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Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian hooked tags

The following article is an evaluation of the long-term collection of information on the fixation of European clothing worn on the legs during the Early Middle Ages. The main focus will be on hooked tags that are known in vast number of specimens and that are widely used by historical reenactors. Attention will be paid primarily to archaeological finds and more detailed iconography. The resulting text serves as a review of finds and presented theories, from which both academics and reenactors can source.

An example of an early medieval hooked tag. Source: Portable Antiquities Scheme, finds.org.uk.


Definition of hooked tags

Dress hooks, mainly known as hooked tags in English, form a relatively uniform group of objects in terms of material, size and shape. The basis is usually a triangular or circular, less often differently shaped plate, which is terminated at one end with holes placed in the body of the plate or on separate lobes or loops, and the opposite side is equipped with a sharp hook. In total, two cases are known where the plate is equipped with two hooks (Webster – Backhouse 1991: 89, 236). Hooked tags are usually made from a single piece of material, with the exception of examples made from perforated coins to which the hooks are riveted (https://finds.org.uk/). The material is most often a copper alloy or silver, less often iron. According to the production method, tags can be divided into hammered and cast. The resulting tags are 1.5-4.5 cm long and are often decorated.

Pair of silver tags from grave 67 at Winchester. Source: Hinton 1990: Fig. 148.

They have a dominant presence in central, southern and eastern England, where they were used from the 7th to the 11th century (Thomas 2009: 17). If we combine the lists of older literature (e.g. Wiechmann 1996: Liste 26, Karte 75) with more recent detector finds registered on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (https://finds.org.uk/), it is clear that the number of finds in this region at present it is around 1200. The representation north of the Humber River is smaller and according to the same sources the number is close to 85. We know of at least one tag from Ireland, as well as from France (Wiechmann 1996: Liste 26) and Poland (Strobin – Żołędziowski 2021: Tabl. XXVI.3). One pair is known from Rome, Italy (Graham-Campbell et al. 1991). An unspecified number originates from the territory of the Netherlands and remains unpublished.

Hooked tags are quite rare in Scandinavia. One pair comes from the site of Vesle Hjerkinn, Norway (Thomas 2007). At least five pieces are known from northern Germany, two being from List (Wiechmann 1996: Taf. 6.3-4) and three from Haithabu (Hilberg 2009: Fig. 16). The portal of detector finds Digitale Metaldetektorfund (https://www.metaldetektorfund.dk/) lists up to twenty possible candidates from the territory of Denmark, which are expanded by the four finds from Lejre (Christensen 2015: 522) and one from Endebjerg (Adamsen 1997). At least five pieces are known from Sweden: a single tag from grave Bj 348 and paired hooked tags from grave Bj 905 are known from Birka (Arbman 1943: 99, 353), one tag comes from the Gerete hoard, Gotland (Stenberger 1947: Abb. 249.5) and one from the SE-Banken site in Lund (Cinthio 1999: Fig. 5). A pair was found in grave 78 at Långängsbacken in Åland (Kivikoski 1980: 32 , Pl. 11-12). At least sixteen pieces come from Russia: five tags were discovered at Rurikovo hillfort (Chvoščinskaja 2007: 132-4; Nosov et al. 2017: 116-8), at least five tags are known from Gnězdovo (Puškina 1996: 63-4; Širinskij 1999: Рис. 24), a pair was picked up from grave 383 of the Timerevo cemetery (Nedošivina – Zozulja 2012: Рис. 12), two finds were found in the Staraya Ladoga agglomeration – one in the Plakun cemetery (Korotkevič 2003: 78-9) and another – a mold for casting a bird-shaped tag – at Earthen hillfort (Kirpičnikov – Sarabjanov 2013: 79). We must also mention two unpublished pieces come from illegal detector activity in the Vladimir Region. At least two detector finds come from the territory of Ukraine.

From these numbers, it would be possible to establish that it is primarily an Anglo-Saxon fashion that was adopted to a limited extent and copied in a modified form in the Scandinavian environment (Thomas 2007: 85). The youngest hooked tags in England may date from the period of the Norman Conquest (Thomas 2007: 84), while Scandinavian Borre-style variants are limited to the 10th century. In the late Middle Ages, dress hooks reoccured (Read 2008).

Pair of tags from grave 383, Timerevo. Sources: Nedošivina – Zozulja 2012: Рис. 12; Smirnov 1963: 17.


Current trend in reenactment

Hooked tags are very popular objects in the early medieval reenactment, owned by the majority of men who represent the Old Norse and Old Rus people. The dominant material for production is copper alloy, but silver pieces are also present. Both hammered and cast tags are used, and in both cases they are made from a relatively strong material of around 0.09-0.15 cm, which can withstand rougher handling without bending. Hooked tags are usually made of material of the homogenous thickness, both plates and hooks. Hooks and plates are usually spaced close to 0.5-1 cm. Tags are almost always sewn directly to the ends of the leg wrappings and serve to fasten them. It is common for the wrappings to lack any prepared holes and the hooks are inserted in a slightly different location each time.

Hooked tags attached to the leg wrappings. Maker: For the Gods.


Detailed reading of the originals and reconstruction proposal

A detailed reading partially agrees with the reenactor trend, but not completely. It is true that the hooked tags are in some cases used in pairs and that the holes of the plates are never filled with rivets, suggesting that they were used to sew organic material to an organic substrate (Graham-Campbell et al. 1991: 222). At the same time, some of the tags are slightly bent to one side or the other, which means that they bound material of an organic nature. Both original pieces and modern reproductions are intended to be viewed from one side, as evidenced by unilateral decoration and, in some rare cases, legible inscriptions (Graham-Campbell et al. 1991). However, this is where the similarities end.

Archaeologically preserved hooked tags have closed hooks so that the distance between the hook and the plate is a maximum of 0.4 cm, while in modern reproductions are more open. This can be judged as modern reproductions are designed to hook into thick material, while the originals are much more likely to hook into one not-so-thick layer. The thickness of the sheet corresponds well with this; the thickness of hammered tags is on average less than that of reenactor versions and varies between 0.02-0.12 cm, usually under 0.07 cm. This fact shows that the tied fabric was not expected to be under much stress so that the tag would not be deformed. Although the hooks themselves compensate for the strength by usually being the thickest parts of the piece of jewellery, it is assumed that hammered tags were not subjected to strong tension (Graham-Campbell et al. 1991: 222; Hinton 1990: 548) and that they were used to fix silk and other light textiles (Graham-Campbell 1982: 148; Thomas 2009: 17). The unusual double tags shed an interesting light on the entire corpus and testify to the fact that the underlying material may have been wider than the tag. It should be added that for repeated use it is advisable to create holes into which sharp hooks are inserted, otherwise the material would be damaged. It is generally assumed that in Anglo-Saxon material culture hooked tags were universal objects with a wider range of applications and had no distinct specialization (Graham-Campbell et al. 1991: 225; Hinton 1990: 548; Thomas 2009: 17).


Fixation of textiles on the legs

The most widespread opinion in the academic literature is the one that evaluates the hooked tags as fasteners of garters, i.e. laces in the knee areas (see Graham-Campbell 1982: 146, 148; Graham-Campbell et al. 1991: 224; Hinton 1990: 548; Thomas 2009: 17). Textile or leather garters are known from all over Europe (see e.g. Ungerman 2019; 2020) and their main purpose is to hold the textile wrapping around the leg, fit the garment so that the silhouette stands out, and at the same time offer new decorating options. The simpler garters of the European early medieval tradition are situated only below the knee and take the form of a tied lace with free ends (e.g. Bartel 2005: Abb. 15; Zariņa 1999: 83; Žeiere 2017: 99) or a strap fastened with a buckle (Birkebæk 1983: 65; Clauss 1976/1977: Abb. 1, Abb. 4). In some cases, the simpler garters were sewn directly on the leg wrapping (Clauss 1976: Abb. 5; Zariņa 1999: 83), in other cases they were separated, which brings the advantage that the same garters can be used to fix different garments. The second important group of garters consists of long bands crosswise wrapped around a large part of the calf (Bartel 2005; Möslein 2005; Seljun 2017; Ungerman 2019). From 8th-11th century archaeology and iconography, we only know pairs of bands that are wound in the space from the ankle to the knee. The lower ends of the bands are always fixed either by being tied one to the other, or they are connected to the ends of the shoe laces by means of buckles (Bartel 2005; Möslein 2005). The upper ends are most often finished with a knot.

9th-11th century artworks that depict both short and long garters.

Hypothetical reconstructions of short garters using hooked tags.
Authors: Tomáš Vlasatý and Charles Bruns.

Since the hooked tags do not appear in the iconography, we have to focus in detail on the archaeological finds. One of the most famous and telling find is a pair of richly ornamented silver tags placed at the knees of a deceased from grave 67 at Old Minster, Winchester Cathedral (Biddle 1965: 256). The deceased, who was a man aged 21-25 or 25-35, was apparently of royal descent and died in the mid to late 9th century (Biddle 2018: 23, 30; Yorke 2021: 65). He was placed in a wooden coffin with iron nails and, in addition to the hooked tags, it is worth noting that he had a veil-like fabric placed over his head and shoulders, the edge of which was hemmed with golden tablet-weavings of two different widths (Biddle 1965: 256; Crowfoot 1990: 480-1; Owen-Crocker 2010: 155, 158). Depending on the source, the position is described as “at the feet” (Roesdahl 1981: 50), “by the knees” (Webster – Backhouse 1991: 236), “at the knees” (Biddle 2018: 30; Graham-Campbell et al. 1991: 224), “next to the knees” (Thomas 2009: 17), “under the knees” (Wilson 1965: 256) or “both hooked tags under the right knee” (Owen-Crocker 2010: 155). However, the most detailed and precise position is given by Hinton (1990: 549): one tag lay below the right knee under the distal end of the right femur, the other tag was placed directly on the proximal end of the left tibia. However, the grave plan shows that both tags are located on the front side of the proximal ends of the tibiae and their hooks point towards the knees.

Plan of the grave 67 from Winchester. Source: Coatsworth – Owen-Crocker 2007: Fig. 4

The closest and most complete parallel to this find is grave Bj 905 from Birka. The deceased was an adult male (Linderholm et al. 2008: 452; Sten 1979: 24) who was buried in a wooden coffin with iron nails (Arbman 1943: 353). Small tools aside, the main component of the inventory consists of a cloak penannular brooch on the right shoulder and cast hooked tags located below the knees. The grave is usually not dated in the literature, but there are clues to dating it to the 10th century – Gräslund dates all coffin graves from the Hemdalen cemetery to the younger Birka phase, i.e. to the period 900-970 (Gräslund 1980: 15). The tinning of the copper alloy brooch is assessed as a feature of the first half of the 10th century (Graham-Campbell 1984: 32), which is in agreement with the dating of the closest parallel of the hooked tags (e.g. Puškina 1996: 63). If we focus on the tags, it is necessary to mention that they are both oriented so that their hook points towards the torso of the deceased, which is evaluated as the original, unchanged orientation (Geijer 1938: 144-5). A fragment of thick diagonal twill wool fabric with a density close to 11×8 threads per cm is still sewn to the back of one tags (Geijer 1938: 38, 170). A small iron ring was inserted into the hook of this jewel, which was sewn to the linen fabric of the plain weave (Hägg 1986: 68). The literature considers the hooked tags to be sewn on the tops of woolen hoses that were fixed on the knees by hooking into rings sewn on breeches made of linen or woolen trousers lined with linen (Geijer 1938: 144-5; Hägg 1986: 68).

Tags position in grave Bj 905 and detail of tag with fabric. Source: SHM Stockholm.

This function explains the absence in the iconography that is characterized by concentrating on the more prominent elements of clothing. However, it should be mentioned that it is only suitable for hooked tags made of strong material, especially cast ones. We can assume that the paired tags from Timerevo grave 383 (Nedošivina – Zozulja 2012: Рис. 12) and grave 78 from Långängsbacken (Kivikoski 1980: 32, Pl. 11-12), as well as other hooks from the Swedish-Old Russian cast production, can be explained in a way analogous to the solution from grave Bj 905. In this context, it is interesting to add that when Ibn Fadlan records a burial of a Rus chieftain around 921, he describes the retinue putting on “trousers, hoses and shoes” on the deceased (Risala § 89). From the 9th and 10th centuries, we have physical evidence of hoses from Europe, with the fragmentary legging from Haithabu (fragment H 2) being the most relevant find in the Scandinavian context. It is made of diagonal 2/2 woolen twill and Hägg dates it to the period from late 9th to late 10th century (Hägg 2015: 49, 252). On the slight tip, which appears to represent the front, there is a thin leather strap with two ends, which may have served the same function as a hooked tag – i.e. it could have been laced to an opening in breeches.

Left: fragment of a hose from Haithabu. Source: Hägg 1984: Abb. 8.
Right: approximate reproduction of the find from Bj 905. Author: Pavel Nikitsky.


Fastening bags and wallets

In 1883, a hoard of at least 830 predominantly Anglo-Saxon silver and one gold Byzantine coin was discovered in Rome (Graham-Campbell et al. 1991; Naismith – Tinti 2016). The treasure also included two hooked tags with the divided inscription +DOMNO MARINO PAPA+, “to Master Pope Marinus”. The hooked tags are oriented in such a way that the inscription is readable when the hooks are pointing upwards. It should be added that these are some of the longest known hooked tags and that they have a prominent hook that is almost as long as the plate. The total weight of the metal component of the hoard is 1.25 kg (Naismith – Tinti 2016: 48). A review of the hoard showed that it was stored in a leather bag or wallet, on which the tags functioned as closing mechanism. Apparently, it was a payment of the Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical circuit to Pope Marinus II, who was in office 942-946, which corresponds well with the dating of the youngest hoard coins to the reign of Edmund I (939-946). A specimen found at the High Wycombe site shows a striking resemblance to Roman hooked tags (Farley 1991).

Hooked tags appear in several other hoards in which they may have had a similar role. The most discussed of these come from Tetney, England, where two identical silver tags along with 420 coins were buried in a chalk container. The dating of this treasure goes to the years 963-965 (Graham-Campbell et al. 1991: 223; Naismith – Tinti 2016: 30). Another hoard containing two unpaired silver hooks comes from List on the island of Sylt (Wiechmann 1996: Taf. 6.3-4) and one is known from a hoard from Gerete, Gotland (Stenberger 1947: Abb. 249.5). Theoretically, we can also mention Vesle Hjerkinn, Norway where one of the tags was found in connection with the coins of Magnús the Barefoot (1093-1103) (Thomas 2007: 84). However, unpaired tags in hoards may have a simpler explanation; they may have been chosen for their material (silver) and may not have had any practical function.

Hooked tags have been preserved in several graves in the pelvic area, which is evaluated by commentators as a possible evidence of wallets. One example is a grave from Shudy Camps where the tag was found at the left hip along with a knife with a belt buckle (Geake 1997: 66; Griffiths 1988: 46). Another piece from the pelvic area comes from grave 36 from the excavations near St. Albans Abbey (Biddle – Kjølbye-Biddle 1980: 31). However, the location in the pelvic area does not rule out that it was originally a fastening of hoses or belts.

Designed reconstructions of purses and bags using hooked tags.


Pendants bearing beads

A remarkable pair of objects was found in a woman’s grave in Šestovica, Ukraine in 2011 (Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 350). The finds are identical to hooks of Swedish or Old Rus production, but they differ in that they have eyelets instead of hooks. Beads were found in the grave, leading Androščuk to interpret the objects as pendants that separated the bead rows that were attached to the holes. Theoretically, it is not impossible that hook tags from the same cultural circle could have performed the same function. The tag from grave 348 at Birka was apparently reworked into a pendant that was suspended between oval brooches (Arbman 1943: 99).

Left: the find from Šestovica (Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 350).
Right: schematic representation of function. Maker: northanvikingsilver.com.


Unexplained function

Apart from the rejected theories that the tags are cloak fasteners (Naismith – Tinti 2016: 7, 48) or book fittings (Wilson 1964: 64), there are hints of other functions in the archaeological literature that cannot be specified. For example, we are talking about the tags that were found near the head of the deceased. One such tag was found in 7th century grave 1 from the site of Burwell, where it was placed under a skull (Dickinson 1973; Geake 1997: 66). Two hooked tags were found in a grave from the Castledyke site, one found at the skull and the other at the chest (Geake 1997: 66). In grave 4 from Meon Hill and grave 24 from Stockbridge Down, single hooks were found on the right hand, suggesting that they were garment fasteners similar to cufflinks (Graham-Campbell et al. 1991: 224-5). The largest number of tags found together comes from the Shakenoak Farm site, where five pieces were found that may have fastened a larger piece of clothing (Dickinson 1973; Hinton 1990: 548; Thomas 2009: 17).

Hypothetical reconstruction of neck slit fixation. Author: Andreas “Drees” Hansen.


Acknowledgment

This work would not have been possible without the help of the researchers who helped by sharing unavailable literature, consulting and allowing to publish their photographs. I am grateful to the following colleagues for assistance in getting unavailable literature: Matt Bunker, Joel Tang Hermansen, David Huggins, and Katie Newell. My warmest thanks go to Artis Āboltiņš, Aleksandra Ščedrina, Barbara Yorke, who patiently answered my questions. I would like to thank the following for the opportunity to publish their photos: Charles Bruns, Alban Depper (Northan), Andreas “Drees” Hansen, Pavel Nikitsky, Nathanaël Simmen (For the Gods).

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