I didn’t realise that right by the University of Chester, and right by where I cycle every day, is a fabulously odd metal milepost that relates directly to my archaeological, and archaeodeath, research interests. The reason I have missed this before is because I rarely go down to the canal itself but instead cycle between Shotton and the University on the Millennium Greenway. I only saw this milepost whilst walking with students back from Chester Crematorium to the University via its new and useful Greenway Gate.
This is a significant milepost, since it marks the northernmost milepost of the 230 mile-long Mercian Way that connects Chester to Salisbury. It is also known as Sustrans Cycle Route 45. Near-identical mileposts can be found along this route. The choice of milepost design is intended to invoke the fact that a large section of the route lies within the historic Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia which comes to prominence in the late 6th and early 7th centuries and disintegrates as an autonomous kingdom in the late 9th century AD.
Professor Pedantic says get on your bike! Here’s why:
1) The panels on the lower half of the milepost in which the distances appear contain simplified versions of pre-Roman Iron Age shields, akin to the famous Battersea Shield. Sorry, but this has nothing to do with Mercia or the Anglo-Saxons, geographically, chronologically or in any other regard. Shields of the 7th to 9th centuries are mainly known from 7th-century grave-finds and they looking nothing like these. Anglo-Saxon shields are widely understood to be circular in form, with a central boss, although they might also have a range of metal mounts and fittings on the panel. Therefore, this choice of design element for the milepost is more than a little bizarre.
2) The Anglo-Saxon warrior, who is cloaked and helmeted, is wearing an interesting take on the helmet recovered by Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo during excavations initiated by Basil Brown and directed by Charles Phillips. The fragments were painstakingly reconstructed after the Second World War twice. It is now on display as the centre-piece of the British Museum’s early medieval gallery, as discussed here. Replicas have been made for display elsewhere, including the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre. It is perhaps the singlemost iconic artefact of early England and I have been among the people who have discussed its significance as a martial and ceremonial artefact, and the decision to inter it in the chamber constructed amidships within a seagoing vessel at this striking, and arguably ‘royal’, burial ground.
The milepost version has the diagnostic cheekpieces, neckpiece, and face-mask, as well as crudely articulated pressbleche panels containing incomprehensible decoration and a rather random non-descript swirly pattern down where the Sutton Hoo helmet has a pair of dragons comprising the comb. Is there some kind of beast on the crest? These details aside, the eyebrows, nose-piece and cheek-pieces alone demonstrate that this unquestionably a crude attempt to mimick the Sutton Hoo artefact.
The Sutton Hoo helmet is one of a small number of helmets known from pre-Viking England. Another is from a 19th-century excavation of a barrow-burial at Benty Grange, Derbyshire. Next we have the Coppergate helmet from York; while the dig is known for its striking detail about Viking-Age York, this was found in a pre-Viking well deposit. Then we have the 1990s excavation of an isolated weapon burial at Woolaston, Northamptonshire. We also have a 6th-century iron helm from Shorwell, Isle of Wight. Most recently, there is a fragment of helmet cheek piece interred with the Staffordshire Hoard. The fragment from the Staffordshire hoard, like the Sutton Hoo helmet, is likely a sixth-century helmet interred long after its manufacture. The Benty Grange and Woolston helmets are of seventh-century date, while the Coppergate artefact is regarded as belonging to the eighth century.
Helmets were martial implements, but also stark symbols of elite status and superbly wrought gift-exchange items. Helmets may have also been associated with pre-Christian masking practices with shape-shifting connotations. Helmets may therefore may have held key roles in ceremonial performances as well as warfare.
Certainly we imagine helmets were varied in style and their form was not restricted to, or diagnostic of, particular ethnic groups or polities. They were widely circulated among elites, given by lords to retainers and inherited by descendants. Unfortunately, the helm from Sutton Hoo is unlikely to be of East Anglian manufacture but postulated as a product of high-status craftsperson(s) working in sixth-century southern Scandinavia.
Incidentally, in my 2011 article in the Journal of Social Archaeology, I proposed an original interpretation of the Sutton Hoo helmet’s use in the mortuary process and the burial context of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo as affording the sense of an animated chamber through its ocular agency: affording the sense of a seeing, sensing presence.
There is nothing wrong with using the Sutton Hoo helmet, as an item of war-gear and ceremonial practices buried in an East Anglian princely grave, appearing in a Mercian heritage/cycle trail context. Helmets like that found at Sutton Hoo might have been readily worn by Mercian royals and nobles. Still, it is a pity that the designer didn’t realise that the Sutton Hoo site is still almost exclusively related to the East Anglian kingdom, despite one attempt frame the cemetery in relation to the East Saxons. Either way, it has nothing to do with the Mercians directly. In contrast, both Benty Grange and Woolaston are demonstrably within the Mercian orbit and might have been more historically sensitive emblems of a trail that spans much of western Mercia.
In summary, with my Professor Pedantic helmet on, I must judge this design to be insensitive and ill-considered from an archaeological perspective. Why isn’t the Benty Grange helmet here?
Having said that, with my Professor Positive helmet on, I am very pleased to see the Anglo-Saxon past receiving such a bold representation in the contemporary landscape. I am ashamed it has taken me so long to notice and comment on this important heritage find!
Finally, I also like imagine King Raedwald of East Anglia out on his bike, struggling across western Merican to find a zero-hour minimum-wage job in a fashion that would make Norman Tebbit proud.
Of course, he would have ‘Route 45’ around his neck….
Ironic, it’s election night!