British Museum blog

Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

silver-gilt brooch detailRosie 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

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

Decoding the square-headed brooch. Click on the image for larger version.

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.

Turning the brooch upside-down reveals four heads in profile on the rectangular head of the brooch, highlighted in purple. Click on the image for larger version.

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

Decoding the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo. Click on the image for larger version.

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

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.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Room 41, Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, , , , , , , , , , ,

Sutton Hoo, treasure hunters and a lucky escape

Sutton Hoo helmet
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

Fifteen years ago I visited the British Museum as an undergraduate. As someone who’d most recently studied the English Civil War, I’d taken a course on Anglo-Saxon England because I was curious to learn what life was like at a time when the date only had three numbers in it. Our professor brought us to Room 41, the gallery of Early Medieval Europe – and there I had a fateful encounter with the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Dating to the early AD 600s, this remarkable Anglo-Saxon grave in Suffolk was arranged inside a 27-metre-long ship and covered with an earth mound, known to posterity as ‘Mound 1′. The burial’s spectacular nature has fuelled speculation that it belonged to a king of East Anglia. Seeing it back then for the first time, I was genuinely inspired. I’ve studied the Anglo-Saxons ever since.

Curators Sue Brunning (r) and Rosie Weetch (l) installing the Sutton Hoo helmet in the gallery

Curators Sue Brunning (r) and Rosie Weetch (l) installing the Sutton Hoo helmet in the gallery

Tomorrow, after four years of very hard teamwork, Room 41 re-opens following a major refurbishment that was generously facilitated by Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock, with additional support from the DCMS /Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund. Sutton Hoo takes pride of place in the centre, acting as a gateway into the rest of the gallery. Visitors entering through Room 40 will be met by the striking face of the helmet, standing sentinel at the head of his ship. My spine still tingles when I gaze into its hollow black eyes, especially out of hours in the quiet, dark gallery space. A haunting sight; but something else chills me when I look at these treasures – the true-life tale of how close we came to losing them forever.

The Sutton Hoo ship excavation in 1939. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Suffolk, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Sutton Hoo ship excavation in 1939. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Suffolk, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Drawing showing the cross-section of the mound where the treasure hunter's pit was discovered

Drawing showing the cross-section of the mound where the treasure hunter’s pit was discovered

When excavating Mound 1 in 1939, archaeologist Basil Brown found signs of what he described in his diary as a ‘Medieval disturbance’. These comprised a 10-foot-deep pit dug into the top of the mound, containing pottery sherds (more of which were found during further excavations in 1969), animal bone and traces of a fire. Experts identified the pottery as Bellarmine ware, dating to the 1500s or 1600s. Not much to write home about, you’d think; but these seemingly banal traces are, to me, some of the most hair-raising discoveries in Anglo-Saxon archaeology. They show that, at some time in the Tudor period, a group of treasure hunters (if that was their aim) had targeted Mound 1; but after digging vainly for some time, they stopped, built a fire, ate a meal and departed, leaving their waste behind. Archaeological drawings show that they would have had their prize if they had dug just a few feet further west. The sorry results of more fruitful looting expeditions are illustrated by the other burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. Mound 2, another ship burial, was found to contain only the tiniest hints of its former magnificence: a chip of a blue glass vessel; part of a pattern-welded sword; and fragments of gilded silver drinking-horn mounts.

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

While writing this blog, I visited the Sutton Hoo reserve collection to photograph sherds of the hapless looters’ jug. Handling them was an unnerving experience. Sutton Hoo is so central to our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons that a world without it is unthinkable. Its alternative fate is too horrifying for me to contemplate: the great gold buckle melted down; the garnets of the shoulder clasps chipped out and recycled; the iron fragments of the helmet ignored and discarded. For an Anglo-Saxonist, the tale of what Charles Philips, another excavator at Sutton Hoo, dubbed ‘the lunch of the disappointed’ is more hair-raising than any vampire or werewolf yarn. It’s incredible to think that we owe the new gallery’s centrepiece to the miscalculations of a few opportunists. That makes me feel even luckier to be the curator of this precious collection.

 

The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 opens 27 March 2014 in Room 41. Admission is free.

The finds from Sutton Hoo were donated to the British Museum by Mrs Edith Pretty.

The site is managed by The National Trust – to visit and find out more, go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

 

Filed under: Archaeology, Room 41, Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, , , , , ,

In search of the Vikings


David Prudames, British Museum

Last week, the extremely exciting news broke of the discovery of the ship-burial of a high-status Viking in Scotland.

The excavation was undertaken by a team of experts from a number of institutions working on the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project, which is exploring evidence on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland for the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age periods (from about 9000 to about 1000 BC).

Laid to rest at least 1,000 years ago, this must have been an important individual as his remains were found surrounded by what’s left of a large ship (mainly just rivets, as the wood it was built from has rotted away) and possessions including a sword, shield, knife, axe, bronze ringed pin and whetstone.

There’s an article about the discovery on the Guardian newspaper website, as well as a video of the axe being excavated. On the BBC website there are a couple of videos about the finds, one of a BBC Scotland news report and a short interview with Oliver Harris, a member of the excavation team.

Some of the finds shown in these videos are very similar to objects in the collection of the British Museum, where the Vikings are well-represented.

My colleague Barry Ager told me about another boat burial dating back to more or less the same period as this one. It was discovered in Lilleberge Norway in the nineteenth century, and there is a large collection of iron rivets from it in our collection online.

The Cuerdale hoard of Viking silver

The Cuerdale hoard of Viking silver

There’s a selection of interesting Viking objects in an online tour on our website, including a hair comb made out of an antler; an iron spearhead found in the River Thames, and the remarkable Cuerdale hoard discovered in the nineteenth century – the largest hoard of Viking silver from western Europe (over 40kg of it), stashed away during a time of upheaval.

Excavation of the ship at Sutton Hoo in 1968

Excavation of the ship at Sutton Hoo in 1968

This fascinating discovery also reminded me of a much earlier ship-burial, objects from which are on display here at the British Museum. The burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk is not Viking, rather it held the remains of an Anglo-Saxon of clearly high status and surrounded by some incredible finds, many of which have become rightly famous – the magnificent helmet in particular.

A new display in Room 2 at the British Museum shows some of these finds in the context of the wider early medieval world of Europe and beyond, while their permanent home undergoes a refurbishment.

It interestingly places the both Anglo-Saxons and Vikings – among others – in the wider context of contact and trade across a vast area from Scandinavia to north Africa, the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 8,206 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,206 other followers

%d bloggers like this: