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Museum corner: Antiquarium di Monselice

What do the materials shown at the Antiquarium at Monselice tell us about Lombard burials, and more importantly, Lombard society?
The fortified settlement of Monselice
© Università degli Studi di Padova

In the castrum of Monselice, near a tower located on the slope of the hill excavations carried out in 1989 brought to light five Lombard burials.

Two of these burials were of rich and aristocratic warriors and three of children who died between two and five years of age.

Lombard burials found during excavations
Lombard burials found during excavations, with a male burial highlighted

The find clarifies the importance of the fortified settlement, dominating the border area between the Lombards and the Byzantines and the important road network that connected these two conflicting powers.

In Lombard culture, it was traditional to place objects in the tomb during the funeral to demonstrate to the community the role, wealth, and social class of the deceased.

It is fascinating to note that some artifacts reflect the Byzantine manufacturing tradition, very widespread in the Eastern Empire, especially in the case of the precious gilded bronze buckles.

The Lombard warrior elite was distinguished by the presence of weapons, with the addition of a few everyday objects (combs and knives) and gold crosses, a Christian symbol that perhaps identified religious faith (Orthodox or Aryan), or perhaps was considered to bring good luck.

One of the male burials at Monselice contained all the weapons characteristic of high-ranking warriors: the sword and spear, and a shield, of which only the central metal boss is preserved, and a sturdy knife called a scramasax.

Spear and scramasax
Scramasax

Weapons were worn with special belts made of leather, or sometimes fabric. These belts were enriched with metal elements such as buckles, tips, and reinforcement plates.

At Monselice, the metal elements of horse bridles were also found, signalling the presence of a mounted warrior.

The weapons were always made of iron while the belt parts could be in bronze, iron, inlaid iron (agemina technique) with threads or thin sheets of gold, brass, and silver inserted in prepared grooves (damascene). Decorations were always drawn from the Germanic tradition, mostly in an “zoomorphic” style, which depicted intertwining animals similar to dragons or snakes.

Details of the sword and its scabbard
Details of the sword and its scabbard

They are shallow decorations, abstract, with the exception of the intertwined animals. They draw on the sphere of religion and the myth of Odin and his sagas, but create distinctive and delicate contrasts of light due to the combination of gold and silver.

Richly decorated objects found at the burial
Richly decorated objects found at the burial site

In contrast, other objects with floral motifs, lilies, acanthus or vine leaves, perforated decorations of the belt buckles, and a silver ferrule with engraved dolphins were crafted in the late Roman and Byzantine style.

The arms of a gold cross are decorated with intertwining animals. In the center is a Latin monogram, perhaps a Christian reference, which has not yet been deciphered.

Golden cross with monogram characteristic of Lombard burials
Golden cross with monogram characteristic of Lombard burials

It was placed between the heads of two adults, one armed but the other almost devoid of possessions, buried next to each other. Perhaps this may have been a warrior buried with his faithful squire.

© Università degli Studi di Padova
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