International Framework

Changes in the cultural significance of early medieval gemstone jewellery considered against the background of economic history and the transfer of ideas and technologies

In large parts of 5th- to 8th-century Europe, thousands of items of jewellery were decorated all over in a red gemstone: garnet. As characteristic as this style is for these centuries, closer inspection nonetheless reveals not only regional variations but also differences in its social relevance. At the same time a phenomenon, which has so far received little consideration, manifests itself against the backdrop of the “Dark Ages”: In the centre of Frankish-Merovingian Europe the workmanship of this so-called cloisonné style changes from lavish, abundantly supplied, all-over cover of red garnet platelets of oriental origin to a more simple variant employing only individual chips of “indigenous” Bohemian garnet. Previous theories trying to explain this change range from disruptions of international trade routes by Persians and/or Arabs, to negative economic consequences upon the Frankish balance of trade, and to changes of fashion.

It is interesting to note that in the periphery of the Frankish Empire – Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia – the use of all-over garnet cloisonné increases precisely in the 7th century, sometimes on objects of exceptionally high quality. There is a lack of scientific analyses considering the origin of these garnets. Do they, in the 7th century, originate from the same sources as before, or are there disruptions? What is happening along the eastern periphery of the Frankish Empire, in the Carpathian Basin? As was the case in the Visigothic area bordering to the west, there was apparently an increase in the use of substitute materials like red glass. Does a change of meaning of red garnet manifest itself in the Byzantine Empire? Are there explanations for this change that can be attributed to the country of origin, i.e. India?

The question of  the structuring of European economic zones and their external trading contacts during the 7th century is appraised through a combination of archaeological, art historical and source-based studies as well as technological and scientific analyses. More than almost any other category of finds this material and the cloisonné style associated with it is suited, on the one hand, to illustrate the economic, social and semiotic changes but, on the other hand, also to demonstrate continuity and commonalities in the various European regions. With the aid of an interdisciplinary team of international researchers, working together in close structural as well as thematic cooperation, the ensuing variety of new perceptions should allow considering these questions  from different perspectives. Alongside various publications it is intended to communicate and present the results at an international conference. Following on from the project it is planned to stage a thematically related exhibition.