The woman buried at Westness was accompanied not only by a pair of oval brooches but also by a range of dress-fittings derived from other contexts in addition to the Irish brooch-pin: a Gospel Book mount decorated with a lion, the symbol of St Mark, re-purposed as a dress-fitting; a necklace of forty glass beads; and a pair of Anglo-Saxon strap-ends used to decorate the ends of a textile or leather belt.  Dress-fittings of insular origin tend to be made of bronze, a copper-tin alloy, and are decorated with flowing whorls and triangular spirals. Single rather than paired dress-fittings were used to fasten a cloak over a sleeveless ankle or knee-length shift secured at the waist with a belt as shown in contemporary sculpture such as the Muiredach cross.

Although other Viking-Age women’s burials are known from Orkney, those at Scar and Westness, Rousay, are particularly important because these graves were excavated using modern techniques and the available skeletal evidence was osteologically interpreted. In addition to the elite woman’s burial at Westness, three women (two based on osteological evidence) were afforded culturally Scandinavian burials in similarly constructed slab-lined graves, suggesting that they were all of some standing in their community. Whilst one had no dress-fittings, the other two women were accompanied by dress-fittings of insular type: one with a Pictish-adapted penannular brooch and the other with a decorated polyhedral-headed ringed pin and a cannel-coal arm ring. Isotope analysis, currently only available for one of the Westness women, suggests that her early childhood was spent in northeastern Ireland or eastern Scotland possibly implying that she was expressing her cultural identity through the wearing of a Pictish dress-fitting.

In contrast, the woman at Scar appears to be expressing an exclusively Scandinavian cultural identity. Everything about her burial with the exception of a single spindle whorl fashioned from local sandstone was of Scandinavian origin. However, two women at Westness were accompanied by insular dress-fittings alone.  The great majority of women’s graves are accompanied by both Scandinavian and Insular dress-fittings, as with the elite woman at Westness and many burials in the Western Isles. Interpreting the significance of these different dress-fittings is challenging because they appear to represent intersecting elements of gender, status and cultural identity.  Aspects of identity such as gender and cultural affiliation are highly personal to an individual.  The reasons why an individual should choose to express their cultural identity will be dependent on the person concerned and the social context in which they are positioned. The choice of dress-fittings a woman made may have been entirely dependent on their symbolic significance to her own sense of cultural identity.  Equally, cultural identity could be a joint expression by a family or kinship group particularly as the choice of grave-goods will be by the interred’s survivors, not herself.  Belonging to a new kinship group may involve masking or emphasising a particular expression of an individual’s cultural identity so that they ‘fit’ in with its other members and contribute to the expression of a common cultural identity. This might occur if a woman moved into or married into a family or kinship group other than her own, whether of her own volition or not.

Previous research on dress-fittings indicated that women in the Danelaw wore culturally Scandinavian dress and dress-fittings because it conferred economic and political advantage.  Scandinavian women in Scotland may have worn insular dress-fittings to achieve the same ends. This is particularly evident in women’s graves in the Western Isles where improved status appears to be indicated by the increasing number and quality of insular dress-fittings in addition to a pair of oval brooches. The rarity and exclusivity of insular dress-fittings may have been symbolic badges of similarly exclusive elites. These women were also accompanied by increasingly elaborate tools for textile production and maintenance suggesting their possible involvement in trade. The combination of Scandinavian and Insular dress-fittings suggests that cultural identities were being re-negotiated as settlement continued in the Western and Northern Isles and that women by wearing diverse dress-fittings and dress styles were actively involved in this development.