Buckles and Pins: Dress in the Medieval Period

Dress accessories, such as the wonderful Roman brooch (see fig. 1) which was recently excavated, are one of the most commonly found artefacts on sites such as Berkeley. While they are found throughout all periods of history (and late prehistory), they are particularly abundant in medieval contexts.
Figure 1. A Roman Brooch found in the upper half of the paddock. 
During the eleventh century, a trend developed towards more closely fitting clothes due to new innovations in tailoring, especially within the upper classes. This led to an increase in the use of buttons, pins, belts and buckles in an attempt to fit clothing closer to the body. In the medieval period, belts were a common dress accessory throughout all levels of society, regardless of gender or status, and as a result are the most common decorated metalwork accessory found in medieval contexts (Cassels, 2013: p.3). Those found are almost always made from base metals such as iron, copper alloys or tin alloys. Although buckles made of precious metals would have existed, they were less common and more likely to have been recycled, so are far less likely to be found during excavations (Cassels, 2013: p.5).   Below is an example of a post-medieval decorated plate found recently at Berkeley, which is intricately decorated and would have been used as a belt mount.
Figure 2. A decorated post medieval belt mount made from copper alloy. 

Belt buckles may also have had social significance as a method of expressing identity; the level of decoration on buckles can be used to determine the status of the owner, or even their religion, for example ecclesiastical priests living under monastic rules were not allowed to wear buckles with decoration whereas secular priests could. In the late medieval period, belt buckles were often left to beneficiaries in wills and were given as gifts during courting and marriage ceremonies (Cassels, 2013: p.4).

Another common dress type of accessory found from medieval and post-medieval sites are pins, such as this small pin found in a post medieval context (see fig. 3). Pins have not varied significantly in style over time, as shown by this pins similarity to our larger Roman pin (see fig. 4). It is likely that smaller pins would have been used to secure wigs by higher status members of society, while larger pins would have been designed to pin together cloaks, and it is these pins that are more commonly found during excavation. Other possible functions for pins have been suggested, such as to hold veils and fascinators and for use during garment construction. 

Figure 3. A small post-medieval pin. 
Figure 4. A larger Roman (or possibly Anglo-Saxon) cloak pin.  
These items are all grouped under the category of personal adornment items as they are used to adorn the body. They add a more personal story to the history of Berkeley we are revealing as they are the small everyday items that people chose to wear as part of their dress. It is easy to imagine someone searching for the beautiful belt buckle in fig. 2 or the hair pin in fig. 4 after losing it, while a smashed cooking pot would have been swept up and discarded. These items help our excavation bring the past inhabitants of Berkeley to life.  

Cassels, A. (2013). The Social Significance of Late Medieval Dress Accessories. [Doctoral Dissertation]. Sheffield: University of Sheffield.

-Hattie Ford


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