Ballycotton brooch-amulet

Date: Eighth to early ninth century
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Ireland
Medium: Copper, Glass, Gold
Dimensions: 4.4 × 4.5 × 0.9 cm
Description: This gilded copper-alloy brooch has chip-carved stylized animals on the four cross-arms and a black glass seal at the center. The seal is inscribed with the name of God ("Allah") and one or two other words in an angular Arabic script. The animals can be dated on the basis of style to the eighth or early ninth century. Works from that period (called, in Europe, the Carolingian period) often reused antique gemstones; in this case the "gem" is not ancient but, rather, an early Islamic seal , probably from western Asia. Engraved gems were thought to have magical or amuletic properties, and the whoever wore the brooch likely ascribed those properties to the seal, even if he or she could not read the script. For its original owner, the black glass may have been an inexpensive substitute for more costly jasper.

The seal likely moved north with Scandinavian (Viking) traders, who had frequent contact with the Islamicate world in the ninth century: thousands of Islamicate coins and other portable objects have been found in northern Europe. The brooch, which was made to incorporate the seal, may have been crafted in the Rhineland before it was brought to Ireland, where it was found in a peat bog at Ballycotton. The polytheistic Vikings would have appreciated the craftsmanship and monetary value of the gilded object, and perhaps they recognized its protective potential even if they did not follow either the Muslim or Christian faith.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 5
Image Credits: © The Trustees of the British Museum

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Ballycotton brooch-amulet, British Museum