Research And Reconstruction

Brooches & Belts Reassessing the evidence

Comitatus lays claim to authenticity, which means we have to regularly reconsider what we do and how we present our version of the truth to the public. Some groups operate a system of rules designed to take even people blind to authenticity down a single path to a version of historical truth. Comitatus operates differently in that we offer people a simple kit guide to get them started, and then hope individual research will lead the way to enlightenment.

To a Roman, the belt buckles and broaches we wear would tell a great deal about us. Rather than it being a simple article of faith that soldiers wear a broad military belt and a crossbow brooch, it is in fact a complicated issue worth considering.

I have written about brooches before. Put simply, officers may have worn a good quality military brooch produced along the Danube. Others may have worn cheap locally produced copies. In northern England the proportion of crossbow brooches to non-crossbow brooches is actually inverted compared to southern England. Other styles, mainly penannulars, would be common. It seems towards the end of the fourth century ordinary soldiers stopped wearing the crossbow broach, but high-ranking officials continued using elaborate examples. So in fact many soldiers may not have worn crossbow brooches. Shocking!

So when looking along the line we should see one or two really nice brooches from European suppliers like Nodge Nolan, often tinned or silver plated. Or even silver brooches plated in gold by a papal jeweller. We should see several cheaper designs such as that produced by Raymond from America. And we should see other brooches like pennannulars as well.

And we must also look closely at belts.

In the early to mid 4th century belts sets appear featuring plain loop or dolphin loop buckles, propeller-shaped stiffeners and amphora-shaped strap ends.

The style seems to arrive in Britain around AD 370, perhaps with field army brought by Count Theodosius. Indeed British dolphin examples are often decorated in an old fashioned way and have integral plates, unlike continental versions, and are found on civilian and military sites.

One type of buckle, with the two dolphins seemingly holding a human head, seems to be a Iceni speciality. Dolphin buckles decorated with ring and dot patterns mainly occur in the tribal areas of the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes. But two have been found in East Yorkshire. Bird buckles showing protrusions from the buckle loop are associated with the Corieltauvi. One was found near market Weighton, just north of their territory.

Simple “D” shaped buckles are found with basic square or round buckle plates. But the most common has a triangular plate, identical to continental finds. These seem to have been imported by the army, perhaps as baldric buckles. They are found in military and civilian sites. Was the government arming the civil population? A small number of buckles are found with openwork plates, some of which are fixed. They are found in mainland Europe as well. Some buckles have a propeller plate, a sort of integral attached stiffener.

In the late 4th century elaborate chip-carved belts sets with dragon-headed buckles and straight bar stiffeners are introduced. They do not seem to be as common in Britain, the army leaving before they had a chance to catch on. They are similar to continental examples, and seem to have been brought over by individuals. But at least one seems to have been made in Britain and was found near Malton. Dragon buckles are often found with large chipped carved belt plates, many of which could have been silvered. Some plates have the buckle sitting in the middle of them. I can find only 3 well decorated large, so-called chipped carved dragon belt buckles from Britain. None of these were found north of the Thames.

Dragon buckles with fixed plates seem to date from after the Roman withdraw from the middle of the 5th century. They seem to come from mainland Europe and are found in south and east Britain. But one was found at Rudston near Bridlington!

I, like many others, wear the assemblage reproduced by Raymond based on grave 3 from Oudenburg. This was a coastal fort, now inland near Ostend. The large graveyard contains coins from 340 – 410 AD. Out of the 216 graves excavated, 50 were certainly male and 21 female. At least 16 graves were children under 15 years of age, and a large proportion of the men died in their twenties. Weapons were found in only 3 of the graves, perhaps suggesting a regular unit, not irregulars. At least one other unexplored cemetery lies nearby. There is a high eastern proportion of coins from 370-380 AD. It is possible that means the unit we are looking at is the milites Nerviorum which served with Valentinian in the east, but which is the garrison of Portus Aepatiaci in the Notitia Dignitatum, under the Dux Belgicae Secundae. Grave 3 stands out as the highest status burial, containing plate buckle, strap end, belt retainer, two differing triangular plates and a single belt hanger.

Many of us, including myself, wear the double horse head buckle, readily available from traders. There are four on my armour, and one fastens my sword belt. It is said to be a buckle type found just in Britain, although at least one has turned up in Spain. They seem to date from the end of the 4th century, can be found all over the country but are particularly popular in the southwest. It is found into the Anglo-Saxon period, often associated with female burials. The buckles are associated with a long thin belt plate, unlikely to be attached to a broad military belt. Some of these belt plates seem to show a Celtic revival in terms of artistic design. To me they seem more British than Roman.

Illustration 1
Above. 2nd century bone buckle, with iron prod.
Below. 3rd century rectangular buckle, and associated studs.

Illustration 2
Left. The dragon buckle from Grave 3 Oudenburg, in silver plate. A design very rare in Britain.
Left middle. A high status buckle in gold plate. 4/5th century, northern France.
Right middle. A fixed plate dragon buckle in copper alloy. South east England, mid 5th century.
Right. 6th century Gothic buckle in gold plate.

Illustration 3
Left. A dragon buckle decorated in ring and dot style. main land Europe. Copper alloy.
Middle. A fixed plate dolphin buckle with an open-work buckle plate and eyes on the terminals, in copper alloy. Common in mainland Europe, but proportionately more common in Britain. Late 4th century.
Right. A horse head buckle and plate. Found from the end of the 4th century, they often retain some trace of dolphins beneath the horse heads. But these seem to fade out over time. In the example here the dolphins have faded out entirely, perhaps dating this to the 5th century. The long plate has a chain pattern. There are very small cross-hatched geometric shapes on the plate, common to western and central England. Unusually for this type of buckle, the pattern has been punched into the plate.

Strap Ends
Heart shaped strap ends seem more scrotum shaped. They are linked with dolphin plus plain loop buckles and seem to be imports. So-called long amphora strap ends may be more phallic with the handle shapes being scrotal. They are found with dolphin and plain-loop buckles from around the mid-fourth century. The numbers of them suggest they were made in Britain. Because the old-fashioned dolphin and plain loop buckles last longer in Britain, the amphora strap end has time to develop. Amphora strap ends with rounded bottoms, or without handles, seem to be slightly later in date. In the tribal area of the Catuvellauni a regional sub-group with wrap around tops develop. In Britain we seem to develop narrow amphora strap ends, often with a nail cleaner, a simple groove, at the bottom. These have been found in Beverley and Hayton. Chipped carved dragon buckle strap ends develop from amphora shapes to angular diamond shapes. They are rare in Britain.

Illustration 4
Left. A common British narrow amphora strap end in copper alloy with ring and dot decoration.
Left middle. A dragon amphora strap end in copper alloy, of a type rare in Britain.There are traces of animals, sometimes interpreted as lions, running along the edges of this example. Mainland Europe.
Right middle. A gold plated round-bottom amphora strap end. Mainland Europe.
Right.A dragon amphora chipped-carved strap end, in silver plate. The animals are more stylised.

Early fourth century pelta-shaped and round belt stiffeners look very similar to 3rd century examples. But the most common stiffener found in Britain is the propeller shape. They are found in southern and eastern England, and along the frontier in mainland Europe, alongside the dolphin and plain loop buckle. Not all stiffeners match on a belt, presumably because some fell off in use. Bar belt stiffeners are associated with the later dragon chip carved buckles, and seem to have fitted wider belts. They seem to be associated with belt retainers.

Illustration 5
Left.Rare in Britain. A late 4th century bar belt stiffener. Silver plate.
Middle. A 4/5th century gold plated stiffener from Europe.
Right. A common 4th century propeller stiffener in copper alloy.

There is little evidence for late Roman buckles on Hadrian’s Wall. Just who was the garrison and what were they wearing? Did old fashioned 3rd century styles continue to be used? And there also seems to be the development of styles of belt fitting associated with the old tribal areas of the Catuvellauni, Iceni and Corieltauvi. Were the tribal areas arming themselves? We should also consider what groups of armed bodyguards, bucellarii, may have been issues with. Yorkshire does not have many buckle finds. Those that are found are similar in terms of style to those found elsewhere. So we seem to be importing them, not producing them.

In the early 4th century many older 3rd century styles were in use. Around 370 AD dolphin and plain D shaped buckles were common, with amphora strap ends and propeller stiffeners.

At the end of Roman Britain rare dragon buckles and strap ends, with bar stiffeners make an appearance. Double horse head buckles become popular.

Strap ends get thinner.

After the Roman departure dragon buckles with fixed plates are found.

Availability stocks various belt fittings including nice dolphin buckles. They even do propeller stiffeners. However they seem to be cast in gunmetal. has a good collection of fine quality Nodge Nolan castings. also does excellent quality work. can do silver or even gold plating. The castings come with integral rivets but these can be removed.

When we construct an impression of a Roman soldier we need to consider where their from, where they are based, their status, and their role. For example higher status soldiers would be able to benefit from goods carried large distances by trade, while pedes would be using more locally produced goods. Of course you may have more than one impression. You may have marched with Constantine in 306AD in uniform military might. You may be a high status well paid cavalryman one week, or a pede on light infantry patrol the next. You may have fought in Germany and some being transferred, wearing a Gothic style brooch. Some of us wear typical neck rings found amongst the Alamanni. In 372 AD a King of the Alamanni was transferred to Britain by Valentinian, and placed in charge of a powerful contingent of Alamanni with the rank of Tribune. Your family may be from the south west, living off the proceeds of tin mines. You may be even be from east Yorkshire. It’s fun to consider the background to the impression we create, even if nobody else fully appreciates it!

P.S. I had this article nicely set up, when I received a copy of “Roman Buckles and Military Fittings” by Appels and Laycock. Their book added greatly to my knowledge and doubled the size of the article!