Thursday, September 24, 2009

Astounding new Anglo-Saxon Mercian Treasure Trove


Since earliest childhood, I have been captivated by the idea of buried treasure. Like the Bastable children in E. Nesbit's books, I dreamed of finding some kind of talisman, amulet or hoard of coins. When, in childhood, I first saw the treasures of Sutton Hoo, my concept of the perfect treasure trove crystallised... The great ship burial was awe-inspiring beyond belief and left an indelible impression on me.

Loving Tolkien and our Northern heritage, the label of the 'Dark Ages' made me indignant long before I actually had an academic foundation for my dislike. In fact, my childish loyalty towards old folk heroes such as Hereward the Wake grew into an adult respect for a culture that was as multi-faceted and rich in artistic expression and legal sophistication as any that pretended to improve upon it. The monks who gave 19th and 20th century historians their written sources for the period were prejudiced against the pagans and made no secret of their desire to advance the interests of Christianity even at the cost of truth. Ironically, although Christianity always was a strong influence in Anglo-Saxon England, somehow the pagan invaders who settled after Rome's power was broken became known as barbarians who had to be converted to civilisation rather than being recognised as the bearers of their own rich cultures. Archaeology, that silent yet eloquent advocate, gradually has eroded the wall of ignorance that obscured our vision of the old Northern civilisations. A new discovery from the old kingdom of Mercia may yield a wealth of information to further popular understanding of the Anglo-Saxons.

A hoard of more than 1500 pieces of gold and silver dating from the 7th century has been found buried in a field in Staffordshire and has been dubbed the 'Staffordshire Hoard'. I would like to thank David Harthen for bringing this discovery to my attention.

The image at the top shows how close these treasures were to the surface when found. It is truly amazing to think of all the ancient treasures that still remain undetected by us in the womb of the Earth.

Duncan Slarke, finds liason officer for Staffordshire declared that he was 'virtually speechless' at the first sight of 'boxes full of gold, items exhibiting the finest Anglo-Saxon workmanship.' So far, the amount of precious metals has been assessed as more than 5kg of gold (650 items) and over 1kg of silver (560 items). Among the treasure are exquisitely wrought sword pommels and fittings inlaid with precious stones. Far beyond any value in terms of the actual metals and gems, naturally, is the value in historical terms.

Mercia was known as a rich kingdom in the 7th century, so it is logical that a treasure of this magnitude would be buried in the heart of Staffordshire. Penda, one of the great Mercian kings of the 7th century, was a pagan but allowed free rein to Christian missionaries in the kingdom. (Despite his liberal attitude, he was reviled by the 'Venerable' Bede for being a pagan.) A gold strip bearing a verse derived either from Psalm 67 and/or the Book of Numbers has been found in this hoard, bearing witness to the presence of Christian influences in the kingdom. It is a 'protective' verse, asking for the help of the Lord in dispersing the wearer's enemies.

In fact, the inscription appears to read:

'surge dne disepentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua'

This would translate as:

'Arise, Lord, let your enemies be scattered and let those flee from before you who hate you.'

Scholars are arguing about the precise derivation from the Vulgate edition for this talismanic engraving.

Psalm 67, v. 2:
'exsurgat dus et dissipentur inimici eius et fugiant qui oderunt eum a facie eius'

Numbers 10, v. 35:
'surge dne et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua'

In my own view, the actual precise derivation is irrelevant and probably was unknown to the engraver. As with runic inscriptions from the same era, the efficacy was believed to reside in the words as copied from OTHER TALISMANS usually rather than any primary religious source. Throughout England and the North, when knowledge of the runes decreased, they nonetheless continued to be used in protective engravings on weapons as well as stones. Often runes were mis-engraved, rendering an original protective word or phrase pure gibberish and demonstrating the fact that the engraver did no more than copy what he believed to be a potent talismanic device.

In terms of early Anglo-Saxon Christianity, few other than the monks themselves could read or write Latin and it is extremely unlikely that it was the Monks who engraved weapons or weapon parts. In other words, any misspellings or deviance from an original Vulgate verse would be accidental, thereby rendering fierce academic arguments about such derivation rather meaningless in the circumstances.

The most famous king of Mercia may be Offa who built a barrier between Mercia and Wales that came to be known as 'Offa's Dyke'. Mercia in fact was one of the dominant powers in early England and it was only after it was split in half after the Viking invasions in the latter half of the 9th century that its power and identity was broken. Wessex was in the ascendant and Mercia became subordinate to its influence in the West and in the East to the Danes.

To me, the original Anglo-Saxon form of Christianity in its most vibrant form was represented by the Heliand, an alliterative poem about the life of Christ that casts Jesus Christ in the role of a traditional Northern hero. Caedmon's wonderful poems expressing his faith embody the old Northern Christian spirit as well. This spirit has been resurrected by contemporary 'Celtic Christianity', a form of modern religion that attempts to synthesise all that is best both in the old Celtic (and Northern) religions and in Christianity.

As in any case where Religion is made an excuse for political aims, both Christianity and 'Pagan' Religions played nefarious roles on occasion in Anglo-Saxon England. Christian monasteries held an immense amount of wealth irresistable to Vikings and other invaders and thus, the sacking of English monasteries became the propaganda image that represented the Vikings. At the same time, little was written about sometimes terrible massacres of pagan populations who refused to convert to Christianity at swordpoint. As always in history, genuine religious fervour combined with greed, empowered by weapons and a 'need' for conquest devastated the countryside of England for centuries.

This state of affairs, however, is not restricted to the first millenium in the history of England and does not justify the slur inherent in the term that describes this period as the 'Dark Ages'.

Objects in the Sutton Hoo ship burial displayed both pagan and Christian influences and beliefs. It is possible that, as more items in the Mercian treasure hoard are studied, both pagan and Christian influences will be found co-existing side by side as well.

The inlaid garnet, glass and enamel cloisonne work on the items found in the Mercian treasure hoard is quintessentially Anglo-Saxon. Exquisite Cloisonne work is the hallmark of the Northern 'barbarians' and there is no jewelry in the world that can surpass the beauty and quality of the shoulder clasps of Sutton Hoo.

The ship burial at Sutton Hoo contained an extraordinary variety of items, from musical instruments to furniture, weapons, household items and jewelry. What has been revealed of the Mercian treasure trove so far primarily are items relating to war. It will be fascinating to watch the progress of this investigation into our noble past.

No doubt, further study of these treasures will yield more definitive information with respect to their place in Mercian history.

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