Visions of Empire” - Roman personal ornament in Iron Age Ireland and Southern Scandinavia (AD 1-500)

PhD Candidate: Alexandra Guglielmi
Supervisors: Professor Gabriel Cooney
Funded By: Self Funded

Abstract

The way we dress, the ways in which we adorn and alter our body are all the results of conscious choices and expressions of specific facets of our personal, cultural or social identities. This was also true in the ancient world. By studying the personal ornaments of specific periods and regions, by trying to understand how people chose to portray themselves, we can gain unique insights into past societies. The late Iron Age (0-AD500) is a crucial period in Irish prehistory and in the development of Irish cultural identity: it is a cornerstone in understanding of the emergence of the distinctive Irish culture and society that characterises the early medieval period. In southern Scandinavia, this period saw the development of important social and political changes that gave rise to the great Nordic kingdoms of the following centuries. Ireland and southern Scandinavia share many cultural traits in later prehistory, as well as a similar geographical position in relation to the Roman imperial frontier. By comparing the reception and active use of Roman personal ornaments in these two regions, this project will shed light on the complex mechanisms of cultural change during that period. It will analyse the ways in which these exotic objects were used in the construction of personal and social identities and how this relates to wider political and economic dynamics. The deliberate choice of sets of imports and the detailed biographies of individual artefacts in both regions will be compared to develop a better understanding of the particular reception and use of such material. This innovative, comparative approach will provide fresh insights into the process of cultural hybridization that took place beyond the Roman frontier during the first half of the first millennium AD and will as such contribute significantly to Roman and European archaeology.

Ireland and Scandinavia were never conquered by the Roman armies. However, their geographical proximity to the imperial frontier made them the stage for unique cultural interactions, leading to the emergence of dynamic hybrid cultures. To date in both regions, research has concentrated on prestigious items and other indicators of the contacts between the local elites and the Roman world. By concentrating on more mundane but more personal ornaments – bronze brooches, glass beads, pottery pendants and toiletry sets – this project adds a new dimension to our knowledge of the period by providing us with a focus on the lower strata of society, complementing and moving beyond the current focus on rulers and warriors. Moreover, the comparative approach adopted will provide an innovative stance to answer questions regarding the nature of the interactions in each region with Roman imperial and provincial culture. The project will analyse the ways in which Roman ornaments were adopted, adapted and integrated within local dress and what this can tell us about the identities of the people who used them. What new meanings did these exotic objects acquire in these local contexts and how were they perceived? The assemblage under study encompasses finds from both graves and from domestic contexts in Ireland, Denmark and Sweden for the period of AD 1-500. Chronological and geographical variations in the choices of imports will be analysed and the recurring patterns of Roman objects being found in much later – medieval and Viking- contexts will also be addressed. This research provides a comparative understanding of the social changes witnessed in the two regions which will shed light on the complex mechanisms of cultural interaction on a larger scale in northern Europe during the first half of the first millennium AD.

This research project will work in tandem with LIARI, the "Late Iron Age and Roman Ireland" research project currently being undertaken by the Discovery Programme in Ireland. It will, however, adopt a different perspective to try and answer the question of Roman influence on Ireland by encompassing a consideration of cultural interactions on the northernmost edges of the Roman provinces. As such, it diverges from the traditional approach which has focused on Britain and the near Continent as the scene of contact between Rome and Ireland.