One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.
The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.
Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th and 11th centuries, but puzzles and story-telling remained central. The early art style of the Anglo-Saxon period is known as Style I and was popular in the late 5th and 6th centuries. It is characterised by what seems to be a dizzying jumble of animal limbs and face masks, which has led some scholars to describe the style as an ‘animal salad’. Close scrutiny shows that Style I is not as abstract as first appears, and through carefully following the decoration in stages we can unpick the details and begin to get a sense for what the design might mean.
One of the most exquisite examples of Style I animal art is a silver-gilt square-headed brooch from a female grave on the Isle of Wight. Its surface is covered with at least 24 different beasts: a mix of birds’ heads, human masks, animals and hybrids. Some of them are quite clear, like the faces in the circular lobes projecting from the bottom of the brooch. Others are harder to spot, such as the faces in profile that only emerge when the brooch is turned upside-down. Some of the images can be read in multiple ways, and this ambiguity is central to Style I art.
Once we have identified the creatures on the brooch, we can begin to decode its meaning. In the lozenge-shaped field at the foot of the brooch is a bearded face with a helmet underneath two birds that may represent the Germanic god Woden/Odin with his two companion ravens. The image of a god alongside other powerful animals may have offered symbolic protection to the wearer like a talisman or amulet.
Style I was superseded by Style II in the late 6th century. This later style has more fluid and graceful animals, but these still writhe and interlace together and require patient untangling. The great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo is decorated in this style. From the thicket of interlace that fills the buckle’s surface 13 different animals emerge. These animals are easier to spot: the ring-and-dot eyes, the birds’ hooked beaks, and the four-toed feet of the animals are good starting points. At the tip of the buckle, two animals grip a small dog-like creature in their jaws and on the circular plate, two snakes intertwine and bite their own bodies. Such designs reveal the importance of the natural world, and it is likely that different animals were thought to hold different properties and characteristics that could be transferred to the objects they decorated. The fearsome snakes, with their shape-shifting qualities, demand respect and confer authority, and were suitable symbols for a buckle that adorned a high-status man, or even an Anglo-Saxon king.
Animal art continued to be popular on Anglo-Saxon metalwork throughout the later period, when it went through further transformations into the Mercian Style (defined by sinuous animal interlace) in the 8th century and then into the lively Trewhiddle Style in the 9th century. Trewhiddle-style animals feature in the roundels of the Fuller Brooch, but all other aspects of its decoration are unique within Anglo-Saxon art. Again, through a careful unpicking of its complex imagery we can understand its visual messages. At the centre is a man with staring eyes holding two plants. Around him are four other men striking poses: one, with his hands behind his back, sniffs a leaf; another rubs his two hands together; the third holds his hand up to his ear; and the final one has his whole hand inserted into his mouth. Together these strange poses form the earliest personification of the five senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing, and Taste. Surrounding these central motifs are roundels depicting animals, humans, and plants that perhaps represent God’s Creation.
This iconography can best be understood in the context of the scholarly writings of King Alfred the Great (died AD 899), which emphasised sight and the ‘mind’s eye’ as the principal way in which wisdom was acquired along with the other senses. Given this connection, perhaps it was made at Alfred the Great’s court workshop and designed to be worn by one of his courtiers?
Throughout the period, the Anglo-Saxons expressed a love of riddles and puzzles in their metalwork. Behind the non-reflective glass in the newly opened Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300-1100, you can do like the Anglo-Saxons and get up close to these and many other objects to decode the messages yourself.
Click on the thumbnails below to view in a full-screen slideshow
The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300–1100 recently opened after a major redisplay in Room 41. Admission is free.
“They stretched their beloved lord in his boat, laid out by the mast, amidships, the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures were piled upon him, and precious gear. I never heard before of a ship so well furbished with battle tackle, bladed weapons and coats of mail. The massed treasure was loaded on top of him: it would travel far on out into the ocean’s sway.”
Buried on an escarpment overlooking the estuary of the River Deben in East Anglia, the Sutton Hoo ship was discovered in 1939, just a few months before war broke out in Europe. (The original records of the excavation, in fact, were destroyed during the war and only pictures taken by two amateur photographers survive to provide evidence of the remarkable riveted outline of the ship that had been impressed in the sand.) The excavated materials were sent to London, where they remained in their original packing boxes until the end of the war, when restoration began.
Several of the burial mounds were explored the previous year at the request of the landowner, but they had been plundered long before and only a few artifacts and iron rivets were found. Enough was intriguing, however, for the dig to continue the next summer, when the undisturbed remains of a large burial ship were discovered beneath the largest mound. Almost ninety-feet long and fifteen-feet wide, with room for twenty rowers on a side, the buried ship and its treasure are one of the most important finds in British archaeology.
(A coroner’s inquest determined the artifacts to be the property of the landowner, who graciously donated them to the nation. Gold and silver that are buried with the intention of recovery, but which are not retrieved and for which the owner is not known, are declared treasure trove and belong, with recompense, to the Crown. Since there was no intention of reclaiming the burial items found at Sutton Hoo, which had been placed there deliberately, they were considered not to have been lost but abandoned and so were awarded to the owner of the land on which they were found.)
That Sutton Hoo is a royal burial can be seen in the objects discovered in the resplendent chamber constructed amidship. The interior seems to have had been covered with a rug or mat on which were placed the possessions of a pagan warrior king: his helmet and coat of mail, sword and shield, spears and a unique axe-hammer, as well as the magnificent gold-and-garnet purse lid, shoulder-clasps, and a great gold buckle. There also were two unique, but enigmatic, symbols of his power: a whetstone “scepter” surmounted by a small bronze stag on a ring and a mysterious iron stand that may have served as a standard for the king.
More mundane domestic items included buckets, tubs, and cauldrons; a collection of silver bowls from the eastern Mediterranean; wooden cups and bottles and a pair of large drinking horns, all with silver-gilt fittings; bronze hanging-bowls of Celtic design; an intricate hanging chain; as well as the remnants of folded woolen textiles, some of which had been dyed indigo (woad), red, and yellow.
Fashioned from a single piece of iron to which are attached deep ear and neck guards, the helmet was fitted with decorative foil panels of tinned-bronze that depict animal motifs as well as scenes from German and Scandinavian mythology. The crest is iron, inlaid with silver wire, with gilded-bronze terminals of stylized animal heads. The eyebrows, too, are of iron and silver wire with boar’s head terminals, beneath which is a row of small square-cut garnets. The nose, beetling mustache, and mouth of the iron face mask also are of gilt bronze.
The sword and shield once were equally impressive. The leather and linden wood shield have rotted away, and there is nothing except its iron boss, gilt fittings, and two magnificent animal figures: a dragon and a bird of prey, both of gilt-bronze decorated with garnets. The hilt of the sword has a beautiful gold and cloisonné garnet pommel and gold guards. The iron blade is heavily corroded but was pattern-welded, made from eight bundles of thin iron rods hammered together to form a pattern of parallel or herringbone lines in the metal. To this core, a cutting edge of carbon steel then was forged. Such patterned swords were highly prized and often passed as heirlooms from generation to generation. Beowulf uses Unferth’s sword, “the curious sword with a wavy pattern, hard of its edge” against Gendel’s mother, but it fails him, just as his own swordNægling of “ancient inheritance, very keen of edge,” breaks striking the Dragon.
But it is the smaller objects, the delicate fittings of the sword belt and scabbard, the zoomorphic gold buckle, and jewel-like shoulder-clasps and purse lid that are most exquisite. There was virtually nothing else like these pieces in Europe at the time, and their artistic virtuosity suggests a master goldmith working on a royal commission. The intricatebuckle, for example, is hollow and hinged at the back, the belt secured by three pins that project from the underside of the bosses. The other end is placed through the loop and held there by the tongue, which also is hinged. The unique pair of cloisonné clasps, which are made of gold, millefiori glass, and garnet, are curved to fit the shoulder, the two matching halves, decorated with intertwined boars, tightly hinged and joined by a gold pin. The purse lid is equally artistic, if not as elaborate, and decorated with animal and abstract designs. Inside were found thirty-seven small gold coins, each deliberately chosen from a different mint in Gaul.
There was no evidence of a body in the highly acidic soil, which has led to the assumption that the ship may have been a cenotaph, a monument commemorating someone whose body is buried elsewhere. Evidence of residual phosphates, however, suggest that there once was a body and that the grave is more likely an inhumation. If so, it may be that of Rædwald, king of East Anglia, who died in AD 624/625, the same approximate date of the latest Merovingian coins found there. Bede identifies Rædwald as the fourthbretwalda (“ruler of Britain”) to have overlordship (imperium) of the other kingdoms south of the river Humber. He succeeded Æthelbert, the first English king to be converted, in AD 616 and defeated Æthelfrith, the king of Northumbria, the same year. It was Rædwald, too, who reverted to paganism, says Bede, when he returned from the court of Æthelbert, dedicating altars in his temple both to heathen gods and the Christian one.
If so, his defiantly pagan burial preserved, hidden and undisturbed, some of the greatest treasures of Anglo-Saxon art.
“I have wrested the hilt from the enemies’ hand, avenged the evil done to the Danes.”
On September 24, 2009, it was announced that on July 5 there had been an even more remarkable discovery of Anglo-Saxon treasure in Staffordshire, once the ancient kingdom of Mercia. The largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver artifacts ever discovered, scattered over an area of plowed field. The trove comprises some fifteen hundred pieces, including scores of sword hilt collars, pommel bosses, and fittings, as well as the remains of several helmets. The gold items alone, many filigreed and decorated with garnets, weigh about eleven pounds, more than three times the amount found at Sutton Hoo. The only non-martial items were several crosses, one of which had been folded for burial. There also was an inscribed strip of gold inscribed in misspelled Latin with a verse from Numbers 10:35, “Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face.” Declared treasure, the hoard becomes Crown property. Once evaluated, the proceeds from the sale will be split between the discoverer and landowner, and the items themselves likely divided between the Birmingham Museum and others.
References: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial (1986) by Angela Care Evans (British Museum), a popular guide published by the British Museum that conveniently summarizes the three volumes of The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (1975, 1978, 1983) by Rupert Bruce-Mitford; Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment (1950) translated by John R. Clark Hall and C. L. Wrenn; Beowulf: With the Finnesburg Fragment (1996) edited by C. L. Wrenn and W. F. Boulton; The Audience of Beowulf (1951) by Dorothy Whitelock;Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (1936) by J. R. R. Tolkien; The Anglo-Saxons (1982) edited by James Campbell, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald (Penguin); The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture, AD 600-900 (1991) edited by Leslie Webster and Janet Backhouse; Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo (1992) edited by Calvin B. Kendall and Peter S. Wells; Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (2000) translated by Seamus Heaney.
click below for an article about the relationship between Sutton Hoo and Beowulf
In times past, when Europe was non-existent and geography was plotted by knowledge rather than maps, Saxon kings moved from place to place by coastal navigation slowly. I should know: I stood on Albion’s shores and watched the raiders come as, indeed, I had seen the Romans before them. Silent rowers, etched in black on silvery waters, moving ever closer to the shore as we watched them from among the gorse and bracken.
Suffolk, named by the Saxons for the South Folk, stands testament to their legacy. As indeed does the whole of eastern England: East Anglia, the home of the East Angles. Here, in this place lay sleeping Raedwald, King of the East Angles; at peace at Sutton Hoo. Let me tell you more…
Today a brooding hough, spur or hoo on the sandlings by the Deben, the mounds at Sutton Hoo once stood proud like temples in the heathland there. When I stand and look now at the shallow ploughed out tumps in the wintry evening light, it fills me with sorrow to think that here, once, great kings imposed themselves on the landscape through death. And before death, of course, life… Life indeed!
Thirteen hundred years ago, the Deben estuary was a different place to now. Not so much a sheltered berth for yachtsmen, tourists and wealthy wives; instead one of the key routes into the East Anglian hinterland from the sea. Picture yourself, reader, arriving from Scandinavia and following the coast of Albion; the Deben, like the Orwell and others beckoned weary sailors to shelter from the dangerous murky sweep of the German Ocean, the great North Sea.
And here it was, all those centuries ago that the people we now called Saxons came to settle, eventually building a magisterial palace at Rendlesham nearby – a palace described by some I knew as “healaerna maest” – the most fabulous of all buildings. East Anglia, as I recall it, was a power base for the early English in these parts: a rich farming land yet with easy communication with friends in distant lands.
This quiet place, far adrift from the heart of England, was the home too of Raedwald, King of the East Angles, a man I remember well. I can see him now in his splendour on the mead bench, distributing rings and gifts to his favoured thanes. In the darkness of the night, he shone by the fire, bedecked in gold and garnets.
His wealth was beyond compare, matchless in these lands; he employed the finest craftsmen to make things for him which even today are almost beyond the wit of those so skilled to mimic.
This warrior lord stood highest in the hall, carrying with him an enormous whetstone, beautifully carved with the faces of his ancestors, as a symbol of his powers. His cloak was clasped with gold buckles inlaid with crimson garnets and finely cut millefiori glass. On his belt, his mighty sword hung by his side. Again gold and garnets glistered there, while at the centre of his being, a great fire-like buckle interlaced with writhing snakes and weighing as much as a dog’s head, glowed like a hot iron in the smoke-filled room. Hu oa aepelingas ellen fremedon, we might say. How those noblemen wrought deeds of valour!
But now Raedwald’s image in my mind is just that: a memory in the mind’s eye. Yet thanks to providence, we can still today see Raedwald – if not in body then at least in the accoutrements of his power which were uncovered just 70 years ago as I watched in shadows the work of Basil Brown and his colleagues unearthing treasures which today are there for all to see at the British Museum in London.
How I smiled as Brown revealed the remains of the huge ship I saw being dragged up the hill from the Deben so many centuries ago. He did not see what I saw: the ship positioned in the sand and the body of the great king laid to rest with his prize possessions before being sealed within the ship by great oaken boards. He did not see the tears of men and women by the boat-side. He did not witness the last plank being nailed down and Raedwald’s eyes sealed for ever from the glowing sun of this world…
I recall how that ship laid on the hillside for many years before at last the wood began to bend and crack with the sun and the rain and the cold: a vessel stark on the hoo-top, silhoetted against the Suffolk Sky. I remember in my worry that Raedwald would not rest in eternal peace. Yet I need have no fear that the Saxons would not honour their dead.
I remember going back there again a few years later to see the vessel this time being covered in earth so that a great mound – an edifice to a great king – would rise on the Hoo surveying the great Deben and its safe landing places. On the land was a ship and then the ship became the land; Raedwald’s spirit lurked beneath his sandling home. In those days, this place had immense significance – and quite rightly so.
Raedwald was a true king: assertive of his place, protective of his possessions and lands, and, upon his death, commanding such respect and power that for thirteen centuries his body lay undisturbed: free from rabbits, sheep and even the attempted predations of grave robbers. Yet I knew Raedwald and I knew well how he would have laughed to see his worldly goods on display once more for all to see and marvel at.
Sutton Hoo is rightly seen today as one of the world’s great archaeological treasure troves. Yet I recall it when it was a calm inlet to a quiet hinterland. The captains and the kings are now gone again but the treasures of Raedwald will preserve his glorious memory until the ending of the world.
Wel bio paem ye mot aefter deaodaege. Drihten secean ond to Faeder faeymum freodo wilnian! Well will it be for he who after the day of his death may seek out the Lord and ask for peace in the arms of the Father.
- Sutton Hoo is today owned by the National Trust which has an excellent museum in the grounds
- The Sutton Hoo Treasure is on display at the British Musuem in London, currently on display on the ground floor in an area through the gift display on the right having gone through the entrance
- There is a special interest group for you to join: the Sutton Hoo Society.
Beneath a crescent moon I stood
Upon a meadow damp with dew
Beside the fluttering tree branched wood –
The roots run deep at Sutton Hoo.
I saw, or so it seemed to me
A solemn march of ancient ones
Across a field of time gone by
A sleeping king, a monarch gone
An oaken ship, a chanting throng
With steady pace they made their way
In twilight sorrow and dismay
A song to those who passed before
A song for those who’ve passed the door
A song for those who leave behind
A journey and a path to find
For in their gift of life they send
Our searching souls into this land
For none are born save those who seek
The darkness of this human sleep
In pain and grief we stand and stare
And learn our joy in deep despair
And do our will and raise our clan
To swell the dawning light of man
Beneath this spangled ocean sky
Tonight – we honour those who die
The vision fades, the seen unseen
The door is closed, the air is keen
But dimly through the fading trance
The tear-stained branches swing and dance –
The ghostly line is hid from view
But roots run deep at Sutton Hoo.
Jewel encrusted belt buckle found in the Sutton Hoo excavations – site of two 6th- and early 7th-century Anglo-Saxon cemeteries – England
British Kingdoms 600 AD
Anglo-Saxon helmet from Sutton Hoo (‘original’ condition)