I am returned at last from a marvelous sixteen days in London and the Scottish highlands. While in London I made sure to re-visit the British Museum and see again the Sutton Hoo artifacts with fresh (and more educated) eyes. I took some pictures for you and learned several things of interest. The photos were taken with my phone, so forgive the poor quality of some of them.
Before I begin, there are still three spots left in The Wordstapas. If you are interested in joining, please register or contact me with questions. We will be reading Beowulf. Please share The Wordstapas with anyone who may be interested, or mention it on your blog, social media (if you are in to that kind of thing), etc. You can find more information on The Wordstapas page and a graphic is available here.
The Sutton Hoo ship burial mound is located north-east of London. It was excavated in 1939 under the shadow of World War II. Archaeologists estimate the burial dates from the early 600s A.D. The ship itself was twenty-seven meters long and in the middle was found a burial chamber filled with all manner of stunning Anglo-Saxon artifacts: armour, weapons, jewelry, coins, and dishware.
The Sutton Hoo helmet is perhaps the most famous Anglo-Saxon artifact. The helmet had been shattered when it was found and the remains have been painstakingly pieced together into an educated guess of the original shape. There are some fascinating details cleverly integrated into the helmet and outlined by Dr. Sue Brunning in an excellent video by the British Museum. One of these is that the nose guard, “moustache,” and “eyebrows” of the helmet are actually part of a flying raven design, which can be seen from the side of the helmet. Ravens are prominent in Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology. As I wrote in a previous post, “Some Parallels Pertaining to Ravens,” they were used as heralds of battle and symbols of Odin. Secondly—and even more intriguing—above the eye holes are two rows of garnets. On many other Anglo-Saxon artifacts garnets and other jewels are backed with gold foils. This way, the light shines through the jewel, reflects on the gold, and bounces back through the jewel, making it sparkle. But on the Sutton Hoo helmet only the garnets above the right eye have gold foils. The garnets above the left eye do not. This means that when the wearer stood in the firelight only his right eye would shine. His left would be dark and shadowy and seem to disappear. Perhaps it would even look like he was one-eyed. Do memories of Odin at the well of Mimir arise? In Norse mythology, the god Odin gave one of his eyes to Mimir in return for wisdom.1 He is immediately recognizable in artwork by his missing eye. The Anglo-Saxons, being a Germanic tribe, were familiar with the tale of Odin and the parallels between the tale and the helmet are surely too close to be accidental.
There is sometimes an assumption circulated that the work of the Anglo-Saxon craftsmen was crude and unbeautiful. I think this idea arises partly from the fact that all the artifacts we have from the Anglo-Saxon period have been buried in the ground for over one thousand years and are understandably not looking their best. Swords that were once beadoleoma “battle-light” are now twisted, brown, corroded lumps. It requires much more imagination to envision the glory of an Anglo-Saxon hall and its warriors than to envision—say—the atrium of a Roman villa. But the Anglo-Saxons were skilled craftsmen in their own right and many of the artifacts from Sutton Hoo demonstrate this.
Two of my favourite artifacts from the Sutton Hoo mound are the purse lid and the belt-buckle. The soil around the mound was extremely acidic so the cloth part of the purse and the leather of the belt have deteriorated. But the gold remains. And what gold! Feast your eyes upon the intricacy of the interlace and think that 1500 years ago an Anglo-Saxon smith held these in his hand.
There are more artifacts from the mound that I have not mentioned, but pictures of them all are available on the British Museum website, which I shall provide a link for below. The British Museum has also created some videos with Dr. Sue Brunning, curator of the European Early Medieval Insular Collection, featuring a detailed analysis of the Sutton Hoo helmet and the Sutton Hoo sword. These I will also link below.
And if you are intrigued by the beauties of Sutton Hoo and want to experience the Anglo-Saxons as they were when their swords were still bright, come join The Wordstapas. We’ll be reading Beowulf, a glittering example of the Anglo-Saxons in their glory.
P.S. You may wish to slip over to my About page to see the new photograph posted there. 😉
A virtual visit to Room 41 in the British Museum:
- More information about the excavation, the burial, and some of the key artifacts
- The British Museum digital archive of all the Sutton Hoo artifacts (clicking on the pictures will open more detailed pictures)
- A detailed video of the Sutton Hoo helmet with Dr. Sue Brunning
- And a detailed video of the Sutton Hoo sword, also with Dr. Sue Brunning
1It is not known for sure which eye Odin gave to Mimir. Some sources say it was the right eye, others say it was the left.