Follow the garnets

by Michelle Ziegler

Last month was this blog’s tenth anniversary, so I thought I would celebrate with a little bling. What is more iconic in Anglo-Saxon jewelry than the near universal garnets? Not only are garnets the most common gemstone found in Anglo-Saxon artifacts but they are also widely scattered over Anglo-Saxon territory. Helen Hamerow’s recent review of the distribution and use of garnets offers some interesting insights.

A carry over from Roman tradition, Germanic leaders looked to red-cloaked Roman military officers as role models. Garnet encrusted weapons and cloak fasteners may have been a stylistic bridge between Roman military dress and that of later medieval nobles.

Garnet distribution

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Distribution of garnets in Anglo-Saxon England. Left: garnets found in graves, Right: garnets registered with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. (Hamerow, 2017, fig 1 & 2).

These maps show the garnets found in graves  (left) with caches marked (+), and lost items reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (right). Based on the distribution of discovered garnets, she suggests that in some areas burial of garnets in graves simply wasn’t done. Metal detectorists have found enough widely scattered garnets to imply that the goods did reach all throughout at least southern Anglo-Saxon England.

Caches of garnets show a different pattern. Most of the caches found in England are tiny fragments, some too small to use in jewelry (which makes them very tiny indeed!). These could be wastage from cutting stones or stones that fell out of a finished object. All of the caches in England were found in graves (three female and two male).This contrasts sharply with Scandinavia where none of the caches from Scandinavia are from graves.The most elaborate male grave from  Tatershall Thorpe (Lincolnshire) also included tools, a weigh pan and other scraps that suggested it was a smith’s grave in an area known for international exchange of goods. Breakage of several of these garnets has led to speculation that they were intended for repair work.  Provisional composition analysis done on garnets in three brooches found in Wessex indicate that the stones come from two batches of the same parent stone. This suggests that batches of garnets “could reach a goldsmith’s workshop in a relatively unmixed state, despite the long distances traveled.” (Hamerow, p. 77)

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Loose garnets caches in Northern Europe, 400-700. (Hamerow 2017, fig 3)

The Scandinavian caches all from known high-status sites with elite sponsored craftsmen. These sites begin in the ‘migration period’ but tend to be later and extend beyond 700 AD. Hamerow concludes that at least within Scandinavia the garnets were kept under the close control of ruling families who used their products within their political exchange networks.

Sourcing and Supply lines

Garnets arrived in northern Europe in two waves. The first surge in garnets occurred in the fifth and sixth century and are found in Late Antique brooches. Chemical analysis places the origin of these early garnets in Sri Lanka and India. The stones would have come across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea entering the Mediterranean trade networks through the remaining Roman ports. It is interesting that this is the same route that the Plague of Justinian may have taken to the port of Pelusium in 541. Although the flow of garnets to Europe dropped to a trickle by the sixth century, these garnets peaked in Anglo-Saxon products in the seventh century. Perhaps not coincidently, plague followed the same pattern, peaking in England in the seventh century. This may say more about functioning trade networks than any correlation between garnets and fleas. At the same time, the flow of gold from Byzantine coins was also dwindling. The traditional reason for the reduction of garnets and gold is the expansion of the Sasanid expansion cutting off that trade route (although that does not explain the lack of Byzantine gold coins). By the late seventh century, Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths were clearly repurposing stones from old pieces to meet the demand for new pieces.

Hamerow stresses that the decrease in garnets and gold coinage was not due an overall economic downturn. Other precious goods are increasing across the seventh-century.  In the mid-seventh century precut cabochon garnets begin to appear with new exotic goods. Chemical analysis suggests that at least some of the cabochon’s come from the area of Bohemia, a new source carried possibly along new trade routes.  By the early eighth century, some garnets may have been mined in southwestern Sweden, so the later Scandinavian caches were of mined locally or perhaps brought in via riverine routes through Russia.  These later garnets are cut more crudely.

While trade with the Franks was undoubtedly an important factor in goods arriving in Anglo-Saxon England, it was not ultimately the critical factor in the flow of garnets, nor probably other gemstones.


Hamerow, H. (2017). The Circulation of Garnets in the North Sea Zone, ca. 400-700. In A. Hilgner, S. Greiff, & D. Quast (Eds.), GEMSTONES IN THE FIRST MILLENNIUM AD MINES, TRADE, WORKSHOPS AND SYMBOLISM (pp. 71–86).


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