Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Shield from Bidford-on-Avon Grave 182 (1/2)

The Shield from Bidford-on-Avon Grave 182  (Part 1) 

While some of the Early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms have yielded much archaeology, and continue to yield extensive cemeteries and settlement sites for study, others are arguably less well served. The ancient kingdom of Mercia - of particular interest to our group, could in many ways be seen as such a case, and this presents a particular challenge when attempting to recreate the effects of this purportedly powerful, wealthy and sophisticated culture. Beyond the Staffordshire Hoard (itself mostly belonging to the mid-late 7th century and containing a very selective subset of items), at a glance one might be forgiven for thinking the Midlands lacked much in the way of early Anglo-Saxon archaeology.

In fact, there are a handful of archaeological sites which have yielded impressive finds, which are relevant to the earliest times of the Mercian kingdom - it is just that many were excavated in the early days of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, and their finds forgotten, lost, or hidden from view.

One such case; the large cemetery of Bidford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, initially excavated between 1923 and 1924 (Humphreys et. al., 1925) sheds valuable light on early Anglo-Saxon Mercia and has yielded many impressive finds, including a great quantity of feminine items of decidedly Anglian (rather than Saxon) affinities, including one of the most impressive square-headed brooches ever found. Among a number of warrior graves, the most impressive item, however, was a shield-boss decorated in such a way as to make it entirely exceptional, artistically, and of a status (within the British Isles) second perhaps only to the kingly shield of Sutton-Hoo Mound 1.

The impressive shield-boss from Bidford-on-Avon grave 182 is not on public display, residing with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. To raise awareness of this find and explore what this piece of warrior gear may have looked like in its day, in 2012 we embarked on a lengthy process to reconstruct the shield, using authentic materials and techniques.

Nb. we are greatly indebted to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Archaeology Department, without who's help we could not have pieced together the story of the find. Examination of the original fragments in spring 2014, in particular, was crucial to achieving a representative reconstruction. 

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Tolkien's Beowulf translation - review

Cover (reproduced under fair-dealing; criticism and review)

“Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien” 

A Review by Dr A.J. Thompson

This book (available here) has been eagerly awaited by both Tolkien fans and Anglo-Saxonists alike. For the most part it was written in the 1920’s but was never intended for publication; In fact the scholarly and obsessively perfectionist professor later wrote to a friend lamenting the fact that the translation was ‘in much, hardly to my liking’. It has taken much work by Christopher Tolkien to get it into a state where it was fit to be published. 

Given the importance of the Beowulf text to our understanding of the language, beliefs, culture and worldview of the early English, and given Tolkien's almost legendary reputation as a scholar of Old English, the publishing of this book is an important milestone, and the text itself is very much worth examining and discussing. 
Having recently received a copy of the newly published book I thought I might jot down some thoughts on my impression of it, which hopefully may be useful to anyone unsure about whether to buy it. Please do note that the opinions expressed here are my own...

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Twilight of the Seax

We recently received this most interesting question from a reader;
“I noticed that seaxes seem to be absent from the Bayeaux tapestry. So far the latest depiction I have found is an illumination from France showing a warrior carrying a seax-shaped knife from ~890 CE. Is there any consensus on when the seax may have been abandoned as a fighting weapon? If there is evidence that seaxes were carried in the 11th c. what form would they be? Are there any examples?”
The demise of the seax as a weapon is an interesting topic and one we have not discussed before. We therefore thought this question warranted a full reply.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Anglo-Saxon Sword Riddles

The Anglo-Saxon Sword Riddles

Anglo-Saxon swords were not merely death-dealing weapons, ‘wigena weorðmynd’ (“joy of warriors” (Beowulf 1559) but potent symbols of leadership, social status and ancestral lineage. Oaths of fealty and maybe even marriage vows were sworn on the sword, probably to invoke the power of the sword-god Tiw, who protected the sanctity of oaths.

The 10th Century Exeter Book contains numerous Anglo-Saxon Riddles; two of which clearly have a sword as the solution. In her seminal book on the Anglo-Saxon sword, HR Ellis Davidson discusses the sword-riddles in some detail. In light of new discoveries; particularly that of the Staffordshire Hoard, the Sword Riddles are well worth re-examining.