Very often, when we think of the past, it is hard to imagine the colours that played an important part in everyday life. Time and the weather have eroded the bright colours that once decorated the exteriors of temples, churches, cathedrals, wayside crosses and palaces. Textiles rarely survive and painted wooden items have decayed. But we can get a small glimpse into the dazzling show of display that set certain people apart. In the case of the Anglo-Saxon period, we have the jewellery that was worn by high status individuals and warriors – look at the Staffordshire Hoard, Sutton Hoo, and the other items found in burials and as stray finds and we get a glimpse of a world glittering with gold and garnets.  

The White Peak area of Derbyshire has the greatest collection of 7th century Anglo-Saxon monumental burials in the Midlands, and particularly around the village of Tissington. Although it has been fashionable to view these burials as representative of the elite of a very local community, another theory is that the zone may have been used as a kind of “valley of the kings” for a wider regional elite.

7th century Anglo-Saxon gold and garnet disc-brooch from Tissington, Derbyshire. © Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. Acc. No. DERSB : 2021.16

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery has recently acquired a 7th century disc-brooch consisting of two parts of the decorative gold and garnet body of the brooch and fragments of the silver base plate. Found by a detectorist near to Tissington, the brooch is in fragments, but still shines with its intricate workmanship and display of wealth and status, coming from a time on the cusp between the worship of the old gods and Christianity. Both men and women wore brooches to hold cloaks and other pieces of clothing together, and while it would be tempting to identify this brooch with martial gear it is far more likely to be feminine, and the larger two gold pieces appear to be the applied decorative plates of a disc-brooch.  The plates of gold were likely fixed to a more robust disc of base metal – copper alloy or silver, by means of small pins (the remains of which can be seen on the reverse) prior to the garnet cabochons being placed into their bezels which sit on top of the rivet heads: this approach is seen elsewhere in 7th century jewellery, including the garnet-cabochon-capped sword-guard rivets in the Staffordshire Hoard. Though more robust the base metal component often degrades more in the soil, leaving just the decorative appliqués behind. It’s not impossible that the silver fragments are the remains of the back-plate of that brooch, with very simple punched decoration; the inclusion of simple punched decoration on the reverse of more elaborate jewellery is, again, well precedented among 6-7th century elite jewellery, such as the famous examples of the great buckles from Sutton Hoo, Crundale Down, and Finglesham.

Gold and garnet disc-brooch from Tissington, Derbyshire. © Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. DERSB : 2021.16
Silver base plate for the brooch. © Buxton Museum and Art Gallery DERSB : 2021.16

The most comparable piece to the brooch at Buxton Museum is the disc-brooch found in a burial mound at White Low, Winster, recovered by labourers doing levelling work on the commons in 1773, together with a filligree decorated gold pectoral cross, both of which entered the collection of the “barrow knight” Thomas Bateman, which together with other Anglo-Saxon treasures he recovered from Peak District burial mounds (including other 7th century jewellery, and the famous Benty Grange helmet) ended up in the keeping of the Weston Park Museum in Sheffield where they are now displayed.

Gold, silver and garnet disc-brooch from White Low, Winster, Derbyshire. © Museums Sheffield, Acc. No. 2012b

Crucially the extremely fine S-shaped beaded-wire elements are very similar to those on the White Low disc-brooch, but especially, the inclusion of small cabochons sitting on a medial border of beaded wire is an exact match. The filigree work is also very close to that found on many of the pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard.

The central gem of the White Low disc-brooch is missing, revealing the base metal beneath, and the cloisonné element can be seen to have been very delicately constructed from gold sheet.   The circular void between the two gold pieces at Buxton museum is of very similar size, and may have been occupied by a similarly delicate cloisonné cell structure which has not survived.

Reconstruction of high status female clothing and jewellery of the 6th – 7th century AD. © Thegns of Mercia

Gold at this period was imported from the Continent. Until the ninth century the main source was Francia where there was a lively demand for English produce. Cross Channel trade flourished, much of it passing through the major ports, or wics, that developed in the seventh century. Garnets came from far off India and Sri Lanka. The art styles show a close cultural contact and ties with Scandinavia.  One of the things I love about Anglo-Saxon art are the writhing serpents and the way humans and animals change from one to the other – everything is in a fluid state of change, revealing complex ideologies of a world view, spirituality, and social status. When looking at such pieces it easy to see that the so-called “Dark Ages” were actually very bright.

When metal detectoring please get the permission of the land owner. If you find anything you must report it to the Finds Liaison Officer: https://finds.org.uk/counties/derbyshire/