Fingers on with the Sutton Hoo sword I Curator’s Nook Season 5 Episode 1

published on July 2, 2020

What do Babe Ruth, Jimi Hendrix and the man in the mound at Sutton Hoo have in common?

I'm Sue Brunning, curator of the European early medieval collections at the British Museum

and this is my corner

So today we are doing a sequel to my
previous episode

all about early Anglo-Saxon swords

but today we're actually going to be looking at

the most famous anglo-saxon sword ever discovered

and that's the sword from the Sutton Hoo ship burial

which is laid out beautifully in front of me here

Now for those of you who perhaps don't know what the Sutton Hoo ship burial is

it was a grave that was made in the eastern part of England in a county called Suffolk

which at that time was part of the East
Anglian Kingdom in Anglo-Saxon England

Now to call it a grave is to sell it
short slightly because it was actually

no ordinary grave it was actually a
grave made in the middle of a

twenty-seven meter long ship that was
buried beneath a gigantic earth mound

and inside a burial chamber that was
placed in the middle of the ship

were laid out some amazing treasures drawn from all over the known world at that time

and one of those pieces was this
magnificent sword

and the quality and the quantity of the pieces that were laid out inside that burial chamber

were so great that the speculation is that
actually what we have here

is the burial of an early Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia

So let's look a little bit more closely at the sword itself

So here we have the blade of the sword which is made from iron

and of course the reason that it looks like this kind of brown and a bit lumpy

is because it's corroded in the ground over time, you can see it's now in two pieces

but originally this would have been a very shiny, iron weapon

that was made with a technique called
pattern welding which is quite complicated

but it basically involves the twisting of iron rods and the grouping together of a bunch of these

which are then hammered and then create these beautiful patterns inside the blade

so originally this would have been quite a piece of work

Then at this end we have the various pieces of the hilt or the handle of the sword

which is the part that's obviously held in hand

so here we have the lower guard plates
which are, as you can see,

made of beautiful lustrous gold

In the middle, we have the grip, which is the part

that the hand holds on to and on this side
towards me we have two decorative gold clips

and this part, it's actually going to be the part that I'm going to speak about the most today,

is the pommel cap, which is made from gold, inlaid with these beautiful red lustrous stones which are garnets

Now what's interesting about the pommel is that it actually provides us with quite an intimate detail

about the person that was buried
at Sutton Hoo

Although the Sutton Hoo sword pommel here looks absolutely pristine,

it looks almost as if it was made yesterday, it's still very shiny and perfect looking

In actual fact it has one of the most striking patterns of wear

of any Anglo-Saxon sword that I've ever studied or seen

So we can see that the edges of the pommel here are decorated with gold beaded wire

you can see lots of these individual beads running all the way along the edges of the pommel here

but at this end of the pommel we can see that it's it looks more like a flat strip

now that was originally beaded wire like the rest of it around here

but where the person's hand has been resting
on that over time

it's actually worn flat and where gold is quite a soft metal

it starts to flatten down and those beads start to lose their integrity

and it looks more like a flat strip which is what we can see at the very end

But interestingly, if I turn it around the other way we can see that the mirror image part

that's flat on that side still retains its beads,

still looks quite you know like a piece of beaded wire on this side

but in order to sort of explain how this has come about

I need to bring back my trusty foam sword which I'm sure many of you

remember and enjoyed from last time so you get to see it again

Here it is, so I'm gonna stand up again

Now in early Anglo-Saxon graves
the sword as I mentioned in the previous episode

they are normally buried very
close up to the dead person

and they're normally on the left hand side of the person so the side of wearing

So they'll be buried, you know, normally in about this location like this

Usually also on early Anglo- Saxon sword pommels

we find that their are two broad faces are decorated with
different designs

so one side is normally more complicated with its decorative design than the other side

There we go

And normally it's the plainer side of the pommel
that has the more degradation

it's more worn, whereas
the other side is normally better preserved

and that's because probably
the slightly less interesting face

is worn on the left-hand side of the person
rubbing against their clothing,

we can imagine a large cloak on the person here

and so that planar face is rubbing against the clothing

whereas the more decorative face, the one that's outside

so that people can admire it, is a bit
more protected from that sort of thing

and so if we think that the sword is
always worn with the same face looking outwards

then the same part of the top
of the pommel is always angled upwards

and, as I mentioned in the previous episode, that's the part that the hand is resting upon

and so over time we can see how that side of the pommel is just going to become worn

and this part is more protected from that type of wear

So that's what we have

When we go back to Sutton Hoo things start to get a little bit weird

so we might not quite be able
to see but I assure you that it is the case,

the two faces of the Sutton Hoo
sword pommel are differently designed

so it's it's quite subtle but it is there

so if you focus in particular on the little cross motif that's in the middle,

we can see that that's surrounded by a greater number of cells of differently shaped garnets

than if I spin this around

the other side so we have a slightly more complex face on this side

there is a slightly more complicated
design

if that more complicated design is facing outwards

and the sword is worn on the left hand side in the Sutton Hoo sword case

then the wear pattern is actually in the wrong place

the wear is actually underneath, which is, you know, the part of the sword that would be more protected

Now that kind of messes with
my lovely pattern a little bit

But if we switch the sword over to the opposite side

onto the right hip and we have that more complex face looking outwards

then actually the wear on the Sutton Hoo sword pommel is facing upwards

where the hand would rest upon it and lo and behold it fits with the profile again

and what that means potentially is that the person who is carrying the Sutton Hoo sword was left-handed

Now that's obviously very interesting, a very intimate detail about the person that was buried at Sutton Hoo

and we do actually find some corroboration for this theory in the grave plan at Sutton Hoo

So famously no human remains were
found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial

but what we do have is a sort of human sized void or gap inside the burial chamber

with the grave goods laid out around it

and the Sutton Hoo sword is laid out in the position that we might expect to find a human body

If we imagine a human being back into that gap that I mentioned

then the sword is actually found on the right hand side

the side of wearing if the person was left-handed

So with the wear pattern on the Sutton Hoo
sword pommel

and also with the grave plan at Sutton Hoo

we are starting to build a case that maybe this person was actually left-handed

and I'm sort of fairly fairly comfortable with that idea

Now this is very interesting because it
starts to make us think a little bit

about how this person may have been
perceived in society

now there's been a bit of a historic stigma surrounding left-handedness

in many places around the world, throughout time

and to some degree the idea that being left-handed is somewhat of a disadvantage

is still l part of society really, because society is geared up for the right-handed majority

but I can think of one situation in which perhaps actually being left-handed in early Anglo-Saxon England

may have been an advantage and
that's in combat

Now I actually have some very limited experience of this sort of thing

because I'm a very very rookie boxer

so most boxers are right-handed including me, the orthodox stance

and that means that most boxers
whether they are right or left-handed

are used to facing right-handed
opponents

and so the hardest punches are coming from the right hand side

Now if you're left-handed or southpaw stance

everything is opposite, so when you're
facing a left handed person

it's a completely different prospect and that kind of throws you off a little bit

and it's only in those split seconds where you kind of adjust

and you have to compensate for that
that's all the time that is needed in

actual fact for that person to put your
lights out

I'm wondering if it could have been similar in the early Anglo-Saxon period

So of course these are different styles of fighting;

boxing and sword fighting they're not the same thing

but actually I would argue that the principles could be the same

this idea of being used to a right-handed fighter and then being faced with a left-handed fighter

in actual fact some of the reenactors that I've spoken to talk about this very thing

so they say that you expect, as a sword fighter,

sword strikes to be coming in from a certain angle

and so you stand you hold your
shield in a way that can compensate a gap

against that but when you're actually facing someone left-handed the sword strikes

are coming in from the complete opposite direction

and that's a bit of a nightmare, quite frankly, to face

And it's similar, I think, with boxing when you're faced

with a left-handed, southpaw fighter

So in actual fact the person buried at Sutton Hoo may have been viewed as even more powerful,

even more formidable, rather than being at a disadvantage

and the way that the grave is laid out is also really interesting in this respect

because it shows us that the mourners burying this person

didn't feel the need to correct that left handedness by placing the sword on the orthodox side

on the left hand side, at the side of wearing if you were right-handed

in actual fact they chose to enshrine that left handedness by placing the sword on the right hand side,

the side that that person would have worn it

in this very public very very visual context of the funeral

This left handedness is shown there for eternity, in the grave

Now when I first put this theory together and I noticed these things about the sword

and what they might mean I had a little electrical moment

because Sutton Hoo is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time

and the mystery at the very heart of it is who was the person that was buried there?

You know was this person a king? If so, which king? what was that person's name?

And sadly I think these might be unanswerable questions,

we might never know who this person was,

but when I look at the sword I actually feel a lot less sad about that

because by looking at these signs on the sword and signatures of wear on this pommel here

we actually get such an intimate detail that this person

may actually have been left-handed, which is really incredible to me

and it shows me that, although
these objects might sit quietly in a display case,

these are not actually quiet objects, they're really full of messages,

they're loud with information about the people in the past

and the other thing that I find amazing about this wear pattern on the sword

is that these marks were made by this person's actual hand, you know, how close can you get

We can, you know, by touching those wear patterns

we're almost touching that person's hand through time,

so even though this person is a mystery to us and is separated from us by 1500 years or so

we can really still actually almost reach through time and touch that person's hand

and get to know that person in a really intimate way

By the way if you haven't made the link they're all left-handed!

Now if you've enjoyed my corner today you can find my previous curator's corner over here

all about early Anglo-Saxon swords and if you like that

please also subscribe to our YouTube channel where you can find many more wonderful videos

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