In contrast to the relatively strict dress code of the Roman Period, among peoples of the early Middle Ages social status, rank and wealth were mostly expressed through costume and jewellery, often in a quite exaggerated form. With the exception of a few insignia allowed only to a restricted group, the larger, more abundant and more expensive the jewellery or the more ornate the costume worn by a person, the higher his or her social standing was within the community. Beside the more modest attire of men in the respective period, women more likely appeared in spectacularly ornate costumes. Thus, the rank of a man was not only represented by his weapons and insignia, but also by the jewellery and clothes worn by his wife (or wives) and daughters, or even the exceptionally ornate horse equipment of female relatives – objects all brought along to the afterlife. Christianity called forth (again) a slow transformation of this tradition. The Carolingian Period aristocracy no longer expressed their social status through rich funerals but by burying their dead in the graveyard of their private church on the court-house grounds.


The Szilágysomlyó brooches

In 1889, during potato planting at a village in Transylvania, a set of breathtaking objects turned out of the ground: three cups and an oath ring, as well as a men's brooch and ten pairs of women's brooches. The assemblage can be considered outstanding among the treasures of the respective period due to the high number of women's jewels, especially as all pieces represent the same object type. The brooches, worn in pairs on the shoulders, were either crafted out of fine gold or gold sheets bent over a silver core, and each piece was richly decorated with filigree, granulation and precious stone inlays. Jewels of similar quality and design are only known from the most outstanding elite burials of the period. The manufacture of the fine gold pieces (such as the pair of disc brooches or the pair of lion shaped brooches) required even higher quality goldsmiths' skills than the rest of the objects in the assemblage. Supposedly they were produced in prestigious late Antique workshops located most probably on the northern Black Sea coast, sometime during the last quarter of the 4th century or the beginning of the 5th century. At the same time, pieces with a silver core already apply to Barbaric/Germanic tastes, and could have been produced by a local goldsmith (or goldsmiths) in the first half of the 5th century. It is no doubt because of their exceptional value, that most brooches were worn further by being sewn to the garment as a decoration after their pin structure has been damaged. Beside the characteristic brooches, high-born Germanic women also wore earrings, metal pearls, necklaces and veils adorned by metal sequins, as well as bracelets. Conspicuously, the Szilágysomlyó treasure only contained those elements of women's costume which were the most spectacular and included the highest ratio of precious metals. It is not clear who has collected the gold objects and why they were buried, sometime around the death of Attila the Hun. Perhaps we will never receive precise answers to these questions. However, the jewels and other objects of the assemblage must have certainly belonged to a family of exceptionally high social standing. Their concealment has not been a ritual act but a matter of saving the valuable belongings for more peaceful times. At this moment we cannot say if the objects originated from the treasury of the Gepidic royal family or were gathered elsewhere from the end of the 4th century to the middle of the 5th century. 


The grave of a high-born woman in Répcelak

In 1951, miners working at the Répcelak sandmine had a lucky day: they found an exceptional burial. The grave belonged to a high-born woman who was put to rest carefully groomed, in ceremonial robes, adorned with her numerous jewels. It must have been almost impossible to permanently wear the large brooches, each more than 20 cm long and weighing over 0,3 kg, as they would have hindered any kind of physical work. They were too large and heavy for everyday use, therefore they must have served a single purpose: to show off the status and richness of their owner. During the 5th century, brooches, the structure of which resembles safety pins and were basically meant to secure the clothing on the shoulders, became gradually larger and more ornate, until they were no longer suitable for their origial purpose. The front of the cast silver brooches is decorated with spirals imitating wood carvings, while the zoomorph buttons at the ends depict the sacred boar of Frey, God of Light and Rain. The deceased woman’s belt buckle, bearing a similar decoration, harmonized well with the brooches. The lady wore an intricate necklace made of gold wire, with a Christogram visible on its clasp. In the respective historical period the appearance of a Christian symbol on a jewel does not automatically mean that the object’s owner was a Christian. One could imagine that the high-born woman, otherwise buried in a Germanic style costume, wore this jewel of late Antique origin only because of its beauty and preciousness. The earrings and the ring of the lady of Répcelak, as well as the beads which she wore on a short string around her neck represent the most widespread jewel types of the period.


A ‘princess’ from Kölked

Social status and wealth could not only be expressed by wearing large and precious jewels. In this period, we can already count with the existence of a certain kind of fashion; costume traditions changed from time to time. In this regard, archaeology can mostly state the preferred forms, decorations, size and style of jewels and other accessories.  However, in the case of certain peoples, following the fashion did not only include the imitation of a certain costume style. Same as in the western territories, inhabitants of the Avar Period Carpathian Basin preferred to imitate Mediterranean lifestyle. Roman style luxury can be detected in interior furnishings, in the preparation of food (cooking and serving dishes, recipes) as well as clothing. Unlike the Avar khaftans and indigenous Germanic style clothes secured on the shoulders, Mediterranean-cut clothing was held together with a single brooch in the middle of the chest in the 7th century. From one of the graves excavated in Kölked, a few inches long, discoid brooch made of fine gold came to light. This accessory is of first class craftsmanship. Its surface was covered in embossed gold sheets with an engraved decoration depicting interlaced serpents; the fine details were emphasized with black niello. Also, the costume of the lady must have been a rare imported piece; fortunately, the gold embroidery of its hem was also preserved. In all likelihood, the lady belonged to the prominent family which led the Kölked community. On her arm she wore a late Antique gold bracelet bearing a monogram; however, in the jewel-box buried beside her there was bracelet decorated with 163 garnet inlays and patterns of western European style. Another casket was placed beside the feet of the deceased woman, most probably filled with clothes on top of which small wooden bowls with silver and gold fittings were also placed. Beside the casket an iron stool of Italic origin was laid.



The representation of Carolingian Period aristoctracy does not, or not primarily manifest itself in the richness and grandiosity of burials. Members of the Christianized communities were buried in sacred ground in churchyards, in coffins and usually without their insignia and jewellery. In the case of the churchyards, it is the exact location of the grave which is of outstanding importance: noble families aimed at burying their dead in the immediate vicinity of the sanctuary or the church itself. This was true of the Pannonian ecclesiastical and wordly centre which developed at Mosaburg, today Zalavár-Vársziget (‘Castle Island’) in the 840s.

Nevertheless, children and young family members were often buried with their jewels or accessories. This is how the young girl of age 4 or 5 has been laid to rest within Crypt no. I of St. Hadrian’s pilgrim church, the most grandiose ecclesiastical building at Zalavár-Vársziget: her grave contained gilt bronze hairpins originally fixing a veil or headdress, large earrings (or pendants) made of fine gold, as well as gilt silver ornamental buttons of the overgarment and a unique, eight lobed disc brooch made of gilt silver and decorated with garnet, coral and shell inlays.

Also near the church rested a young girl who, for her voyage to the afterlife, was provided with a gold pendant of unparalelled beauty, a gilt silver finger ring decorated with granulation as well as a silver bunch-of-grapes earrings. An interesting detail to the large pendant is that the mounting composed of ornamental leaves characteristic of the Carolingian Renaissance holds a prehistoric flint blade, while on the reverse a simple tree of life motif can be seen in filigree.

In the southern part of Zalavár-Vársziget, the cemetery established around the Church of the Virgin Mary, which served as the private church of the court-house, members of the noble family and their entourage were buried. One of the graveyard’s (family?) grave groups included the burial of an approximately 30-years-old woman, whose jewels became emblematic finds of the 9th century material culture of Zalavár. The young woman was buried with finely crafted, gilt silver, two-sided exemplars of the so-called bunch-of-grapes earrings – a typical jewel type in this period –, as well as with a large, gilt silver finger ring (originally with stone inlay) on both hands.



So-called rosette horse harness fittings are among the most exciting object types in the Hungarian Conquest Period archaeolgical material. The set of horse harness fittings on this picture originates from the isolated grave in Törtel. Similar rosette fittings are only found in some of the high-born women’s graves. They are neither present in men’s burials, nor in graves of wealthy ladies buried in richly jewelled costume. In summary, lavishly fitted horse harness and richly ornamented clothing are never included in the same grave, and even their parallel appearance within the same graveyard is extremely rare. 

Several archaeologists were and are intrigued by the reason behind this explicit separation. The idea emerged that perhaps some of the ladies received the horse harness decorated with rosette shaped fittings as dowry, while others were endowed with richly decorated clothing. According to another theory, Hungarias could have been familiar with the concept of polygamy, where the wives of high-ranking men were entitled to different possessions not only during their lifetime but also after their death: some had the right to own clothes richly decorated with precious metal ornaments while others were entitled to similarly lavish horse harness.

The fact that these two distinguished groups do not mix with eachother definitely suggests that the separation is by no means accidental, however, we cannot define its cause yet. An interesting detail to the Törtel find assemblage is the figure of a deer visible on one of the strap ends. Namely, real animals such as birds, dogs and deer are – unlike their mythical ‘counterparts’ – quite rarely depicted on objects from the Hungarian Conquest Period.




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