Author: Barbara Birley

Published:26th May 2020

An unusual copper-alloy penannular brooch (SF11756) was found in 2008 to the south of the granary at Vindolanda. The archaeological context tells us it was found on a rubble street surface, a context which represents the last surviving occupation level of the granary site. There were several fourth-century coins in the stratified deposits below this artefact which strongly suggests a post-Roman date for this find.


The brooch closely resembles a Fowler type E brooch although it is unusual due to its exceptionally large size. The diameter is 83.38 mm and the total length of the pin is 88.71 mm. The cross-section of the penannular ring of the brooch is D-shaped. The ring has been broken into three pieces; on the smallest fragment there is iron residue which could possibly be evidence of a repair. The pin head, although attached, is corroded to the brooch. There are two decorative channels on the pin head to give the impression of moulding, and the pin is slightly bent towards its far end. The terminals of the penannular ring are moulded and folded back and the decorative horse-heads can still be seen.

This brooch is currently on display at the Roman Army Museum

Type E brooches are not uncommon on Hadrian’s Wall and have been found at South Shields, Chesters, Birdoswald and seven other example at Vindolanda, to name but a few. Of the eleven which are catalogued in Margaret Snape’s Roman Brooches from North Britain, the largest has a diameter of 39mm. This brooch is more than twice the size of the other Roman examples and could point to a transition between the other Roman examples and the later, larger zoomorphic penannular brooches.

A selection of zoomorphic penannular brooches: type E, 6 (Birdoswald), 57 (Vindolanda), and 43 (South Shields); type F, 12 (Catterick); type G, 27 (Landesborough); type D7, 66 (York). Drawn by the Rob Collins, except no 12 drawn by Dom Andrews.

More recent work on late Roman brooches has identified further examples of type E penannular from late contexts on the frontier. Type E accounts for almost 50% of the penannular brooches found in the area, and this type is most commonly associated with military contexts dating to the mid-fourth century to the late fifth/early sixth century. Rob Collins concluded that brooches like the penannular type became items of prestige in the Roman period, and that the evidence available suggests that they were worn by high status individuals (Collins 2010, 68–73). 

You can see other examples of zoomorphic brooches in our Zoomorphic Brooches video blog.

Further reading

Allason-Jones, L. and Miket, R. 1984 The Catalogue of Small Finds from South Shields Roman Fort, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Birley, A. 2013 The Vindolanda Granary Excavations, Greenhead.

Budge, E. A. W. 1903 An Account of the Roman Antiquities preserved in the Museum at Chesters, Northumberland, London.

Collins, R. 2010 ‘Brooch use in the 4th- to 5th- century frontier’, in Collins, R. and Allason-Jones, L. (eds.) Finds from the Frontier: Material Culture in the 4th-5th Centuries, York, 64–77.

Collins, R. 2012 Hadrian’s Wall and the End of Empire: the Roman Frontier in the 4th and 5th Centuries, Abingdon.

Fowler, E. 1960 ‘The origins and development of the penannular brooch in Europe’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 26, 149–77.

Kilbride Jones, H. 1980 Zoomorphic Penannular Brooches, London.

Richardson, C. 1990 ‘A catalogue of recent acquisitions to Carlisle Museum and reported finds from the Cumbrian area,’ CW2, 90, 1–98.

Richmond, I. A. 1931 ‘Excavations on Hadrian’s Wall in the Birdoswald — Pike Hill Sector, 1930’, CW2, 31, 121–34.

Snape, M. E. 1993 Roman Brooches from North Britain, A classification and a catalogue of brooches from sites on the Stanegate, Oxford.

Wilmott, T. 1997 Birdoswald, Excavations of a Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall and its successor settlements:198792, London.