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Identification and Creation

Object Number
Crossbow Fibula
Work Type
pin, fibula
5th-first half 6th century CE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World
Roman Imperial period, Late
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

Brass, gilded
7.6 x 4.8 x 3.2 cm (3 x 1 7/8 x 1 1/4 in.)
Technical Details

Chemical Composition: 1978.495.37
XRF data from Tracer
Alloy: Gilt Brass
Alloying Elements: copper, tin, zinc
Other Elements: lead, iron, silver, gold, mercury
Comments: Gold and mercury are present due to amalgam gilding; the black strip along the bow is very similar to the base metal.
K. Eremin, January 2014

XKA 142
XRF data from Tracer
Alloy: Leaded Copper with traces of gilding
Alloying Elements: copper, lead
Other Elements: iron, gold, mercury
Comments: The object is amorphous and extremely corroded; it may be slag. Traces of gilding may be the result of long-term contact with 1978.495.37.
K. Eremin, January 2014

Technical Observations: The surface preserves the remains of gold leaf over a reddish-brown substrate, and there is some green corrosion over both. One terminal knob from the crossbar, the pin, and the small interior rod that would have secured it are missing.

The elaborately fabricated fibula was made from three hollow sections of hammered sheet: the crossbar, which had flanged ends to receive the hollow knobs; the bow; and the catchplate. The decorative reinforcements in the corners where the bow joins the crossbar and the decorative attachments on the catchplate are solid and were probably cast by the lost-wax process. A gilt beaded wire was used to reinforce and conceal the joins of the knobs at the ends of the crossbar and top of the bow. Another gilt beaded wire and seven pieces of gilt straight wire decorate the lower end of the bow section. All the various parts of the fibula appear to have been joined by soldering. The surfaces were covered with gold leaf before the wires were soldered on. Excess gold leaf can be seen under magnification where the central knob joins the bow. The outer curve of the bow and the outer flat surface of the catchplate have a black inlay material that x-ray fluorescence indicates contains mostly copper with little or no silver. This suggests that the material could be a copper sulfide niello (1).


1. See W. A. Oddy, M. Bimson, and S. La Niece, “The Composition of Niello Decoration on Gold, Silver and Bronze in the Antique and Medieval Periods,” Studies in Conservation 28 (1983) 29-35, esp. 31.

Carol Snow (submitted 2002)


Recorded Ownership History
Formerly in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, no. E-2262.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Transfer from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
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
Small patches of gilding remain on this hollow crossbow fibula, and it may have had inlay along the spine of the bow. The gilding would have caused this fibula to appear as though it were made of gold, but because it is hollow, it would have been significantly lighter than a gold example would have been (1). The crossbar, bow, and catchplate were all separately made. The remaining knobs of this fibula are in the shape of flattened spheres with raised central points; the right-side knob is missing. The knobs may have been made separately and attached; beaded borders separated the lateral knobs from the crossbar. The crossbar is hexagonal in section and is pierced twice. It is decorated on the top by a series of raised ridges. The separately made pin (now missing) was attached to the fibula by a hinge that was secured to a wire rod inserted through the crossbar. The bow of this example bears a thin strip that may have had inlay. The edges of the catchplate are elaborately scalloped with freestanding C-volutes. Unlike the other crossbow fibulae at Harvard, the catch for this example opens on the left.

Crossbow fibulae were used in the Roman world from the third through sixth centuries CE (2). The distinctive fasteners, often decorated with prominent onion-shaped knobs, may have been status symbols, as indicated by examples in gold and the famous relief of the fourth-century Roman general Stilicho in Mantua, where crossbow fibulae are clearly rendered on the shoulders of the general and his son (3). Some examples, like this one, were gilt hollow copper alloy—giving the illusion of the prestigious material without being as expensive or heavy.


1. Compare Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. 17.191.190; A. Robertson, “Roman Finds from Non-Roman Sites in Scotland: More Roman ‘Drift’ in Caledonia,” Britannia 1 (1970): 198-226, esp., 212 and 219, fig. 11.4; E. Keller, Die spätrömischen Grabfunde in Südbayern, Münchner Beiträge zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte 14 (Munich, 1971) 52 (type 6), fig. 12; B. Deppert-Lippitz, “A Late Antique Crossbow Fibula in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 35 (2000): 39-70, esp. 53-54; and L. Wamser with C. Flügel and B. Ziegaus, 2000, Die Römer zwischen Alpen und Nordmeer: Zivilisatorisches Erbe einer europäischen Militärmacht (Mainz, 2000) 388, no. 149.e-f.

2. See R. Hattatt, Brooches of Antiquity: A Third Selection of Brooches from the Author’s Collection (Oxford, 1987) 282-88; B. Deppert-Lippitz, “A Late Antique Crossbow Fibula in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 35 (2000): 39-70; and P. Dandridge, “Idiomatic and Mainstream: The Technical Vocabulary of a Late Roman Crossbow Fibula,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 35 (2000): 71-86.

3. See P. von Rummel, Habitus barbarus: Kleidung und Repräsentation spätantiker Eliten im 4. und 5. Jahrhundert (Berlin, 2007) 206-13, fig. 12.

Lisa M. Anderson

Publication History

  • Susanne Ebbinghaus, ed., Ancient Bronzes through a Modern Lens: Introductory Essays on the Study of Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes, Harvard Art Museum/Yale University Press (Cambridge, MA, 2014), pp. 60, 85

Subjects and Contexts

  • Ancient Bronzes

Related Works

Verification Level

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