I recently had the privilege of serving as external examiner for a PhD at the University of Manchester exploring the biographies of key artefacts that have shaped and transformed the public perception of the early Anglo-Saxons. Robert McCombe‘s doctoral thesis was entitled “Gold Under Gravel, Gold Under Glass: Anglo-Saxon Material Culture Through Excavation, Collection and Display 1771-2010” and explored a series of artefacts within a number of key assemblages and how their cultural biographies can reveal shifting attitudes and engagements with English origins since the eighteenth century to the present day. Robert focused on the pectoral cross of St Cuthbert, the Kingston brooch, the Benty Grange Helmet and the Sutton Hoo helmet. Together, he showed how some artefacts become icons that escape from their physical form, whilst others are tied into the museum contexts in which they inhabit. For the Kingston and Benty Grange artefacts, McCombe explored how these artefacts become ill-suited to the northern urban museum settings in which they have come to reside: Liverpool and Sheffield respectively. Robert has already published some of the findings from his PhD in The Museums History Journal for 2011: with a paper entitled ‘Anglo-Saxon Artifacts and Nationalist Discourse: Acquisition, Interpretation, and Display in the Nineteenth Century’.
The history of Anglo-Saxon archaeology is a field I have been interested in for over a decade and I have published a series of short articles on the nineteenth century early archaeologists who dug up and interpreted early medieval grave. Robert’s work is therefore of considerable interest to me and I hope to see him publish far more of his fascinating doctoral research in the near-future.