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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds Welcome, everybody. We’re here today in the Corbridge museum store, where we have reserve collections for quite a few of the Hadrian’s Wall museums. We’re going to do a short brooch seminar to explain what we know about them, how they can be used, and why they’re great. So we’ll start off with the very simple types because brooches in the Roman period are developed from brooches in the Iron Age, and they’re very simple at the start. So if we look at this one, very, very simple, one piece. It’s lost its pin, unfortunately, but you can see its catch plate. Very plain, no decoration. Basically, a Roman brooch is a glorified safety pin.

Skip to 0 minutes and 51 seconds It’s there to hold your clothes on in its first instance. There’s obviously no Velcro, no zips. There weren’t really buttons in the Roman period You used either brooches or pins. It was mainly brooches. So they’re ubiquitous. They’re found all over the Roman Empire, pretty much, and in large numbers. So they start off very simple, with a bow here. They’re called a bow brooch. Whatever the mechanism is to do with fastening, and then a broken, what we call a catch plate. And you can see very quickly develops a little bit more. So this is still very simple, but it’s got a much more complicated mechanism here.

Skip to 1 minute and 32 seconds So it’s got a spring with multiple coils and a pin curving down to the bottom there. So it’s still simple, no decoration, but bigger. From the late first century, there’s a huge, huge increase in the numbers and the types and the styles of brooches. It’s called the fibula event horizon and there’s multiple reasons why this happens. Many of those reasons are contested, but basically, from the late first century, brooches move from being a functional, simple item to having this secondary nature of bling, basically, decoration. They become almost jewellery but with a function, rather than a necklace, which has no function other than decoration. And so we’ve got a really nice selection here, and in this one.

Skip to 2 minutes and 21 seconds So we have a type that’s very common in the north, and on the Wall. It’s a type called a trumpet brooch. It’s got this big acanthus leaf in the middle, but its head is trumpet shaped. Quite often, brooches have sensible names. It helps to remember them. You can see here a more complicated spring mechanism, which will go down to a catch plate with a head loop. Can I have a look at that? Yeah, of course. We’ll pass this around. Around about the same time as a trumpet brooch, another type that’s very common in north is a headstud brooch. Again, very sensibly named because it has a stud near the head.

Skip to 2 minutes and 59 seconds And these, again, much bigger, so it would have been much more visible. You would have worn them here on your person, and you would have been able to see them. There’s no functional need for these brooches to have been decorated, but they were, and there’s a huge variety in style. This one and the one were holding previous, both called the same type, but multiple different decorations with the enamel and lots of different colours. Would you like to try and hold that one? So really, brooches changed in the second century. They’re still functional, but they’re not solely functional, as we saw with those early types. And would people in Roman times be able to identify people by these brooches?

Skip to 3 minutes and 45 seconds That’s what we’re not sure. There’s lots of debate about identity and ethnicity and what the brooches can tell us, and people have looked at whether one type of brooch relates to one tribe. I think, and the accepted thought now, is that’s too far fetched almost. We’re trying too hard. But you can see general distributions. I think really, the main ones that people in the Roman period could identify someone would be the crossbow brooch, because that shows you’re in a position of power, and then some of the zoomorphic plate brooches, which we don’t have a huge number of here because they’re not as common on military sites, so my collections don’t have a lot.

Skip to 4 minutes and 25 seconds Apart of the military brooches, is it easy to assign gender roles to these brooches? It’s not at all easy. People wish that it was and they try to say it is, but we have so few brooches found in graves and so many of the brooches found all over that there’s really very little that we can say. It would be nice if we could. Some people think that these brooches here with the loop were worn in pairs with a chain, and that was only females, but then you find the odd grave found with that pairing, so it’s very difficult. We think there was quite a lot of individual choice.

Skip to 5 minutes and 2 seconds It’s difficult to put too many broad hats, or broad distribution types on.

Brooches, artefacts and identity

In the previous step, we began our discussion of identity on the frontier by looking at a type of structure with powerfully charged cultural connotations, the bath house.

We considered briefly the way in which bathing could mark people apart in frontier society, those who bathed from those who did not, for example, or those who bathed at one time, and those who bathed at another.

In this step we consider evidence for the way people distinguished themselves from one another from a different angle, not from the study of buildings but of portable objects. The Late Iron Age/Roman transition in Britain saw significant changes in the artefacts of everyday use. There was notable increase in the range of objects people could choose to wear, decorate themselves with and even, indeed, use to groom themselves. A notable aspect of this was a sudden explosion in the range of brooch types in use, a phenomenon termed the ‘Fibula Event Horizon’ by J. D. Hill of the British Museum.

  • What did this explosion of choice mean to people?

In anticipation of our discussion in the next step, we join Frances McIntosh of English Heritage in looking at the brooches worn on the frontier.

Please use this video to reflect on the challenges inherent in linking ancient artefacts to particular notions of identity.

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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

Newcastle University

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