the fibula from wijnaldum

from indian garnets to a frisian fibula: the wijnaldum brooch

You could write a book about the Fibula from Wijnaldum (a village in north-west Friesland) and it would read like an exciting thriller. This exquisite and world-famous clothing pin or brooch dating from 625 AD is an icon of Frisian archaeology. The unknown history of this ornament is still being further unravelled today.  Ever since the first piece of the brooch was discovered in 1953, it has been the subject of much speculation. 

In 1953, while digging a drainage ditch on the Tjitsma ‘terp’ (an artificial dwelling mound), a farm labourer unearthed a large piece of gold inlaid with red garnets. It was taken to the Fries Museum, which sent it to The British Museum in London for restoration. Experts see similarities to objects found in the Early Mediaeval Sutton Hoo royal tomb in England. It was assumed that the Wijnaldum brooch belonged to a Frisian king. Excavations and the use of detection devices in the 1990s led to the discovery of some more missing pieces, and the fibula was painstakingly re-assembled. With the 30 newly recovered fragments, the head plate could be reconstructed to the extent that researchers identified an ornamental mask on it. 

The discovery of this ornamental mask, along with the knowledge that it were mostly women who wore such ornaments, led researchers to the conclusion that the fibula was not worn by a Frisian king, but by the queen, or a priestess, or both.

Fibula from Wijnaldum, circa 625 AD, gold with almandine

The fibula was re-examined in the autumn of 2012, this time in a laboratory in Paris. The aim was to identify what material the red stones were made of exactly, and where the material had come from. Analysis revealed that the brooch is inlaid with almandine, a type of garnet or silicate mineral that probably came from the Rajasthan region in India. This does not necessarily imply that the fibula can be classified as having been ‘made in India’, but rather that raw materials from faraway locations were making their way to Friesland already as early as in the seventh century. Moreover, these materials were not brought to Friesland alone: many other historical objects in the Netherlands and Europe are inlaid with exotic garnets. The networks thus stretched from Wijnaldum to Rajasthan, with many stops in between …

Unique and extraordinary, however, is the number of garnets the Fibula of Wijnaldum contains. More than 300 individual pieces of almandine have been used, making this fibula the largest Early Mediaeval inlaid piece of jewellery found in the Netherlands – and perhaps even in Europe.

Although we continue making discoveries about this brooch, its secret may never be revealed entirely. Luckily so, because this way it keeps appealing to people´s imagination. The fact it has inspired so many children’s books, novels and replicas indicates that people are attracted to this object and the mystery surrounding it. This fibula is obviously an important archaeological treasure and continues to impress us as much today as it undoubtedly impressed seventh-century mound dwellers.