The elaborately-decorated belt buckles of southern Gaul (modern France between the Loire River and Pyrenees) have long been a focus of archaeological and historical investigation. Found primarily in funerary contexts, scholars have presumed that the buckles adorned the interred as an expression of social status, or less frequently, ethnic origin. The origins of the buckles’ form and design have been chief among scholars’ concerns, although the mechanisms of circulation have likewise been addressed. However, few scholars have attempted to explore the social significance of buckles in sixth and seventh-century Gaul, or the role that such buckles played in the funerary rite. Moreover, all too often scholars have assumed the items were placed in the grave whole as adornments. Yet in a survey of 19 cemeteries from southern Gaul, 15 of which contained graves furnished with belt buckles, nearly one in four buckle sets recovered were incomplete.
The apparent intentionality behind fragmented belt sets recommends a different approach to both the grave assemblage and the role belt sets played in the burial rite and, by extension, the ways in which such rites created and recreated social organization. Personhood, the social role a biological individual takes on, is central to the process of social reproduction. Indeed, personhood is often invoked at rites such as the funeral. Plate buckle sets were central to the formation of an elite form of personhood in the sixth and seventh centuries. Late sixth-century sources, such as the works of Gregory of Tours and Venantius Fortunatus, link buckles with social status, political allegiance, and perhaps more importantly with the dignity which accompanied rank. In considering broken or incomplete sets, this paper confronts the possibility that the social bonds confirmed through the exchange of buckle sets were similarly fragmented, and extended through the continued circulation of the constituent parts. Such a possibility raises further questions about the nature of personhood and identity in sixth-century Gaul, and the role of grave goods as heirlooms or keepsakes rather than as objects of personal adornment or wealth.
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