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 4. - DRAGON 

by Stuart Laycock and Chris Marshall


There seem no identifiable differences between dragon buckles found on the continent and dragon buckles found in Britain. It therefore, seems safe to say that British dragon buckles are either imports or, at least, demonstrate strong continental influence. Their distribution supports this view, with a heavy concentration in the Kent region, where contacts with the continent were strong. Outside Kent, dragon buckles are found mainly up the east of the country, in East Anglia and Lincolnshire, which, again, may well represent the presence of foreign troops in the east coast defences.

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The beast heads on the dragon buckles sometimes look like dragons (1), sometimes like panthers (with apparent whiskers) (2), sometimes like snakes and sometimes like wolves. There is also a category that are clearly lion heads (4), and it is just possible that all these buckles are lion heads rather than dragon heads. However, the number of buckles with heads that are clearly lions is a small proportion of the total, so the dragon label is perhaps safer. Particularly, since the origin of the buckles may well be found in the draco standard of the late Roman army. This was a standard of Thracian origin adopted into the Roman army (5, 6), originally for cavalry, but by the 4th century for infantry as well. Like the heads of the dragon buckles, the head of the draco seems to vary in its form, sometimes looking more serpentine, sometimes more canine. And equally, like the pattern on the dragon buckle loops, the patterns on the draco’s tail seems to change.

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As shown in the Notitia Dignitatum (7, 8, 9), some units of the late Roman army carried a picture of the draco on their shields, and it is possible that the dragon buckles might be linked to specific Roman army units. However, more work would be needed in order to establish that.

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The fact that British craftsmen do not seem to have been tempted to copy these dragon buckles and adapt them, in the way they did so extensively with the dolphin buckles is interesting, and raises the question whether these buckles may have been connected with a specific element in the Roman army, perhaps Germanic troops. This possibility is supported by the fact that dolphin buckle designs hardly ever, if at all, merge with dragon designs, and by the fact that the dragon buckles seem to have influenced later Germanic buckle design, in a way that the dolphin buckles do not appear to have done so (see Ostrogothic buckle 10). Incidentally, judging by the lack of Roman parallels, elsewhere, and by the Germanic tongue on one example, and by the fact that both come from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, it is probably best to place Hawkes and Dunnings’ two ‘IIc’ buckles (11) in this category, rather than classifying them as Roman buckles proper.

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Extensive work has been done on the continent (see Sommer) into minor variations in dragon buckles. Since this is mainly a continental type, it does not seem necessary to reproduce all that work here. Compared to many late Roman buckles in Britain, the dragon buckles show high levels of stylistic consistency and, for British purposes, the buckles can be divided into three main types.

Freestanding Dragon Buckles
Both types of dragon buckles could be accompanied by a range of other belt fittings, particularly including long straight belt stiffeners, and separate decorative belt plates. (12) But the buckle plate on the freestanding dragon buckle type is usually a relatively plain rectangular item, not attached to the other metal buckle fittings (13, 14, 15).
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Integrated Dragon Buckles
In this type, the dragon buckle, rather than being attached to a simple plate, is integrated into a large decorative plate (16, 17). These integrated dragon buckles rarely, if ever, appear outside Kent. When originally worn, integrated dragon buckle belts must have been both spectacular and rather cumbersome. This makes its unlikely they were cavalry buckles. It is possible they had a ceremonial function, but the comparatively large numbers discovered in continental Europe make it unlikely that was their sole function.

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Fixed plate Dragon buckles
These seem to be the latest development of the dragon buckles (18, 19). They are rare in Britain, often found in Anglo-Saxon rather than Roman or British contexts, and only one example is known from outside southern England.

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4.1 Width 65mm, found Bradwell, Essex, redrawn after Hawkes & Dunning; 4.2 Width 61mm, found Balkans, private collection; 4.3 Width 61mm, found not known, collection of Brian Cavill; 4.4 Width 57mm, found Vieuxville (Prov. Luttich), Belgium, redrawn after Sommer; 4.5 Width 300mm approx, found Niederbeiber, Germany; 4.6 Draco from Trajan’s Column; 4.7 Redrawn after Barker; 4.8 Redrawn after Barker; 4.9 Redrawn after Barker; 4.10 Width not known, found not known, redrawn after eBay; 4.11 left - width 39mm, found Bifrons, Kent. Right - width 38mm, found High Down, Sussex, redrawn after Hawkes & Dunning; 4.12 Width of buckle 79mm, found Folklingen (Dep. Moselle), France, redrawn after Sommer; 4.13 Width 41mm, found Balkans, private collection; 4.14 Width 42mm, found Holbury Wilts, redrawn after Hawkes & Dunning; 4.15 Length 70mm, found Icklingham, Suffolk, redrawn after Hawkes & Dunning; 4.16 Length 87mm, found Kent, redrawn after Hawkes & Dunning; 4.17 Width 60 mm, found Split, Croatia, redrawn after Sommer; 4.18 Width 72mm, found Long Wittenham, Oxon., redrawn after Hawkes & Dunning; 4.19 Width 27mm, found Rudston near Bridlington, Yorks., collection of Stuart Laycock.

Barker P. - The Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome (1981)
Hawkes S.C & Dunning G.C. - Soldiers & Settlers in Britain, Fourth to Fifth Century - Medieval Archaeology 5 (1961)
Sommer M. - Die Gürtel und Gürtelbeschläge des 4. und 5. Jahrhunderts im Römischen Reich. (1984)

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Copyright © May 2005, Laycock & Marshall, All Rights Reserved.