Tag Archives: Sutton Hoo

Seminar CLIV: continuing to work out the Staffordshire Hoard

There seems to be little question that being in Birmingham has put me in a place where I can reach a much wider range of medievalist activity than my previous employments allowed, and by way of proof of this, on 13th May of this same year I was at the University of Leicester hearing Chris Fern give us the latest news on a certain famous find under the title of “The Staffordshire Hoard: the current state of knowledge”. Not many people would be better placed to, since Dr Fern (of whom we have heard here before) was then producing the object catalogue, meaning that he had perhaps a better view than anyone else of what the whole assemblage was like (at least, until they had got it all onto one table two months previously). For me, there were three particular areas where this lecture told me something new, and those were the silver items, the links between items, and the problem of parallelling any of the stuff, so that’s how I’ll divide the post.

Fragments of silver foil from the Staffordshire Hoard during conservation at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Fragments of silver foil during conservation at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

When the Hoard first came to light, one of the questions I quickly developed was “what is the silver stuff?” The news was always clear that that there was about three kilos of gold and one and a half of silver but it seemed that the gold was all we saw. This turned out to be not least because the silver was in much smaller parts than the gold, and thus harder to separate from the mud, but also because both those factors made it much harder to identify. In fact, it turns out very largely to be bits of 12 friezes that might all be from a single helmet, and the difficulty in working that out will be clearer if I say that amounts to more than 700 fragments. This is not actually a job I would want, I have to admit…

A silver strip from the Staffordshire Hoard in the process of reassembly by Rachel Altpeter at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

A silver strip in the process of reassembly by Rachel Altpeter at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

However, the Hoard team had been doing this, and not just with the silver. Of the total of circa 3,800 fragments they could at this point join up more than 600, not a lot but enough to show patterns. For example, they had 41 pairs of hilt collars to go at the top and bottom of sword grips, but a total of 85 pommels for those swords, as well as enough hilt-plates to allow for 4 each per sword, and much of this groups into two basic styles albeit with great and ingenious variations, one being gold, garnets and cloisonée glass and the other, later, involving much more filigree work and fewer gems or glass bits. On the other hand there are also some odd things that won’t group, the crosses and the wire serpents for example but also the three sword-rings that seem to have been casts, meant to look like really old Scandinavian swords but not actually being made the same way.

A close-up of a hilt collar with fine filigree work from the Staffordshire Hoard

A close-up of a hilt collar with fine filigree work, and when I say fine, I mean, the wires are less than a millemetre thick each!

This, along with the fact that we don’t know and probably can’t know who it was that stripped all this stuff violently off the objects it had once adorned, who it was who gathered it together and then who it was who buried it, and whether any of these people were the same or around at the same time, makes dating the Hoard qua hoard very difficult still. (One interesting point that only makes that more complex is that apparently though many of the fragments show signs of wear, this is typically at the extremities, not the parts that were handled, suggesting that these splendid weapons were perhaps worn more than drawn. This opens up the possibility that they might have been kept for a long time, and be heirlooms whose antique look was important in an age where normal weapons would have looked different.) We have a lot of stuff here that Dr Fern thought was best paralleled from East Anglia, which is something that happens a lot because basically our biggest single source of early Anglo-Saxon art parallels is the assemblage from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and that was so varied and so is this that parallels are to be expected, but there are a lot; on the other hand some of the material, especially the older-looking stuff and the silver, is more Scandinavian and at the other end of the period range Dr Fern suggested that some of the material, which is best paralleled from the Scottish site of Mote of Mark, might indicate British workmanship under Northumbrian influence and by that point, really, anything is possible except that there will be an easy explanation. So there is still a lot to do, but in some ways it seems that the range of things we can actually hope to resolve is closing down, and the parts of the Hoard that are destined to remain enigmas are, paradoxically, becoming more clearly obscure as our knowledge of it increases.


Presumably a full publication of the Hoard is now relatively close but until that time, apart from the project website from which I have linked almost all my pictures in this post, the basic starting point is Kevin Leahy & Roger Bland, The Staffordshire Hoard (London 2009), which was quite limited in what it could then say. For the other two sites I’ve mentioned there’s a wealth of material on the Sutton Hoo ship burial but the easiest way in is perhaps now Gareth Williams, Treasures from Sutton Hoo (London 2011), in the same series. Then lastly there’s Lloyd Laing & David Longley, The Mote of Mark: a Dark Age hillfort in South-West Scotland (Oxford 2006).

Gallery

Flat out for Sutton Hoo

This gallery contains 14 photos.

The Easter holiday was short in the UK last year, but this didn’t stop some of us making good use of it, and for me this included, somewhat to my surprise, an Anglo-Saxonist roadtrip. This excellent idea was one of … Continue reading

Seminars CXXII-CXXIV: British heresy, pagan burial and Norman profanity

It’s time for another of the catch-up seminar jam posts in which I try to clear the ridiculous backlog that leads me still to be writing about things that happened seven months ago!

British heresy

A thing that happened seven months ago, and which I believe I promised to Magistra that I would write up, was a paper by Alison Bonner at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar in the Institute of Historical Research in London, on 8th February 2012. Its title was “The Manuscript Transmission of Pelagius’s Ad Demetriadem“, and maybe that sounds a bit hardcore as Magistra and I were among the very few people who came out, which is a pity as what we got was an approachable and thorough treatment of one of the late ancient world’s more interesting characters, the British heresiarch Pelagius. He got to be a heretic substantially because he got into argument, about whether one was damned without God’s grace, however well one might behave, or whether one could in fact save oneself by good Christian conduct alone, with future saints Jerome and Augustine whom later ages have come to see as pretty much impeccable (ironic eh?), or at least so it seemed to me when I first learnt about him. (The future saints took the former of the theological views.) On the other hand, he also seemed to have spent much of his time talking doctrine to wealthy women in Rome’s equivalent of society drawing rooms, so I also wound up envisioning him as something like a Roman George Bernard Shaw, annoying principally because he was working the orthodox theologians’ circuit better than they were and claiming a moral high ground they felt dubious to boot, as well as being British, which annoyed the Romans for different reasons than it annoyed Bernard Shaw’s contemporaries but is still a common label. This perspective was probably always going to be inaccurate, but, as even Wikipedia currently tells you, recently opinion has swung towards the idea that Pelagius’s doctrine may not have been fairly represented by his opponents, not just because they were his opponents, but because his disciple Cælestinus seems to have run rather further with Pelagius’s ideas than the man himself and the opponents were attacking him too. Augustine, indeed, accused Pelagius of using Cæstinus as a mouthpiece for that which he dared not say himself but truly thought, so he wasn’t really being attacked for what he actually preached and thus it’s quite hard to know what that was. Whatever it was was not enough to get him condemned in two of his heresy trials in 415 and 418, and though one pope was convinced by Augustine to condemn him the next one was convinced by Pelagius to repeal that, so it’s possible, you know, that he wasn’t actually heretical in the eyes of the wider Church. (Something I raised in questions was that it’s weird that two popes choose the name later if it were so indelibly associated with EVIL.)

Portrait photograph of George Bernard Shaw

Pelagius

Non-contemporary portrait of British heresiarch Pelagius

Shaw

Getting to the bottom of this means closer contact with his actual works, and these are limited in their survival: there is a commentary on Paul’s Letters, and then there is an actual letter to a young lady named Demetrias, who was also being advised by Jerome, so it really was competition for patrons here. This letter was really quite widely copied, which was what Ms Bonner had come to tell us about. Specifically, there are 110 known copies of it, as against 148 of Jerome’s letter to the young lady. Pelagius’s other works survive astonishingly well, too, and while some of this may be because the letter has tended, ironically, to be identified as Jerome’s (what with being addressed to the same lady), there is more going on or so Ms Bonner told us.1 Basically, the picture that she developed (as I understood it or now understand it from my notes) was that even though Augustine came to think that he had the answer about free will, and that his impact was such that eventually everyone else thought he did, there was first a long period in which that doctrine was not clear to many people and it was not clear either that Augustine was right or that Pelagius was wrong, especially since texts existed in such numbers in which he denied saying what Augustine had said he said. There was debate. That said, quite a lot of the preservation calls the author of the text a heretic (though not always with his right name) but obviously had copied it anyway. This might be, theorised Dr Bonner, because the Letter is good ascetic literature aside from the theology, advocating all kinds of humble behaviour, and they cared more about the life examples than the theology, which is confusing. (The problem that God already supposedly knows the outcome of a person’s attempt or not to be saved, because He is outside time and they are not, does after all remain a rather difficult one, and it bothered plenty of people after this.) Possibly they should have cared as, of course, if good works are not what it’s about and faith alone is enough, then the whole practice of locking yourself away in a monastery and living as ascetically as you can loses its basis somewhat, but, the preservation is hard to argue with. He was popular; he had some popular opponents who didn’t believe him about what he claimed to believe and had convinced themselves this man was a danger to society; and they became the principal guides of the medieval Church so the weird Briton became a famous heretic. At the time, however, he was mainly just famous, or so we might now think, and that went on for a while.

Pagan burial

Somehow after that I went 12 days without hearing an academic presentation and then came back to earth, quite literally, when Chris Fern came to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar in Oxford to talk with the title, “The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Tranmer House (Sutton Hoo)”. You could be forgiven for thinking we know all about Sutton Hoo by now, given the size of the site report and supporting literature, but the thing is that though the big site with the mounds on has been pretty much done over, yes, it is cemetery number two on the site, and number one, across the path at Tranmer House, was dug in 2000, but the finds are only now finishing analysis.2 It had previously yielded artefacts that showed there was a cemetery there too, and likely an earlier one, so, what do we know now?

Hanging bowl used to hold a sixth-century female cremation burial at Tranmer House cemetery, Sutton Hoo

Hanging bowl used to hold a sixth-century female cremation burial at Tranmer House cemetery, Sutton Hoo

Well, paraphrasing from my notes, the site goes back to the Neolithic, and there was a Bronze Age barrow detectable under the cemetery, though there was also an Iron Age enclosure (as would be expected from similar signs under the mounds to the south) and the cemetery may actually have been limited by that, not focused on the mound. The burials found are both inhumations and cremations, the former often with weapons and one or two of the latter with detectable pyre arrangements and in one case a whole cow and whole horse and at least some of a sheep and a pig burnt with them and the remains distributed between a bronze bowl and four pots for the animals. The cremations may be the later but inhumations go on afterwards, if you see what I mean. A number of cremations contain both cow and horse bones too and they seem to have been female burials; also, they focus on the Bronze Age barrow. There’s some showing-off here, in short, and power signalling, and in the late sixth century that seems to have led to a large burial mound being put up at the edge, so looking very much like the prequel to the move across the wall and into what is now the next field for the really big guys in what had obviously by then got to being a well-stratified society, whether it was before or not. It seems likely that burial had begun at the other end of the site, and may have carried on there for many but that we have here a generation or two of warband members and their bosses, who eventually had to have their importance stressed so much that they needed to be fully separate from the ‘folk’. (Though the female presence in the fancy cremations does raise questions about exactly who the bosses were, what with these women surrounded by dead warriors…) Martin Carver will be pleased with some of these findings as the increase in hierarchy and shift of site is pretty much what he guessed in the report on the newer site, and the radiocarbon dates might so easily have made them contemporary, but he will be less pleased with the fact that the dates push back a change in burial rite he likes to see as being carried out in opposition to Christian conversion’s success to a point when that is less plausible. One now wants to know quite a lot who got buried in the rest of that enclosure, how, and how long for, of course. Hopefully we will get to find out.

Norman profanity

Castle surrounded by fighting knights on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari

Castle surrounded by fighting knights on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari

Then lastly, that same day, Timothy Hunter addressed the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “‘They Made No Difference Between Sacred and Profane': images of Norman knighthood in Romanesque art”, which obviously as a member of Team Romanesque I had to see. What this was about was essentially one piece of artwork, a battle scene on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari showing knights on horseback attacking armed men on foot who surround a castle with two men in it. This has been read as a record of the Norman capture of Bari or as a Crusade scene but neither side look to be differentiated by their wargear so as to be Muslims or even Greeks (I mean Romans); a small clutch of sort-of-similar scenes are identified as being Arthurian but the late 1080s, when the church was rebuilt, seems awfully early for that in Italy. Consequently, there has been argument about whether this portal belongs to the rebuild or if it was put on later, and it’s all circular. Dr Hunter argued that the other parts of the church look likely to have been done by the same masons, so it’s probably early, that it’s therefore not Arthurian or even a depiction of Guillaume d’Orange whom he would identify in similar carvings at Angoulême cathedral, and so he suggested that it might, just, be the Normans coming to rescue Gregory the Great from would-be-Emperor Henry IV in 1084. One of the men in the castle does appear to be a ‘civilian’, it was a famous Norman deed at the time and Pope Urban II, opponent-in-succession to Henry, came here a lot… Now, this caused some argument because it’s very nice and clever but if a mason wanted to depict a pope you’d expect him to identify him with headgear, surely, and this shouldn’t be a thing about which one could be confused, but still, it fitted better than any of the other answers. I’m still not sure myself, and of course I haven’t given you the full arguments here anyway, but I wonder what you think?


1. New interest in Pelagius in recent years has led to his works being substantially translated, should you care, in Brinley Roderick Rees (transl.), The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers (Woodbridge 1991) and Theodore de Bruyn (ed./transl.), Pelagius’s commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Oxford 1993).

2. A very preliminary analysis in C. Fern, “New Dates for Early Sutton Hoo” in Saxon no. 52 (Woodbridge 2011), online in PDF here, pp. 1-3. The full site report of the better-known cemetery is Martin Carver (ed.), Sutton Hoo: a seventh-century princely burial ground and its context (London 2005), and that contains preliminary data on Tranmer House in J. Newman, “Survey in the Deben Valley” in Carver, Sutton Hoo, pp. 477-487 at pp. 483-486 and in Carver, “Sutton Hoo in Context”, ibid. pp. 489-503 at pp. 489-490. A more accessible introduction to the more famous site and its finds is Carver’s Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings? (London 1998) but the full report does update that somewhat.

“We’re all gonna be dirt in the ground”

This post has been in draft a while. I first wrote it in January in a sink of a mood, which its contents may explain, and then the content material got worse. Then it went on hold while I got permission to use some of the images, permission that I’m happy to say was readily given by Professor Martin Carver, whom all praise. (Those known to be in copyright are so marked.1) Now that I’ve given the lecture with which it substantially started, I’m a lot more sanguine about things and have revised accordingly, but, nonetheless, this one merits the gloom gargoyle and I warn you that unpleasant mortuary stuff and sad praise of the dead lie ahead.

Right, consider yourselves warned

December was a month of the dead, and it was a long December running well into January. I was predisposed to notice this, because one of the tasks of the term has been a lecture on burial in Anglo-Saxon England and, though I know something of this, there is certainly a lot more I could know and so I was reading it, specifically and especially the site report from the excavations of 1983-2001 at Sutton Hoo.2 It didn’t take long to creep me out. Did you know, for example, that at Sutton Hoo the soil is sufficiently acid that within a decade—a figure the excavators arrived at by burying some organic material and coming back to it a few years later to see how far it had gone—the bulk of a human body buried in that soil is gone, become merely a crust of dark sand that just about holds its shape when carefully dug round and within which, if you’re lucky, a few bones may survive? They look like this.

Burial 34 from the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery

Burial 34 from the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery, copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

When Mr Tom Waits croaked the line I’ve used for my title here, I don’t think he meant it this literally.3 And it gets more morbid. The few bodies that survive even this much at Sutton Hoo are not from the famous burial mounds, of which there were once many but all but two of which were robbed out, probably in the sixteenth century. Instead they are from one of two execution cemeteries that were near what may have been the oldest mound, one cemetery around the mound itself (which perhaps had a gallows set up on it after a few decades) and one nearby around a substantial old tree that later blew down and was replaced with another gallows (which I feel sure, though there’s no way to know and the excavators don’t suggest it, must have been made from the wood of that tree).4 Many of these graves are what we would now call ‘deviant’, that is to say there’s something weird about the burial practice. Around the mound the worst that it gets is probable binding of limbs and face-down burial, though several were also decapitated. Around the tree, however, all kinds of stuff occurs: bodies buried sitting up (with their legs or arms tied), kneeling face-down in the dirt backside skywards, more decapitations, prone burial, sideways with the head somewhere else… It is nasty to read. The strangest is this one.

Sutton Hoo Burial 27, as uncovered; image copyright Martin Carver and The British Museum and used by kind permission

Sutton Hoo Burial 27, as uncovered; image copyright Martin Carver and The British Museum and used by kind permission

You don’t get like this in a grave by happenstance. Of course, how you see it does rather depend on what way up it should be seen, but I can’t find a rotation that makes that splay of the legs look at all natural. Was he bound at the legs, struggled on the rope and got one leg free, then, I don’t know, they shot him with an arrow in case he got down? But the weirdest thing of course is that we ask this because they put him in the grave in that position, and indeed dug the grave to fit. There’s a danger of chicken-and-egg reasoning here, I suppose, but from not just this but the others in contorted positions the view of the excavators was that these bodies had been placed in the grave in the positions in which they’d died. I can’t get my head round that at all, but I don’t like the alternatives—such as they are: planned in-grave distortion of the body? Why would you? Who’s the audience? which is where it gets nasty again—and would prefer to give the excavators credit where possible. And then those burying him covered him with planks, or something like, and filled it in.

Sutton Hoo Burial 28, face in the dirt, posterior upwards, hands tied behind the back; image copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

Sutton Hoo Burial 28, face in the dirt, posterior upwards, hands tied behind the back; image copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

For some, at least, a more regular burial was possible; a few around the tree had coffins, and there were several apparently empty grave pits that suggest that, if one’s family were lucky perhaps, it might yet be possible to get the condemned deceased away from where the old (and presumably pagan) king laid in state, presumably to a proper Christian cemetery. But for some, obviously, no such quarter was offered, and they were to rest with the damned. The thought-world there is interesting—conversion doesn’t so much make these places obsolete as recast their significance, it seems—but I’m glad I don’t share it. I was quite glad to get the lecture out of the way and concentrate once more on the living.

Liber mortuorum

With that all said, I don’t think that it was just my temporarily morbid focus that made me notice a recent array of deaths. Obviously millions of people are dying all the time and it just so happens that the odds have swung slightly more than usual towards my circle of acquaintance, but all the same, we do seem to have lost some of the good ones just lately, and I wanted to notice them here: five scholars (and it was two when I started the post, horribly), and two musicians who didn’t have anything to do with my usual subject matter but who should not, all the same, be allowed to go quietly into that great night. I’ve never met any of these people except the last, but I’ve read or listened to their work, and it’s one of the commonalities of both fields of endeavour that one can feel a connection to a creator who by definition only exists, as author of that work anyway, in the past and is no longer ‘there’, either in space and time or in his or her work. This usually gets me when listening to music by people I know, which of course is by them as they were not as I know them, but it should also apply to scholars, really. Anyway. These are the good names gone.

Scholars’ roll of honour

  • Firstly Rachel Bromwich, whose edition of the Welsh Triads was perhaps the first literary evidence this historian ever wrestled with, an eye-opening glimpse into a fragmentarily-preserved world of oral history in which not just the name Arthur, but more interesting more historical names were woven.5 One of these names was Áedán mac Gabráin, Aeddan Uradawc, the Wily, which was why I was interested, but it was a fascinating read even where he wasn’t and it was Dr Bromwich I had to thank for it.
  • Then, Professor Manuel Riu i Riu, about whom I’ve written here before, one of the most important modern scholars of the medieval past in Catalonia and Spain more widely there has so far been, I kid you not. I phrase it thus because I’ve no idea whether to call him a historian or an archæologist, he did both with equal facility, dug sites and edited charters, and could converse across the disciplines meaning that for a while at least, his colleagues and friends were almost uniquely well-informed in their studies about what was going on the other side of the fence, as their footnotes attest.
  • Then, archæologist and enthusiast Geoff Egan, a friend of my old colleagues and a contributor to at least one of my old endeavours at the Fitzwilliam, a man whom many people will miss.
  • After him, the Islamicist son of a Byzantinist father, Professor Oleg Grabar, not a great force in my own work but mourned by people I know, and certainly deserving of a sad mention here.
  • And lastly, I hope for a while, Professor Robert Markus, the chief rival to Peter Brown‘s throne (or Brown perhaps chief rival to his) and someone whose work I soaked up in quantity as an undergraduate. Always clear and convincing and dispassionate without being dull, he was the man who introduced me to Origen, to Chalcedon and the extraordinarily late date (as it seemed to me then) that the canon of Christian Scripture was, well, canonised,6 all of which was very powerful to me back then, escaping from 14 years of school with integral Church of England worship daily; he earnt an obituary by Jinty Nelson no less, which is worth a read.

So look, that’s enough. But then there’s the musicians.

Not Going Quietly

Arguably one of the musicians needs no notice either, he’s had so many, but I own a lot of his records, one of his songs was even about archæology (or at least palæontology):7 you will have noticed, probably, that Captain Beefheart died, but it’s still a shame. On the other hand, not only did I never meet him, he stopped making music in 1983, and I never had much of an urge to acquire his paintings; his reputation was secure and he had been ill for a long time, it couldn’t be called a surprise and we had, at least, received most of what he had to give us. Less so from a man I did know, Trev Thoms, who dropped out of contact a few months ago, turned out to have pancreatic cancer and succumbed to it a few days before the good Captain did the terminal shuffle. You won’t have heard of Trev, and probably not of any of his bands either—Inner City Unit, the Imperial Pompadours, Atomgods, Bajina, Mother of All Bands—but you might have seen him, either if you hang around in the pubs in Brighton where they have open mic nights or if you saw the right version of Nik Turner’s various post-Hawkwind outfits such as Space Ritual, or if you ever drop in on what remains of the UK festival scene, which he did quite a lot to assist in his own way. Next one I go to, he won’t be there trying to sell me anything, and I shall be damn sorry about this. So here’s some of his stuff to wrap up with, with supporting photo-montage assembled by others who feel the same way. Ironically or appropriately, it’s a song about another dead man and Trev is guitar and lead vocals.

He made the Big Noise, and he had fun doing it. Bye bye Trev, I hope you’re a star if you’re anywhere to be one. I’ll get back to the Middle Ages in a minute.


1. The colour images from the Sutton Hoo dig are thus taken from Martin Carver (ed.), 2004, The Sutton Hoo Research Project 1983-2001, available at http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/resources.html?suttonhoo_var_2004, last accessed 29 January 2011, and here cited as per their copyright notice and requirement. The black-and-white one, I scanned myself from M. Carver et al., Sutton Hoo: a princely burial ground of the seventh century, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London 69 (London 2005), Plate 48 (a), and use here with Professor Carver’s permission. It is not available for further reproduction without his permission; terms for the others are available at the link.

2. Carver et al., Sutton Hoo. This is the basis of what follows: organic preservation in the soil there is covered at pp. 49-53, among other places.

3. Tom Waits, ‘Dirt in the Ground’, on idem, Bone Machine (Island Records 1992).

4. Martin Carver, “Execution Burials of the Eighth to Eleventh Centuries” in idem et al., Sutton Hoo, pp. 315-359 including an appendix, Francis Lee, “Report on the Human Bones”, ibid. pp. 349-359. The feature interpreted as a tree and then a gallows is covered at pp. 324-325.

5. R. Bromwich (ed.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads (2nd edn. Cardiff 1978).

6. I think, on looking back at his bibliography, that the one that must have made a dent on me was his Christianity in the Roman World (London 1974), but now I think I would like to read his The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge 1990), which seem to have missed at the time.

7. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, ‘Smithsonian Institute Blues’, on eidem, Lick My Decals Off Baby (Warner Bros Records 1970). As he says, “you can’t get round the big dig”. But then if I start quoting Beefheart wisdom we’ll be here all day. Let’s stick with, “everybody’s coloured, or you wouldn’t be able to see them“.

Seminary LXVIII: a namecheck to be treasured

I am conscious that I’m writing these up more slowly than I’m amassing the notes, but this will presumably ease once term does and speed up once I finally get online from home, whereas, as it is, all blogging is kind of stolen moments. However, since I came into the office an hour earlier than planned the day I wrote most of this, because of missing the UK’s winter clock change, I suppose I have stolen some. On 13th October the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar hosted a round-table about the Staffordshire Hoard, and it was jolly interesting. The speakers were Guy Halsall, Leslie Webster and David Ganz, and this had attracted such a crowd that Guy, who turned up perhaps a little bit behind the dot (not that I can talk) almost had nowhere to sit. There were plenty of others on the floor, I’ve never seen that room so full.

Stylised horse terminal from the Staffordshire Hoard

Images for this post are not going to be hard to find (and they're all Creative Commons licensed)

Alan Thacker introduced the proceedings, and the Hoard, and in doing so added several facts that I hadn’t managed to gather, and in particular hadn’t known when I wrote my Cliopatria piece about the Hoard some time ago: that the Hoard was found at Hammerwich (which as he said was an auspicious name for a metalwork deposit) and that the site is very close to Watling Street. It also emerged later that the deposition site may have once had a mound over it, which would have been quite clear from the road, and this considerably alters my thinking about it, but all that can come in a minute. Guy, who has written about this on his own blog indeed, once again presented the very strong case against the Hoard being a collection of trophies, because the identity of trophy items is important. If one had captured some really impressive swords, one would show off the swords, not their fittings, and so on. He also argued, and argues, that the size of the Hoard indicates that we should be thinking in terms of early medieval armies of hundreds or even thousands, not a 36-man warband as the Laws of Ine seem to imply. Then, most shockingly to me, he said that until a short while before he hadn’t had a better answer, but now he’d read one on the web and it was mine. Guy didn’t actually know I was there at this point, and so I was left in the corner with the usual bottom-of-stomach-missing reaction when an academic talks of my blogging—it is where my biggest dose of impostor syndrome is located, because I’m well aware that I don’t research these posts as closely as I do my academic work. Nonetheless, Guy liked the interpretation of the hoard as a ransom paid after a defeat, a humiliation by denuding the weapons of the defeated, and although, as I said cautiously in questions, that’s a very romantic interpretation, damned if I can think of a better one. And that was apparently roughly how Guy felt, although he went on to differ from me about the nature of the deposition, which is fair enough as, given the information about the mound, I think that what I then suggested about the deposition (that it was an attempt to steal the goods back gone wrong) is less plausible than Guy’s explanation of it as a symbolic deposit, neutralising the wealth of the enemy.1

Helmet cheek-piece from the Staffordshire Hoard

Helmet cheek-piece from the Staffordshire Hoard

Leslie Webster substantially agreed with Guy, but added a few very useful points. The first of these was that, since we can now say that the fragments of helmet in the Hoard don’t add up to one complete helmet, or even part of only one helmet, but bits of several, it is likely that the Hoard was only part of a larger assemblage, so that we need to keep the phases of accumulation, selection and deposition rigorously separated in our interpretation. My explanation really only covers accumulation. She also noted that (unlike Sutton Hoo!) almost all of the metalwork was of English origin. Dating of any of the individual objects is practically impossible; furthermore, the variation in the possibilities of dating them means that another possible source of variation, geographical origin, is smoothed out to invisibility. To put that another way, if two contemporary pieces of ornament differ because they were made one in Middle Anglia and one in the kingdom of the Hwicce, for example, but we don’t know that they’re contemporary, we are as likely to attribute the variation to development over time as to geographic separation. (This is why stylistic dating is so rubbish.) And when we add into that the problem that individual metalworkers at this standard were probably highly mobile… we’re just never going to know for sure. Much of the silver looks less military than the gold: there are for example quite a lot of things that seem to be cup-mounts. She agreed that the Hoard is definably male and almost entirely secular, however, and though I make her presentation sound substantially negative because of the dating impossibility, there was a wealth of snippets of observed information that possibly no-one else could have given us.

The inscribed gold strip from the Staffordshire Hoard

The inscribed gold strip from the Staffordshire Hoard

Lastly David Ganz (for it was he!) spoke carefully about the script on the metal strip that is the sole textual component of the Hoard. He also revealed one thing that I hadn’t spotted before, which is that the strip is inscribed on both sides (as witness above), but the other side appears merely to be a botched attempt at the same inscription as on the side we had already seen, so he suspects that this tells us that it was stuck fully down to something so that the mistake was invisible. He also told us (and few people could say so more authoritatively) that the text chosen, from Numbers, is not one that attracted very much interest from medieval commentators, unlike a similar one from Psalm 67 (as the Vulgate numbers it; you may, as I did, find it as Psalm 68 in your translation), so that the script as we have it is an odd choice. It does however crop up in the Life of Guthlac, which is of course almost the only Mercian text we have that isn’t a charter, and would presumably have been available to many from the liturgy. The orthography, he said, is unparalleled, suggesting that no actual text was available to copy from: someone who knew the text must have told it to the smith or the smith remembered it himself. As to its date, he would say no more than seventh-century, perhaps best paralleled by manuscripts from the latter part of that century (not least the Cathach of Columba) and Welsh inscriptions, but even that is enough to help decide between the widely-separated dates given by Michelle Brown and Elizabeth Okasha, the latter of which pushed the strip far later than we suppose anything else in the Hoard to have been, however wide its date-range may be. He lastly pointed out that the text itself is written in the body of a beast which forms the strip, which may indicate the banishment of the Devil by the incantation.

Obligatory pseudo-hoard photograph of material from the Staffordshire Hoard

Obligatory pseudo-hoard photograph of material (including the above pieces) from the Hoard

There were some lively questions, so much so that it was only at the very end that I could reveal my presence to Guy. Roy Flechner pointed out that St Patrick, on returning to Ireland, is said to have brought with him a collection of treasure with which he could buy stuff, and wondered if this too could be some migrant’s treasure trove, ‘banked’ in the ground and accessed as needed as Patrick’s would presumably have been. I don’t think that works for this, it’s just too special, but as a reminder of how such things might have worked in other cases it was very salutary. Guy wondered if it really needed to be so high-status, if armies were as large as he believes, but Leslie Webster pointed out that only at Sutton Hoo do we have any other case of sword pommels being deposited; otherwise, presumably, they were always kept back, but this Hoard has many of them. So whatever it is, and at the end of the day despite Guy (and me I suppose, indirectly) the jury was still out on that, we are pretty much agreed that it’s one of a kind. What that kind is, we may yet hope to agree at least, but maybe not when or whose alas.


1. I always struggle with this, because if one buried a lot of robbed precious metal somewhere obvious, my natural expectation is for it not to be there next day. And yet, we have Sutton Hoo, and there’s no way that the deposition of a boat full of treasure in a huge mound can have gone unnoticed by the local populace or been obscure of purpose to immediately-succeeding generations, yet it was left alone. And the same goes for every other rich and conspicuous burial, really. I recognise my twentieth-century capitalist upbringing shaping my expectations here, therefore. It’s later these things get stolen, if they do; the Hoard, if it had been deposited like that, could well have been left until no-one remembered it was there.

A certain sensitivity to the medieval, expressed by means of a bagful of links

One way I sometimes wind up writing a post is that I have two or three links that I see a common theme in. Because I tend to put things together over a while, these inevitably collect more links like fluff and not all of these fit the theme. The three extras this time do however pick up on old themes here. For a start, do you remember me posting something about Norse-Inuit contact in the Western Atlantic a while ago? A Canadian archæologist by the name of Patricia Sutherland had been set onto a search by some wool from circa 1300 found at Kimmirut on Baffin Island, and also come up with several other articles that she thinks can be called Norse. Some of these things later got displayed by the Smithsonian Museum, and now there is apparently more, a whalebone spade and drainage constructed in what Sutherland says is a Norse style, which would indicate some attempt at prolonged Viking occupation in what is now Canada, if she’s right. I evince caution because she seems to be a voice in the wilderness, and the article to which I’ve linked there shows that at least one other archæologist is reading the finds differently, as evidence that Western archæology just doesn’t rate the Dorset Inuit’s sophistication the way it should. I imagine the debate will continue, and more digging is afoot so it may even be resolved, but since I broached it here it seemed necessary to keep it up to date. Hat tip here to Melissa Snell at about.com.

Medieval wool recovered from Kimmirut site, carbon-dated to circa 1300

Medieval wool recovered from Kimmirut site, carbon-dated to circa 1300

The second piece was just a rather nice little piece of media antiquarianism. Would you like a digital copy of the original newspaper report of the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon royal burial at Sutton Hoo? The East Anglian Daily Times, who carried it, have put it online. Hat tip here to Sæsferd of Antiquarian’s Attic.

The original 1939 excavations of the Sutton Hoo boat burial

The original 1939 excavations of the Sutton Hoo boat burial

And the third is slightly gratuitous in as much as it’s more the period of bloggers such as, well, Ceirseach, than mine, but I hereby decree that it can never be gratuitous to feature a charter on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, especially a charter which has turned up somewhere rather unexpected, to wit, Brock University in Canada:

The Clopton Charter, Brock University

Donation by Robert Clopton to his son William, <i>c. </i>1216

This linked to the St Catharine’s Standard, which reports on the discovery (hat tip to News for Medievalists), where they say: “The best educated guess among faculty pegged it somewhere in the 15th century.” Well, I’m no palæographer for all I once passed a test in it but I do have a copy of Michelle Brown‘s A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 handy and it sure looks a lot like her sample of 13th-century cursiva anglicana to me, and indeed 1216 is the date that their examinations have settled on though I’m not going to pretend that I can read that off the JPEG myself. Still cool, though: as with the charter of Abbess Emma at Harvard or the one about Espinosa de Berguedà at Berkeley, some of this stuff has travelled a long long way. Seems to be in good shape considering…

The actual things I wanted to talk about, though, were four pieces all of which for various reasons made me quietly pleased that someone had done some genuine thinking on the basis of their knowledge of the Middle Ages, while about something where that wasn’t strictly necessary. One of these is that I have a new piece at Cliopatria talking about the two cultures and how odd it is, on a European scale, to have them. It’s not terribly surprising however that that would contain some medieval checkpoints, right? So, the oddest of these was a post at Strange Maps, in which a suggestion by Freddy Heineken, the guy who made Heineken lager a household name, that Europe would work better if its states were replaced with more equally-sized polities which punched a more equal democratic weight. It’s no more than an interesting exercise given the continuing disparity of the area’s resources, but it was slightly fascinating firstly for the breakdown of the population balances—I mean my goodness I live in a populous country compared to some—and secondly for the units he chose, apparently in collaboration with two unnamed historians. The Strange Maps crew say the new states would have had less historical baggage, but they should probably say not less, but older… Do have a look, you need their text too hence only thumbnail below.

heinekens_europe

Then, I was reading a thing I downloaded more or less at whim about the Catalan monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, which is as you see below rather splendid even now and is still a pilgrimage centre for the relics of Saint Peter that it claims to have. A few years ago the Generalitat de Catalunya put quite a chunk of money into education programmes around its historic sites, most of which are administered loosely by the Museu Hisòric de Catalunya, and one of the results has been a set of ‘Dossiers educatius’, the one for Sant Pere being here, and being written by Sònia Masmarti. Now Miss, Mrs, Dr or whatever Masmarti has or had a nice touch with the language, and although it might be slightly romantic, it is still very far from wrong to point out that:

The majority of people lived in small houses of mud and wood, and believed firmly in the supernatural powers with which the Church acted as intercessor. They would turn up at religious centres of pilgrimage with a blend of fear and hope, looking for consolation and the pardon of their sins, or indeed for the healing of their maladies. We can imagine the enormous impression that would have been produced in them by contemplating this marble portal, crossing it and entering into the magnificence of the temple, with its decorated furniture and pictures, now disappeared.

The translation is mine, because the original is in Catalan, but you get the idea.

The monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, as it now stands (albeit mostly empty inside)

The monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, as it now stands (albeit mostly empty inside)

Yup. That portal led to a different world in a whole range of senses, economic, cultural and theological. For all that people did easily move between the two worlds, we’re wise not to lose grip of the contrast between them.

The Regensburg fragment, a page of a twelfth-century litany of Irish saints

The Regensburg fragment, a page of a twelfth-century litany of Irish saints

And something similar seemed to strike me when I saw this, an article in the Irish Times about a fragment of a litany from the Schottenkloster, the Irish monastery, at Regensburg, the which fragment has now been bought by University College Cork. (Hat tip here to Larry Swain at The Heroic Age.) I don’t want to weigh in one way or another on the repatriation of artefacts; it doesn’t seem to me that there’s a good way to argue that that ‘belongs’ to Ireland and we should instead celebrate the fact that it can be shared by all. Pádraig Ó Riain has done some serious work on the text and brought out all kinds of ways in which it can show what bits of Ireland were feeding the Regensburg community with monks by the 12th century, when it seems to have been composed, but that wasn’t what struck me, what struck me was this:

Of course, it has immense significance as the only early medieval written record of the Irish community in Regensburg in its day, and of course it has much more to tell us than even both Ó Riains could cover in their initial lectures. But it was meant to be prayed. Following the seminar, it was at the Benedictine’s Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick that the monks sang the litany at vespers, giving it its first ever liturgical recital in Ireland and possibly the first chanting of its verses since the 16th century.

I’m not a religious man but I find that attention to purpose and the sense of connection and duty involved in that very satisfying, both to hear of and to sort of understand.