Temple rings, and female headdress of the Eastern Slavs in Rus’ (Part I)
Peter Beatson - NVG Mikligard

Introduction 1
‘Temple rings’ (visochnye kol’tsa) are the most characteristic part of Slavic2 medieval dress to survive in burials, and are so-called because they are located on the skull, near the temples of the deceased woman or girl (Fig. 1). Most were made of base metals - copper alloys or iron, though silver and even gold were occasionally used.

Figure 1 - Severian girl with temple rings, 10th century from Brovarki, Ukraine (from Thrane, 1994). Full details can be found in Part II of this paper.

The Rus’ state was a confederation of several Slavic tribes (Fig. 2), as well as some non-Slavic ones (notably Finns and Balts)3. In the Rus’ region, the earliest simple examples of temple rings date from the middle of the first millenium4.

Figure 2 - Map of central Rus’, showing the territories of some East Slavic tribes c. 850-950 (after Mongait, 1959 and Rybakov, 1984). Major towns () of the 11-12th centuries, as well as some of the gravefields and other sites mentioned in the text (), are marked.

They remained in fashion after the Mongol invasions (mid-13th century), many of these later examples have been recovered from urban treasure troves buried in the troubled times from 1170-1240, and are of high quality, made of precious metals and enamels. In the Novgorod city excavations temple rings were the commonest type of metal jewellery found, but were restricted to the earlier occupation layers, of the 10th century (ie. from the foundation of the town c. 960) up to the 12th. In this case their early disappearance is thought to reflect the changing ethnicity of the town population, as Finnic peoples became the predominant residents5 .

Figure 3 - Grave 30 from Starokievska Hill, Kiev early 10th century. Four gold wire rings were found by each temple (only 2 visible here). More details in Part II of this paper (after Karger, 1958).

Forms of Temple Rings 6
There were many sizes and shapes of temple rings in Rus’. Originally there seem to have been a few simple types of temple ring, often just loops or twists of wire. This so-called ‘finger-ring’ type (Fig. 3; see also Fig. 5-1 to -11, and others) remained popular in many regions throughout the period, at the Kostroma cemetaries on the upper Volga, 94% of all temple rings were small (2-4 cm) open loops made from thin bronze tubes, even in the 12-13th centuries7. But there were distinctive regional types, as well as developments over time. Russian archaeologists have constructed a system of temple ring typology, which has been used to identify the ‘tribal’ origin (see above) of burials8 (Fig. 4):

Figure 4 - Some ‘tribal’ forms of East Slavic temple rings. 1. Krivichian. 2. Polianian. 3. Novgorodskii (Ilmenskii) Slovenes. 4. Radimichi. 5. Viatichi. 6. Severian. After Avdusin, 1967 and Rusanova, 1966, not all to same scale.

Krivichian temple rings (Fig. 4-1; Figs. 6-1 to -3; Figs. 7-4, -5, -7; Figs. 8-2 to -4) were simply made out of large wire loop, similar in appearance to a bracelet and 5-6 up to 10-12 cm in diameter9 . In the centuries prior to the formation of Rus’, Slavonic immigrants from this area took this type of temple ring eastward down the Volga and assimilated into the local Finno-Ugrian tribes10, where new variants were created (Figs. 6-3 to -5). Rings of the neighbouring Novgorod (= Il’mensky) Slovenes were also bracelet-like in size, but were flattened in four or so places into rhomboid shapes with punched decorations (Fig. 4-3; Figs. 7-11 & -12; Figs. 8-5 & -6). A variant form with hemispherical bosses emerged under the influence of Finnish temple rings11 (Fig. 7-9; Fig. 8-6).

‘Seven-bladed’ temple rings, frequently of silver, were worn by the Radimichi and the Viatichi. Radimichian rings have pointed blades descending from the loop (Fig. 1-4; Fig. 9), while those of the Viatichi have axe-like blades (Fig. 1-5; Figs. 9-6 and -7; Fig. 10). This is sometimes explained12 by their legendary common origin, in a tale incorporated into the Russian Primary Chronicle the tribes were descended from brothers named Radim and Viatko respectively13. This is a neat oversimplification, the Radimichian style appeared earlier (9th century) and was distributed widely over the territories of the Viatichi (and Severians) as well as the Radimichi themselves14 . The ‘Viatichian’ style did not appear until the end of the 11th century, and evolved from one subtype of the Radimichian temple ring (Figs. 9-6 and -7).

The Severians of the tenth and eleventh centuries had their own temple rings, made out of wire twisted into a flat spiral like a griddle (Fig. 1; Fig. 3-6; Fig. 10).

Figure 5 - Temple rings from mounds in Polianian territory, 10-12th cent. (after Rusanova, 1966). 1-11 “Finger ring” style: 1-2 with butted ends; 3-5 with overlapping ends (6 on leather ?headband); 7-8 with knotted ends; 9-10 with curled ends (similar to Polish temple rings); 11 with glass bead. 11-12 three-bead rings, granulated and filigree decorations.

The so-called ‘three-bead’ ring (Fig. 3-2; Fig. 5-12, -13) is supposedly characteristic of the southern tribes, such as the Polianians in the vicinity of Kiev. This type becomes common, however, only from the eleventh century on- in earlier times small wire loops (even so, not infrequently of gold- see Table 1 below) seem to have predominanted15 (Fig. 3). As the ‘three bead earring’ also appeared at a similar time in Byzantine Greece16, the possibility of foreign influence cannot be discounted, a not unlikely prospect in the Rus’ capital, a centre of international trade. In fact similar ornaments became widespread in Eastern Europe in this period, from the Balkans to Volga Bulgaria. Beaded rings are certainly widespread throughout Rus’ by the twelfth century, the same period in which many beautiful examples in filigree work of precious metal are known from Kiev17 and other major towns, perhaps an example of diffusion of fashion out from the capital.

Headdresses of Derevlian women were composed of many small wire rings. Those of the Dregovichians were decorated with large copper ‘grains’18.

Figure 6 - “Bracelet-style” temple rings, (1-3) from the Smolensk-Polotsk region (the Krivitchian homeland), and (4-7) from neighbouring Finno-Ugrian tribes - 4. Meri; 5-6. Cheremis; 7. Muromians. Dating: 11-13th cent., except 3, 10th cent. After Sedov, 1994, except 3, sketch from original. Find sites - 1 - Nedolbitsy; 2 - Fedovo; 3 - Gnezdovo (hoard: silver, and glass paste beads); 4 - Vasil’ki; 5 & 6 - Veselovsko; 7 - Malyshevo.

In traditional societies dress and ornament signal the wearer’s social position: eg. marital status, motherhood, wealth, and familial or regional ties19. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that the type of temple ring is supposed to be a reliable indicator of tribal origin of the deceased woman20, but can we be sure that this was the case? Different types can be found at one place and time (Figs. 7 and 8). Their distribution may be evidence of localized traditions of manufacture with some trading of trinkets over considerable distances, rather than strict tribal partitioning, apparently with some relocation of tribeswomen to other areas21.

Figure 7 - Temple rings. Novinki I and II cemetaries (Vologda oblast, Russia), 11-13th century (Saburova, 1974). 1-2, 6. Finger ring style. 3-5, 7. Krivitchian ‘bracelet-like’ style. 8-12. Novgorodskii Slovenes style with rhomboidal flattenings. 13-18. Beaded style. Dating: 1. 11-13th cent.; 2-6. 11-12th cent.; 7-18. 12-13th cent.

Figure 8 - Temple rings. Examples from cemetaries near Kostroma (upper Volga), 12-13th century (Riabinin, 1986). 1. Finger ring style. 2-4. Krivitchian ‘bracelet-like’ style. 5-6. Novgorodskii Slovenes style with rhomboidal flattenings. 7-12. Beaded style. 13. Earring. 14-16. Finnish crescent style. 17. Two wires twisted together. 18. Medium sized ring. Dating: all 11-13th cent. Materials: 11-13. silver; others bronze.

Figure 9 - ‘Early’ (A: 9-10th cent.) and ‘late’ (B: 11-12th cent.) forms of seven-bladed temple rings, showing relationships between types, according to Solov’eva, 1978: A-1 to B-1, the ‘classic’, most common form of Radimichian temple ring; A-2 to B-2, types with hoop continuing onto body; A-3 to B-3, types with blades with pointed ends; A-4 to B-4, types with decorated body and blades, including semicircular proturberances; A-5, type with three balls on tip of blades, evolves into so-called “Desne” type (B-5), and also into early Viatichian types (B-6 and B-7). A-6 an unusual early type possibly derived from Czech prototypes of the 7-9th cent.; B-8 an unclassifiable type with archaic features from the Smolensk area. Most of the ‘early’ finds are from buried hoards, and so are of higher quality (silver) and better decoration (granulation) than the ‘late’ examples- usually grave finds of bronze or billon (low grade silver-copper alloy). Scale approximate.

Figure 10 - Viatichian seven-bladed temple rings from gravefield near Bitiagovo (Moscow oblast, Russia). 1-4 from mound 1, date late 11th- early 12th cent.; 5-7 from mound 17, date late 11th-early 12th cent. 8 from mound 6, date late 13th-early 14th cent. After Rozenfel’dt, 1973.

It is interesting that the regional forms seem to have diverged more following the subjugation of the tribes and the political unification of Rus’ under the Rurikid dynasty beginning in the later tenth century, becoming most distinctive and elaborate in the 12th century and even later (Fig. 10-8). This may reflect assertion of regional identities against increasing central authority, particularly among the Viatachi, who were notoriously independant and even hostile to the Kievan princes up until the end of the twelfth century22 .

Figure 11 - Spiral “Severian” temple rings. 1. Gnezdovo, Smolensk oblast, Russia, 10th cent.?; 2. Burial 5 (fragment), Kisnemsko, Vologda oblast, Russia, 10-11th cent.; 3. unknown, silver, 11th cent. From Avdusin, 1967; Golubeva, 1961; sketch after Vasilenko, 1977. Approximate scale only.

How temple rings were worn
As a rule, more-or-less matching temple rings were worn on both sides of the head, it seems most sets numbered from one to four pairs23 . Analyses from some cemetaries giving sufficently detailed grave inventories are given in Tables 1 to 3 below.

Table 1 - Temple rings worn by women in the Starokievska Hill cemetary, Kiev, by type (three bead; so-called ‘Volynsko earring’ (Polish?); small plain; small ring with single glass bead), * = on right side of the head; ** = on left side; *** = half on left, half on right. Sixteen of the 29 rings are gold or gold alloy, the rest silver. Dates from c.900 to 1000AD. Data Kargev, 1958.

Table 2 - Temple rings worn by women in the Kvetun cemetary bordering Radimichian and Severian territories, by type (seven bladed; multibeaded; single bead; spiral; or small plain), and total numbers. Dating: Mounds 1, 46, 53, & 180 - 10th cent.; mounds 28, 84, & 102 - 10-11th cent.; mounds 6, 25, & 126 - 11th cent.; mound 122 - 11-12th cent. * = 3 on left side, 2 on right. ** = 8x three bead and 2x two bead. Data from Padin, 1976.

Table 3 - Temple rings worn by women in the Bitiagovo cemetary, by type (seven bladed or small plain), side of the head, and total numbers. * = young girl, no rings. B = a single three beaded ring. This Viatichian cemetary was in use from the late 11th to the late 13th century. Data from Rozenfeld’t, 1973.

Often, the main rings of a “regional” form might be accompanied by a number of simple wire rings. A set sometimes mixed rings from different regions, though infrequently (Fig. 12).

Figure 12 - Mixing of temple rings in two Northern Russian cemetary groups. Number of burials indicated. See Figs. 7 and 8 for examples of the types of temple rings indicated by the symbols. Data from Saburova, 1974 and Riabinin, 1986.

At the two Novinki gravefields of the 11-13th century (Vologda oblast, Russia) three methods of wearing temple rings were identified24 :

Figure 13 -
Examples of the three methods of wearing temple rings discovered at the Novinki graveyards, 11-13th century (Vologda oblast, Russia). After Saburova, 1974; Agapov and Saracheva, 1997.
a, b - Method A (braided in hair): a - Novinki I kurgan 31, 12-13th cent.; b - Novinki I kurgan 76, 12-13th cent. c - Method B (headwear): Novinki I kurgan 17, 12-13th cent. d - Method C (ear piercing): Novinki I kurgan 50, 11-12th cent. e - Preserved remains of an ear with two Viatichian rings, from Stupenki, ?12th cent. (Smolensk oblast, Russia). Thickness of the loops is 2 mm(!).

A. Braided into the hair. This method appears to have required one small and one large wire ring on each side. As parts of the coiffure were preserved, it was possible to reconstruct the women’s hairstyles- a plait started at each temple and passed behind the ear, rings were braided into them at the side of the head above the ears. The hair on the back of the head could be vertically parted and braided into two more plaits (Fig. 13-a) , or hang freely behind the shoulders (Fig. 13-b).

B. Attached to a fabric or leather headband or some other headdress, a fragment of which is preserved by corrosion salts from the metal rings (Fig. 13-c). More examples are presented in Part II.

C. Ear piercing, hanging ‘below the ear’. In some cases it was possible to show that the rings pierced the shell or lobe of the ear (Fig. 13-d). This method appears to be widespread, an anatomical study25 of five surviving scraps of ‘leather’ transfixed by temple rings showed the ‘leather’ to be in fact human ears (Fig. 13-e). Understandably, when temple rings are worn through the ear, no more than one or two are present on each side. Some ‘earrings’ appear to be recycled26 , cut down from large temple rings (Fig. 7-10, -13).

Method ‘C’ (‘below the ear’) was the most common at Novinki, occuring in 43% of female burials, methods ‘A’ and ‘B’ occurred in 31% and 14% respectively. It was proposed that method ‘A’, where the rings could only be on display if the hair was uncovered, was employed by ‘maidens’, ie. unmarried women, as by ancient Russian custom, a married woman is to keep her hair covered27 . Just what social distinction the other two methods might indicate is unclear. It does not indicate a change in fashion, as both methods are equally favoured in the two periods (10-11th and 12-13th centuries) of the cemetaries’ use. Perhaps they distingushed two ethnic groups, although the forms of rings used are similar.

Temple rings are found in female burials throughout the Rus’ principalities. In the 9th century, and perhaps earlier, there were a few simple forms - plain rings of small size (‘finger ring’ style); larger rings (‘bracelet style’); and the seven-bladed style. They evolved into several more elaborate forms; while a ‘three-beaded’ style appeared in the southern lands near Kiev, and spread throughout the entire realm. The peak of diversity was reached in the 12th century. There is evidence for three methods of attaching them to the coiffure - by braiding into the hair; by fastening to a headband or other headdress; and through holes pierced in the ears. In Part II of this paper, some reconstructions of Rus’ women’s headdresses from archaeological material and art sources will be presented.


Notes - Most of these references can be located in the Libraries of the Universities of Sydney and/or Melbourne, or the National Library, Canberra. Transliteration of Cyrillic characters is that used by the US Library of Congress.

Agapov, A.S. and Saracheva, T.G. (1997). O sposobakh nosheniia visochnykh kolets. Rossiyskaia Arkheologiia 1997(1), p.99-108. (English summary).
Avdusin, D.A. (1967). Arkheologiia SSSR. Moscow: Vysshaia Shkola.
Cross, S.H and Sherbowitz-Wetzor, O.P. (1973). The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text. Cambridge MA: Medieval Academy of America.
Davidson, G.R. (1952). Corinth: Results of Excavations Conducted by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Vol. XII: The Minor Objects. Princeton NJ: ASCSA.
Franklin, S. and Shepard, J. (1996). The emergence of Rus: 750-1200 (Longman History of Russia, vol. 1). London: Longman.
Golubeva, L.A. (1961). Mogil’nik X- serediny XI v. na Belom ozere. Sovietskaia Arkheologiia 1961(1), p.201-215.
Karger, M.K. (1958). Drevnii Kiev, vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR.
Mongait, A. (1959). Archaeology in the USSR. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House. Warning: Stalin-era propagandist ‘revision’ of Russian archaeology, treat with caution.
Padin, V.A. (1976). Kvetunskii drevnerusskii mogil’nik. Sovetskaia Arkheologiia 1976(1), p.197-210.
Riabinin, E.A. (1986). Kostromskoe povolzh’e v epochy srednevekov’r. Leningrad: Nauka.
Rozenfel’dt, R.L. (1973). Raskopki kurganov u.s. Bitiagovo v 1968-1970 gg. Sovetskaia Arkheologiia 1973(1), p.192-199. (French summary).
Rybakov, B.A. (1971). Russkoe prikladnoe iskusstvo X-XIII vekov / The Russian Applied Art of Tenth-Thirteenth Centuries. Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers. (Russian/English dual text).
Rusanova, I.P. (1966). Kurgany polian X-XII vv. Moscow: Nauka.
Rybakov, B. (1984). Kievan Rus. Moscow: Progress.
Saburova, M.A. (1974). Zhenskii golovnoi ubor u slavian (po materialem Vologodskoi ekspeditsii). Sovetskaia Arkheologiia 1974(2), p.85-97. (French summary).
Secret Treasures of Russia (1992). Catalogue of the Australian exhibition, March-October 1992. Sydney: Art Exhibitions Australia Ltd.
Sedov, V.V. (1994). Iz etnicheskoi istorii naseleniia srednei polosy Vostochnoi Evropy vo vtoroi polovine i tysiacheletiia n. e. Sovetskaia Arkheologiia 1994(2), p.56-70. (English summary).
Solov’eva, G.F. (1978). Semiluchevye visochnye kol’tsa. In: T.V. Nikolaeva (Ed.) Drevniaia Rus’ i Slaviane, p.171-178. Moscow: Nauka.
Stahlsberg, A. (1996). Varangian women in Old Rus’: Who were they? In: Kvinne i arkeologi i Norge, 21, p.83-101 (conference proceedings).
Thrane, Henrik (1994). Steppens nomader - skovens bønder: Ukraines arkhæologi i 2000 år (900 f. Kr - 1240). Odense: Fyns Oldtid, Hollufgård. (English summary).
Thompson. M.W. (1967). Novgorod the Great: Excavations at the Medieval City Directed by A.V. Artsikovsky and B.A. Kolchin. London: Evelyn, Adams & MacKay.
Tkach, Y. (1986). History of Ukrainian Costume. Melbourne: Bayda Books.
Vasilenko, V.M. (1977). Russkoe prikladnoe iskusstvo: istoki i stanovlenie. I vek do nashei ery - XIII vek nashei ery. Moscow: Iskusstvo.


1 Owing chiefly to my illiteracy in Russian, but also to the somewhat limited range of sources obtainable this paper cannot claim to be more than an uncritical and haphazard treatment of the subject, and all resultant misinterpretations of the sources are my responsibility. My aims were to present some impressions about the dating, distribution and typology of temple rings, as well as examples of how these and other head ornaments were worn in pre-Mongol Rus’. I encourage others to correct and improve on my work. PB.

2 Apart from the Eastern Slav cultures that formed Rus’, temple rings were worn by other Slav peoples, and also Finnic and Baltic tribes. PB.

3 Readers of this paper would benefit from some familiarity with the early history of Russia, alas even a brief coverage is beyond its scope. The interested reader is referred to the recent excellent and easily available work of Franklin and Shepard (1996). PB.

4 Sedov, 1994.

5 Thompson, 1967.

6 For the symbology of temple rings, refer to Rybakov (1971) - also recommended for clear closeup photographs of many kinds of early Russian ornaments. PB.

7 Riabinin, 1986. Possibly these rings were hollow so they would tinkle when worn in sets? PB.

8 Avdusin, 1967, from which infomation on tribal affiliation and temple rings is chiefly drawn.

9 Sedov, 1994.

10 Sedov, 1994.

11 Saburova, 1974.

12 Avdusin, 1967.

13 Cross and Sherbowitz-Wetzor, 1973.

14 Solov’eva, 1978.

15 Data from Rusanova, 1966.

16 Such as in Corinth, see Davidson (1952) who in fact leans towards the idea of a Northern style being brought to Greece!

17 See, for examples, Secret Treasures of Russia (1992).

18 Avdusin, 1967. I have not found actual examples of Derevlian and Dregovichian temple rings. PB.

19 Stahlsberg, 1996.

20 Avdusin, 1967.

21 Two examples: The remaining 6% of temple rings from Kostroma (see above) were a mix, and some came from non-neighbouring tribes: Krivitchi (1.8%), Slovenes (1.8%), ‘3-bead’ (2.4%), and Finnish (0.1%) styles: Riabinin, 1986. In the 10-12th century Polianian graves (Rusanova, 1966) probably 90% of temple rings were small loops; the breakdown of the remaining 75 or so rings was - three bead (28%), one bead (9%), ‘Radimichian’ 49%, (Severian?) spiral (12%), and Ilmensky Slovene (1%).

22 Franklin and Shepherd, 1996.

23 In Kostroma, most graves had 2 to 6 small rings, but 13% had as many as 10-20 rings: Riabinin, 1986.

24 Saburova, 1974.

25 Agapov and Saracheva, 1997. The examples were from northern areas of Rus’, dating 11-13th centuries.

26 Saburova, 1974.

27 Tkach, 1986.

Looking for Part II? Sorry, there is no Part 2, I never got around to it. But, have a look at this recent paper by Natalija Ristovska:
N. Ristovska ‘Temple pendants’ in medieval Rus’: How were they worn? in: C. Entwhistle & N. Adams (eds.) ‘Intelligible Beauty’: Recent research on Byzantine jewellery (British Museum research publication no. 178). British Museum: London 2010, p.203-11. (ISBN 9780861591787).
The author takes another look at burials with temple rings (like Novinki, which I have written about here), and also covers a lot of material I planned to discuss in Part 2. Available from the British Museum, or through
Oxbow Books.

Another great resource for Rus’ headdresses (and all things Rus’!) is:
B.A. Kolchin, T.E. Makarova, ARKHEOLOGIIA. Drevniaia Rus’: b’it i kul’tura. Rossiiskaia Akademiia Nauk Institut Arkheologii. Publisher “Nauka”, Moscow 1997. ISBN 5020101745.


Webbed by Peter Beatson, 1999. Updated 2012.
All rights to materials herein belong to the original owners.