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Not Merely Amulets—Animal Pendants Reflect Life Values

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Tõnno Jonuks, Senior Research Fellow at the Estonian Literary Museum, and Eve Rannamäe, PhD student in the Institute of History and Archaeology of the University of Tartu, thoroughly examined 1,271 pendants from 77 archaeological sites all over Estonia.

“It is amazing how consistent the use of pendants is—for example, pendants made of elk teeth were present for thousands of years during the Stone Age,” said Rannamäe. She added that teeth and fangs symbolize power even nowadays and that is why it is interesting to learn about the habits of our ancestors concerning the use of pendants.

Rannamäe and Jonuks found that there are two periods that should be noted when talking about animal pendants—years 5000–2000 BC of the Stone Age, and the Late Iron Age, starting with the Viking Age after 800 AD. “While in the Stone Age pendants had a mostly religious value, in the Late Iron Age and the following medieval period they reflected social status and relations,” explained Jonuks.

At First Elks, Then Pigs
In the Stone Age, the most common mammals used for making pendants were elks, seals and mustelids. “In addition to being hunted, elks were honoured in mythological terms. For example, they were characters on the petroglyphs,” said Jonuks. What is more, the pendants were not meant to be worn on one’s chest as talismans but were instead displayed on clothes on special occasions.

Photo by Tõnno Jonuks The fang of a pig (5310 XI: 940) was found from Lehmja. Although the differentiation between wild boar and domestic pig is complicated, Eve Rannamäe and Tõnno Jonuks said, the latter was clearly favoured during the Late Iron Age and in the medieval period. They brought out that iIt is remarkable that most of the Late Iron Age pig pendants come from hillforts and only single samples are known from burials and settlements.
Photo by Tõnno Jonuks
The fang of a pig (5310 XI: 940) was found from Lehmja. Although the differentiation between wild boar and domestic pig is complicated, Eve Rannamäe and Tõnno Jonuks said, the latter was clearly favoured during the Late Iron Age and in the medieval period. They brought out that iIt is remarkable that most of the Late Iron Age pig pendants come from hillforts and only single samples are known from burials and settlements.

In contrast, in the Late Iron Age, the most preferred animals were domestic pigs, bears, beavers and dogs. “For example, the domestic pig symbolized aggressive power,” explained Jonuks—this meant that the person wearing a pendant made of pig’s teeth could assert her or his power.

Rannamäe was a bit surprised that the teeth of domestic animals were not that common in pendants, although they were important for people. “From the end of the Neolithic to the Middle Ages, fangs of dogs and domestic pigs were used but only a few pendants made of horse or bovid teeth have been found,” she said, while adding that it probably reflects some kinds of changes in the worldview and attitude towards animals.

More Discoveries in the Future
Jonuks and Rannamäe made many interesting discoveries, which have given them ideas for further research. “While in the Stone Age pig incisors were usually used for pendants, in the Late Iron Age fangs were more common and the teeth preparation process was very different. I hope to know more about the methods of fixing pendants and the process of teeth and bone preparation,” said Jonuks.

Rannamäe wishes to develop the method of interpreting the meaning of tooth pendants and look for parallels from other countries. She also finds it intriguing to study the relations between pendants and other faunal material in the assemblage. “If there are, let’s say, numerous pendants made of mustelid teeth from one archaeological site, it would be necessary to study which other skeletal elements of mustelids are parts of that assemblage and what kinds of activities they might reflect, and whether the proportion of the species used for making pendants is in correlation with the proportion of species used for other purposes,” she explained. From the zooarchaeological point of view, Rannamäe is interested in determining the ages of the animals whose tooth were used for making pendants but also in studying detrition traces, which indicate that the tooth was used as a tool.

Photo by Tõnno Jonuks The teeth of an elk (4118:1407) were found from Tamula. "Elk tooth pendants appear first in the Early Mesolithic, they are one of the most numerous pendant types during the Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic, and then disappear completely," Eve Rannamäe and Tõnno Jonuks wrote in the article. They added that it is significant that although elk was continuously hunted in the later periods and up to the modern times, it was not chosen for pendants anymore.
Photo by Tõnno Jonuks
The teeth of an elk (4118:1407) were found from Tamula. “Elk tooth pendants appear first in the Early Mesolithic, they are one of the most numerous pendant types during the Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic, and then disappear completely,” Eve Rannamäe and Tõnno Jonuks wrote in the article. They added that it is significant that although elk was continuously hunted in the later periods and up to the modern times, it was not chosen for pendants anymore.

This article was supported by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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