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Identification and Creation

Object Number
Quatrefoil Fibula Catchplate Fragment
Work Type
fibula, pin
mid 9th-8th century BCE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World, Europe, South Italy
Iron Age
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

Copper alloy
9.1 x 1.5 x 1.7 cm (3 9/16 x 9/16 x 11/16 in.)
Technical Details

Technical Observations: A combination of wire and sheet bronze was used to assemble the quatrefoil fibulae. Each double spiral is one length of wire coiled from each side until the two spirals meet at the center. A coil detail of 1987.135.7 illustrates how the wire tapers gradually from the center toward both ends. The wire is thin as it starts to coil, to minimize the hole created at the first coil, and becomes thicker as it spirals out. Very little hammering was done to flatten the spiral after shaping. Fragment 1987.135.11 reveals that the area at the center of the wire was hammered flat, allowing the two sets of double spirals to rest perpendicularly on top of one another. The center of overlapped spirals is drilled with a hole for mechanical joining using a wire rivet. Also attached to the center rivet is a catchplate on the back that was most likely formed from a single rod of cast bronze. The front-plate and the supporting ribbons crossing the back of the spirals were also made from thin sheets of metal. The embossed decoration on the front-plate, seen clearly on 1987.135.1, was added onto the sheet metal by punching a round, pointed tool onto the back surface.

The wires employed for the fibulae are generally round in cross-section, with slight variations in surface texture. The tapering thickness of the wire provides evidence that the strips were hammered rather than drawn through a die plate. Reflective light microscopy revealed on the less corroded wires an uneven, slightly ribbed texture running parallel to the wire axis, which is most likely a result of final sanding and shaping of the wire. A second feature observed on some of the wires was a single groove that follows the length of the wire. A magnified view (50x) achieved with a true confocal scanning microscope showed that the groove is in the form of a recess rather than a join of a metal sheet folded over on itself. In x-radiographs the groove was also revealed as a darker line down the center, often along the entire length, as on 1987.135.14.

Metallography was carried out on the fragmentary fibulae 1987.135.9 and 1987.135.12 to learn more about the wire-forming technique. Samples of the wire were cut in half and mounted both transversely and longitudinally. The samples were too corroded to confirm the fabrication technique; however, the transverse section did appear to be solid metal—not hollow or folded. The sections revealed a distortion of the equiaxed polygonal grains, which indicates cold working. The presence of fine parallel lines, so-called annealing twins, confirms intermittent annealing to regain workability in the metal. The longitudinal cross-section showed elongated inclusions running parallel to the wire axis. Using SEM-EDX, these fragments were determined to contain copper and sulfur, suggesting a copper sulfide impurity from smelting copper sulfide ores. The observations obtained by this combination of analytical techniques suggest that the wire was formed in a cold-working process, that is, by hammering cast rods of bronze. The occurrence of the groove is still not fully understood.

All of the objects have green and blue corrosion overall and light burial accretions. None of the fragments appears to have come from the same fibula or to join with one of the more complete fibulae.

Julie Wolfe

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jerry Nagler
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
The catchplate is a fragment from a quatrefoil fibula. At the rivet, there are two layers of metal that are the remains of a set of pre-existing double spirals. The pin is missing from the spring to the tip. The pin hook is partially missing.

Tightly spiraled wires with a decorative plate comprise the quatrefoil type fibulae. They stand upright like a brooch and function as a fastener for clothing. The Harvard Art Museums has a collection of ten complete quatrefoils in addition to spiral, front-plate, and catchplate fragments. The distinguishing elements of the fibulae are the two double spirals of round wire stacked perpendicular to one another and riveted together in the center. Within this collection, decorative front plates are either square (1987.135.1, 1987.135.6, 1987.135.7, and 1987.135.17) or lozenge-shaped (1987.135.9 and 1987.135.16), and five of them have punched decoration in the form of dots that follow the perimeter and cross the center diagonally. The catchplate spans the length of one double spiral and is attached by a central rivet. The clasp mechanism incorporates a spring and pin at one end and a catchplate to hold the tip of the pin on the other end. To keep the spirals from bending out of plane, some of the fibulae have ribbons of metal that crisscross the double spirals on the back and fold over onto the front (1987.135.4, 1987.135.5, 1987.135.6, 1987.135.7, 1987.135.8, and 1987.135.9).

The quatrefoil type of fibula was common in Italy and was probably introduced by way of the Balkans or Greece (1). Different localities played with the shape and decoration of the front-plates, making it common to find a variety of forms manufactured during the Iron Age. Quatrefoils are an elaboration on the spectacle fibula that has a design using only one double spiral, such as 1952.15 and 1952.112. Variations in the quatrefoil form can be seen in their size, front-plate shape, embossed decoration, and catchplate. Quatrefoil fibulae earlier than Harvard’s group have a catch made by extending and shaping the wire from one of the double spirals. The Harvard fibulae, in contrast, have a separate catchplate that has been formed from sheet metal and joined mechanically by a rivet. The earliest catchplate of this sort was found in Sicily and from there spread to Italy. 1987.135.17 is the only fibula in Harvard’s collection that has a hammered, flat spiral for a catchplate. Also common in Sicily are fibulae with embossed and square or lozenge-shaped front-plates. The provenience of the Harvard quatrefoil fibulae is unknown; they are, however, stylistically similar to those found after 850 BCE throughout Italy and Sicily (2).


1. J. Alexander, “The Spectacle Fibulae of Southern Europe,” American Journal of Archaeology 69.1 (1965): 7-23, esp. 15, type IVai. Quatrefoil distribution is suggested by ibid., 18; and P. Betzler, Die Fibeln in Süddeutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1, Prähistorische Bronzefunde 14.3 (Munich, 1974) pl. 84.

2. Compare fibulae found at Torano Castello in Calabria, which are similar with respect to their embossed front-plates, separate catchplates, and support ribbons on the back of the spirals that fold onto the front, published in J. de la Genière, “Torano Castello: Calabria,” Notizie degli scavi di antichità 31 (1977): 389-422, esp. 399, fig. 13. For an example from ancient Capua, see also A. M. Bietti Sestieri, “Italian Swords and Fibulae of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages,” in Italian Iron Age Artefacts in the British Museum, ed. J. Swaddling (London, 1986) 3-23, esp. 12 and 23, no. 51. For quatrefoil fibulae with a lozenge front-plate, see J. Sundwall, Die älteren italischen Fibeln (Berlin, 1943) 176, type E IIc8 (Monterozzi in Tarquinia); D. Randall-MacIver, Villanovans and Early Etruscans: A Study of the Early Iron Age in Italy as it is Seen Near Bologna, in Etruria, and in Latium (Oxford, 1924) pl. 13:11 (Corneto); R. M. A. Procelli, “Calascibetta (Enna): La necropoli di Cozzo S. Giuseppe in Contrada Realmese,” Notizie degli scavi di antichità 36 (1982): 438-632, esp. 553, fig. A3 (Calascibetta); and F. Lo Shiavo, “Francavilla Marittima, Necropoli di Macchiabate: Le fibule di bronzo,” Atti e memorie della Società Magna Grecia, 2.18-20 (1977-79): 93-109, esp. 97, fig. 38 (Francavilla Marittima). For quatrefoil fibulae with a square front-plate, see E. Fabbricotti, “Veio (Isola Farnesse): Continuazione degli scavi nella necropoli villanoviana in località ‘Quattro Fontanili,’” Notizie degli scavi di antichità 30 (1976): 149-83, esp. 166, fig. 15.4 (Veio); B. Chiartano, “Roccella Jonica (Reggio Calabria): Necropoli preellenica in contrada San Onofrio,” Notizie degli scavi di antichità 35 (1981): 491-539, esp. 536, fig. 22 (Roccella Jonica in Calabria). For quatrefoil fibulae without a front-plate, see F. G. Lo Porto, “Metaponto: Tombe a tumulo dell’età del ferro scoperte nel suo entroterra,” Notizie degli scavi di antichità 23 (1969): 121-70, esp. 166, fig. 59 (Metaponto).

Julie Wolfe

Publication History

  • Julie Wolfe, "Analysis of Iron Age Bronze Fibulae from Southern Italy in the Collection of the Harvard University Art Museums" (thesis (certificate in conservation), Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, June 1998), Unpublished, p. 1-14 passim.

Subjects and Contexts

  • Ancient Bronzes

Related Works

Verification Level

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