Archaeologists excavating an Iron Age settlement on the Baltic island of Bornholm in Denmark have unearthed a unique enameled bronze clasp.
Cast as a flat piece of bronze and decorated with green enamel and glass disks in brilliant red, yellow, and black colors, the brooch is shaped like an owl and dates between 100-250 A.D.
“The bird’s big black glass pupils seem to stare directly back at you,” Ulla Lund Hansen, a leading scholar in the field of Roman Iron Age research, and Christina Seehusen, archaeologist at Bornholm Museum, wrote in the Danish archaeology magazine Skalk.
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“Its large, luminous eyes are made even more dramatic by the stunning inlays of orange glass around the pupils,” she added.
The rare brooch, which measures just 1.5 by 1.5 inches, would have been used to fasten a man’s cloak. It was found in the Roman-age soil deposits of an ancient house in September 2014, but only now the find was made public.
“It is very uncommon to find such items in a settlement context in Denmark. We usually find these things only in burials,” Seehusen told Discovery News.
“The settlement was unusual in itself, as it was extremely well preserved compared to typical standards,” she said.
Indeed, on the settlement site Seehusen’s team found very well preserved remains of workshops, pottery, traces of houses and other buildings.
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“We found Roman coins representing Faustina the Younger [the Empress consort to Marcus Aurelius (161-175 AD)] a bronze spur, several dress pins, bronze and iron brooches, glass beads, iron smelting cinders and plenty of animal bones from pig, cattle, horse, bird, fish and dog,” Seehusen said.
The brooch, or fibula, was probably made along the Roman frontier that ran along the Danube and the Rhine in what is now Germany.How it ended up on Bornholm, an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, remains a mystery.
“We can only guess who the original owner was and how it came to be preserved on the island,” Seehusen said.
The unusual piece represents a personal item, which is very rarely found outside the borders of the Roman Empire. It was possibly owned by a person who served as a mercenary in the Roman army in the northern provinces.
With its unusal shape and bright colors, it probably provided its owner with a great level of prestige.
“Perhaps it was lost or maybe it was deliberately hidden for reasons known only to its owner. Most likely, we will never know the brooch’s full story,” Seehusen said.
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Flat brooches made in various designs were popular between the 1st and 4th century A.D. Their shapes reminded common objects such as axes, spears, wheels, shoes, mythical creatures such as sea serpents and animals including horses, dogs, bees, deers, boars, lions and various types of fish and birds.
Owls were a symbol of wisdom, portrayed as companions to both Athena, the Greek Goddess of war, and Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, art, trade, and war. The owl was one of the rarest types of animals depicted on brooches.“It is possible that Germanic mercenaries in the Roman territories somehow adopted Roman traditions of symbolic jewellery,” Seehusen said.
The majority of such clasps was found in frontier forts in what is now Germany, but small numbers were also found in various European countries.
“They are nonetheless extremely rare in Northern Europe,” Seehusen said.
The brooch has been now restored and is currently on display at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.