The Migration period began in ad 375 with the invasion of Europe by the Huns from Central Asia. By ad 443, Attila the Hun (c. ad 406–453) had formed a unified empire across the continent. Unable to defeat the Huns, the declining Roman Empire began to rely on Hunnish leaders for military assistance to its western and eastern empires in return for large rewards of gold. The art of these nomadic, so-called barbarians consisted of small portable objects of personal adornment. Within their military society, embellishment of weapons and clothing was a sign of the wearer’s status; often these objects would accompany the individual to his grave. Priscus, a Roman ambassador, visited the court of Attila in ad 449. He recorded that members of the court possessed swords, boot fasteners, and horse bridles adorned with gold, gems, and other costly materials, and that they dined off gold and silver dishware.One such piece of finery is a bronze buckle executed in the cloisonné technique, originally gilded, currently on display in gallery 106A. A large cabochon garnet dominates the center, surrounded by smaller garnets.
Formed using thin strips of metal, the resulting compartments (cloisons in French) were inlaid with meticulously cut garnets adhered over gold foil, which reflects light and increases the stones’ luster. This intricate technique was most often applied to the equipment of high-status men. Along with rubies and carnelians, garnets have been revered since ancient times for glowing like fire but resisting it. During the ad 400s, they were the most popular gemstone for personal adornment.Their red color was associated with blood, life, and love. Although buckles were typically used to fasten belts, this example’s smaller size may indicate that it decorated a shoe or was used to fasten the end of a sword belt to a costume belt. Similar buckles have been found in Hunnic graves in Hungary, Germany, Poland, and Russia; matched pairs have been identified in burials near the feet of the deceased. Often produced in Roman workshops, these types of buckles served as gifts meant to persuade barbarians to become Roman allies. Those of the highest quality likely belonged to Hunnish nobles connected to the Roman army.