Shiny Bright

photo credit: David Rowan licensed under creative commons

On 5th July 2009, a man named Terry Herbert was in a field in Staffordshire which had been recently ploughed. This would not be brilliant, or even newsworthy had he not had his metal detector with him. The farm had been searched previously by metal detectorists, but they hadn’t turned up anything special. But Terry began to find objects made from gold. Over the next five days he had found enough to fill 244 bags and called in the relevant authorities. A proper archaeological excavation was organised and over the summer of 2009 over 3,500 pieces were recovered. It is the largest hoard of Anglo Saxon gold and silver that has ever been found.

Unlike the previous largest discovery at Sutton Hoo, the horde is not part of a burial. All the objects have a military association, there is nothing domestic at all. There are many sword hilts and pommels but no sign of the actual blades. This suggests that the decorative parts of the weapons had been deliberately removed. We know that the Anglo Saxons sometimes did this, because it happens in Beowulf. It’s hard to imagine how such a large amount of beautiful and precious objects ever came to be lost at all. Perhaps they were buried by their owners for safe keeping, maybe they were spoils of war. Or they may just have been stolen. But something must have happened to prevent whoever buried them from returning to recover their treasure.

It was most likely buried somewhere between 650 and 700 AD but many of the pieces are probably heirloom items which are much older. In the seventh century, the site of the find was in the kingdom of Mercia. It is a period of history we don’t know a great deal about. Most people lived in wooden houses and left little evidence of their lives. The best records we have from the time are the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, written by Bede, in Northumbria and the ‘Anglo Saxon Chronicles’, which was composed in Wessex for Alfred the Great. Northumbria and Wessex were both enemies of Mercia, so neither have much useful to say. Only that they were awful and violent, but enemies would say that. We don’t even know that the horde definitely came from Mercia, as it was found right by an major Roman road known as Watling Street, so it could have come from anywhere.

Amongst the horde were three gold crosses, so at least some of the objects must have belonged to Christians. The crosses had been folded up though. Perhaps as they bent when they were torn from their mountings in some sort of looting incident, maybe were just folded so they would take up less space in a bag or box. This might imply that they were taken by an opposing army who were pagans, but it could be that they just weren’t that fussy about religious objects. There is also a strip of gold with this inscription:


If it were spelled properly, this would read: ‘Surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua’ which means ‘Rise up, Lord; may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You be driven from Your face.’ It is a quote from the Bible which appears in the story of Saint Guthlac, who I mentioned back in April, when he predicted that a man named Æthelbald would become king of Mercia. He predicted that Æthelbald’s enemies would ‘flee from his face’. Æthelbald did become king, in 716. But it would appear that God, on this occasion, did not oblige.

As well as giving us thousands of truly beautifully crafted pieces of Anglo Saxon metalwork, the hoard has also revealed another secret. Anglo Saxon goldsmiths knew how to cheat. They could make twelve to eighteen carat gold look like much purer gold, between twenty-one and twenty-three carats. Tests have shown that it is only the gold on the surface of the object that is pure. They had must have found a way of removing the impurities from the surface. In order to do this, they would have needed to know how to make ferric chloride. Probably they heated water, salt and iron rich clay. When painted onto the gold it would have removed the silver content from the surface and made it look much more shiny. So, even though we don’t know much about what happened in our country in the few hundred years after the Romans left, we should stop calling them the Dark Ages, because those people were pretty bright.

Wild Foreheads, Scabby Thighs

04 11 saint guthlacToday is the feast day of Saint Guthlac of Crowland. He’s not a very well known saint these days, but he was once important enough to have two very long poems written about him in Anglo Saxon. He also had his life story recorded by a monk named Felix who, unusually, wrote it within living memory of Guthlac’s death. He was born in 673, in the English kingdom of Mercia which covered an area we now describe as the Midlands. As a very young man, he was a soldier who fought in the army of King Aethelred (not the one who was ‘unready’, a different Aethelred). At the age of twenty-four, he became a monk at Repton in Derbyshire.  Two years later he began to seek the solitary life of a hermit.

There were, around the third century, a lot of Christians who chose to live an ascetic life in the deserts of Egypt. Guthlac was looking for something similar, but there were no deserts in Mercia, so he chose the boggy fen lands of Lincolnshire. He arrived at a place called Croyland (now Crowland) in the Fens which was, at that time, an island. There, he found an ancient burial mound that had been broken open (most likely by grave robbers hoping for treasure) and inside he found what is described by his biographer as a cistern. This is where he decided to live. He refused to dress in anything but animal skins and survived on a diet of barley bread and muddy water, which he would only take after sunset. He is said to have suffered from ague, which means fever, and marsh fever, which means malaria. Everyone thought he was very holy indeed and he had lots of visitors seeking spiritual guidance. Among his visitors was a man called Aethelbald, who was fleeing from his cousin. Guthlac prophesied that Aethelbald would one day be king. Aethelbald promised, if that were true, he would build and dedicate an abbey to Guthlac.

Unsurprisingly, considering his chosen lifestyle and state of health, he was visited by demons. They were British demons and he was able to speak with them because he understood their language. Here is Felix’s description of them…

They were ferocious in appearance, terrible in shape with great heads, long necks, thin faces, yellow complexions, filthy beards, shaggy ears, wild foreheads, fierce eyes, foul mouths, horses’ teeth, throats vomiting flames, twisted jaws, thick lips, strident voices, singed hair, fat cheeks, pigeons breasts, scabby thighs, knotty knees, crooked legs, swollen ankles, splay feet, spreading mouths, raucous cries. For they grew so terrible to hear with their mighty shriekings that they filled almost the whole intervening space between earth and heaven with their discordant bellowings.

Awful. Luckily, just as the demons were about to drag Guthlac down to Hell with them, Saint Bartholomew (who had died over six hundred years previously) appeared and gave him a scourge to beat them with. This is what you can see happening in the picture above.

When he died on 11th April 714, it is reported that his breath smelled like sweet nectar as his soul departed his body. While this was seen as a sure sign of his holiness, I can’t help thinking that is might have been a symptom of his prolonged fasting. He had foreseen his death and sent for his sister, Pega, to come and bury him. She inherited his psalter and the scourge which she later gave to the abbey that was built in his honour by King Aethelbald. The first abbey was attacked by Danes on Christmas Eve in the year 869. The Abbot and some of the monks were killed. Some escaped. Perhaps they took the abbey’s treasures with them, perhaps they buried it, perhaps it has never been found. The second abbey was accidentally burned down by a plumber in 1091. It caught fire again in 1143 and was eventually destroyed by Henry VIII in 1539, though one of the transepts is still used as a church.