Much of the evidence for metalwork in this period is derived from the excavation of burial sites because the pagan Saxons, when not practicing cremation, buried their dead in full dress and with all the equipment required for the afterlife. Habitation sites of this period have not yet for the most part been discovered or extensively explored, and in those that have there has been a shortage of metalwork present. Metal detectives of course can help to fill in some of these gaps in our knowledge by finding artefacts from previously unknown sites that have subsequently been ploughed out.
The buckle was an important dress accessory of the Anglo-Saxons and the numbers that have been found buried with their owners proves this. The quality of metalwork during this period was of an extremely high order attested by some of the magnificent examples that have been found, either made in precious metal or heavily gilded and inlaid with garnets, niello and other decorative techniques. The most famous buckle found to date in this country is undoubtedly the superbly crafted gold buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship burial dated to 625AD and possibly belonging to King Raedwald of East Anglia. It is not completely beyond the bounds of possibility that a metal detective might find such a buckle - witness the Roman gold buckle from the Thetford hoard. I personally know of one instance where a silver buckle was found in association with a sceatta, which is likely to be from the site of a burial. However, as this is a series to aid in the identification of buckle finds, I have deliberately concentrated on the better known and thus more commonly found examples.
During the Anglo-Saxon period the belt or girdle was in common use. No doubt for those for whom metalwork was not available the solution would be a simple tie or knot but enough buckles have survived to suggest that, at least for those that could afford the luxury, the buckle was in general use. The metals employed in their manufacture were gold, silver, copper-alloys and iron, with the techniques of gilding, silvering and inlaying with silver wire also being used. The buckle loops are basically variations on the oval or 'D' shape with the occasional square or rectangular example encountered (fig.3 no's 12; 20; 34). Some of the loops are decorated and/or inlaid with silver wire (fig.3 no's 3; 11; 21; 22). Transverse grooving on the loop - often grouped in sets of three - are indicative of a Saxon date (fig.3 no's 21; 26-29).
The tongues are very often plain and completely functional but there is a class that has a very distinctive violin shape known as 'shield-on-tongue' (fig.3 no's 5; 7; 8; 12). Variations on this decorative type of tongue are illustrated here (fig.3 no's 3; 4; 6; 9-11; 21). A personal observation, which can be used as a general rule of thumb to aid identification of buckles of this period, is that some tongues curve over the leading edge of the loop and protrude beyond it. Some of these tongues are fixed and only the buckle-loop is moveable. There are probably a greater variety of buckle-plates in this period than in any other. They generally consist of the 'sandwich' type, common in all periods, in which the plate is folded over the hinge-bar of the loop and riveted either side of the strap, or are of the type that is cast in one piece with the loop and riveted to the strap. Examples of this latter type are illustrated (fig.3 no's1; 13; 28-29; 36). The one-piece cast buckles are often decorated with open-work in the casting (fig.3 no's 28-29; 36). The shapes of the plates are numerous. The triangular plate, very often decorated with large dome-headed rivets, has been likened to a horse's head (fig.3 no's 1-4). There are several other shapes peculiar to this period including the heart and semi-circle (fig.3 no's 23-24) and sub-triangular (fig.3 no's 9; 15-19; 25). Note the shape of the plates on fig.3 no's 37 and 38 - these are very similar to the terminals on later zoomorphic strap-ends that are generally of the 9th and later centuries.
Decoration of the buckle and plate reaches a high point in the early and middle-Saxon period. The more common varieties here are fairly straightforward although fig.3 no's 3; 11; 21-22 are inlaid. The ubiquitous decoration known commonly as 'ring-dot' is often used (fig.3 no's 28-29; 42; 44) but this is of little use for dating purposes as it appears on artefacts from many periods. Interestingly fig.3 no 4 is the only buckle-plate I know of that depicts a figure wearing a buckle. Another distinctive feature on some of these buckle-plates is the rivets. In particular the examples shown in fig.3 no's 5 and 6 are unusual and are usually described as shoe-shaped. They have also been found in association with the buckles in fig.3 no's 7 and 11 both of which are from the same cemetery. The tang of these rivets is pierced to secure them on the inner face of the belt with a fine bar or wire. Other unusual rivets are the large dome-headed type featured on fig.3 no's 3 and 4 which in the jewelled versions are often decorated with cells of garnets or lapis lazuli - a mineralised limestone the colour of azure.
The last example for discussion is fig.3 no 40 the reverse of which is fig.3 no 41. The shape of the loop and plate are characteristic of the seventh century but the plate is unusual in being engraved both sides and having applied relief ornamentation consisting of a cast central midrib and twisted border both of which have zoomorphic terminals. Even more unusual however is the means by which the five separate pieces are interlocked and held together by the ingenious use of only two separate rivets. The fish on the reverse is the separate plate by which the rivets are secured. It has been suggested that the fish in this instance is a symbol of Christianity, and this may be so, as conversion of the pagan Saxons was gathering pace throughout the seventh century. Perhaps the owner of this buckle was not yet ready to proclaim his new found religion publicly and therefore its symbol was relegated to the reverse of the buckle where it would still nevertheless afford protection to the wearer.
That concludes the section on buckles of the sixth and seventh centuries. At this stage though it may be as well to remember that with the coming of Christianity and its influence on the burial practices of the time, the evidence from grave goods is lost to us. Some of these types may therefore still have been in use for some time afterwards.