Sue’s favorite Anglo-Saxon sword I Curator’s Nook season Four episode 4

published on July 3, 2020

One of these swords is my absolute favorite sword in any Museum, anywhere in the world

I'm Sue Brunning, I'm curator of the European Early Medieval Collections and this is my corner

So today I'm going to talk to you about my favorite artifacts in the museum,

which are early Anglo-Saxon swords so I've got three swords here to talk to you about

they all come from the 6th to early 7th century so this is the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain

in the early Anglo-Saxon period swords were really the only weapon

that was made and used exclusively for warfare

so Spears could be used for hunting for instance, same with arrows

and axes were kind of related conceptually also to tools

Whereas swords were the only weapon that were basically made for killing other human beings

Swords were also the most prestigious weapon most prestigious type of fighting implement

for the early Anglo-Saxons and we see this in the art and literature from the time

but we also see it in particular from the archaeology which is what I'm particularly interested in

So for example, during this period when these swords were made,

in the 6th and 7th centuries the Anglo-Saxons were burying their dead with grave goods

and that meant that the dead person was placed inside the ground surrounded by an array of artifacts

we find with swords that they're often buried very close to the body

sometimes they're overlaying parts of the body like the arm and the shoulder

and sometimes they're actually cradled into the arm

as if they're sort of being being hugged like a really beloved possession

So we have this this closeness between the dead person and a sword

and I think that's because swords were particularly important to that dead person's identity

they said something about the person that was in the grave

One of the things that I was really struck by when I first started studying Anglo-Saxon swords

was actually how shabby the condition of many of them are

Now I'm not talking about the blades of the swords when I say that,

these are made from iron so after about 1500 years or so in the grave

they do tend to come out looking like this, it's very highly corroded

What I'm talking about is actually the hilts of these swords

so the handles the parts of the sword that are held in the hands

These fittings often show quite a lot of wear and tear with the decoration has been worn down

or some of the surface ornaments, such as gilding, those sorts of things has been worn away

I have one example here this is probably dating to the 6th century

and it was found at a cemetery in Faversham in Kent so not very far away from where we are in London now

and the part that I want to talk to you about is the pommel which is the piece at the very end of the handle

or the hilt of the sword here now if we take a very close look at the pommel here

we can see that this decoration that runs along the front there's a line here starts to disappear towards this end

and also on the top of the pommel here as well we have quite deep sort of almond shaped slashes

that have been gilded so covered with a layer of gold

and we can also see where the depth of those starts to become shallower

where it's worn away and become kind of just less distinct and less deep

In order to demonstrate how the pommel got into that condition

I have a handy prop which is my trusty foam sword, here's one I made earlier

So just stand up now in this period in the early Anglo-Saxon period

swords are normally being worn on the left hand side like this

and so that means we have it kind of here and that means also that

it forms a kind of a handy hand rest for the sword so you can see you know how this would be

quite an attractive place to sort of rest your hands and strike a quite an authoritative pose

but what that also means is that this part of the sword here which is the top part of the pommel

which is the same one that I pointed to on the sword on the table there

is becoming worn and that's what I've used these pins to demonstrate

because the swords always being worn like this and the hand is resting on it like this

and so over a period of time that's where we see the wear start to materialize

on those parts of the sword there that's exactly what we find on our sword from Faversham

One of the other signs of age that we find on swords during this period

is that they actually start to take on lots of different styles

and swords might pass between several different owners over the course of their lives

then they might acquire this kind of sort of Frankenstein look as I tend to refer to it

it's a little bit like maybe wearing a Roman helmet with like a Victorian tail coat

and a pair of 1980 shell suit bottom trousers or something like that so you get this mixture of styles

and we've got one sword in the collection which is a bit like this

and that's this one right here which is rather nice because it's decorated with gold

these gold fittings that are attached to the sword here and this one here is also inlaid with red stones

which are garnets, these probably date according to their style to the early 7th century

so around the time when the Sutton Hoo ship burial took place for example

but the form of the hilt or the handle itself is actually thought to be quite earlier it represents an earlier style of handle

so actually this sword could have been around for quite a long period of time

But the most common type of addition to swords that's made during this early Anglo-Saxon period

are these sets of ring fittings which resemble two interlocking rings kind of do this

and they're attached again to the pommel part of the swords and I have another example

again from King's Field in Faversham on the table here

and we can see those interlocking rings attached to the pommel just here

now the most influential theory about what these ring fittings mean

is that they're connected with the swearing of oaths in the Anglo-Saxon period

so for example if you're a warrior and you're entering the service of a lord

you might swear an oath of service to that person and then that might be kind of commemorated

with the addition of a ring to your sword so if it didn't have one once you swore that oath

then the ring would be added There's all sorts of reasons why these rings may have been added

and removed but that's quite a convincing theory I think

So by looking at these these rings and the mobility of these rings the addition and removal of fittings

which we've talked about with these two different swords here

we can start to see actually how swords can build up their own biography,

they can start to create a life history of events and people that they're related to

The Anglo Saxons didn't really seem to be too bothered about hiding those blemishes

or making those differences blend in They were quite happy for these sort of mismatched things

and these these scars of life, for want of a better description, are quite front and center

and there for everybody to be able to see and that starts to suggest that there's this idea

that actually age and experience are something to be to be kind of boasted about

are something to be shown for everybody to see, so an old sword is a dependable sword

it's proven, you know that it's faced a lot of fights, it's come through those fights and it's been dependable

A new sword might look very shiny and very nice but actually it's it's got no credentials, it's got no track record

it's got no kind of wins underneath its belt whereas an old sword is something that feels familiar in your hand,

it's not alien in your hand and so it becomes almost like a comrade rather than a tool

then we start to arrive at the reason why this sword, the plainest one on the table

is my favorite sword in any museum anywhere in the world

So if we come and take a look again at the pommel which we looked at earlier

we've already seen that this is an old sword that's seen a lot of wear during its life

but its owner or one of its owners has left us the tiniest little message, just the ghost of a message,

which is really packing an emotional punch So very close up on to this you might just be able to see

the faintest trace of a rune, now runes are Anglo-Saxon letters which look a little bit like twigs

lots of straight lines and they're being used in this period to make inscriptions including the one on this sword

Now this is an ash rune which looks a bit like a modern-day F

so it's kind of like an F but the cross pieces at the top are angling downwards like that, so it's very much like an F

Now a poem survives in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript we call it the old English rune poem

and that tells us all of the meanings of the various runes

Now the poem was actually written down sometime after the rune on this sword was carved

but if it preserves anything of the meanings of the runes in this earlier period when this sword was made

then its meaning is actually quite instructive,

the ash is extremely tall, precious to mankind, strong on its base,

it holds its ground as it should although many men attack it

Now I think that the relevance of a verse like that is quite clear to a warrior in the early Anglo- Saxon period

So we can start to build a picture of the warrior who owned this sword, carving this inspirational rune

upon his sword, something that would give him a kind of strength and inspiration

to face what was probably still a terrifying prospect even though warfare in those days

was much more commonplace than it is for the rest of us today

But these swords are also great, I think, as a life lesson to all of us because they show us that

actually age is nothing to be embarrassed about, we shouldn't be worried about our gray hairs and our wrinkles

and those sorts of things that they're not a sign of weakness,

in actual fact we should embrace the strength the authority that they give to us

S o that has been my corner, thank you very much for joining me today,

if you like this corner there are plenty more available on our YouTube channel

which hopefully you will subscribe to and get lots of brilliant content from all of my amazing colleagues

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