Pouches: Recent Research for Regia Anglorum

Because of the way the Code of Law is organised the argument for the wearing of visible pouches bears the burden of proof. We must prove our case rather than the Authenticity Officer proving his. Since its inception it has been accepted by the authenticity department that three provenances are regarded as sufficient proof for the use of a period item in a Regia context.

The question of external pouches has a number of different points. What evidence can we find for their use in our period, what type of pouch was worn, what was a pouch used for and lastly does the argument for the banning of external pouches stand up to scrutiny?

Those wishing to make a case for visible pouches have to do two things:

1. Prove that pouches existed and were used in this country during our period.

2. Prove that they were not exclusively worn under the tunic during our period.

Fabric Pouches?

During the search for evidence relating to leather pouches in Regia’s period an article by James Graham-Campbell and Elizabeth Okasha (1) regarding an examination of a pair of Anglo-Saxon hooked tags from the Rome (Forum) 1883 hoard was uncovered (well done Alan). Because of the relevance of this article to the question of Anglo-Saxon pouches a summary follows:

The two hooked tags where found in 1883 in a pot containing 833 silver coins and I gold coin, all but 6 of these coins being English. The interesting thing about the tags is that an inscription is split between the two tags. The inscription on the first tag is +DOMNOMA and on the second tag RINOPAPA+ This inscription is translated by Elizabeth Okasha as + to Lord Pope Marnus +.This inscription along with the date of the coins identify the hooked tags as being part of an offering to the papacy sent to Rome during or just after the pontificate of Marinus II (942-6AD). James Graham-Campbell also highlight another pair of hooked tags which were found with a hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins from Tetney Lincolnshire which were deposited c963AD. In both of these cases the hooked tags were the only non numismatic elements in the hoards suggesting that they served a function in the hoard, also both hoards showed traces of fabric. This indicated that the hooked tags were fastenings for pouches.

He then describes other finds of hooked tags from different sites, both funerary [see below] and urban (ii), and describes one of the current accepted uses of hooked tags. That is the use of hooked tags used to fasten gartering as shown at two different sites, the old Minster cemetery at Winchester Hants (grave 67) and grave 905 at Birka where hooked tags were found at each knee of the skeletons. He then suggests the reappraisal of some individual finds of hooked tags at two execution cemeteries in Hants (Meon Hill and Stockbridge Down) and the pre-chapter house cemetery of St Albans Abbey, Herts. These hooked tags have been described as wrist fasteners, however as he points out it would be an unlikely dress fashion to have only one wrist fastened. As these three tags were found in the waist area of each skeleton their use should be interpreted as fastenings for fabric pouches worn at the waist. From above there appears to have been a type of pouch made from fabric and secured by hooked tags. Small versions of this type of pouch were secured by a single tag and worn at the waist. Additionally, bronze edge-binding and iron fittings from a Viking burial on Arran belong to some form of cloth rectilinear container mounted at the waist (14).

Leather pouches?

Leather draw string pouches are also a possibility with finds from around Britain before our period and from the wider Viking world during our period. These include Hedeby (2); Skriodalur, Iceland (3) and Scar, Orkney (5) all of which are not high status finds. The presence of leather pouches can also be reasonably inferred from excavated burials at Repton, Ketting, Denmark (10) and Pierowall, Orkney (12).

Hard leather box style pouches are known from earlier than our period in England (4. grave 56) and during our period at Birka. Also high status finds are known from before our period such as Sutton Hoo. Evidence for belt fittings for this type of pouch are also known from before our period (8), in non-‘high status’ contexts. In reference to such fittings found in York, Nicola Rogers says:

“Fittings of this kind have been found in several Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, including Holywell in Suffolk, Burwell in Cambridgeshire (Lethbridge 1931), Dunstable in Bedfordshire (7) and Buckland, Dover (4). At both Holywell and Burwell cemeteries, these fittings were found attached to rings and in association with small hasps. In one Holywell burial the fittings were found with the remains of a leather case or pouch (Leth bridge 1931, 39 fig. 18, B3)”

Outside our country but during our time span we do have finds of pouches in burial deposits. Oseberg is a good example but also deposits in Birka and Gotland. Two finds from 10th century Birka graves. Bj731 ( Graslund 1984 ) and B1904 ( Arbman 1940-3 ), both show decorated remains of belt pouches from middle class graves. There is no point in decorating an item If it is to be hidden under clothing. The deterioration in decoration quality of tortoise brooches, prior to their disappearance as they were being covered by new fashionable shawls, provides a parallel which would seem to support this attitude in the peoples of the time too.

What was carried in a pouch?

From above it can be seen that large fabric pouches could be used to hold large numbers of coins. This is not however everyday use for the pouches we are interested in. To determine what types of thing were carried in pouches we need to look at pouch finds from before our period. First of all common every day tools found associated with pouches include-

-bronze needle and pin (grave 138) (4)

-shears (grave 83) (4)

-comb (5)

-coin, flint and four weights (3)

-strike-a-light and flint (12)

-honestone and comb (12)

-honestone (10,Ketting, Denmark)*

*The large numbers of honestones which are small and portable, but not perforated for suspension, must have been carried in some form of container. Honestones, being imperishable, survive in a far greater number of cases (000’s) than perishable items such as pouches.

Secondly keepsakes/lucky charms such as-

-quartz pebbles, horse teeth, broken Roman bracelet (6, cist 54)

-teeth (grave c9) (7)

-boars tusk (Repton)

Does the argument for banning pouches stand up to close scrutiny?

As we understand it the argument for the banning of externally worn pouches is;

a. Lack of manuscript evidence to support usage.

b. Lack of archaeology in England

c. Evidence from Roman writers to the lack of security of external pouches.

d. Opinions of Anglo-Saxon experts.

Lets look at each of these separately;

a. It is accepted that manuscripts contain items of artistic convention and that the illustrations in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are copies of earlier work and copies from continental work, both cases where pouches were known to be present. Although some contemporary objects are thought to be illustrated in some of the manuscripts (9) not all are covered. It is noted, for instance, that the same manuscripts also fail to depict belt-knives, for which we do have archaeological evidence. Furthermore it can be shown that purses/pouches are not depicted in the corpus of illustrations from the 6th to 8th centuries (immediately prior to Regia’s period), despite the fact that we have archaeological survivals from that period attesting to their use.

b. There is archaeological evidence for fabric pouches worn at the waist in England during our period. The presence of decorated hooks suggests that these were intended to be seen, and thus worn externally.

Leather and textile items survive well only in certain conditions. These conditions are remarkably scarce in this country so we find a tiny percentage of deposited finds in recognisable conditions. The survival of leather draw-string pouches in pagan archaeological contexts in Scotland and the Scandinavian countries, and evidence of their presence in with the Great Army in the Danelaw attests to the probability that they were worn, at least by Vikings, in England

c. Although Roman writing are far from our period their writings regarding the security concerns of external pouches are valid. However apart from the large fabric pouches (above) very little coinage would have been carried on a daily basis. Very little of great value was carried in pouches, but items of everyday use were.

d. We cannot argue with the opinions of the experts that Roland has talked to as their opinions are as valid as any other opinions However other entirely reputable archaeologists have interpreted their finds, and the positions of objects within graves, as evidence for the existence of pouches.

E.g. Cloth on both sides of finds: This is a good case of differing interpretations of evidence:-

Gail Owen Crocker notes that on some of the pouch fragments and fittings found there appears to be textile remains on top of the pouch, or on both sides. She interprets this as indicating that the pouches were deposited between an upper and under layer of clothing.

At Scar, a Viking Boat Burial on Sanday, a bone comb was found, also with cloth remains on the iron rivets on both sides of the comb, and the interpretation made by Michel Carlsson, the archaeologist working on the material, was that the comb had been deposited between the outside of the tunic and the underside of the sleeve.

Since several of the Viking grave finds referred to above have been located at the hip, such an alternative explanation could be equally applied, explaining pouch fragments with textile on both sides. Each interpretation has some merit and so, at best, must be considered inconclusive.

Here we should also remind ourselves that as a society we are not only portraying just Anglo-Saxons but also Vikings and Normans, both with cultural contacts outwith England, and Welsh and Scots from other parts of the British Isles. It has been said that some of the evidence from abroad is too far away both in distance and cultural affinity to be of relevance. However if we look at Birka we see hooked tags being used to fasten gartering as is seen in England. Also if we look at the female grave from Gurness, Orkney this skeleton has an iron neck ring with a hammer pendant believed to have been placed on the body as a mortuary practice. This is an unique find in Scandinavian Scotland but it is a common practice in many female graves in Birka and Malaren in Sweden. Jewellery patterns and textiles also show definite links between Scotland and Western Norway, Birka and Hedeby (13). To raise the argument that Scandinavia is too far away would also eliminate a huge quantity of the other evidence that we take for granted, not least Viking ship tents, or the Mastermyr find of tools that is almost our standard reference.

This is not the end of the story (“That’s it, you’re ALL excommunicated” exclaimed the Bishop) as there are a number of leads currently being followed up that may lead to more evidence of pouches. These include:

-National Museum of Ireland , which is supposed to have some Anglo-Saxon pouches on display, plus finds from Viking Dublin.

-A survey of Viking graves and grave-goods in the British Isles.

-Look at the Norse Sagas for references for pouches.


1. Graham-Campbell, J. and Okasha, E. ‘A pair of Anglo-Saxon hooked tags.’ Anglo-Saxon England 20, 221.

2. Willy Groenman-van Waatennge in ‘Die Lederfunde von Haithabu’

3. Kristjansdottir S. 1998: ‘The last Viking in Iceland.’ Viking Heritage Newsletter 3, 5.

4. Evison, V.1.1987: ‘Dover: The Buck/and Anglo-Saxon cemetery’, London.

5. Owen, 0.1999: Scar: A Viking age boat burial in Orkney’ Historic Scotland.

6. Proudfoot, E. 1998: ‘Hallow Hill St. Andrews 1975-7’, Proceedings of the Society ofAntiquarics of Scotland ‘126, 417.

7. Mathews, C.L. 1962: ‘The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Marina Drive Dunstable.’ Bedfordshire Archaeological Journal 1, 25.

8. Rogers, N.S.H. Anglan and other finds from Fishergate, 1352-1353; Fig 653, nos. 5050,5052.

9. Carver, M.O.H. 1986:’Contemporary Artefacts Illustrated in Late-Saxon Manuscripts’ Archaeologia 108, 107-145

10. Muller-Wille, M. 1976: ‘Das wikingzeitliche Graberfeld von Thumby-Bienebek I’, Offa 36, 1976.

11. Hinton, D.A. 1996: The Gold, Silver and other Non-ferrous Alloy Objects from Hsmwic, Alan Sutton, 9-10.

12. Thorsteinsson, A. I 968:’The Viking burial place at Pierowall, Westray, Orkney’ Fifth Viking Congress, I 50-73.

13. Welander, R.D.E., Batey, C. and Cowie, T.G. 1987: ‘A Viking

burial from Kneep, Uig, Isle of Lewis’ Proceedings of the Society ofAntiquaries of Scotland 117, 149-174.

14. Balfour, J.A. 1909: ‘Notice of a Viking Grave-mound, Kingscross, Arran’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 43, 371-5 [with additional comments from F.Hunter, National Museums of Scotland].

Article copyright to : A.McVie A.NicboIsom G.Waidsom November 2000

Reproduced with permission.