Thursday 28 May 2015

Saxon period Butter Churn lid found near Stafford

For some months now Network Rail has been digging up fields near my home in Staffordshire. The reason, we are told, is that the railway around Stafford, particularly at Norton Bridge Junction where the line divides in two towards Manchester and Liverpool, is a major bottleneck causing congestion and delay on this key rail route.

The £250 million Stafford Area Improvements Programme plan is to separate slow and fast moving trains by building a new section of track to take Stone and Manchester bound traffic over, rather than across, the West Coast Main Line. Works, which started in Spring 2014, include:

  • Over six miles of new 100mph railway
  • A new flyover, removing a key bottleneck at Norton Bridge Junction and separating intercity, commuter and freight traffic
  • 10 new bridges and one bridge enhancement
  • A major realignment of the B5026 highway
  • Road, river and footpath diversions
  • The diversion of two high pressure gas pipelines by National Grid

Another Staffordshire field obliterated at Norton Bridge
Suspicious locals swear it is the start of HS2 which will rip through the heart of Staffordshire without stopping at a single station in the county, but this is avidly denied by the project operators, the Staffordshire Alliance, a partnership of Atkins, Laing O’Rourke, Network Rail and VolkerRail. Work is due completion in 2017.

The  major excavation works have so far revealed a number of archaeological finds made in a section of waterlogged peat close to Meece Road. A number of Victorian stoneware bottles bearing the names of breweries from Bristol to Manchester have also been unearthed, probably left by the navigational engineers who built the line in the 1830s.

Evidence of prehistoric activity was uncovered at the same area which included worked wooden stakes and wood chips and a butter churn lid that was initially believed to have been from the same period. There have so far been no associated finds of pottery or metalwork to provide any clues to the date of the wooden finds.

The butter churn lid
In April Dr Tetlow, of Headland Archaeology, a specialist in prehistoric British wetland said, “We don’t have firm dates yet, but we’ve taken samples for radiocarbon dating and pollen analysis.” Dr Tetlow added, “Preliminary analysis of the wood indicates working with a metal tool and so we’re looking at a period just after the beginning of the Bronze Age around 2,500BC.

However, in this week's Staffordshire Newsletter the results of the radiocarbon testing have been released with the butter churn lid now dated to between 715-890 AD, the same period as the Staffordshire Hoard. Existing archaeological knowledge of this period for this area of the Midlands, the heart of Mercia, is scarce and Saxon period finds of organic materials such as wood are very rare indeed.

An information day will be held in June when visitors will be able to view some of the objects. Dr Tetlow is also preparing a paper on the finds for the Stafford and Mid-Staffs Archaeological Society.

Archaeological find at Norton Bridge turns out to be from Saxon period - Staffordshire Newsletter 21 May 2015

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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.

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Saturday 16 May 2015

The Legend of Saint Brendan the Voyager

Saints on the Ocean
Today 16th May is the feast day of Saint Brendan of Clonfert (died c.577AD), one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who founded the monastic school. Little secure information survives concerning Brendan's life, however, it seems fairly certain he was born in 484 near Tralee, in County Kerry, in the south-west of Ireland and he died at Clonfert around 577. He was educated under Saint Ita, "the Brigid of Munster" and went on to establish many monasteries, notably Ardfert in County Kerry, Annaghdown and Clonfert in County Galway. According to the Lives of later saints, Brendan voyaged to Britain, the Hebrides, the Orkneys and the Faroes.  Yet most of his evangelizing work is eclipsed by his journey into the Atlantic in his later years, which earned him the designation of Brendan the Voyager, or the Navigator, for his legendary quest to the "Isle of the Blessed”.

The 9th century text “The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator” tells how the Saint set out onto the Atlantic Ocean with pilgrims searching for the Promised Land of the Saints. Some have even suggested that St Brendan sailed right across the Atlantic and discovered America. Is it possible that a 6th century saint could have crossed the Atlantic in a curragh or is it all romantic nonsense?

The first mention of St Brendan occurs in Adamnan's Vita Sancti Columbae, written between 679 and 704, who also records the voyages of Cormac and other sea pilgrimages in the 7th century. Two key texts that record the legend of St Brendan are the 'Life of Brendan' (Vita Brendani) and the better known 'Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot' (Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis). Debate continues as to which tale came first, yet it seems likely the author of the Navigatio borrowed from the Vita. However, the two tales are clearly interrelated, whereas the Vita focusses on Brendan's life the Navigatio tells more of the voyage. Both texts tell of Brendan and his monks setting off from the west coast of Ireland in search of the Promised Land, in which they visit a number of islands and experience monsters and testing adventures before returning home. The Vita differs in that there are two voyages, the first unsuccessful, and there are fewer island episodes.

A visit from a fellow monk named Barinthus (Barrind) who has just returned from a voyage to the Land of Promise inspires Brendan's voyage. For seven years they journey across the ocean encountering the Devil and many enchanted islands, one of which turns out to be a whale which turns up regularly at Easter to allow the brethren to celebrate mass on its back. On the voyage they glimpse the horrors of Hell, Brendan heals the sick and calms a storm. Yet in all this time they survive without injury or loss and without provisions onboard. Eventually they come to an island with a beautiful church but cannot land. Finally, they head for home.

Faction or Fiction?
Several facts support the story of Irish saints voyaging into the Atlantic; the remains of ancient Christian chapels bearing the names of Irish saints, can be found all over the remote islands in the Atlantic to the north-west of Scotland and Ireland. Secondly; there is documentary evidence that there were already Irish people in Iceland when the Vikings first arrived there in the late 9th century.

Saint Brendan's Island is a phantom, or mythical, island said to have been discovered by the Saint and his followers where they held mass while they were travelling across the ocean. Receiving its first mention in the Navigatio Sancti, Saint Brendan's Island is supposedly situated in the North Atlantic somewhere west of Northern Africa and appeared on numerous maps during the Age of Discovery, most notably Martin Behaim's globe of 1492 used by Christopher Columbus on his journey to the Americas nearly a thousand years after St Brendan's voyage.

Allusions to sea voyages in the search for the Land of Promise with reference to Saints Brendan, Ailbe, Ibar, and Patrick, among others, is made in the Litany of Irish Pilgrim Saints, probably 8th century. Written in Irish or Latin, immram type tales form part of many saints' Lives; the Voyage of Saint Brendan could be called an immram.

Seaborne Pilgrims of Christ
Early Irish literature classifies these expeditions into otherworldly realms as echtrae and immrama. In the echtrae, literally an “outing”, the emphasis is placed on the heroes' entry into the supernatural world, where he experiences a timeless abode of perpetual good health and an abundance of food and drink; the realm of the echtrae is a pagan one. Whereas, the immram, literally “rowing about”, takes place across the sea with heroes wandering from island to island in an essentially Christian setting. The distinct apocalyptic tone, use of psalm verses and apocryphal Christian motifs forces the conclusion of an ecclesiastical origin for the immrama.

The development of voyage literature is tied to the journeys of early medieval Irish clerics, who from at least the 6th century voluntarily left their homeland to go on peregrinatio pro Christo (adventuring or travelling for Christ). Here pilgrims of Christ would go wandering in their curraghs seeking the solitude of terra deserta out in the ocean putting themselves totally in God's hands in a seaborne wilderness. By the 7th century the wandering Irish monks, the peregrini, had reached the Orkneys and the Shetlands, by the 8th century there is evidence for their presence in Iceland.

The Irish monk known as Dicuil described how, in the early 9th-century (c.825), a group of Irish priests spent most of the year on a northern island, thought to be Iceland, and had been able to pick lice from their clothes at night by the light of the “midnight sun”.  Dicuil explained that in summer, “it does not grow dark even for the shortest space of time”. A medieval Norse work, the Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders), tells us that the Norse settlers encountered Irish monks when they first arrived in Iceland in 874; “.... before Iceland was peopled from Norway there were in it the men whom the Norse call the Papae: they were Christians… they left behind Irish books, bells, and crosiers…” Several Icelandic place-names have been linked to the "Papar" (from Latin papa, via Old Irish, meaning "father"), including the island of Papey, as well as the Vestmannaeyjar ("islands of the Westmen").

As with Iceland there is also suggestive evidence for settlers, possibly Irish monks, in the Faroe Islands before Viking colonisation in the 9th century. In 2013 Archaeologists from Durham University studied a site on the island of Sandoy, situated between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian Sea, and found deposits containing patches of burnt peat ash. These ash spreads contained barley grains that were burnt in domestic hearths and were then spread by human activity onto the windblown sand surface between the 4th and 6th centuries and again between the 6th and 8th centuries, a common practice identified in the North Atlantic during this period to control wind erosion. The discovery signifies that the settlers were established on the islands and must have grown and processed barley and used peat to cook, dating human settlement to pre-Viking times. As in Iceland, there are several “papar” place-names in the Faroe Islands including Vestmanna (from Vestmannahøvn) meaning the "harbour of the Westmen" (Irish) and tombstones in a churchyard in Skúvoy are said to bear possible Gaelic influence.  Ample “papar” place-names can also be found in the Orkneys (Papa Stronsay) and Shetlands (Papa Stour) and two ‘papar’ locations in the Outer Hebrides to reach the same conclusion.1

So we have evidence for pre-Viking visits to the islands of the north-west Atlantic. But could St Brendan have really reached the Americas in a simple leather covered boat?

The Voyage of the Brendan
In 1976 the modern day explorer Tim Severin built a replica of the vessel that Brendan would have used, a leather covered curragh, and sailed from Ireland across the Atlantic, island hoping via the Hebrides, Faroe Islands and Iceland, to arrive in Newfoundland a year later. Severin encountered various sights such as icebergs and sea animals, like whales and porpoises, which he suggests are factual counterparts to the fantastic sights from the legends of Saint Brendan. Severin's adventure was recorded in the “The Voyage of the Brendan” which although not proving St Brendan's voyage as fact, certainly demonstrated that it was in fact possible.2

St Barri
The  Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis was a medieval bestseller, over a hundred manuscripts have survived influencing later works. Barinthus turns up again in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, c.1150, in which he describes an island Elysium as the place they took the mortally wounded Arthur after the battle of Camlan. The island is the abode of nine maidens, Morgen and her sisters, the goddess with great skill in healing. Barinthus is the pilot of Arthur's death barge who guides Myrddin and Taliesin on their voyage to 'The Fortunate Isle' because of his knowledge of the seas and the stars of heaven:

"The Island of Apples gets its name 'The Fortunate Island' from the fact that it produces all manner of plants spontaneously. It needs no farmers to plough the fields. There is no cultivation of the land at all beyond that which is Nature's work. It produces crops in abundance and grapes without help; and apple trees spring up from the short grass in its woods. All plants, not merely grass alone, grows spontaneously; and men live a hundred years or more.” 

Here Geoffrey clearly mixes elements of Celtic (Arthurian) and Classical mythology. Geoffrey's description of the Fortunate Isles comes largely from the Classical tradition, much of it to be found in Isidore, but is also clearly influenced by Celtic legends of the happy Otherworld. There is a significant passage in Pomponius Mela which reflects ancient Celtic tradition.3

It is often assumed that Geoffrey must have obtained his Barinthus from the Voyage of Saint Brendan, with his role that of the ferryman, a Celtic Charon. However, it has been argued that Geoffrey based his Barinthus on an earlier tradition in which he was god of the sea and the Otherworld.4

The Life of St David reveals a pre-Geoffrey Celtic tradition of St Barri which cannot be a mere adaptation form the Latin legend of Brendan. The tale reveals how one day St Barri borrowed a horse from St David and rode it across the sea from Wales to Ireland, suggesting that Barri must have been riding a sort of fish or sea-horse.

We find similar accounts in Irish mythology in which Manannán mac Lír is featured riding on a sea-horse across the ocean between Ireland and Wales, although what appears to be the sea to mere men is to Manannán the flowering plain of Mag Mell.5 Surely the tale reveals that Barri was in all probability originally a Celtic sea god, like Manannán, who became Christianised as a Saint. This is a common trait of the early Saints' Lives and other Celtic literature. Barinthus may therefore be an epithet, such as the Irish Barrfind, or Finbarr, which means literally 'white-topped'.6 Throughout Celtic mythological tales the denotation of 'white' implies Otherworldly connotations, usually applied to a deity.

Indeed, a more appropriate name for a god of the sea would be hard to find. It seems highly probable that Barinthus, or Barri, was in origin a sea-deity and consequently an early Celtic god of the Land beyond the Waves. The Barinthus episode fails to form an integral part of the Voyage of Saint Brendan; as is common in typical Celtic Otherworld voyage tales, he appears briefly at the beginning as an Otherworld messenger who suggests to the Hero the idea of the voyage.7

The Voyage of Bran
Essentially the immrama are not strictly concerned with the Otherworld; although they contain supernatural elements, they are firmly set in the Christianised world with a Christian hero. The early 8th century tale The Voyage of Bran (Immram Brain), although named as such, is not an immram but belongs to the group of older tales recounting an excursion to the Otherworld, collectively known as 'echtrae' in Old Irish. The story of Bran's voyage probably became confused and influenced by that of Brendan the Navigator (Navigatio Brendani), and the term immram became attached, incorrectly, to Bran's story.8

Bran's voyage starts when he sees a silver branch in front of him. Then an Otherworldly woman appears and sings a poem to him about the Otherworld where this silver branch had grown. In this land, it is perennial summer, there is no shortage of food or water, and no sickness ever strikes the fair people. The next day Bran departs for the voyage to the Land of Women across the sea at the woman's prompting. After two days, he sees a man on a chariot speeding across the water towards him. This is no man but the sea god Manannan mac Lir who tells Bran that he is not sailing upon the ocean, but upon a flowery plain, just as Barri appeared to St David. Significantly Bran is also a Celtic sea-god.

In the echtrae, tales of voyages to the Land of Promise, the adventure starts following the appearance of a deity, usually a goddess. The appearance of Barrind (as Barinthus) at the beginning of the Navigatio Brendani signifies that St Brendan's adventure is essentially a Christianised version of Immram Brain and therefore unlikely to have been a real event.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

1. Barbara E. Crawford, The Papar Project.
2. Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage: The Seafaring Classic That Followed St. Brendan to America, Gill & Macmillan, 2005.
3. John Jay Parry, trans. The Vita Merlini, Latin text by Geoffrey of Monmouth, 1925. Available at Sacred Texts.
4. Arthur C L Brown, Barintus, Revue Celtique, XXII, 1901.
5. Francesco Benozzo, Landscape Perception Early Celtic Literature, Celtic Studies Publications, 2004, pp.3-18.
6. Brown, op cit.
7. Ibid.
9. Barbara Freitag, Hy Brasil: The Metamorphosis of an Island: From Cartographic Error to Celtic Elysium, Rodopi, 2013. Kuno Myer mis-named the Voyage of Bran as an immram without any manuscript authority, although the tale contains the essential elements of an immram it is without doubt an echtrae.

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