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ring

(A 1000-and-a-bit year old gold and sapphire ring from Yorkshire [1])


The time has come, at last, to talk a little bit about one of the best aspects of Anglo-Saxon archaeology: the bling. People come to the British Museum from all over the world just to see the incredible objects from Sutton Hoo. Similarly, the ‘Prittlewell Prince’ of 7th century Essex caused a storm of interest when he was found buried in a tomb in 2003, particularly because of his gold cross and grand belt buckle. The antiquarians of old were fascinated by Anglo-Saxon treasures, too, which is why the discipline has such a long history. Prolific scholars such as Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), James Douglas (1753-1819) and John Mitchell Kemble (1807-1857) began the serious study of Anglo-Saxon artefacts. Countless others were in the game for less scholarly reasons, though, and were more interested in opening barrows to get at the goodies. And who can blame them, really? The Anglo-Saxons definitely had style.

buckle(The gold belt buckle from Mound 2, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk [2])

Just take a look at the object above. The artefact was found alongside other objects of compilable grandeur, forming the material component to one of the grandest burials of the first millennium AD. It is made from solid gold by someone with a level of skill that is staggering. It is decorated in a classic Germanic style – all of the lines you can see are the interlocking bodies of serpents, and if you look closely you can pick out a few mouths and tails. It weighs 412.7g, which is about the same weight as an unopened can of beer. Later law codes note that a nobleman’s life is worth the equivalent of around 200 grams of gold. It seems quite interesting then that the man buried at Sutton Hoo had a belt buckle twice that weight, tentatively indicating king-like status.

This is why I love this stuff. Not only is the object both incredibly well-constructed and beautifully opulent, it also has such a rich story behind it that we can use it to write tangible histories of past lives.

In many ways, my own research interests try to chase the magnificent archaeology. I look at elites and their impressive halls, the consolidation of religion through political legitimacy, the foundations of rigorous economic systems and trading networks, the circulation of high status goods and the origins of kingdoms. This is not necessarily a bad thing, either. Trying to understand the elites and royals of the ‘Dark Ages’ is important – they lay down the foundations of modern Europe. Of course we should study other aspects of the past as well, such as peasants and children, but focusing on the grander aspects of archaeology is a legitimate approach. And it’s also a lot of fun. In many respects, I feel like I am part of a historical trajectory that originated in the 16th and 17th centuries.

So there might be a tiny bit of treasure hunter in me but, on balance, I think that it probably helps.


[1] This is the second sapphire ring ever found in Anglo-Saxon England. You can read the full story at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/news/sapphire-ring-belonged-to-anglosaxon-or-viking-royalty-2328242.html.

[2] Image courtesy of the British Museum. Further images can be found at the online exhibit: http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/exhibit/sutton-hoo-anglo-saxon-ship-burial/gQOPNM9M?position=0%2C99.

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