Blog May 17th 2015

The viking tortoise brooch - undoubtly one of the jewel's in

the crown of Viking Age jewellry

In this week's blog I take you with me on a little journey to one of the most outstanding form of art within Viking Age jewellry: the tortoise brooch.

Some years ago I had the luck of my collecting life to be able to aquire one and it is still one of the cornerstones in the collection. At this moment, it is on display on the exhibition 'The Norsemen were here' in the Historiehuis in Roermond (south of Holland)

Although described in more detail here, I'd like to address this beauty piece of art also in this blog.

Viking tortoise brooches, more in specific, tortoise shell brooches in the beginning were domed and far more 'flat' (as 'flat' is a big word here). The further in time in the Viking Age, the more elaborate and 'outbuild' the tortoises did get. The example I have is from the Petersen's P52/P55 type, wich dates him in the second part of the 10th century.

For years I have thought it was gilded originally, as I have seen on several - the most bling-bling examples who had survived - in the National Museum of Norway in Oslo.

At one day the brooch developed a whitish surface and I consulted an archaeological expert in conserving and cleaning and treating artefacts. The developing white surface happened to be an early phase of bronze disease. Luckily I was just 'in time' treating this piece (see for some general advice to collectors on the page on the object where I have linked to above).

The archeaologist said that this viking tortoise brooch never was gilded. Obviously there were non-gilded and gilded types in the day. In my opinion the use of tortoise brooches may seem to have been widespread, it must have something in use with the more 'upper class' Viking Age woman. A few thousand have been excavated, in more or less complete state. Turning up in antique market just a few times in the last 10 years, addresses their rarity also.

On the images beneath in following order:

- an image of the tortoise, taken in 2009 when I aquired it;

- an image of the diverse types of tortoises brooches during the 9th and 10th century;

- images of the tortoise after treatment (mention the needle wich popped up when all the rust was cleaned away ! Being hollow on the inside and the remaing iron on the inside, it was filled up with a form of plastic to be able to preserve it).

- an image of how the tortoises were worn..

A select reference to books/publications here:

Hammond, Brett, British artefacts Volume 2 - Middle Saxon and Viking (2010) page 40/41, fig. 1.1.3-c.

Jansson, Ingmar, Oval brooches : a study of Viking period standard jewellery based on the finds from Björkö Sweden (1985). 

Lonborg, Bjarne. "The method of production of Viking Age tortoise brooches." Kuml 1991-1992. Arhus: I Kommission Hos Aarhus Universitetsforlag. 1991-1992, pp. 151-164.

Rundkvist, Martin, Domed oblong brooches of Vendel Period Scandina­via

Spirgis, Robert, 10th - 13th century Daugava Liv Pectoral Chain Ornaments with Tortoise Brooches (Riga, 2006) see link  and image of the book here

viking tortoise brooch

A short overview of the types of tortoise brooches in 9th and 10th centuries..

viking tortoise brooch typology
viking tortoise brooch
viking tortoise brooch

The back of the tortoise brooch after cleaning with a good part of the needle intact.

how were viking tortoise brooches worn

An image of how the tortoise brooches were being worn. The tortoise on the image is of an earlier 'domed' type. This type is described in more detail here. and here.

It is an example wich was found in Karelia, Finland. One could addres this type as 'Viking-Age Finnic'.

An example of this type was on auction a few years ago. See here.

Finally, take a look at this rare matched pair of oval tortoise brooches who were also on auction a few years ago..

If anyone knows other puiblications on viking tortoise brooches, please let me know at :

Thomas Kamphuis, May 17th 2015.

Link to the prior blog of May 8th 2015