The Chessell Down Brooch

Great square-headed brooch from Chessell Down
Great square-headed brooch, early 6th century, Early Anglo-Saxon, From Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight © Trustees of the British Museum

The Chessell Down Brooch is a silver-gilt and niello square-headed brooch found at Chessell Down on the Isle of Wight in 1855. It was in the grave of a woman from the 5th-6th century together with two stamped pendants, a pair of tweezers, an iron knife and a waist buckle.

The style of decoration reflects a Scandinavian influence. The brooch is divided into a number of sections. The rectangular head plate has two crouching animals, back to back, in the border, with scrolling metalwork down the sides in Roman style. The inner panel is divided in two by a human face, with a complex image on each side of two hybrid animal bodies with human heads. These are so stylised they are very hard to make out!

Next is a plain section leading down to the foot-plate. Again there are more animals, their open jaws ending in smaller heads and curving around another human face. The necks curve on down to frame the central panel. On either side are two lobes with a human face in each. Again the border continues down on each side with back to back creatures leading down to a disc at the terminal. 

In the central panel is a bearded face with a cap or hair ending in bird heads pointing outwards.

All of the images are intricate and hard to decipher – at least to most of us! But we can pick out some probable messages from among the extraordinary richness and complexity.

We can see, for instance, that the brooch is expensive. The materials are luxurious and, combined with the craftsmanship required to create it, the brooch reflects the prestige and status of the owner.

Undoubtedly the form of decoration would have carried meaning about social and probably religious relationships and membership of specific groups or affiliations.

It is also likely the images reflect stories and traditions known to the wearer and those with whom they came into contact. The brooch was probably also intended to provide the wearer with protection and good fortune. The central bearded face, for example, may well represent Woden with ravens. The other images may also represent creatures and characters from legend, perhaps intended to ward off evil or to imbue strength, courage, wealth or success in battle. The borders frame each segment into its own story or message.