Secrets of England’s greatest treasure trove

Artistry: Weapons produced in Suffolk or Norfolk for the kings of the Wuffinga dynasty. © Sutton Hoo visitor centre

Should we all be neo-Saxons now? A new exhibition will highlight the dazzling artistic creations of the Anglo-Saxons and the lessons we can learn from their way of life, 1,400 years on.

Fred Johnson had no particular expectations when he agreed to let Terry Herbert search his farm in the West Midlands with a metal detector. Terry had been looking for buried treasure for 18 years, and failed to find any. But on a July day in 2009, he burst in on his friend with the words, “I’ve found a Saxon hoard!” To which Fred replied, “Don’t be so daft!”

But Terry Herbert was right.

He had unearthed the most important collection of Anglo-Saxon metalwork ever seen in England, consisting of over 600 objects and valued at £3.28 million. It was not just the size that excited experts – it was the beauty of the artefacts. There were elaborately decorated helmets; gold crosses, and sword pommels inlaid with garnets in zoomorphic designs.

In May, dozens of these treasures are to be united with those from another great hoard – believed to have been made in the same workshops – at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. It is a particularly exciting moment for neo-Saxons, a group of people who believe that the Anglo-Saxon way of life should be revived.

The Anglo-Saxons were made up of three tribes – the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes – who originated in Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands and invaded Britain in around AD 450, after the Romans had left.

They divided the country into seven kingdoms – East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex. Though pagans to begin with, they gradually converted to Christianity. They lost part of their territory to the Vikings, and were finally defeated by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The 2,000 or so neo-Saxons are based mainly in what used to be Wessex, around Stonehenge and Glastonbury. Many are pagans, and some use the Anglo-Saxon language. They believe in the equality of women, being at one with nature, and making as little use of modern technology as possible.

To them, Anglo-Saxon society was a model of sustainability in which nothing went to waste. Its members were farmers as well as warriors and artists, and lived by growing cereals, fruit, and vegetables, and keeping pigs, sheep, and cattle. They made their own clothes out of natural materials, such as wool and linen, and their lamps were fuelled by animal fat.

Should we all be neo-Saxons?

Blood brothers?

Some point out that the Anglo-Saxons led incredibly violent lives. They believed in blood feuds, so that if a man was killed, his relatives were duty-bound to avenge him. The different kingdoms were constantly fighting: the Stafford Hoard is believed to have been booty won by the Mercians in 7th-Century battles against East Anglia and Northumbria. Even bishops are thought to have gone to war.

Others say that we have a lot to learn from the Anglo-Saxons. They were so artistic that they even decorated their weapons – something we would never do. They were very eco-conscious and preferred wooden buildings to stone ones because they left less of a footprint. They emphasised communal living, and set great store by loyalty: a warrior and his lord had a bond which lasted for life.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather have lived in Britain under the Anglo-Saxons or the Romans?
  2. Does the fact that a civilisation has died out invalidate its ideas?

Activities

  1. Draw an elaborately decorated Anglo-Saxon helmet.
  2. Come up with a zoomorphic design for a pair of gates.

Some People Say...

“The beginning of art is not reason. It is the buried treasure of the unconscious [...] that unconscious which has more understanding than our lucidity.”

Edgard Varese (1883-1965), French composer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Anglo-Saxons played a vital part in the formation of Britain as it is today. Their rule brought enormous changes, including the introduction of Christianity and a system of courts and local government. The country is full of their place names – “England” itself derives from “Angle-Land” – and many of their words survive in the everyday language. They also gave us our earliest literature, including the epic poem Beowulf.
What do we not know?
How Britain would have developed if the Anglo-Saxons had repelled the Norman invasion. Without the influence of the French spoken by the Normans, would English be more like German – which the Anglo-Saxon language resembles – and would it have the same global influence that it does today?

Word Watch

Artefacts
An object showing human workmanship.
Pommels
The blunt end of a sword.
Garnets
A red-coloured, precious stone.
Zoomorphic
With the shape of an animal.
Sutton Hoo
The remains of a ship containing magnificent treasure, including a royal sceptre, was discovered here in 1939. It is thought to have been a memorial to an Anglo-Saxon king.
Pagans
Non-Christians who incorporate beliefs or practices from outside the main world religions, and especially nature worship.
Mercians
Mercia was one of the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England. The name “Mercia” is Old English for “boundary folk”. Mercians were pagans until the introduction of Christianity in the 7th Century. Today, a large area of England is made up of old Mercia.

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