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BRITARCH  January 2010

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Subject:

Re: late Roman dolphin belt buckles as a Xtian symbol?

From:

Dean Paton <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

British archaeology discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 5 Jan 2010 14:58:45 +0000

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Hi Mike,


Thanks for putting so much thought into this, it's given me plenty to think 
about, especially if combined with David Pett's suggestion of looking into 
peacocks in the same context....it means having a wider selection of evidence.

It seems a possibility therefore that soldiers in Britain at this time were mostly 
all Britons, and that they were largely Christianised. I'll look further into the 
Dorchester burials, but I feel I'm getting in a bit too deep for a 2000 word 
undergrad essay!!

thanks again.


Dean



>Yes, I'd agree in as much as the Dolphin Buckles were _the_ diagnostic 
equipment for
>4th/5th c. Roman soldiers in N. Europe (and that, of course, also means British 
soldiers,
>btw; remembering our recent conclusions on the invalidity of the date 410 as 
significant
>for very much anything) rather than only British soldiers. They're very common 
in
>both Britain & Gaul, and can be seen - if anything - as being of Celtic artistic 
influence,
>rather than the erstwhile quite erroneous attribution of 'Germanic'. They take 
the original
>classical dolphin motif, common before the 4th c., and add regionally 
significant 'Celtic'
>motifs, such as Horses' heads in the British South West or Human heads in the 
Midlands
>(which you'll already be aware of from Laycock's excellent website & books on 
the
>subject). Horses are the erstwhile IA Celtic symbol, of course (on coins) as 
also are the
>'severed-heads' motifs. There are also Dolphin buckles with dragons on them, 
but we're
>still trying to find the significance for that. It may be as simple as a reference 
to the late-
>Roman army vexillum of the Draco (the cavalry standard, later adopted by the 
infantry,
>also) which was ubiquitous by the 3rd c.
>
>Where Laycock and I disagree is that he continues to seek to identify the 
British variants
>with the hiring of Germanic mercenaries, because they sometimes end up in 
apparently
>Anglo-Saxon graves. That's a very debatable point. But since such buckles in 
Gaul
>seem to track Gallo-Roman units defending the Rhine Frontier, and since only 
about
>10% of such finds have ever been made East of the Rhine, it's obvious on 
which side
>of the Rhine they orignated. It's also now clear that they were not the 
property of units
>of Germanic Laeti (as was once claimed) as they don't even occur in locations 
where
>known Laeti were based. It's thus possible that such a minority of these 
buckles will
>end up East of the Rhine due simply to loss-in-service by Gallo-Roman units 
going into
>enemy territory, and either being casual losses or booty taken from dead 
soldiers by
>the locals. After all, Anglo-Saxon pirates are going to need to keep their pants 
up, the
>same as any putative mercenaries; and pilaging the body of a dead Roman 
soldier is
>one way to get your hands on a belt buckle if you come from a culture not as 
rich in
>bronze as that in Britain & Gaul. After all, we know that many of the iron 
swords
>found in weapons burials in Germany/Denmark were of Roman origin, and are 
just
>as likely to result from booty after battle as they are to have been army-issue 
to
>supposed mercenaries returning home.
>
>These buckles were traditionally diagnostic for a 'Roman' soldier, as it was the 
privilege
>of the army to wear them (if punished or courtmarshalled, the soldier had his 
belt
>removed). Thus it wasn't a thing Roman civilians wore, and was restricted to 
the army.
>Germanic peoples, however (partly from not being Roman and partly from 
being a
>'warrior-culture' - where everybody could carry weapons) had no such 
restrictions
>on buckles, and would have snapped-up any Roman ones going spare.
>
>The original 'classical' dolphin motif on army buckles was also supplemented - 
in a very
>stylised way - on sword-scabbard fittings, helmet handles and cloak-
brooches. And in
>the pagan era in the army (up to 300 AD) the dolphin was thought to carry 
the soul of
>the dead soldier across the sea to the next world (as dolphins rescued 
drowning sailors - supposedly). So
>going into battle covered with dolphins on their belt, sword & cloak
>made soldiers ready to die. The fact that it started out as a pagan symbol 
does not, of
>course, preclude the dolphin from continuing to be used, during the Christian 
period, for
>a similar porpoise (I thank you - that's an old joke which I've been waiting to 
re-use :o)
>Seriously, the dolphin symbolised both good luck in this life (just what a 
soldier needed)
>and the idea of 'life-after-death' - with its own obvious Christian overtones 
ready-made.
>So in answer to your question, Dean, I'd agree that - after Constantine 
popularised
>Christianity in the army - the dolphin motif on army buckles was certainly no 
longer
>considered as any kind of 'pagan' symbol. And so, if it was considered as a 
symbol of
>anything, then it can only have been a Christian one. By the early 5th c., 
Christianity was
>now compulsory in the Roman army in any case, so no pagan motifs would be 
tolerated.
>
>So it's a bit of a mystery when it comes to differentiating between legitimate 
Roman
>soldiers in Britain /Gaul and Germanic pirates/raiders who happen to have 
procured a
>belt-buckle. The way to tell the difference (I'd suggest) between a genuine 
(Christian)
>Roman soldier and an impostor is that the genuine article wasn't buried with 
weapons.
>Just his army buckle, his army boots and maybe a crossbow brooch. You can 
see that
>evidenced in the cemeteries attached to the 'Saxon Shore Forts' on the 
continent, such
>as on the coast Belgium; where the soldiers (and their familes) are buried 
outside the
>fort, with the men identified by their crossbow brooches/buckles (and no 
weapons).
>
>The notorious finds in Britain which were claimed by Leeds (50+ years ago) to 
be
>evidence of Saxon mercenaries defending Dorchester-on-Thames can be seen 
to be
>similar to the Belgian graves. Dorchester I contains nothing diagnostically 
Germanic,
>just a very elaborate 'Dolphin buckle'. There is a small utility knife on the 
man's belt,
>but that was also one of the fittings characteristically accompanying that 
variant of
>buckle, and goes with the belt. In any case, it's the size of a 'Swiss-Army 
knife', for
>eating/paring with; it's not a weapon. Leeds tried to claim that the man was 
'probably'
>originally buried with a sword, as there's an antler fitting which Leeds thought 
might
>have been intended as a sword pommel or scabbard fitting. But any supposed
>iron sword has left no trace of rust in the grave - despite the harmless utility 
knife still
>being plain for everyone to see; so that dog don't hunt, either. There is some 
question
>about Dorchester II, as there was apparently some 'Germanic' metalwork 
within it.
>However, the actual belt-buckle on the body was a typical 'Horse-head' 
variant of
>a dolphin-buckle - absolutely characteristic for British soldiers in that region 
(around
>the provincial capital of Cirencester)
>
>> I am considering the possibility of the dolphin that had been adopted as a
>> Christian symbol in late Roman Britain (I've based this on the evidence of 
mosaics
>> such as Frampton, Littlecote Park etc) and this in turn was the meaning 
behind
>> the dolphins found on numerous late Roman belt buckles. Laycock doesn't 
seem to
>> consider the dolphin on the buckles as anything but a classical Neptunian
>> reference (which indeed is a more than plausible explanation), but I'm 
wondering
>> whether these buckles on 5th century belts may indicate militias who were
>> fighting under some sort of Christian banner?
>
>Even if Laycock was correct about the attribution of the 'dolphin' component 
of these
>buckles, you should ask him why the ones found in Britain all have secondary 
'Celtic'
>motifs added (the horse-heads, the human-heads) and no obviously 
'Germanic' ones :o)
>If they were intended for use by incoming hired Germanic mercenaries, then 
they are
>the wrong design. Kevin Leahy did a survey of such buckles in Lincolnshire 
years ago,
>and he found that - of the 27 known up till then from the county - only three 
_might_
>have originated on the continent (with foreign troops). 24 were clearly made 
to appeal
>to 'Celtic' tastes. Which confirms what the 5th c. Notitia Dignitatum tells us 
about the
>troops in Britain being native Britons quite by then. It all fits :o)
>
>Cheers,
>Mike

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