The Waterford Kite Brooch was made in about 1100 and is Ireland’s finest example of fine personal jewellery from this period. It would have been used to tie a cloak or a shawl. It is made of silver and decorated with sumptuous gold foil and amethyst-coloured glass studs.
This exquisite piece of jewellery shows the wealth and sophistication of Waterford’s inhabitants at this time, as well as the exceptional talent and ability of its craftsmen.
Gold and silver jewellery from this period is extremely rare as it was melted down to create new pieces when it went out of fashion.
The Waterford Kite Brooch was probably lost by the owner and remained buried for many centuries until discovered by archaeologists.
Gold has intrigued our ancestors since first made into jewellery over 4,500 years ago by the people of Bronze Age Ireland.
Metalworking in gold and silver is one of the great achievements of Irish civilisation, reaching one of its all-time heights in the early Christian period with such masterful creations as the Ardagh Chalice. With the arrival of the Vikings in the 9th century many of the great treasures of early Christian Ireland were destroyed. Most that survive today did so because monks deliberately concealed them to prevent their loss to Vikings and were often only found by accident many centuries later.
Contrary to popular opinion the Vikings were not simply slave traders and looters of gold and silver ornaments. As they settled, intermarried and adopted Christianity, they brought to Ireland new designs and styles that when fused with native Irish metalworking tradition creating the Hiberno-Norse or Irish-Scandinavian style.
The finest surviving example of late 11th and 12th century gold and silver personal jewellery is the magnificent Waterford Kite Brooch. It was discovered by archaeologists on the site of the present City Square Shopping Centre.
Brooches today owe their origin to the decoration on the head of a metal pin used to fasten a cloak. Such pins were used to close clothing up until the early 14th century when buttons came in.
Kite-shaped brooches are essentially cloak fasteners with elaborate heads worn by high status women and men. They are thought to be Irish in origin with some foreign influence. The earliest record of an Irish one is in an image of the Virgin Mary in the Book of Kells dated to about 800. Though kite brooches must have been relatively common only thirteen survive in Ireland.
The Waterford Kite Brooch of gold and silver, was almost certainly made here about 1100. Silver unlike gold attracts impurities and when found the brooch resembled a piece of charcoal. The eagle-eyed archaeologists recognised that this charcoal-like object might have a secret to reveal and x-rayed it. Following months of conservation the true splendour of the brooch was revealed.
It is in fact the very finest piece of 12th century secular Irish metalwork. Though Irish in type, the decoration shows English, continental European and Scandinavian influences as you would expect in the Hiberno-Norse town of Waterford. The body of the brooch was made of a cast hollow silver kite-shaped box to which was attached a hinge and long silver pin to fasten the cloak. The box was decorated with sumptuous gold filigree, impressed with gold foil and amethyst-coloured glass studs. The studs were probably also made locally and it is possible that the wearer believed that they were real gems. In the medieval period people believed that gem stones had magical powers.
The pin today extends only the length of the brooch, cut marks show that originally it was much longer. Indeed the pins of the highly elaborate brooches could be very long indeed showing that the wearer was of high status. The pins projected beyond the wearer’s shoulder. Irish law tracts tell us that if you injured a passerby with your protruding pin, you would have to pay compensation. The level of compensation depended not just on the severity of the injury but also on the status of the injured party. Everyone in society had an honour price according to their position or status in life.
The lady or gentleman who wore this in late Viking Age Waterford must have been a person of significance and it shows that the craftsmen of the city were as today leaders in their field.