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 2. - BIRD 

by Stuart Laycock and Chris Marshall

Alongside the more familiar dolphins, another creature that makes its appearance on buckles towards the end of the 4th century is the bird. In terms of origin, it is possible that they are purely decorative. To the modern mind, a sitting bird, such as these, might seem a rather inappropriate decoration for a military buckle. But the simplicity of the modelling makes it hard to be certain what type of birds these are, they could be eagles or ravens, connected in the ancient world with death and slaughter, because of their habit of feeding on battlefield corpses. In that context their appearance alongside heads (possibly severed heads) on some buckles (1, 2, 3) is interesting.

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Another possible origin is a function of production. With crude casting, and rough and ready copying, it is perfectly possible that the fins seen on another dolphin type (4) could in time have changed into a crude bird shape, which then gradually more carefully modelled and more distinctly bird-like. Buckle 5 could be one of the interim types, where the ‘bird’ is still low on the loop in the same place as the fin, and is still almost unrecognisable as a bird. Two out of three fin buckles come from the east Midlands, an area which is also a major area for bird buckles, so geographically this derivation is quite feasible.

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A third possibility is that the birds were deliberately adopted to make a specific point. If one accepts that the dolphin buckles are a sign of the Roman military, then it is perfectly possible that any militia or semi-independent military unit in the late 4th century might have wished to develop its own instantly recognisable symbol. In an era where militiamen may not have dressed much differently from civilians, the sword belt would be an obvious place to locate such a symbol, and the free-standing birds would have been immediately recognisable. The fact the birds sometimes appear in multiples on the loop (6) and sometimes on other bits of buckle furniture (7) might be argued to support this view. The bird buckles (with the exception of the D ring type, see below) are found in Lincolnshire and down into Cambridgeshire and the north-western part of East Anglia. It is possible this area represented some sort of independent or semi-independent unit at the time of the end of Roman Britain, but more work is necessary to be certain.

As has been noted elsewhere, uniformity of buckle design seems to decline markedly in some northern and eastern parts of England. It is no surprise then that many of the bird buckles with their concentration in this area, are stylistically very diverse. Compare 6, 8, 9, 10, 11. All are currently unique buckles with no close parallels though it could be argued that 8 and 10 with their separate bar and loop form something of a group. Equally, with their thin loops there is some similarity between 8 and 9, and the strange turned back shapes in the top centre of the loop on 6 and 9 have similarities, as they do with another unique non-bird buckle from the area (12).

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There are, however, two distinct groups of bird buckles which deserve special attention.

Beast Heads and Birds
This group (1, 2, 3, 13, 14, 15) is found across the bird buckle region, and its main distinctive feature, apart form the birds, is the beast heads that take the place of the conventional dolphins. The heads in question are strange and in many ways look more like the heads on dragon buckles than dolphin heads. If so, they would be an extremely rare example of cross-fertilisation, between the dolphin and dragon types, which are usually kept completely separate. Some of this group feature human heads as terminals on the open loop, and are also discussed in the head buckle section (1, 2, 3).

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Bird D Rings
Only three (16, 17, 18) buckles have been found from this category so far, and of those, we only have a find spot for two. One of these is from Worcestershire (16) and the other is from Winchester (17). Both locations are a long way from the heartland of the bird buckles. It is possible that the Bird D Rings are an entirely separate phenomenon from the other bird buckles, or, at the other extreme, that these are buckles that have strayed from the east, and we will in future find comparable examples in the same area as the other bird buckles.

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A more intriguing possibility also exists. As D Rings, the loop of these has little in common with most other bird buckles. In terms of shape of loop, and also in terms of the treatment of the dolphins, these buckles have much more in common with Dolphin D Rings and Horsehead D Rings. Their find spots, equally, have more in common with these groups. There seems little possibility that either Dolphin D Ring or Horsehead D Rings could have changed into these Bird D Rings by a process similar to fins turning into birds, Therefore it is possible that someone either deliberately added birds to a Dolphin D-ring or, replaced the horseheads with a bird. If the birds and the horseheads do have any political or military significance, this would be quite an interesting statement.

2.1 Width 28mm, found Dragonby, Lincs., redrawn after Leahy (1); 2.2 Width 50mm, found Saltersford, Lincs., redrawn after Hawkes & Dunning; 2.3 Width 52mm (broken estimated), found southern Britain, redrawn after Mills (R200); 2.4 Width 39mm, found Lincoln, Lincs., redrawn after Hawkes & Dunning; 2.5 Width 22mm, found Laxfield, Suffolk, collection of Stuart Laycock; 2.6 Width 40mm, found not known, collection of Stuart Laycock; 2.7 Width 22mm, found East Anglia, collection of Stuart Laycock; 2.8 Width 34mm, found between Market Weighton and Beverley, Yorks, collection of Stuart Laycock; 2.9 Width 50.5mm x 35mm, found near Colsterworth, Lincs., private collection; 2.10 Width 38mm, found Market Rasen, Lincs., redrawn after PAS - E4135; 2.11 Width 19mm, found near Watton, Norfolk, collection of Stuart Laycock; 2.12 Width 25mm, found Langford, Notts., redrawn after PAS - E4134; 2.13 Width 21mm, found Ashdon, Essex, private collection; 2.14 Width 40mm, found Walsham le Willows, Suffolk, private collection; 2.15 Width 41mm, found Norfolk, formerly collection of Brian Cavill; 2.16 Width 23mm, found Evesham, Worcestershire, collection of Stuart Laycock; 2.17 Width not known, found Winchester, Hants, catalogue of Phil Goodwin Coins; 2.18 Width 25mm, found not known, collection of Brian Cavill.

Hawkes S.C. & Dunning G.C. - Soldiers & Settlers in Britain, Fourth to Fifth Century - Medieval Archaeology 5 (1961)
Leahy K.A. (1) - Late Roman Belt Buckles From Dragonby - Dragonby - Report on Excavations at an Iron Age and Romano-British settlement in North Lincolnshire (1996)
Mills N. - Celtic & Roman Artefacts (2000)

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Copyright © May 2005, Laycock & Marshall, All Rights Reserved.