The horsehead buckles are a particularly category of buckle that raise, and may even answer many questions about the end of Roman Britain.
The horsehead buckles are exclusively a British phenomenon. Only one horsehead buckle and one horsehead buckle plate have been found outside Britain and it seems reasonably safe to assume that these both originally came from Britain.
Horsehead buckles are found both in Roman British and early Anglo-Saxon contexts. When found in Anglo-Saxon graves they are often found in women’s graves. This, and the small proportions of the buckles has led some to conclude that the buckles were primarily women’s buckles.
There is, however, no necessity to reach this conclusion. How the buckles were used by the Saxons does not necessarily say anything about how they were used by their British manufacturers. As far as as we are aware, for instance, no British strap end has been found in Anglo-Saxon graves associated with a horsehead or dolphin D ring buckle, whereas Saxon strap ends have, which indicates that the buckles are not being used in their original context.
There is no evidence of British women wearing buckles in the 4th-5th century, and one thing that is notable about the horsehead buckles is their great homogeneity both in terms of size and style, compared to all other late Roman British buckle groups. This is not caused by manufacture in one location. As we shall see below, the evidence suggests manufacture in a wide number of areas by a wide number of craftsmen. This combination of stylistic homogeneity and wide area of manufacture strongly suggests some kind of official function for the buckles, and some kind of official influence on their production.
It may also be worth pointing out, that while in modern terms a horsehead decoration would tend to have either a rather feminine pony club feel to it, or alternatively a slightly cowboy kitsch feel, to the British of the 5th century, a horse was not only a symbol of wealth and power, but also, of course, a formidable weapon of war.
The question of whether the horseheads of the horsehead buckles represent anything more specific is a difficult one. Their patterns of distribution across the country suggest that they may.
Horsehead buckles have two main concentrations, one in the area around Water Newton and Peterborough, and one further west in the area around Cirencester. However, they are also found widely across most of the rest of south England, and east England, up as far Yorkshire. However, as interesting as where they do appear is, the areas where they do not. They hardly appear at all in the area that represents the tribal lands of the Catuvallauni, the most powerful British tribe before the arrival of the Romans, this despite the fact we know occupation continued at Verulamium well into the 5th century, They are also lacking in places such as 5th century Silchester, where again occupation continues. There also appears to be some link between post-Roman linear earthworks and the distribution of horsehead buckles. In the west of England, for instance, horsehead buckles are plentiful to the north of Wansdyke but rare to the south, and absent, to the east of Bokerly Dyke. In the east of England, horsehead buckles are plentiful to the west of Foss Ditch, but almost entirely absent to the east.
In other words, the distribution of the horsehead buckles appears to be testament to a pattern of violent disintegration in Roman Britain at the end of the 4th century and beginning of the 5th. If this is the case, then it would go a long way to explaining the collapse of the economy of Roman Britain, which seems to have been in full swing long before the arrival of significant numbers of Saxons.
It is even possible that the horseheads have political significance. If the dolphins, as logically they must have, represented Rome, then possibly the addition of the horseheads could have represented another layer of government, perhaps an independent British one. The earlier dolphin open loop buckles, show much more stylistic variation across the area where the horsehead buckles are later distributed. This could almost suggest a pattern of political disintegration, followed by a period of re-integration, where an independent British authority reasserted control over a portion of the territory of Roman Britain.
In terms of stylistic origins, the horsehead buckles seem to spring from the dolphin closed loop types, and interestingly enough, by tracing this process, we can gain a fascinating insight into the geographical spread of the horsehead buckles.
The majority of horsehead buckles are D rings. However, it seems impossible for the horsehead buckles to have derived originally from dolphin D rings. The modelling of the dolphins on almost all dolphin D rings is much simpler, more abstract, and probably later than a large proportion of horsehead buckles (1, 2, 3). This suggests that if the dolphin D rings and the horseheads are related, the dolphin D rings are derived from the horseheads rather than the other way round.