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.

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4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. moxeyns says:

    Reblogged this on Eclectic pleasures and commented:
    A fascinating article from Rosie Weetch, curator of one of my favourite collections at the British Museum. I was admiring these very pieces just last week – I wish I’d read this article first, I would’ve appreciated them more deeply!

    Like

  2. This is very interesting and extremely helpful. I always have problems interpreting both of the Salin styles — I get so far & then can’t work out the last little bits. Many thanks!

    Like

  3. Mark Donahue says:

    This is absolutely fascinating! Sutton Hoo (and other sites) continue to illuminate the so called Dark Ages. Wonderful read!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Michael Brennan says:

    Any references to the literature on ambiguity, in Style II in particular, please?

    Like

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This is an exquisitely decorated purse lid from the Anglo-Saxon burial at #SuttonHoo, which was discovered #onthisday in 1939. In this object the quality of craftsmanship can really be appreciated. The lid is only 19cm in length but it must have been incredibly valuable. The outstanding nature of the finds at Sutton Hoo points to this being the burial of a leading figure in East Anglia, possibly a king. The landowner Mrs Edith Petty donated the discovery to the British Museum in 1939.
#SuttonHoo #Gold #Archaeology #AngloSaxon Today we’re celebrating the unearthing of the beautiful Anglo-Saxon objects from #SuttonHoo, which were found #onthisday in 1939. Arguably the most iconic of all the objects, this helmet was an astonishingly rare find. Meticulous reconstruction has allowed us to see its full shape and some of the complexity of the fine detailing after it was damaged in the burial chamber. The gold areas of the helmet reveal a dragon or bird-like figure – the moustache forms the tail, the nose forms the body and the eyebrows form the wings, with a head just above. Another animal head can be seen facing down towards this.
#SuttonHoo #AngloSaxon #Gold #Helmet #Archaeology #onthisday in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, archaeologists discovered the treasures of #SuttonHoo. It was one of the most important historical discoveries of the 20th century, and contained a wealth of Anglo-Saxon objects which greatly enhanced the understanding of the early medieval period. One of the most significant things to be found was an undisturbed ship-burial, the excavation of which can be seen in this photo. The 27-metre-long impression the ship left in the earth is highly detailed and was painstakingly recorded. The centre of the ship contained a burial chamber housing some spectacular objects – we’ll be sharing some highlights today.
#SuttonHoo #AngloSaxon  #archaeology #archive #blackandwhite This photograph shows a mountainside in #Angola featuring large engravings which may be thousands of years old. This rock art is found at Tchitundu-Hulu Mulume, one of a group of four rock art sites located in the south-west corner of Angola, by the edge of the Namib desert. The area is a semi-arid plain characterised by the presence of several inselbergs (isolated hills rising from the plain). Of the four sites, Tchitundu-Hulu Mulume is the largest, located at the top of an inselberg, 726 metres in height. There are large engravings on the slopes of the outcrop, most of them consisting of simple or concentric circles and solar-like images.

Our #AfricanRockArt image project team have now completed cataloguing 19,000 rock art images from Northern, Eastern and Southern Africa, and will be completing work on sites from Southern African countries in the final phase of the project. Follow the link in our bio to find out more about our African #rockart image project and the incredible images being catalogued.
Photograph © TARA/David Coulson. Our #AfricanRockArt project team is cataloguing and uploading around 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent. Working with digital photographs has allowed the Museum to use new technologies to study, preserve, and enhance the rock art, while leaving it in situ.

As part of the cataloguing process, the project team document each photograph, identifying what is depicted. Sometimes images are faded or unclear. Using photo manipulation software, images can be run through a process that enhances the pigments. By focusing on different sets of colours, we can now see the layers that were previously hidden to the naked eye.

This painted panel, from Kondoa District in #Tanzania, shows the white outline of an elephant’s head at the right, along with some figures in red that it is possible to highlight with digital enhancement.

Tanzania contains some of the densest concentrations of rock art in East Africa, mainly paintings found in the Kondoa area and adjoining Lake Eyasi basin. The oldest of these paintings are attributed to hunter-gatherers and may be 10,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio to learn more about the project and see stunning #rockart from Africa. This week we’re highlighting the work of our #AfricanRockArt image project. The project team are now in the third year of cataloguing, and have uploaded around 19,000 digital photographs of rock art from all over #Africa to the Museum’s collection online database.

This photograph shows an engraving of a large, almost life-sized elephant, found on the Messak Plateau in #Libya. This region is home to tens of thousands of depictions, and is best known for larger-than-life-size engravings of animals such as elephants, rhino and a now extinct species of buffalo. This work of rock art most likely comes from the Early Hunter Period and could be up to 12,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio and explore 30,000 years of stunning rock art from Africa. © TARA/David Coulson.
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