In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, on the Middle Gallery in case 98a there is an early medieval clothes fastener described as a penannular bronze ring brooch with a long pin (1884.79.13). Of northern Irish provenance it is part of the Pitt Rivers founding collection(142-1649), and was originally displayed at the Bethnal Green Museum. It is an example of the wide-ranging nature of the collection of General Pitt Rivers. This zoomorphic brooch is described having continuous coarse ribbing along its 4.6cm diameter hoop and is complete with its 10.5cm pin. Its splayed terminals are plain enamel decorated, have no ears, and with rounded eyes. The pinched-in snouts are also enamelled with prominent upturned tips. There is side hatching on the more or less formless pin-head. Such brooches are thus made with a “…pin which swivels round a hoop with a break to enable the pin to be inserted in the cloth (Laing, 1996). Beside this brooch is a much larger and donated, and collected by General Pitt Rivers, which comes from Lough Neagh in Ireland (the largest lake in the British Isles) and is labelled P.R.Coll  (403 Blue).
Penannular open ring brooches start in pre-Roman Britain and probably originate from provincial Roman prototypes. In 4th to 6th century Ireland the zoomorphic penannular brooch was the main form found, though the type has been found from the 2nd century onwards. The term derives from the fact that the brooch terminals simulate animal heads because “…the terminals bore a faint resemblance to a backward turns animal head…” (Laing, 1996). In fully developed brooch types the snout, eyes and ears are all present. These brooches show both regional and chronological variations in style and comprise a circular hoop of metal flattened at the ends – the terminals. Attached to the hoop is a movable pin, the loop of which runs along the hoop. The rings is incomplete in order to allow passage of the pin between the terminals. These brooches exhibit great variation from crudely alloyed simple rings to creatively elaborate examples decorated with enamelling, glass, and gold filigree.
The zoomorphic brooch originated through the combined efforts of the Brigantes and their allies the Votadini, being derived from a Brigantian bangle. From this the Votadini created a new motif unlike other representations of animals, it was an abstraction. This new stylised form had, unlike previous examples, the animal facing inwards. The Brigantian bangle was penannular, square ended and lightweight. The Votadini occupied the region from the Forth to the Tyne. The Brigantes, the only tribe to exist in Ireland as well, occupied much of northern Britain.
Most Irish penannular pins are unprovenanced but they were producing proto-zoomorphic Votadini type pins in the second century. Refugee craftsmen may have sought sanctuary in Ireland after the abandonment of the Antonine Wall in 196 AD. Many examples of zoomorphic brooches date from before the Roman occupation. However, only the early forms have been found in Britain whilst later development was peculiar to Ireland. The terminal types are characteristic of these islands. Some found in Wales, Scotland and England but most numerous in Ireland. One of the early metal working centres in Ireland was at Fort Clogher, County Tyrone. Examples of penannular brooches similar to those collected by General Pitt Rivers were found at crannog 2 at Ballindery, County Offaly, and at the River Shannon near Athlone, County Westmeath. The Shannon example is charteriesd by being decorated with triskels (Celtic symbol of three legs radiating from a centre) and double spirals, whereas the Ballindery brooch is animal headed with a fine ribbed ring.
These brooches were more than mundane clothes fasteners. They had secular and religious significance in Celtic society. Their greater purpose was to serve as, often personalised, symbols of wealth, rank and status. Not only were the most expensive and elegant examples the preserve of the rich. They functioned as portable wealth for payment and gift giving amongst the upper echelons. They indicated sexual equality because women possessed as elaborate brooches as men. These brooches show forms fixed and adopted by the ancient Britons before the Roman invasion, and furthermore their development involved both the British and the Irish. Indeed, open-ring brooches were being made at Clogher by the 6th century. At this time “…distinctively Irish forms of pennanular were in vogue across the country and were occasionally taken over to Britain.” (Laing, 1996). The long and increasingly elaborate development of the penannular brooch ensured their survival into the Dark Ages where their continued use illuminates conditions in England, though most brooches found in Anglo-Saxon graves were re-used Roman examples.
References and Sources Consulted
Campbell, E. (2001). Were the Scots Irish? Antiquity (75) 285-92.
Kilbride-Jones, H. E. (1935-36). Scots zoomorphic penannular brooches. Proc.Soc.Antiq.Scotland. LXX 123-38
Kilbride-Jones, H. E. (1980). Zoomorphic penannular brooches. Report XXXIX, Society of Antiquaries. Thames & Hudson.
Laing, L. & J. (1996). Art of the Celts. Thames and Hudson, London.
Lewis, J. M. (1982). Recent finds of penannular brooches from Wales. Medieval Archaeology. 25. 151-54.
Megaw, R. & V. (2001). Celtic Art. Thames & Hudson, London.
Smith, R. A. (1914). Irish brooches of five centuries. Archaeologia, 65, 223-250.