Working on a paper about Roman Period snake-head rings in Scandinavia, I read a short 1873 paper by Hans Hildebrand on the chronology of these objects. His model of the rings’ development is still broadly accepted. But the enormous growth of the known material and better typological methods have turned his brief contribution into a historical footnote rather than something we still engage with.
Still, reading the paper I came across a passage that seemed so odd to me that I couldn’t quite understand what Hildebrand meant on a quick read. His reasoning follows lines that we have abandoned completely. So I’ll try to make sense of it here. This is about the absolute dating of the rings.
First Hildebrand notes that though most rings are not from datable find combinations, their general design and decoration place them in the Early Iron Age. This, we now know, is from c. 530 BC to AD 540 if we count the Migration Period with the EIA, as Hildebrand does. Then he points to the Thorsberg war booty sacrifice, which contains late snake-head rings, Roman coins from 60-194 AD and objects datable to the 4th century AD. He sums up by placing the snake-head rings in the interval AD 100-300. Today we place them in phases C1b and C2, which we date to AD 210-320. (Hildebrand couldn’t know that the Roman coins in Thorsberg belong to a much earlier deposition event in the sacred lake than the rings.) Well done, Hans Hildebrand. But now comes the odd bit (and I translate, and insert paragraph breaks).
Another approximate dating is possible. The snake-head rings occur … from Scania and up north to Uppland and Medelpad. As several have been found in Uppland, we must say that the type was indigenous north of Lake Mälaren as well. But now we find, when looking at all the products of Sweden’s Early Iron Age, that not all of this period has been shared by the country south of the border woods and the country around Lake Mälaren.
Towards the end of the Early Iron Age people in this country (as in Norway and Denmark) made … gold bracteates [pendants], but these are missing from Svealand [the land north of the border woods]. The bracteates were rooted in fine craft products of the Constantinian era [AD 306-363]. The changed taste that contact with them created in the North limited itself to Götaland and did not appear in Svealand, which thus appears to have left the Early Iron Age culture behind at this time. As the invasion of the Huns in the late 4th century severed the contact between the Classical world and the North, the acquaintance with the Constantinian taste must have appeared in the North about 350-375. After this time, then, the Early Iron Age was not shared between Svealand and Götaland, but the sharing seems to have continued all the way up to the aforementioned period, as a copy of a Constantinian medallion has been found in Uppland. The snake-head rings must thus belong to the earlier part of the Iron Age, the time before AD 400. This chronological calculation thus matches fairly well with the previous one and thereby gains strength.
Before I look at the argument, note that several factual errors collapse it. There are in fact gold bracteate pendants in Svealand. True, they are inspired by Constantinian-era medallions, but by old medallions: the bracteates actually start about AD 450, over a century later. They are in any case an insufficient proxy if you want to determine if there is final EIA settlement of the South Scandinavian kind in a region. And the North never did lose contact with the Mediterranean. But accepting all this, what is Hildebrand’s argument? It boils down to this.
“Svealand has no final EIA. The LIA starts much earlier in Svealand than in Götaland. But Svealand does have snake-head rings. So the snake-head rings do not belong to the final LIA.” In modern terms: the absence of known gold bracteates from Svealand means that in that region, the Vendel Period followed immediately upon the Late Roman Period and began around AD 400 there.
It wasn’t a good argument even in 1873. Hildebrand did well to base his dating of the snake-head rings on the Thorsberg find combination, and to relegate this convoluted and poorly founded argument to a supporting paragraph.
Hildebrand, Hans. 1873. Ormhufvudringarne från jernåldern. Kungliga Vitterhets, Historie och Antikvitets-Akademiens Månadsblad 14-15, February–March 1873. Stockholm.