Saturday, 23 May 2015

A Stranger in the Hoard

Discovered in a field near the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, in 2009, the Staffordshire Hoard  is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork yet found and sparked an explosion of interest in Anglo-Saxon art and culture. The Hoard consists of over 3,500 items, giving more than 5kg of gold, predominately of military decoration, the bulk of the hoard (60%) consists of parts of weapons; the majority stripped, somewhat crudely, from swords and helmets.

The Mystery Object: K130, K1055 and K545 joined together.
Ongoing research continues to reveal further details of the Hoard including the cross reliquary and a technique used by the Saxon goldsmiths to make their gold appear more golden than it really was. Yet one object defies identification (K130). A new gallery for the Staffordshire Hoard opened at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in October 2014 where hundreds of pieces are now on show, along with hands-on displays exploring how these intriguing items were used, before they were buried some 1400 years ago. Permanent displays can now be seen across the heart of Mercia at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery Stoke-on-Trent, Lichfield Cathedral and Tamworth Castle.

The new Staffordshire Hoard gallery at Birmingham
Some 86 sword pommels have so far been identified among the Hoard. Never before have so many sword pommels been found in one single context. The pommel is the fitting at the top of the handle, originally developed to prevent the sword slipping from the hand. These could be highly decorated for elite warriors; it would appear they were stripped from the weapons of a vanquished Anglo-Saxon army. Yet, significantly, there are no sword blades among the Staffordshire Hoard, in fact there is no Anglo-Saxon ironwork at all. The Hoard represents the most valuable pickings of battlefield looting.

Richly made with exceptional craftsmanship, 60% of the sword pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard are decorated with filigree and 25% with garnet cloisonné; a few display both techniques. Relief decoration is less common on pommels and a few pommels are undecorated being of copper alloy which have likely lost their gold sheathing.

Pommel K711
One, known as K711, is clearly different from the rest of the Hoard pommels. Possessing exceptional ornamentation, this silver gilt pommel cap has a bearded figure on the front and tusked boars on the back. The bearded man has been described as a Norse deity, possibly Odin. The boar has been identified as an emblem of Odin/Woden, the god of death and battle and listed in genealogies as the divine ancestor of Anglo-Saxon royal dynasties.

The bearded face, described as a god-head, looks out on the front face of the pommel, set between what experts describe as two animal legs. The design of a head, or mask, set between two beasts, is based on a popular motif in use from the Roman period, but in this case the beasts have been reduced to two single legs. Alternatively, a colleague suggested they could be wings and the head of a bird, two ravens which would confirm the identity of the god as Odin.

K711 back
The decoration has its closest parallels in Scandinavian art; the animal scheme and interlace compares well with that on a buckle from Sealand, Denmark, suggesting the sword arrived with an immigrant warrior. The top of the pommel is smoothed from wear indicating that the sword it decorated was very old. The pommel K711, probably dating to the late second half of the 6th century and one of the oldest objects in the collection, is clearly foreign to the rest of the Hoard.

The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard was the most spectacular Anglo-Saxon find since the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burials in 1939 from two 6th- and early 7th-century Anglo-Saxon cemeteries found near Woodbridge in Suffolk. Comparisons are inevitable, yet the gold objects found in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo weighed only 1.66 kg in total.

The majority of the gold ornaments at Sutton Hoo, sword and scabbard fittings, the buckle and belt mounts, crossed boar shoulder clasps, find parallels within the Germanic traditions which evolved in Europe, in some cases from 5th-century archetypes. The boar is a popular motif in Anglo-Saxon art, as is the male mask, seen on brooches and the Sutton Hoo sceptre. As a representation of ferocity, strength and courage, the boar is symbolic of the wearer’s qualities as a warrior.

Yet, the shoulder clasps found at Sutton Hoo have no clear typological precedents, being the most enigmatic of the gold paraphernalia preserved in Mound 1. These shoulder-clasps appear to have been detached from the garment to which they had once been fixed and purposely placed together in the middle of an empty space where the body should have been.

Shoulder clasps from Sutton Hoo
Each clasp consists of two symmetrical curved halves pinned together by meticulously engineered hinges, still in functioning order at the time of excavation in 1939. The complex design of each section, Germanic Style II interlace and crossed boars, is matched by flawless garnet cloisonné, millefiori glass and zoomorphic filigree. Although in keeping with imagery of the period, the crossed boars on the shoulder clasps remain unique. However, the Scandinavian influence at Sutton Hoo is undeniable as witnessed by the ship burials at Vendel in Sweden

Conjoined boars can also be found on the Continent in the form of small copper-alloy mounts on seax belts found in Alamannic and Frankish graves from the late 6th century to early 7th century. Furthermore a wide range of fittings are found decorated with paired boar head motifs, often associated with the heads of eagles or hounds. Individually these animals were associated with Germanic deities, but in combination they derive from classical hunting imagery and a key part of the repertoire of high-status jewellery and ornaments used by the Germanic elites in Europe, England and Scandinavia in the later 6th and first half of the 7th centuries.

Indeed, the interlace ornament on top of the Hoard pommel K711 has been described as similar to that on a sword from Schretzheim, in Bavarian Germany. The gravefield is identified as a 6th to 7th century Alamannic cemetery but the sword is believed to be of Scandinavian origin. The Hoard pommel  K711 is similarly out of place.

K711 is similar to cloisonné sword pommels of the late 6th and early 7th centuries found in Sweden which incorporated cryptic representations of boars and hounds (Hög Edsten, Bohuslän) and boar heads (Vallstenarum, Gotland). Does its presence in the Staffordshire Hoard signify a Scandinavian elite warrior in the employ of a Mercian warband; a Norse mercenary?

Helmets from Vendel (left) and Sutton Hoo 
The boar was certainly popular with warriors and kings in Sweden in the Vendel period, from about 600 – 800 AD. Helmet plates from the ship graves at Vendel show warriors with immense boar crests on their helmets and a man wearing what appears to be a boar mask complete with protruding tusks, bearing a close comparison to the helmet from Sutton Hoo which features boars on the eyebrows. The early kings of Uppsala are said to have possessed great boar helmets as treasures with names such as Hildisvin (Battle-Swine). The Gundestrup cauldron attests that boars were worn by warriors on the crest of their helmets.
Gundestrup cauldron

As we have seen the boar was admired by warriors as a symbol of ferocity and courage, but it seems the motif may also have been adopted for its talismanic properties.

The boar was the animal symbol of  two of the most important deities of Norse religion, Freyr and Freyja. The shining boar Gullin-bursti (“Golden-Bristled”) was the golden boar of the Vanir and one of the treasures of the gods. Gulin-bursti is described in Norse poetry as being forged in precious metal by dwarves and adorned with bristles of shining gold. He could run by day or night, no matter how dark the night because there was ample light from his shining bristles. This ability would enable the boar to carry the goddess Freyja to the underworld, the realm of blackness, when she wanted to gain special knowledge from the ancestors.

The helmet from the 7th century grave at Benty Grange in Derbyshire has a complete boar crest, about 9cm long, garnet set eyes and gold spots for bristles. Throughout Northern Europe it is the bristles of the boar, rather than the tusks, that is emphasised.

In the poem Beowulf the boar is said to protect warriors who wear it on their helmets and to to keep guard over their lives; Beowulf himself is said to have worn a boar helmet which no sword could pierce.

The decoration of god head and boars on sword pommel K711 would appear to have carried sacred significance for the warrior who owned it. The amount of wear apparent on the decoration of the pommel suggests it provided spiritual protection in many battles before its capture.

Edited 24/05/15

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Noël Adams, Rethinking the Sutton Hoo Shoulder Clasps and Armour, in Intelligible Beauty
recent research on Byzantine Jewellery, edited by Chris Entwistle and Noël Adams, British Museum Research Publication 178, 2010.
Martin Carver, editor, The Age of Sutton Hoo, The Boydell Press, 1992.
HR Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, Syracuse University Press, 1988.
Chris Fern and George Speake, Beasts, Birds and Gods: Interpreting the Staffordshire Hoard, West Midlands History, 2014.
Kevin Leahy and Roger Bland, The Staffordshire Hoard, British Museum Press, 2 edition, 2014.
Gareth Williams, Treasures from Sutton Hoo, British Museum Press, 2011.

* * *

No comments:

Post a Comment