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Apr 25, 2011

Real crystal balls from the Middle Ages

We tend to think of crystal balls as the stuff of legend and fairy tales. In reality, though, crystal balls were the height of fashion in the early Middle Ages. Little crystal balls are found in many rich graves as items of personal apparel. They're mostly found in women's graves, worn on a strap from the belt and hanging in front of the pelvis. Often a golden or silver spoon hung from the same strap. Many of these spoons were perforated like a tea strainer. Most crystal balls are found in female graves, but some men were buried with them too. They could also be worn from the neck like a pendant.

These aren't the giant county fair crystal balls you get your fortune told from, but rather small objects of jewelry usually less than an inch across. Starting in the 7th century they were popular from Anglo-Saxon England all the way east to Hungary and south to Lombardy in Italy, and were especially popular in Germany.

So what were they for? Nobody knows! People have been gazing into crystal balls to tell the future since ancient times, so archaeologists assume they were for scrying. Another possibility is that they were crude magnifying glasses to help people read the tiny writing in personal Bibles or missals. Contrary to popular belief, most of the upper class, even women, were literate in the Middle Ages, and people understood some basic optics. Nero has a carved emerald he used to help him read.

Thanks to Kotomicreations from Flickr for this great shot!

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