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(Dark Age warfare – myth or reality? [1])

If you’ve ever read Beowulf you’ll know that fighting was an integral part of Dark Age society. The text is full of descriptions of martial virtue and the importance of warfare. Early in the book, when Beowulf and his men approach the great hall known as Heorot, they are described as powerful men, wearing mail coats and helmets and wielding long spears and broad shields. Much time is also devoted to Beowulf’s many swords throughout the epic; a weapon seemingly reserved for the true heroes. Impressed with their martial appearance, the attendant rushes to petition king Hrothgar to speak with them, for they seem worthy of respect and their leader must undoubtedly be a man of prowess.

So you might expect that archaeologists working in the period would find lots of armour and weapons in the ground, then? Unfortunately, we don’t. At the last count, we have four early Anglo-Saxon helmets and almost no substantial evidence for armour. The situation is, to some extent, better in Scandinavia than in England, but the evidence is still extremely limited. The examples we do have, though, are truly impressive. Take the helmet excavated in 1848 from Benty Grange in Derbyshire, for example. This helmet, made with bands of iron, has an incredible boar crest with garnets for eyes. It would have offered limited protection, but must have made its wearer stand out as a man of very high status. And guess which Old English epic mentions boar-crusted helmets? You guessed it: Beowulf.

BG(The Benty Grange helmet and a possible reconstruction [2])

The most famous Anglo-Saxon helmet is, of course, from Mound 2 in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. This crested helmet was made from panels and includes a full face mask, neck guard and cheekpieces. It is elaborately decorated with Style II animal ornamentation (a popular Germanic artistic style in the 6th and 7th centuries) and serpent-like creatures can be found from the nose to the crest. Truly, this was a ceremonial object of extreme status, almost too fantastic to ever use in combat.

SH(The reconstructed Sutton Hoo helmet [3])

The ceremonial character of the Anglo-Saxon helmets cannot be overstated. These were objects that would denote status, were perhaps used only on special occasions, and may never have even seen action on the battlefield. So why are they so rare? Were these family heirlooms that were handed down and infrequently buried with the deceased? Were they smelted down and reforged for the next generation? Or were they deposited more readily, but we have overlooked them by accident in previous excavations? I don’t know the answer, but it is interesting that there is quite a noticeable strain between heroic tales and archaeological reality.

The situation with weaponry is more encouraging, though, but we’ll deal with that next week. Stay tuned for swords, shields and spears galore. There may even be axes…

[1] A rather fun looking re-enactment of an Anglo-Saxon warband, taken from: http://4bclasse20.wikispaces.com/The+Anglo-Saxon+war 

[2] Images courtesy of Museums Sheffield and the British Museum.

[3] The Sutton Hoo helmet was found with a wide and incredible selection of artefacts inside a ship, which had an earthen mound heaped on top of it. No skeleton was found, possibly due to atmospheric conditions inside the burial chamber or alternatively there never was a body – something of a cenotaph, perhaps?