Medieval belt buckle of 'dragon' eating frog discovered in Czech Republic may be from unknown pagan cult

Belt fitting or buckle made from bronze in about the eighth century. Its central design shows a snake or dragon devouring a frog-like creature, which researchers now think was a pagan religious symbol.
The belt fitting or buckle was made from bronze in about the eighth century. Its central design shows a snake or dragon devouring a frog-like creature, which researchers now think was a pagan religious symbol. (Image credit: MU Faculty of Arts)

The puzzling depiction of a vicious predator — either a dragon or a snake — devouring a frog on an early medieval belt buckle from the Czech Republic may be a symbol from an unknown pagan cult, archaeologists say.

The bronze belt fitting or buckle was found by a metal detectorist near the village of Lány near Břeclav, near the borders with Austria and Slovakia and about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Brno. 

Archaeologists first thought the central design — a snake or dragon devouring a frog-like creature — must be unique. But they have since learned that in the past dozen years, almost identical artifacts have been unearthed in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere in the Czech Republic.

"I realized that we were looking at a previously unknown pagan cult that linked different regions of central Europe in the early Middle Ages, before the arrival of Christianity," Jiří Macháček, an archaeologist at Masaryk University in Brno, said in a statement.

"The motif of a serpent or snake devouring its victim appears in Germanic, Avar and Slavic mythology," he said. "Today, we can only speculate about its exact meaning, but in the early Middle Ages, it connected the diverse peoples living in Central Europe on a spiritual level."

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Macháček is the lead author of a study in the January issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science describing the belt fitting from Lány and three others like it: one that was found near Iffeldorf in southern Germany, about 265 miles (425 km) roughly west of Lány; another found near Zsámbék, Hungary, about 115 miles (185 km) to the southeast; and another found near the Czech town of Nový Bydžov, about 200 miles (110 km) to the northwest.

Archaeologists thought the bronze belt fitting from Lány in the Czech Republic (A) was unique, but they've since learned that at least three others have been found, including in Hungary (B) and in southern Germany (C). (Image credit: MU Faculty of Arts)

Pagan symbol

Previous research suggests such belt fittings were produced in Central Europe in the seventh and eighth centuries and were usually worn by Avars — a nomadic people, thought to be from the Eurasian Steppe, who settled in the Carpathian Basin of what's now Hungary beginning in the sixth century.

The Avars established a "khaganate," or nomadic state, over much of Central Europe, and some of their fashions were adopted by other peoples of the region, many of them Slavs, the researchers said.

Analysis with X-ray fluorescence, scanning electron microscopy and other techniques showed that the objects were originally heavily gilded and that all four were made from copper mined in the Slovak Ore Mountains, which are now in Slovakia.

An analysis of their shapes based on virtual 3D models suggested some of the buckles or fittings came from the same workshop or were made from a common model, using the "lost wax" method of casting bronze.

The researchers said the striking similarity of the objects points to the "existence of a previously unknown pagan cult that connected diverse populations of varying origin during the early Middle Ages."

It's not known what the snake — or dragon — and the frog-like creature actually signified. But the researchers noted that fights with a snake or dragon are common in pagan creation myths, as "the counterpoint between two opposing forces representing the central act of cosmogonic … myth," while the "interaction" between the snake and the frog might be linked to fertility cult practices, they wrote in the study.

Editor's note: Updated at 2:49 p.m. EST on Jan. 8 to note that the place of discovery of the latest belt fitting was Lány near Břeclav, not the village of Lány as was previously stated.

Live Science Contributor

Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.