What did portable images of the body mean in Conversion Period England? Were they gods, heroes, spirits or something else?

In a previous posting, I mentioned Lisa Brundle of Durham University’s presentation on lupine imagery at the EMASS conference. Lisa was an undergraduate at the University of Chester before moving to Durham for her Masters and where she is now researching human figural representation in early Anglo-Saxon art, focusing on its significance in the mortuary arena. I am particularly pleased and proud of Lisa’s achievements today because I have just learned that she has just had her first international peer-reviewed journal article published in the prestigous Journal of Social Archaeology

Lisa’s article is entitled: The body on display: Exploring the role and use of figurines in early Anglo-Saxon EnglandThe paper explores the gestures visible on a small but significant group of human figures – some demonstrably pendants – found by metal-detector over the last decade or so.  

The group of figurines is considered briefly by Professor Leslie Webster in her recent book Anglo-Saxon Art who suggests they date to the seventh century based upon the two from mortuary contexts, even though most are without a context given the manner of their discovery. My good friend Dr Tim Pestell of Norwich Castle Museum is also considering them in a forthcoming paper, but Lisa is the first one to publish a study dedicated exclusively to these artefacts. Her abstract reads:

This article examines the significance and social context of early Anglo-Saxon figurines. Dating to the seventh century AD, these objects are three-dimensional metallic sculptures of the human form, between 30 and 50 mm in length, and only 12 are known to exist. The figurative portrayal of the human form is exceptional; the majority of designs in this timeframe incorporating the human form are represented in two dimensions. The figurines are therefore a marked development in the manufacture and deployment of anthropomorphic representational art that demands explanation. The figurines are considered here in terms of their three-dimensionality, structural function and the gestures they represent. It is suggested that the figurines are crucial, if rare, material evidence for the emerging importance of gestural and gendered expression within elite social contexts.

hamerow_hb[1]Now this group of metal artefacts’ most prominent ‘ambassador’ is a silver alloy pendant of a male figure from Carlton Colville who has appeared individually in books such as Stephen Plunkett’s Anglo-Saxon Suffolk  and subsequently published by Lucy et al. in 2009 in the excavation report for the Bloodmoor Hill settlement and cemetery. The weirdy beardy man even adorns the cover of the recently published Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. Hence, despite their rarity, they are rapidly becoming iconic of the early Anglo-Saxon period. Lisa’s work sets the ball rolling in interpreting them in relation to a wider repertoire of gestures in early Christian art from the Continent. Lisa side-steps the impossible question of what deities or heroes they might represent to consider their role in relation to embodied rituals in which gestures defined access to political and social power. These artefacts are significant in themselves but also because they are components of a far wider set of ways in which the human form appears in early Anglo-Saxon art more generally. Lisa is exploring this variability through her doctoral research and I can’t wait for more of Lisa’s work to be published.