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We are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers
ISIS Rebel Militant Soldiers
The way the language of journalism distances us from jihadis is based on the idea that their extreme violence has more in common with the extreme violence of the middle ages. Photograph: Medyan Dairieh/ Medyan Dairieh/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Among the various reactions to the Church of England’s vote on women bishops, one comment really got under my skin: “Welcome to the 21st century.” Almost everything about it irritated me. For unless the person who made this comment was partying somewhere like Sydney on the evening of 31 December 1999, I suspect that we have both been sharing the 21st century for exactly the same amount of time. So how come he gets to welcome me to it? And with all the assumed and self-satisfied cultural superiority of a native welcoming an immigrant off the boat at Calais.

Back in 1983, the German anthropologist Johannes Fabian published a brilliant account of how western anthropologists often used the language of time to distance themselves from the object of their study and to secure the dominance of a western Enlightenment worldview. In Time and the Other he noted there was something fishy about the way early anthropologists went out and studied other cultures, talking and interacting with people in the same temporal space, yet when such encounters came to be written up, the people being studied/talked with tended to be situated back in time. The anthropologist always lives in the present. The people being studied live in the past. It’s what Fabian calls “a denial of coevalness” – a denial that we share the same temporal space with those who have different values or different political aspirations. This denial of coevalness, argues Fabian (very much in the style of Edward Said), is often a political power-play, a discourse of “otherness” that was commonly used to buttress the colonial exploitation of others.

But it’s not just colonialism-justifying anthropologists who play this linguistic/moral trick with the clock. The same thing happens in contemporary journalism all the time. Isis, for example, are often described as “medieval”. Travel to Damascus or Baghdad, and you travel not just to the Middle East but also to the middle ages. In part, this familiar trope is based on the idea that the extreme violence of contemporary jihadis has more in common with the extreme violence of the middle ages. As a comparison, this is most unfair on the middle ages, which is transformed from a rich and complex period of human history into modernity’s “other” – little more than that against which modernity comes to define itself. Forget about the founding of the great cathedrals and universities, forget about the Islamic development of mathematics, forget about Leonardo da Vinci and all of that: in secular salvation myth we are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages of barbarism and stupidity by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers. This is just as much a salvation myth as any proposed by religion – though in this version of salvation it is religion itself that we need to be saved from.

But the problem with the idea that the current age is the triumphant pinnacle of historical achievement is that Isis is very much a 21st-century phenomenon. And not just because its members are good with the internet. Their violence and brutality have not appeared directly from the middle ages through some wormhole in time. To think as much is to deny the need to look for contemporary causes and contemporary solutions. As the historian Julia McClure has written: “Rather than … questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and process, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time.”

Yes, it is understandable that we want psychologically to distance ourselves from the mindset of those who decapitate prisoners. And so we speak of them as if they were born in 1490 rather than in 1990. But this denial of coevalness hardly encourages us to seek to understand the phenomenon of contemporary jihadis or think more clearly about the best ways to respond. So yes, welcome to the 21st century: women bishops, violent extremists, arrogant colonialists – nothing, in fact, far beyond the imagination of the medieval mind. But more to the point, as much a part of our world as it was of theirs.

 

Here are some poignant replies:

Barnsley

I’m not sure you’re doing yourself any favours with this article. And I’m glad the ‘welcome to the 21st century’ comment got under your skin; it was meant to.

 

WilliamA:

Not a salvation myth at all. Computers are real things. At least, the one I’m typing this into is. Science is there to help us understand the meaning of real things like computers. Science is just a few basic rules: look for evidence, systematise it (laws) and draw out basic principles (theories). Rationality is a bit like science but applied to rules of thinking, discourse, and communication; a systematization to allow more meaningful communication to help us agree. None of those 3 things are salvation myths.

Salvation myth itself is just a projection of religious tropes onto the non-religion world. Wake up, try to realize that everyone doesn’t think like you. We don’t really care about your religion. What counts to atheists is how your religion affects us. We won’t be happy if you try to behead us. In contrast, waving incense around, while singing and dressing up in silly clothes is rather cute and beguiling.

trevorg

in secular salvation myth we are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages of barbarism and stupidity by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers.

A tad sweeping, Giles, to rely on the smugness of one brand of digital gizmo and its customers (insufferable though I agree it is) to damn the entire Enlightenment project?

I can’t recall anyone telling such a ‘simple story’. Let me offer you a slightly more nuanced one as a more worthy opponent for a man of your moral scrupulosity to grapple with:

Progress is slow, muddled, often goes backwards or sideways and is full of inconsistency, opportunism and hypocrisy. Neverthless it is better to live in societies where the aspiration – if not the fully achieved reality – is that people of different genders, races, beliefs and sexualities are all equally human and deserving of the same basic rights; where economic relations are based on freely negotiated and impartially enforced agreements rather than on hereditary rank or servitude; where destitution is relieved as a matter of public policy rather than private charity; where illness is treated with evidence-based medicine rather than blamed on demons and dybbuks; where the odd and awkward are not ostracised and persecuted as witches; where knowledge and literacy are accessible to all, and not hoarded by a priestly elite who can exploit ignorance to terrorise and manipulate the majority.

I’d say we are extremely fortunate to live in a society that gets closer to this than almost any earlier one, and is surpassed only by a handful of other European ones; that trying to move closer to this is good, that attacking and undermining it is bad, and that societies that glory in the opposite are bad.

Don’t you agree?

 

igBenny

When I worked in a very authoritarian university, a colleague complained that it was like being in a mediaeval institution. I pointed out that if we had been in a medieaval institution, faculty would have elected the Rector.

(As it was, the Rector was appointed by and answerable to the wealthy benefactor who bankrolled the whole institution, a very 21st century arrangement).

 

WrongTurn

I’m not sure you can define progress in all its spheres as a secular salvation myth.

 

SOMuffin

To realise why Giles Fraser is wrong, it is sufficient to dissect this:

Forget about the founding of the great cathedrals and universities, forget about the Islamic development of mathematics, forget about Leonardo da Vinci and all of that

Once we talk about “Middle Ages” we refer to specific time in European history, say from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire until the opening of the Americas to European colonisation in late 15th Century. We are not talking about the Muslim word, or about the Chinese, Indian, Native American or African (these were the glory days of Ashanti, Ghana and Mali!) civilisations. So, let us examine their predominant characteristics:
1. A majority of population at the status of serfs (or “bonded labour” in modern parlance): a property of feudal lords, to be used, abused or traded by them at their pleasure.
2. Absolutist hereditary monarchy, totally dominating the political (but also the legal) space.
3. Total dominance of a single religious creed (Catholicism in the West, Greek Orthodoxy in the East) with secular and religious power joined at the hip.
4. Zero right of dissent, whether spiritual or temporal, no concept of human rights.
5. Women considered as sub-human and the legal property of the male head of the household.
6. Whatever passes for scholarship, science and medicine totally based on religious doctrine or on superstition.
(All this, except for the last point, fits contemporary Saudi Arabia like hand in a very well-crafted glove!)

So, let us return to Fraser’s quote:
a. Founding of the great cathedrals: Exactly. The only edifices allowed to dominate the public space and assert the power of the ruling orthodoxy.
b. Founding of the great universities: Giles Fraser tends to forget that just because something is called “university”, it isn’t necessarily a university in the modern sense of the word, a centre of open-minded, free enquiry and instruction.
c. The Islamic development of mathematics: Muslims, as a matter of fact, developed very little new mathematics, their great service to this subject was in preserving and translating the Greek greats and melding their work with South-Indian influences (the concept of zero). But this is precisely the point of the (European) Middle Ages, that their own secular scholarship was virtually non-existent! The onlyMiddle-Age European significant name in history of mathematics is Rabbi Levi Ben Gershom – and no, he wasn’t Christian.
d. Leonardo da Vinci: The Italian Renaissance augured the death knell of the Middle Ages. From Giotto onwards, this was the new era.

The world has moved, Giles Fraser, since the Age of Enlightenment onwards. This movement often meanders, it is not any well-defined time-arrow of progress. But overall, averaged over time, it is moving forward. Your church is ever-so-hesitantly moving with it and you should see “welcome to the 21st Century” as a compliment – I can think of faith communities in Saudi or in Texas to whom “welcome to the 16th Century” would have been progress.

 

MikeFloater

Very sloppy historical analysis.The author uses Middle Ages and Dark Ages interchangeably. Leonardo da Vinci was part of the Renaissance, not the Dark Ages. the Dark Ages were also a European phenomenon and in that context provides a reference point for European commentators.

That Isis shares contemporary space in the physical sense does not mean they share our cultural space. It is also dangerouus to argue that this difference amounts to some equality in the value structures of Isis and anyone else other than similar power-centred ideologies to whom massacre is seen as a tool of obtaining and retaining power such as the Khmer Rouge, Bolsheviks etc.The methods and thought structures behind them are similar to those of the 14th century when those of no value as hostages in defeated christian armies were beheaded according to the teachings of the Koran.

The interesting question is why these movements seek to replicate the practices in the past in response to the present. The Khmer Rouge wanted to reestablish an former agricultural model of their society, Isis wants a previous Caliphate model. In this sense it is they who are making reference backwards. I think it is fair for commentators to point that out.

 

trubble

The point of the “offending” sentence is clear but seems to have been either misunderstood, or perhaps missed entirely. To my understanding, “welcome to the 21st century” simply says that the idea of female inequality is backwards when viewed in the light of modern knowledge. Perhaps Giles doesn’t think modern knowledge is better than antiquated knowledge but surely that would say something rather damning about his view on the acquisition of knowledge, if true.
The fact of the matter is this; we know better now, about the abilities of women, about the right way to treat prisoners and so on but some people/groups/faiths cling to the bad old ways because they are driven by faith not by rational thought.

The literal approach examined in this article is woefully short of the mark.

 

RevBill

Before reading the 294 comments that came before this – this is an extremely perceptive piece, as I would expect from Giles Fraser. It is not, as knee-jerk atheists and anti-religionists will claim, an apologia for religion in general or Christianity in particular, it is an intelligent comment on the arrogance of those who think that what they call “joining the 21st century” is a sign of moral and intellectual superiority. It isn’t.

 

and here is the McClure article:

 

ISIS and the Politics of the Middle Ages

ISIS AND THE POLITICS OF THE MIDDLE AGES

This week the Guardian reporter Kevin McDonald took issue with Nick Clegg’s description of ISIS as “medieval”.  McDonald reported: ‘given the extreme violence of Isis fighters and the frequent images of decapitated bodies, it is understandable that we attempt to make sense of these acts as somehow radically “other”.’ Unfortunately analysis of the meaning and implications of this political use of the Middle Ages ended here, and the article instead constructed a somewhat flawed comparison between ISIS and the history of the French Revolution. However, this recent use of the category ‘medieval’ as a label for the things that we refuse to acknowledge or understand is not unique.

Many shocking crimes against humanity, such as torture, slavery, and public executions, frequently occur in our modern world, and yet are described as medieval. This conundrum was discussed by John Dagenais, who argued that ‘the Middle Ages “shadows” modernity, its existence driven by a repeated denial of coevalness with modernity of activities like repression and brutality: a productive and exploitative anachronism’.[1] The ‘denial of coevalness’, a phenomenon first identified by the anthropologist Johannes Fabian, is the practice of locating people, cultures, or events within another time. Within Fabian’s analysis, the ‘denial of coevalness’ was a way to structure colonial power. For example, a ‘remote society’ might be described as primitive, signifying that that society is not only geographically remote from Europe but also remote from ‘modernity’ as it has been defined in the Western historical tradition.

‘Modernity’ is often assumed to be the product of historical evolution, the triumphant outcome of the European Enlightenment and scientific revolution. Yet many dark crimes and threats of chaos occur close to home, challenging this glossy image of post-Enlightenment modernity. Rather than accepting responsibility for flaws in our society, or questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and progress, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time. Instead, shocking crimes and phenomena that generate fear are described as medieval. As Dagenais observed, ‘the typological use of “medieval” was a way of exercising and containing those aspects of modernity that are inadmissible to itself’.[2] Exploited in this way, the Middle Ages cease to be a dynamic and complex period and become a handmaiden for the mythology of modernity.

With the realisation that the governments of Europe and America have engaged in extra-ordinary rendition to conduct torture overseas and that ISIS fighters and perpetrators of public decapitations in the Middle East can have grown up in the UK, it is no longer possible for this generation to interpret shocking crimes against humanity and threats to our imagined social order as something geographically remote. People in Europe and America therefore have two options: they can accept that crimes occur in their world but describe them as ‘medieval’, part of another time, and refuse to acknowledge them; or they can critically reflect upon the ways in which the society they are part of has created the problems it has.

This recent use of the Middle Ages as a label for describing ISIS is dangerous since it justifies a refusal to reflect upon the causes and potential solutions to the problems being faced in the contemporary world. It provides an excuse for not engaging with the difficult and challenging process of introspection, the process of looking at ourselves and asking how have we, as a global society, created this problem and how can we respond to it.

The irony is that, globally, there have been many developments in technology, there are more devices to record and circulate messages to ever increasing audiences –  but we refuse to analyse the complex messages channelled by the high tech global communication system. The lenses of social media are distorted. So perhaps we are, after all, living in the ‘dark ages’; yet this dark age is not the medieval period, but a dark age of consciousness.

Julia McClure is a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI.

Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barrel_bomb_aftermath_Aleppo_February_2014.jpgNote: The barrel bombing of Aleppo has been generally blamed on Syrian government forces, not ISIS.

 

[1] Dagenais, ‘The Postcolonial Laura’, Modern Language Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2004), pp. 365-389. p. 374.

[2] Ibid.

 

Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

Rosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

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.

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century AD

Decoding the great square-headed brooch from Chessel Down

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.

Turning the brooch upside-down reveals four heads in profile on the rectangular head of the brooch, highlighted in purple.

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.

Decoding the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

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.

The five senses on the Fuller Brooch. Click on the image for a larger version

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.

Sutton Hoo

“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.”

Beowulf (34-42)

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.”

 

Beowulf (1669-1670)

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

Click to access saxon43.pdf

Sutton Hoo, where Raedwald lies

Image of Raedwald of Sutton Hoo

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.

Further information:

  • 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.

Roots

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.

Roland Mann

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Jewel encrusted  belt buckle found in the Sutton Hoo excavations - site of two 6th- and early 7th-century Anglo-Saxon cemeteries  - England

Jewel encrusted belt buckle found in the Sutton Hoo excavations – site of two 6th- and early 7th-century Anglo-Saxon cemeteries – England

AD 700 – Sutton Hoo.    "Sutton Hoo is a group of Anglo-Saxon burial mounds overlooking the River Deben in south-east Suffolk, England." http://suttonhoo.org/

AD 700 – Sutton Hoo. “Sutton Hoo is a group of Anglo-Saxon burial mounds overlooking the River Deben in south-east Suffolk, England.” suttonhoo.org/

British Kingdoms 600 AD

British Kingdoms 600 AD

Famous Anglo-Saxon helmet from Sutton Hoo ('original' condition)

Anglo-Saxon helmet from Sutton Hoo (‘original’ condition)

Larry Bannock was Chief of the Golden Star Hunters and was a renowned costumer and funk/jazz musician at the Mardi Gras. He became a “Big Chief” in 1979.  Here is the announcement of his funeral for the local newspaper:

Larry Bannock, Big Chief of the Golden Star Hunters Mardi Gras Indian tribe, dies

BY JAY MAZZA, SPECIAL TO THE ADVOCATE
May 10, 2014

Larry Bannock, Big Chief of the Golden Star Hunters Mardi Gras Indian tribe, died April 30 of a heart attack. He was 66.

Photo provided by Bill Boelens -- Larry Bannock, big chief of the Golden Star Hunters, in his Mardi Gras Indian suit at Jazz Fest in 2010.
Photo provided by Bill Boelens — Larry Bannock, big chief of the Golden Star Hunters, in his Mardi Gras Indian suit at Jazz Fest in 2010.

Bannock grew up in Gert Town and was considered a virtuoso in the art of Indian beading and performance. He was a registered master craftsman and was one of the first Indians to receive a grant to teach the sewing tradition.

In the 1980s, one of his Indian suits was selected by the Smithsonian Institution to represent New Orleans Carnival in an exhibit that toured the world. He also traveled widely demonstrating the art.

The always-quotable Bannock was a past president of the Mardi Gras Indian Council. His well-articulated thoughts on the Mardi Gras Indian tradition were broadcast on news shows, including “48 Hours” and the “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour,” and printed in numerous local and national publications.

Bannock, chief of his tribe since 1979, told The New York Times in 1995: “They say Rex is ruler (on Mardi Gras), but not in the 17th Ward ’cause I’m the king here.”

Bannock could be politically outspoken as well. In a 2012 piece titled “Outsiders Prey on Gert Town,” Bannock told the Louisiana Weekly: “This community has fattened more frogs to feed snakes over the years. We pay taxes but we don’t seem to get much in return.”

The hand-sewn, beaded patches adorning his Indian suits told the stories of his people and their history. One patch called “The Flight of the Eagles” pictured a Native American brave grasping the feathers of a bird on a mountaintop while three other birds fly overhead. He explained the three circling birds represented “the old uptown Indian gangs” — the White Eagles, the Black Eagles and the Golden Eagles.

“Indians had to get eagle feathers,” Bannock said. “He had to fight the eagle and not kill him because eagles are sacred.”

Bannock and the Golden Star Hunters were regular performers at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival dating back to its second year in 1971.

He could always be counted on to make provocative comments, such as dedicating a song to “those boys who graduated from the Louisiana State Penitentiary” or scoring points on another chief — “He and I don’t see eye to eye, but I still say I’m a legend.”

Bannock’s last appearance at Jazz Fest was just three days before he died. He displayed his playful, irreverent side with his introduction to the hymn, “Down by the Riverside.”

“You know the saying about God looking after babies and damn fools? Mardi Gras Indians are damn fools,” he said with a sardonic chuckle.

He is survived by his uncles Louis “Knockie” Williams and Clarence “Butts” Williams and many cousins, nieces and nephews.

A funeral will be held at noon Saturday at the City of Love Church, 8601 Palmetto St., New Orleans. Visitation will begin at 11 a.m. Burial will be in the Musicians’ Tomb in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery at a date to be announced.

mardi gras funeral procession

mardi gras funeral attire

mardi gras funeral mask

 

 

The Larger Story: Narrated by James Earl Jones

4,000-year-old Dartmoor burial find rewrites British Bronze Age history

Stone box contains earliest examples of wood-turning and metal-working, along with Baltic amber and what may be bear skin
Dartmoor discovery

Parts of a necklace and wooden ear studs found on Dartmoor

Some 4,000 years ago people carried a young woman’s cremated bones – charred scraps of her shroud and the wood from her funeral pyre still clinging to them – carefully wrapped in a fur, along with her most valuable possessions packed into a basket, up to one of the highest and most exposed spots on Dartmoor, and buried them in a small stone box covered by a mound of peat.

The discovery of her remains is rewriting the history of the Bronze Age moor. The bundle contained a treasury of unique objects, including a tin bead and 34 tin studs which are the earliest evidence of metal-working in the south-west, textiles including a unique nettle fibre belt with a leather fringe, jewellery including amber from the Baltic and shale from Whitby, and wooden ear studs which are the earliest examples of wood turning ever found in Britain.

The site chosen for her grave was no accident. At 600 metres above sea level, White Horse hill is still so remote that getting there today is a 45-minute walk across heather and bog, after a half-hour drive up a military track from the nearest road. The closest known prehistoric habitation site is far down in the valley below, near the grave of the former poet laureate Ted Hughes.

Analysing and interpreting one of the most intriguing burials ever found in Britain is now occupying scientists across several continents. A BBC documentary, Mystery of the Moor, was first intended only for local broadcast, but as the scale of the find became clear, it will now be shown nationally on BBC2 on 9 March.

Dartmoor site

The site of the find on White Horse hill

Scientists in Britain, Denmark and the Smithsonian in the US have been working on the fur. It is not dog, wolf, deer, horse or sheep, but may be a bear skin, from a species that became extinct in Britain at least 1,000 years ago.

“I am consumed with excitement about this find. I never expected to see anything like it in my lifetime,” Jane Marchand, chief archaeologist at the Dartmoor National Park Authority said. “The last Dartmoor burial with grave goods was back in the days of the Victorian gentleman antiquarians. This is the first scientifically excavated burial on the moor, and the most significant ever.”

It has not yet been possible definitively to identify the sex of the fragmented charred bones, though they suggest a slight individual aged between 15 and 25 years.

“I shouldn’t really say her – but given the nature of the objects, and the fact that there is no dagger or other weapon of any kind, such as we know were found in other burials from the period, I personally have no doubt that this was a young woman,” Marchand said. “Any one of the artefacts would make the find remarkable. “

Although Dartmoor is speckled with prehistoric monuments, including standing stones, stone rows, and hundreds of circular hut sites, very few prehistoric burials of any kind have been found. What gives the White Horse hill international importance is the survival of so much organic material, which usually disintegrates without trace in the acid soil. Apart from the basket, this burial had the belt; the ear studs – identical to those on sale in many goth shops – made from spindle wood, a hard fine-grained wood often used for knitting needles, from trees which still grow on the lower slopes of Dartmoor; and the unique arm band, plaited from cowhair and originally studded with 34 tin beads which would have shone like silver. There were even charred scraps of textile which may be the remains of a shroud, and fragments of charcoal from the funeral pyre.

Dartmoor woven bagA woven bag found at the site

Although tin – essential for making bronze – from Cornwall and Devon became famous across the ancient world, there was no previous evidence of smelting from such an early date. The necklace, which included amber from the Baltic, had a large tin bead made from part of an ingot beaten flat and then rolled. Although research continues, the archaeologists are convinced it was made locally.

The cist, a stone box, was first spotted more than a decade ago by a walker on Duchy of Cornwall land, when an end slab collapsed as the peat mound which had sheltered it for 4,000 years was gradually washed away. However, it was only excavated three years ago when archaeologists realised the site was eroding so fast any possible contents would inevitably soon be lost. It was only when they lifted the top slab that the scale of the discovery became apparent. The fur and the basket were a wet blackened sludgy mess, but through it they could see beads and other objects. “As we carefully lifted the bundle a bead fell out – and I knew immediately we had something extraordinary,” Marchand said. “Previously we had eight beads from Dartmoor; now we have 200.”

The contents were taken to the Wiltshire conservation laboratory, where the basket alone took a year’s work to clean, freeze dry, and have its contents removed. The empty cist was reconstructed on the site. However, this winter’s storms have done so much damage the archaeologists are now debating whether they will have to move the stones or leave them to inevitable disintegration.

The jewellery and other conserved artefacts will feature in an exhibition later this year at Plymouth city museum, but although work continues on her bones, it is unlikely to answer the mystery of who she was, how she died, and why at such a young age she merited a burial fit for a queen.

before/after

National park: The burial site excavation took place at Whitehorse Hill on Dartmoor (general photo of the national park), one of the park's tallest peaks

“White Horse Hill is so called, of course, because our long-ago ancestors carved the figure of a galloping white horse into it….Oddly enough, though, when you get to White Horse Hill you can’t actually see the horse itself, only odd, abstract bits of it.  This is part of its head and its eye…”

The work was carried out by experts from Cornwall Council’s historic environment projects team, with assistance from English Heritage and specialists from the University of Plymouth. There were several aims of the excavation; to examine any pollen, insects or peat in order to establish what the surrounding landscape was when the kist was built, to search for artefacts that may give an indication of burial rituals, possible trade items and an indication of status. The kistvaen was located on the highest part of Whitehorse Hill at Ordnance Survey grid reference SX 6172 8547.

The highest point on Whitehorse Hill stands at 602m and for centuries it has been known for peat cutting and being a trans moor trackway via peat passes for livestock and huntsmen. As far as other known prehistoric monuments in the area go there simply are none which again makes this particular kistvaen an exception. The location within the physical landscape places the site on top of the hill at a height of around 200m. There are four watercourses that rise around the hill. to the north west (The Taw), the north east (The Wallabrook), the south east (The Great Varracombe) and to the east (The East Dart). Whether or not this has any significance as to the location of the kist is unknown but either way it makes for a spectacular burial site.

…. Under the guidance of head conservator Helen Williams the woven bag was carefully opened to reveal a number of beads along with wooden ear studs and a single amber bead. Clearly there is a great deal of further work to be done on the artefacts which will reveal more vital evidence for Bronze Age life on Dartmoor. Once the work has been completed it is intended that the finds will be part of an exhibition in Plymouth Museum sometime next year.

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory