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Norwegian Archaeological Review
ISSN: 0029-3652 (Print) 1502-7678 (Online) Journal homepage:
Bronze Tooth Pendants from the Late Iron Age:
Between Real and Fictional Zooarchaeology
Tõnno Jonuks
To cite this article: Tõnno Jonuks (2017): Bronze Tooth Pendants from the Late Iron Age:
Between Real and Fictional Zooarchaeology, Norwegian Archaeological Review, DOI:
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Published online: 04 Sep 2017.
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Date: 25 October 2017, At: 07:03
Norwegian Archaeological Review, 2017
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Bronze Tooth Pendants from the Late Iron
Age: Between Real and Fictional
This paper discusses bronze pendants resembling animal canines and commonly interpreted as replicas of bear canine pendants. The traditional
identification of these pendants to be representing bear canines is questioned, as bronze pendants do not follow the identifiable features of organic
bear canines. Alternative interpretations and other species, like canids (dogs
and wolves) or pigs, are suggested as prototypes for bronze pendants.
Finally, it is also speculated that bronze pendants can represent fangs of
fantastic creatures like dragons or serpents and, thus, be symbols of some
ruling families.
Previously, a distinctive kind of bronze
pendants, traditionally interpreted as bear
canines, from Finland and Latvia have
inspired archaeologists to come up with
sophisticated interpretations of the relations
between bears and humans. This is often
supported by references from recent folklore and folk traditions from across northern Eurasia. However, closer examination
of the resemblances to organic bear canines
reveals significant differences. As an alternative, bronze tooth pendants are compared in this article with canines of dogs
and wolves and with boar tusks. As none of
these coincides with artificial tooth pendants, it is suggested that bronze canines
could also represent some mythological animal, like an oversized snake or a dragon.
The 5–7 cm long pendants resemble predators’ canines and are divided more or less in
two parts – a slim root, covered with grooves
and interpreted to be an imitation of bronze
wire, and the crown, that can be either
almost straight (Fig. 1:1) or distinctively
curved (Fig. 1:2). The crown is usually of
the same width as the root, or sometimes
even slightly wider, which is an unusual phenomenon among natural canines.
There are two major regions for the distribution of pendants: south-western Finland,
where over 100 pendants have been found,
and the Livs’ area in the lower reaches of the
River Daugava in Latvia, with some 10 specimens (Fig. 2). One example is from the
Åland islands, one from northern Sweden,
Tõnno Jonuks, Department of Folklore, Estonian Literary Museum, Tartu, Estonia. E-mail:
© 2017 Norwegian Archaeological Review
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Tõnno Jonuks
Fig. 1. Three kinds of bronze tooth pendants:
straight (1), curved (2), and an exceptionally
small pendant (3). All examples are stored in the
National History Museum of Latvia in Riga and
are published by permission (VI 124: 2460; VI 124:
739; CVVM: 58,923).
and two examples from northern Estonia
(Kivikoski 1965, p. 23; Asplund 2005,
Kivisalo 2008, Kiudsoo et al. 2012). In addition, one exceptional bronze tooth pendant
of unknown origin has been found in Estonia
(Fig. 1:3). The latter is 2 cm long and has a
distinctively small and curved crown,
whereas the front side of the root is, similarly
to larger examples, covered in grooves.
Many pendants in Finland have been found
from cremation cemeteries, scattered between
stone layers, not allowing any further conclusions about the age or gender of the deceased.
All bronze tooth-pendants with clear find context from inhumation cemeteries are considered
to originate from female graves. The find context of pendants which have been associated
with male graves are unclear and it is difficult
to estimate if pendants belonged to the deceased
or they were scattered into the gravefill from
some other burial or by accident (for more
details see Asplund 2005, p. 15ff). For all the
Finnish examples, whenever the exact location
of pendants was recorded, pendants are reported
to have been found from the waist area and are
sometimes part of larger assemblages (Asplund
2005, p. 18). While these have received more
attention, a few pendants also occur in breast
decoration sets. The number of bronze tooth
pendants in a set varies from one to six (see
more in Asplund 2005, Kivisalo 2008). In contrast to the Finnish finds, Livonian examples are
exclusively associated with chest ornaments of
wealthy female burials and number from single
objects to sets of three pendants (see examples in
Zariņa 2006). In Livonia, also, other pendants
and more functional objects such as knives and
keys were attached to the breast chain (see
Zariņa 2006, Špirğis 2008). Hence, any semantic
meaning attached to the different locations of
pendants on a body seems to be unreliable, as
different locations are more likely to represent
different regional traditions, or a fashion of
using pendants as such. If more than one pendant forms a set, these are very alike, suggesting
that the pendants have been produced either in a
single mould or that the shape has been copied
from one of the objects in the set. Most of the
pendants date back to the Late Iron Age, only
one has been found from the medieval Turku
town, but even that has been interpreted to originate from an Iron Age cemetery (Asplund
2005, p. 19).
The earliest pendant examples were published in the 19th century (e.g. Aspelin 1880,
p. 292, fig. 1534), without any interpretation
of the animal species. Since the mid-20th century it has generally been accepted that the
pendants are bronze replicas of animal
canines. Sometimes several alternative interpretations are offered as the prototype.
Kivikoski (1965) used the term Bären- oder
Raubtierzahnanhänger (bear or predator
tooth pendants). Asplund (2005) refers also
to similarities to eagle claws, bear claws, and
teeth of other large carnivores. Still, despite
such a broad selection of possible prototypes,
all concluding interpretations focus only on
the bear, often followed by analogies with the
ritual and mythological role of bears in
recent folk culture. As Kivisalo (2008, p.
268) states: ‘Because of the pendant’s form
and the occurrence of Late Iron Age organic
bear-tooth pendants, the bronze pendants
have been connected with bear’s teeth. This
interpretation is supported by Finnish
mythology and folklore relating to bears’.
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Real and fictional zooarchaeology: a case study of bronze tooth pendants
Fig. 2. Map of findings of bronze tooth pendants based on Asplund (2005), Kivisalo (2008), and Špirgis
The usage of oral tradition is justified by a
common approach to folklore as stable and
conservative. This understanding is for interpreting even finds from other regions and
periods where ‘original’ tradition is lost.
Such an approach is particularly characteristic to Finno-Ugric and Eastern European
traditions of archaeology.
It is also widely accepted that such pendants are exclusively associated with wealthy
female burials, and the interpretations have
concluded the reason to have been ‘securing
fertility’ (Riikonen 2005, p. 66) or more
sophisticated female symbolism:
When some woman in SW Finland during the Late
Iron Age chose to wear them (i.e. bronze tooth
pendants) this was not related simply to a symbolism
of strength and power of the bear, but to the old
myths of the bear, its origin, its kin and the special
relationship between the bear and the female – an
interplay between the domestic sphere of the women
and the ‘sacred’ (Asplund 2005, p. 27).
But how strong is the connection between
bronze pendants and the bear?
One can but agree to the common statement
that the bear is important. The bear occupies
one of the most prominent positions in Nordic
folk culture; it is one of the most favoured
animals of power, and often appears in fairy
tales and proverbs. As such, cognitive features
seem to be crucial – the bear is perceived as a
strong and highly threatening animal with
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Tõnno Jonuks
certain human-like capabilities, like a similar
diet and footprints, the capability to stand and
walk on two limbs, etc. A skinned carcass of a
bear looks even more human (Molyneaux
1989, p. 193), and this fact could have been
one of the sources for many narrative motives
of shifting human and bear identities by changing the outer appearance, i.e. the fur. All these
features are reflected in recent and contemporary indigenous traditions, in which the bear is
called the brother of a man; several narratives
in northern Asia recount shapeshifting between
man and bear; the bear forming a family with
humans, and so on (Pentikäinen 2007, Siikala
2012). Anthropological descriptions of bear
funerals among native people in the North
(e.g. Khanty and Sápmi; see Rydving 2010)
attract interest and are used repeatedly in interpretations. The bear is also a valued trophy and
a highly appreciated opponent in a hunt, raising the prestige of hunters.
The animal is represented in different archaeological sources, e.g. rock carvings, figural art,
and pendants from the Mesolithic period
onwards. The bear is often highlighted in
zooarchaeological osseous collections, and
receives great attention in the rare cases when
distinctive deposits of its skull and bones are
documented. These occurrences of the bear in
various contexts through different eras make it
special, as no other animal has enjoyed such
distinction through different periods and in different economic, social, and ideological contexts. The symbolic role of the bear in
Fennoscandia and Eastern Baltic is manifested
by numerous pendants made of organic bear
canines and claws. While a few examples are
known from the Stone Age, the main period of
using bear canine pendants starts during the Iron
Age. For instance, in the 10th to 13th century
inhumation burials from the lower reaches of
the River Daugava, the Livs area, bear canines
are the most common, followed by unspecified
carnivores (Zariņa 2006, p. 269ff; Špirğis 2008,
p. 205; in more detail, Kurisoo In prep).
According to a recent study in Estonia (Jonuks
and Rannamäe 2018), the three species that were
used most extensively for pendants during the
10th to 13th centuries were domestic pig/wild
boar (25%), dog/wolf (18%), and bear (12%),
whereas other animals are represented only
with single examples. Bear canines for pendants
appear in every type of site, but hillforts are
better represented than settlements. In inhumation burials, pendants made of dog canines dominate, followed by the bear and other animal
canines (ibid). In several cases from inhumation
cemeteries of the lower reaches of the River
Daugava, bear canines were attached to female
breast chains, thus being clearly on display. In
Finland and Estonia, traces of bronze oxide or
the presence of bronze rings prove that the pendants were hung on a bronze chain or attached
similarly to a bronze decoration.
Due to its strength and power, the bear is
often, mostly in Scandinavian and Western
European tradition, associated with aggressiveness and male power, e.g. in the concept
of berserkr (Price 2002, pp. 366–378, Tolley
2006a, Wamers 2009, Hedeager 2011, pp.
91–95). Also, unpierced bear claws found
from cremation graves are interpreted as
indications of fur, used for wrapping the
deceased, who are often identified as warriors
(Wamers 2009). Distribution of bear canine
pendants at eastern Baltic hillforts seems to
support such an interpretation. At the same
time, bear canines from burial contexts are
associated exclusively with females, suggesting the need for alternative interpretations.
Other parts of the bear – canines, claws,
penis bones, etc. occur often among magical
and curing objects in the Modern Age folk
religion and folk medicine practices (Jennbert
2011, Stark 2015, p. 137; Kirkinen 2017,
Hukantaival In press). Thus, the symbolic
position of the bear can be followed diachronically in large areas of the Northern
Hemisphere from the Mesolithic until the
recent past in various contexts, indicating
different meanings and symbols that were
probably intertwined and used simultaneously, even by the same community (see
also e.g. Zachrisson and Iregren 1974,
Asplund 2005, Kivisalo 2008, Tolley 2006b,
Helskog 2012, Kirkinen 2017).
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Real and fictional zooarchaeology: a case study of bronze tooth pendants
When discussing the bear, references are
usually given to the pre-Christian Late Iron
Age, thus leading to the use of a label ‘pagan
emblem’ for the bear (e.g. Purhonen 1998). Still,
the usage of bear canines and claws continued in
the Eastern Baltics throughout the Christian
medieval period. Two pendants made of bear
claw bones and another two made of canines
originate from the medieval towns and castles in
Estonia (Jonuks and Rannamäe 2018). More
numerously, bear canines and claws, fastened
with bronze mounting and proudly exhibited,
were worn widely in female breast ornaments
in Latvia and Lithuania until the 16th century
(Urbanavičius 1979, Svetikas 2003, Zemῑtis
2004, Griciuvienė and Vasiliauskas 2005, p.
213). Such an occurrence of bear symbolism in
Christian contexts questions the concept of a
‘pagan emblem’ as such, and calls for alternative
interpretations without focusing exclusively on
the confrontation of Christian and Pagan
The obvious preference for using the bear in
archaeology interpretations is apparent, and it
is, therefore, not discussed any further in this
paper. The bronze replicas of tooth pendants
are the clearest illustration of that preference.
Even though sometimes other animal species
(like an eagle or any other predator) or features
(claws) are mentioned, these are never seriously
discussed, and the discussion soon drifts
towards the bear, getting inspiration from ethnographic and folkloristic bear-tradition. Such
an ahistorical approach, where archaeology is
interpreted based on analogies of contemporary north-Asian hunting societies or recent
folklore, has led to interpretations of sophisticated connections between humans and bears,
and especially between women and bears, often
peppered with the interpretations of fertility
and magical protection.
The term ‘bear-tooth pendants’ is so commonly used and taken for granted that the
term has provoked little criticism. However,
Fig. 3. Comparison of organic and bronze tooth
pendants: (1) dog canine (VI A 11,429: 1307);
combination of (2) a straight bronze tooth pendant
(VI 124: 2460) and (3) an organic bear’s canine
(VI RDM I 2238); (4) a curved bronze tooth
pendant (VI 124: 739); and (5) a pig’s tusk (AI
5310: XI: 940). Numbers 1–4 are stored in the
National History Museum of Latvia in Riga and
number 5 in the University of Tallinn, Estonia, and
are published by permission.
the bronze pendants differ significantly from
natural bear canines. The most remarkable
difference is that bronze pendants are all
rather slim, while the most distinctive element of a natural bear tooth is its large root
(Fig. 3:3). It also seems that bronze specimens emphasise the crown of the canine,
while it only comprises ca 1/4 of an organic
bear tooth. Besides that, the distinctively
curved pendants do not resemble natural
bear canines at all.
An iconic find to demonstrate the connection between bronze tooth pendants and bear
canines is a female breast chain set including
two bear canines from Eura, southwest
Finland (Kivikoski 1965, fig. 1:2). Both
canines lack the crown and, on one example,
it could even be suggested that the crown has
been cut off. The root of both canines has been
carved slimmer and two piercings are found
on each tooth. The root of one pendant is
tightly swathed with a large bronze wire,
with both ends fastened into the piercings.
The other root is missing the swathing, but,
based on the two piercings and green bronze
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Tõnno Jonuks
oxide all over the root, it can be suggested that
originally it had been covered with bronze as
well. Kivikoski (1965) has presented this find
to prove the suggestion that bronze pendants
represent bear teeth, and grooves on the
bronze pendants represent swathed bronze
wire. However, both canines are modified
and carved and, thus, one can speculate
whether the purpose of these objects was to
represent the bear at all. Besides that, this set is
the only example where organic teeth have a
bronze wire tightly swathed around the root
and, thus, bearing a direct resemblance with
bronze tooth pendants. Considering how
unique such combinations are, it is possible
that the bronze pendants did not represent
organic teeth at all, but rather vice versa –
organic canines on this example from Eura
with bronze swathing could have represented
bronze tooth pendants.
Another two organic bear canines with
bronze wire swathed around the root come
from Latvia. In one of them (Fig. 4), from
Daugmale hillfort, the purpose of the wire
seems to be to hold together two almost
Fig. 4. A bear canine pendant from Daugmale hillfort, Latvia, with bronze wire swathed around the
root. Apparently, an additional piercing was
attempted, resulting in the splitting of the canine,
and bronze wire was necessary for securing the
object. The object is stored in the National
History Museum of Latvia in Riga and is published
with permission (VI A 9964: 2910).
split parts of the tooth. Another example of
swathed bronze wire comes from Salaspils
Laukskola cemetery, grave 94 (Zariņa 2006,
fig. 152), which features a wide groove carved
in the middle of the bear canine for swathing.
Based on these examples it seems that swathing organic canine with bronze wire may
have served different functions, among others
also fastening split pendants.
As mentioned above, the bronze pendants
do not have many morphological similarities
with organic bear canines. Nevertheless, such
a morphological difference alone should not
be taken as a reason to discount the interpretation of the pendants representing bear
canines. As replicas are the products of a
prehistoric craftsman, we must also consider
that the result may have been different than
the original canine due to artistic reasons or
skills. Some important elements, like the
crown of the tooth, may have been (over-)
emphasised for symbolical or ideological reasons, thus producing a different result than
the natural prototype. If the audience
accepted the identification of bronze teeth as
depicting the bear (or any other animal), such
a morphological shape was sufficient, and no
further accuracy with the natural prototype
was necessary. Therefore, the possibility
should be considered that the original purpose of these pendants was to depict the
canine of a bear as one of the most impressive animals in the particular ecosystem. A
similar interweaving of the natural prototype
and artistic result can be followed in several
other occasions when animals are depicted by
humans. Probably the best known analogy is
the Great Beast from the Scandinavian
Viking Age art. Having been extremely stylised, it does not carry any clear characteristics of any particular animal, although it has
been interpreted mostly as a lion, or more
rarely as a wolf (e.g. Fuglesang 1980, p. 94,
Jennbert 2011, p. 211).
As the identification of a particular animal
species behind art is complicated also in several other examples, artwork should not be
taken as an accurate copy of the organic
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Real and fictional zooarchaeology: a case study of bronze tooth pendants
world. Instead, the purpose of the master and
the artistic style of this particular period and
region behind the object should be considered. Nevertheless, despite such interpretations, we frequently see that art objects, if
not copying real objects precisely, carry
some characteristic elements to help the audience to identify them. As a relevant example
to the current topic, there is a bronze pendant
from Latvia accurately copying the organic
astragalus of a beaver (Luik 2010a, p. 49).
Bronze replicas of an eagle claw from Maidla
stone grave, Estonia (AM A 1134: 1157), and
a bear claw from Rauši cemetery, Latvia
(Špirğis 2008, p. 206, Fig. 105:2) are exact
copies of their organic prototypes. Similarly,
other prehistoric figures represent some characteristic features, like the crest-like feature
on some examples of the Great Beast.
All of the studied bronze tooth pendants
are very similar in their form, being either
straight or curved. All pendants are relatively
slim and carry horizontal grooves around the
root. Such common features, spread in a
broad area, seem to exclude mistakes, misunderstanding, or a single attempt of some
artist, and suggest that all those elements
were important for the result. Thus, the
craftsmen were confident about the result
and most apparently were familiar with the
(organic) prototype or at least with its depiction. This means that the very distinctive dissimilarities between bronze pendants and
organic bear canines raise doubts that the
bear was the prototype for bronze objects,
as none of the significant characteristics of
bear canines are represented in any of the
bronze pendants. The eagle or animal claws
that have been brought up as possible prototypes (Kivikoski 1965, Asplund 2005) do not
seem to fit either, as claws are more distinctively curved than any of the bronze pendants. In addition, claws have a distinctive
bone instead of the root. The few known
examples of bronze claws, such as the ones
from Maidla, Estonia and Rauši, Latvia, are
significantly different from the bronze tooth
pendants discussed here, which strengthens
the position that organic teeth rather than
claws served as a model.
It is clear that pendants made of bear canines
occupy an important position among tooth
pendants, thus giving credit to the interpretation of bronze pendants as bear canines.
However, the morphological similarities of
bronze pendants could be drawn even more
clearly to species of canids, either a dog’s or
wolf’s canines (Fig. 3:1). As both species are
very similar, their distinction is often complicated in the case of natural canines, and even
more so in artistic objects. Especially the
straighter version of the pendants resembles
the dog/wolf, as the proportions are more
similar, as is the curving angle of the pendants. Considering the size of bronze pendants – 5–7 cm – it can be speculated that
the natural prototype for the artificial tooth
pendants was more likely to have been the
The distinctively curved bronze pendants
may have been inspired by boar tusks
(Fig. 3:5) – another species used numerously
for pendants during the Late Iron Age,
although these occur only in single occasions
in inhumations (Jonuks and Rannamäe
2018). Thus, two different species behind
bronze pendants could be considered. The
triangular cross-section of organic pig tusks
is not represented in bronze ones; also, the
horizontal grooves on the bronze objects are
difficult to associate. Still, the overall image
of curved pendants bears a general similarity
to tusks. The symbolic value of pigs’ tusks,
representing also wild boar as a valued trophy and favoured opponent during the hunt,
is similar to the symbols associated with the
bear. Wild boar has also been associated with
several mythological and cultic features and
and boar tusks are considered to be symbols
of these myths or rituals (see Kajkowski
2012). It is often complicated to distinguish
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Tõnno Jonuks
if tusks originate from a domestic or a wild
animal, but, based on Estonian finds, it seems
that most of the tusks are from domestic pigs
and not wild boars (Jonuks and Rannamäe
2018). Moreover, the presence of the wild
boar in Late Iron Age Finland is unclear. It
is suggested that the wild boar may have
been extinct in Finland since the end of the
Atlantic climate optimum, or was present
only in low numbers (Ukkonen 1993, p.
259). Possibly the symbolic meaning of
tusks of domestic pigs was comparable or
even equal to the ‘real’ wild beast.
To conclude the quest for the organic prototypes for bronze tooth pendants, we can
refer to two different animal species, canids
and pigs, while morphological similarities
with the bear are weaker. However, there is
also another option.
What if artificial bronze tooth pendants
were exactly what they are – fangs of an
entirely man-made creature? As a result of
the previous overview, it could be concluded
that bronze tooth pendants do not copy any
natural tooth in detail. Maybe these metal
teeth were supposed to depict powerful and
fearsome fangs of some mythological being,
like a dragon, a snake, etc., whose teeth were
not available in nature? This would explain
why none of the natural animals represents
an exact prototype for the bronze ones. Also,
the golden shine of a metal alloy could represent the supernatural power and strength of
the animal. True, as we are missing the organic
fangs of a dragon for comparison, it is difficult
to prove this connection. As dragons in the
Nordic world were in their exterior and etymology considered more or less the same as
oversized snakes, it is interesting to note that
particularly the distinctively curved bronze
pendants resemble a viper’s fangs. Bronze pendants are many times larger and, according to
such interpretation, could indicate the enormous size of the mythological creature.
The subject of dragons and supernatural
snakes is a much debated issue in
Scandinavian religion and mythology.
Nominally, the world-snake Jörmunganðr
and the dragon Fáfnir from the Nibelungen
saga, but also the dragon in Beowulf, are
often referred to. On the material side, the
dragon has been discussed based on dragon/
snake figures on rune-stones, rock-carvings, or
ornaments (e.g. Hedeager 2011, Jennbert 2011,
Brunning 2015, Symons 2015, references
therein). Moreover, the image of the dragon is
also widely used in medieval art across
Northern Europe, particularly on weapons
(e.g. Creutz 2003), decorative panels (e.g.
Rybina 1992, p. 167), and personal objects
(Leimus et al. 2013), and appears also in
obvious Christian contexts (Gräslund 2006, p.
125). Objects representing dragons are less discussed, although they appear in central places
around the Baltic Sea (Gräslund 2003,
Kalmring 2015). A detailed, but so far not
discussed, image of a dragon originates from
the 11th to 12th century Ikškile hillfort at the
lower reaches of the River Daugava, Latvia
(Fig. 5). The image clearly represents a dragon
with a crocodile-like snout, round nostrils, and
overwhelming canines. It has served as a
mount for a shaft with the diameter of
1.5 cm, and it still has a nail preserved, together
with some yet not analysed organic material.
Another piercing for the nail is through the
cheek of the animal, which suggests that the
bronze mounting was supposed to sit deep on
the shaft. As indicated by the small diameter of
the socket, it had decorated some light object.
The dragon also occurs in the narrative
sources of this region. Chronologically the
example closest to bronze tooth pendants
comes from the chronicle of Adam from
Bremen from the 1070s–1080s. His statement
concerns a large island in the Baltic, called
Aestland, saying that the people there are like
their neighbours, ‘Utterly ignorant of the
God of the Christians’, whereas he goes on
to specify that
they adore dragons and other winged creatures
(dracones adorant cum volucribus) and also sacrifice to them live men whom they buy from the
merchants. These men are carefully inspected all
over to see that they are without a bodily defect on
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Real and fictional zooarchaeology: a case study of bronze tooth pendants
Fig. 5. A dragon-headed handle from Ikškile hillfort, lower reaches of the River Daugava, Latvia.
The object is stored in the National History
Museum of Latvia in Riga and is published by
permission (VI 129: 271).
account of which, they say, the dragons would
reject them. (Adam of Bremen 2002, Book IV
chapter 17).
In Early Medieval Nordic literature the
dragon often occurs in the context of describing non-Christians (Jonuks 2005). Thus, it
seems most likely that, instead of describing
the actual religion and (crypto)zoology of
Eastern Baltic during the 11th century, the
chronicler reflects the views of a Christian
world towards the pagan, strange, and hostile
East (see also Tamm & Jonuks in press).
As the original mythology of Finland and
the Eastern Baltic is not preserved from the
Late Iron Age, it is difficult to speculate if
and how the supernatural snake or dragon
was represented. However, in Kalevala
mythology, witch Louhi turns herself to a
winged dragon with iron claws. Still, this
only suggests that the concept of dragon
could have been known, but the context of
the mythological dragon Louhi (or
Louhikäärme) is rather opposite to archaeological objects. While archaeological examples express the noble culture and bronze
teeth (or claws) are on display, the Kalevala
Louhi is clearly a creature antithetical to
human culture. Accordingly, it is a stretch
to see the Viking and Late Iron Age dragons
to be (directly) connected with the Kalevala
mythology. Moreover, there are several centuries separating the Iron Age and the
recording of the Kalevala tradition from
local peasant culture in the early 19th century. Thus, the bronze pendants represent
not only a different time period, but also a
different social system and world-view.
The dragon has often been interpreted to
be a specific animal; thus, it represents some
evil form, partly influenced by the Norse
mythology, and partly by Christian theology.
Archaeological material, however, presents a
different view. Oversized snakes and dragons
are often associated with power and status in
the Viking Age and in the medieval worldview (see Pluskowski 2013, Brunning 2015,
for more details). Also, archaeological finds
of dragon-headed handles seem to be associated predominantly with the nobility and
power centres, where these have been
proudly on display, thus telling a different
story than later mythology or Christian
theology. The association with power and
high position in society can be extended
also to other dangerous and supernatural
creatures, such as eagles, hawks, and predatory animals, but most likely also to the
sophisticated ornament, which often hides a
snake or a dragon in it. Handles in the shape
of birds of prey with hooked beaks and ears
from different sites all around the Baltic Sea
(Balodis 1939, p. 14; Kivikoski 1973, taf 139:
1224, Luik 2010b) can also be added to these.
The ears behind eyes identify them not as
ordinary eagles, but as griffins, creatures
that are most often depicted with an eagle’s
face, but with ears . It seems as if no particular snake, animal, or bird species was
important, but rather that the idea of
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Tõnno Jonuks
fearsome but noble birds of prey, dangerous
predators, and mysterious dragons formed
the same mental concept to symbolise wealth,
position, power, and authority. This is a
wider cultural framework in which the
bronze tooth pendants fit.
Could it be that the unnatural animal
heads were not part of handles, but rather
some sort of staffs or position markers,
which did not even have any practical function? It is interesting to note that dragonheaded staffs were also used in the mid11th–13th centuries to symbolise power in
the greater Khurasan region in Persia
(Kuehn, S. 2011, pp. 45, 116). The recently
found Birka dragon has been interpreted to
be a part of a decoration needle (Kalmring
2015, p. 61). Considering the diameter of
only 1.5 cm of the shaft of the Ikškile dragon,
it seems far too small for a handle (even of a
whip). Similarly, the antler eagle or griffin
head from Lõhavere hillfort, possibly decorated with tin and gold or shiny stones in its
eyes, has been interpreted as a handle of a
whip (Luik 2010b). Due to a very small shaft
hole, it seems difficult to attach it to a handle
and, thus, a purely decorative and symbolic
function seems more likely. The dragon head
of Ikškile could also be regarded as some
decoration to mark the position of its
owner, and the dragon from Birka as not
just the tip of a decoration pin, but a position
Such decorations could well function as
symbols of the common noble worldview in
the Late Iron Age, forming a mental background where golden teeth, which do not
copy any known animal exactly, appeared
in wealthy female burials. This interpretation
could be taken somewhat further: the purpose of the bronze teeth (as huge fangs are
the most distinctive element of a dragon) was
not to represent just some unearthly being,
but certain moral and ideological values,
shared by a common group. When examining the mythology where dragons exist, they
are exclusively associated with wealth, prosperity, and richness. The dragon is not
guarding treasures only in myths. Its appearance in medieval dreams was also interpreted
as a sign of wealth and prosperity
(Chardonnens 2015, p. 146). Probably the
connection between wealth, social position,
and noble moral values was the reason why
the artificial golden canines, as the local
interpretation of broad symbols, appeared
in wealthy female graves in Finland and
When interpreting archaeozoological material, archaeologists with modern education
and highly competent in biology tend to
ascribe identifications emanating from their
own world-view. This is the background
from which reasonable and rational interpretations originate and, therefore, it is assumed
that past people approached nature in a similar way. In addition, archaeologists also tend
to look for and identify animal species that
they value in the modern world. This has
resulted in the over-emphasising of the bear
in archaeological records, as it seems reasonable to assume that people in the past
approached and valued the bear similarly to
us. However, the way in which a man in the
Late Iron Age (or any other period in the
past) systematised nature and the environment could have been significantly different.
Rational zooarchaeology is justified for
studying osseous material, but interpreting
art objects forces us to understand past people’s worldview and moral values. Ignoring
these can result in rational interpretations,
which seem to be in accordance with our
modern thinking, but may in fact be erroneous from the perspective of past culture.
As discussed above, the traditional interpretation of bronze tooth pendants as representations of the bear hardly finds any proof.
Apart from relatively speculative interpretations of those objects as artistic depictions of
bear canines, further morphological similarities between bronze pendants and organic
bear canines are missing. Some resemblances
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Real and fictional zooarchaeology: a case study of bronze tooth pendants
can be found with canids or pigs. However, it
could also be claimed that there is no exact
prototype in nature. Perhaps the artificial
nature of those pendants is the most essential
aspect of these. The mythological origin of
bronze tooth pendants is further suggested by
the Ikškile dragon, representing a pair of
front canines, in a way canines never appear
in nature (see Fig. 5).
The occurrence of bronze tooth pendants
only in female graves has given credit to
interpretations that stress fertility and female
qualities connected with the bear (Asplund
2005, Kivisalo 2008). When examining
tooth pendants in inhumations in general,
they are all more numerously represented in
female graves. Moreover, all sorts of pendants occur more often in female contexts
(Zeiten 1997, Samdal 2000, Jensen 2010,
Kurisoo 2012), which means that the occurrence of bronze tooth pendants in these contexts is only to be expected. It does not
exclude interpretations related to the magical
protection of females and infants, or the
interpretation of some certain animal having
a special meaning to humans, but demonstrates that a selection of certain pendants
should not be interpreted separately from
other finds. If considering other animal pendants and metal decorations, which are also
represented commonly in female burials, the
clear connection between the bear and the
woman seems to lose its ground and its supportive argument.
Still, one can only agree with Kivisalo
(2008), who stresses that bronze tooth pendants have been found mostly in south-western Finland, followed by the lower reaches
of the River Daugava, western Latvia. From
the rest of the Northern Baltic area only
single pendants are known. Despite other
similarities in female decorations in Livonia,
Finland, the only two bronze tooth pendants
from Estonia are most remarkable. The two
core areas of south-western Finland and eastern Latvia are even more intriguing as pendants were used in different positions: at the
waist in Finnish inhumation contexts but
attached to the decorative breast chain in
Livonia. Considering the broader tradition
of exhibiting pendants, it seems to refer to a
fashion, but not to the deep semantics of
fertility, protection, and other favourite phenomena used in archaeological interpretations. How does the different fashion
associate with the usage of such similar pendants in otherwise distant regions? The lower
reaches of the River Daugava represented
one of the most important trade centres in
the Eastern Baltic, linking together a suitable
(over-wintering) harbour, connections along
the eastern and southern coasts of the Baltic
Sea to Germany, further to the north, to
Finland, and along the River Daugava also
to the mainland of the Baltics and central
Russia. Such a long tradition of successful
and wealthy long-range trading is probably
the reason why merchants and crusaders
from Germany ‘discovered’ this part of
land, particularly in the 12th century. Thus,
it may not be accidental that the two bronze
tooth pendants from Estonia originate from
the north-western part of the country – the
location where the Gulf of Finland was
crossed. It can be speculated that bronze
tooth pendants symbolise links between two
communities, the nobility of which had close
contacts (see in more detail Pihlman 2005).
South-western Finland probably became
essential as controlling the trade further to
the north and north-east, possibly particularly the fur trade, etc.
Such a background indicates that bronze
tooth pendants did not symbolise any common belief shared by the Finns and
Livonians (and ignored by their neighbours), but denoted links between ruling
families who shared common trading interests and represented centres controlling larger territories. The origin of pendants could
be a most interesting question. Considering
the large amount of pendants in south-western Finland, it seems reasonable to suppose
that pendants were produced there and distributed thence. In-depth metallographic
Tõnno Jonuks
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analyses, technological and contextual stylistic studies could offer new directions to
be considered in the future. If the same
provenance is really the case, further interpretations concerning gift-giving, kin relations, or establishing and declaring
relations between distant communities
could be used for elaborating further
This article has been supported by the
Estonian Ministry of Education and
Research (IUT 22-5), and by the European
Union through the European Regional
Development Fund (Centre of Excellence
in Estonian Studies). I am grateful to PhD
Eve Rannamäe (University of Tartu) for
her help in identifying animal species, PhD
Sonja Hukantaival (University of Turku),
(University of Kiel) and Kristiina
Johanson (University of Tartu) for valuable
discussion and comments to the draft of this
paper. Two anonymous reviewers added
useful comments to the text. Tiina Mällo
and Piret Baumann revised the language of
the article.
This work was supported by the European
Union through the European Regional
Development Fund (Center of Excellence in
Estonian Studies);Estonian Ministry of
Education and Research [IUT 22-5];
No potential conflict of interest was reported
by the author.
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