3D Graphic of a woman wearing polychrome fibulae from the 6th century burial of Untersiebenbrunn, Austria. Copy right, the author (Mike Pole).
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The Sixth-Century Treasure of Untersiebenbrunn, Austria

An elite woman who read ‘Migration Woman Vogue’.

In January 1910, gold jewellery and bones were accidentally uncovered near the village of Untersiebenbrunn, in Austria (the site is roughly between Vienna and Bratislava, in neigbouring Slovakia). The priceless archaeological site was ransacked by locals before word made its way to professionals. At least some of the finds then found their way in to the hands of Professor Wilhem Kubitschek. Conservator for the Central Commission for the Study and Preservation of Art and Historical Monuments.

The following year he published a report in the journal ‘Jahrbuch für Altertumskunde’ of which he was the Editor (Kubitschek’s article is in German and the following quotes are Google-Translated).

The skeletal material had been passed on to Hofrat Prof. Karl Toldt who reported on them. His conclusion was that they belonged to a woman in her early twenties, about 150 cm tall. The “skull was on the whole rather large, but decidedly narrow, and belonged in the category of dolichocephalic, or at least very close to it…. The face narrow and long, orthognathic, but the chin moderately prominent. The orbital entrances are large, elliptical, set obliquely, the nose structure is long and narrow.” A “disease of the hip joint (coxitis) … led to a considerable deviation in shape of the entire pelvis”. This “illness must have been of long duration and caused a limping gait”. There was no mention of cranial deformation, which some groups of people at the time, including the Huns, practised.

The jewellery included two stunning fibulae, made of silver, covered in gold foil, and in turn covered with red garnets, ‘glass paste’, and green enamel. There were two silver fibulae, gold ear rings, gold bracelets, a gold necklace, a gold neck ‘choker’, two gold finger rings, and some other items. Unfortunately, in what appears to have been a general free for all, any information as to where the items of jewellery lay with respect to the body, was lost. This would have been very useful to help determine how the jewellery formed part of the woman’s ‘costume’.

A few weeks after the woman’s discovery, the grave of a child was found about 5.5 m to the south. According to Kubitschek, “the stylistic features of the [child’s] grave goods was very closely related” to those in the woman’s grave.

The material now rests in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It clearly dates to the ‘Migration Period’, when various groups of people were moving around Europe. The gilt fibulae are examples of what is called the ‘Polychrome’ style of jewellery. Which involves gold or gilt objects being decorated with other material, like semi-precious stones, glass, enamel or amber. More specifically the Untersiebenbrunn fibulae use the ‘separated cell’ technique rather than ‘cloisonné. In the former, the decorations were inserted into specially made recesses or compartments, while in the latter, the whole surface was divided into cells using gold strips (Bitner-Wróblewska et al., 2020).

The Untersiebenbrunn burial is considered to date to the early 6th century. A Wikimedia article describes them as “early fifth-century … of an East Germanic or Alan-Sarmatian” origin.

The woman, and the child, perhaps hers, belonged to an ‘elite’ social class. As Bitner-Wróblewska et al., (2020) say: “it is worth remembering that often these complexes are of rather eclectic character, mixing elements of different cultural and ethnic traditions. This may be considered a significant feature of the chieftainly level of barbarian society, of which the presence of the Polychrome Style itself is another”. In other words, while the lower classes may have adorned themselves with more locally distinctive, or tribal styles, the upper crust were thumbing their way through ‘Migration Woman Vogue’, and accumulating bits and pieces declaring their worldliness.

As another example of this more global mindset, the gold Untersiebenbrunn fibulae are remarkably similar to a pair found near Normandy, in France, part of what has been called the ‘Trésor d’Airan’ (Salin and France- Lanord, 1949; Kazanski, 1982). Unfortunately, once again, the associated skeletal remains were also destroyed, leaving just enough to show they belonged to a woman. A Wikipedia article referencing (Kazanski, 1982) calls the assemblage as “Gothic or other Eastern German origin (for example Burgundians or Heruli ) or even Alano – Sarmatian.” The costume included East Germanic fibulae, a Mediterranean style necklace, and ‘nomadic’ style earrings (Bitner-Wróblewska et al., 2020).

Further indications of the subscription to ‘Migration Woman Vogue’ are a similar pair of fibulae from a c. 430–450 burial at ‘Mukhino-2’ in Russia (Mastykova and Zemtsov, 2016; Dobrovol’skaia et al. 2015) and one from 5th century Hungary (Horváth et al., 2019).

‘Fibulae’ brooches were often used by women in early Medieval times to secure a tube-like ‘peplos’ garment, one fibula at either shoulder. As such, they are usually found as pairs. The woman of Untersiebenbrunn had two pairs, although it is not 100% certain that they were used to fasten a peplos. They might have been in roughly the same position, but securing a different style of costume. Sometimes fibulae were placed horizontally, to secure a jacket, or simply attached to a belt for decoration, although this is more likely to apply to younger costumes. But what to make of two pairs of fibulae? Were they both worn as part of a ‘costume’? Or could one pair have been added to the burial, perhaps as heirlooms? Although critical information about the Untersiebenbrunn costume may have been worn was lost, it may be possible to infer more from similar material found elsewhere.

For now, I’ve reconstructed the Untersiebenbrunn woman with the just the gold fibulae as a classic peplos costume. For her portrait, the woman has carefully propped her fibulae a little high. On skeletons, the fibulae are often lying a centimeter or two lower on the chest, although they may have needed to be pinned to an under garment to stay there. Some future sleuthing might change both the position and basic style. I have no idea if there are any of her bones left. One day, they might resole what she actually looked like. For the present, I’ve given her the face of someone who wouldn’t look out of place in Austria today. I thought braids seemed appropriate, but I may reconsider in the future.

Was that child hers? If skeletal material of both burials survives, DNA analysis might clarify that. The child’s death was a tragedy for some family, and if a link is made with our Migration Vogue-reading woman, her hip disease and child’s death remind us that even ‘elites’ had their problems.

Technical Stuff

The featured image is not AI generated! This is a three-dimensional digital graphics model. The fibulae were made in Blender, the peplos in Marvelous Designer, the model is ‘Babinda’ and was posed in Daz Studio. It’s all rendered in Blender Cycles. There are heaps of areas where I could improve the details. For example, rounding off the ‘cells’ that surround the inlays. But this is about the limits of my (and my computer’s!) ability right now.

References

Bitner-Wróblewska, A., Pesch, A., and Przybyła, M.J. 2020. Styles. p. 225-298, in: The Migration Period between the Oder and the Vistula. Volume 1. Bursche, A., Hines, J. and Zapolska, A. (Eds) Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands.

Dobrovol’skaia, M.V., Zemtsov, G.L., Mastykova, A.V., and Mednikova, M.B. 2015. Female elite burial from the upper Don Hunnic time settlement of Mukhino 2: a bioarcheological reconstruction. Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia, 54: 26–48.

Horváth, E., Mozcai, V., and Bajnóczi, B. 2019. Pure gold with poor workmanship – some unusual pieces of polychrome metalwork from the 5th-century Carpathian Basin. Archeometriai Műhely, 16/1, 43-56.

Kazanski, M. 1982. Deux riches tombes de l’époque des Grandes Invasions au nord de la Gaule (Airan et Pouan). (Two rich tombs from the time of the Great Invasions in northern Gaul: Airan and Pouan). Medieval Archeology, 12: 17-33.

Kubitschek, W. 1911. Grabfunde in Untersiebenbrunn (auf dem Marchfelde). Jahrbuch fur Altertumskunde, 5: 32-74.

Mastykova, A.V. and Zemtsov, G.L. 2016. A rich grave at the settlement of Mukhino-2 in the Upper Don Region and property gradation of the Hun Period elite graves in Barbaricum (The Untersiebenbrunn Group). КСИА, 244: 131-145.

Salin, E. , France- Lanord, A. 1949. Le tresor d’Airan en Calvados. Monuments et Mémoires de la Fondation Eugène Piot, 43: 119-135.

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From New Zealand. Traveling the weyward path trying to figure out how the world works. I study fossil plants, past climates, travel, walk, hike, read, take photos, struggle with computer graphics and plant trees.

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