Yesterday the Dept of History and Archaeology had an extra-special visitor: Paul Mortimer of the living history society Wulfheodenas, who specialise in reconstructing the warrior elites and culture of 6th-/7th-century England and Northern Europe. As a group and individually, Wulheodenas reconstruct and appear to educate the public about the diverse and complex societies that came after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
Paul has authored a popular but detailed and scholarly book called Woden’s Warriors which is a rare example of a living history enthusiast writing an extensive and richly illustrated archaeological account of early Anglo-Saxon weaponry and armour. With Stephen Pollington, Paul has also authored the book Remaking the Sutton Hoo Stone: The Ansell Roper Replica in its Context.
Paul’s particular focus of interest has been Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo (argued by some to be the tomb of the East Anglian King Raedwald). Paul has observed important new details regarding a range of artefacts, including evidence that the helmet and ‘whetstone’, as well as other artefacts, had demonstrably asymmetrical eyes which might be connected to the cult of the god Woden. His article ‘An Eye for Odin? Divine Role-Playing in the Age of Sutton Hoo was published, co-authored by Professor Neil Price, in the European Journal of Archaeology.
Paul arrived, we had lunch, and then with the help of my postgraduate research students, Ruth and Brian, we unloaded his gear and got things set up. Then some students from the department, who were subsequently otherwise engaged in their studies and practical experiments, took the opportunity to handle some of Paul’s collection. I was pleased that our secretarial staff also came over to see the replica artefacts from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo.
When all was set-up Paul gave two superb back-to-back sessions for an assembled audience of undergraduates, postgraduates and staff in the McLay Laboratory for Archaeological Science. He walked in with the helmet on: an intimidating and awe-inspiring sight. Removing said helmet, first up, Paul talked through three of the replica items in his collection – the stone, helmet and sword.
We also discussed in Q&A the axe-hammer and the shield and a wide range of other items. We also reflected on how, despite many years of publicising Anglo-Saxon history and archaeology, despite the Staffordshire Hoard, most visitors to Sutton Hoo and elsewhere still thought he was in Viking armour. I reflected on how this was equivalent to accusing archaeologists of digging up dinosaurs.
Paul is working on a major new book on Anglo-Saxon swords. His second talk explored some of the data, mostly from cemetery reports and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, investigating the range of swords from across England. Paul is fully up-to-date with the latest literature on sword technology but also with mortuary archaeology and the biases of grave-robbing as revealed in the work of Alison Klevnäs.
Of interest to historians, archaeologists and heritage specialists in our department, all together this was a superb experience for staff and students. Paul gave us a great opportunity to hear about and handle replicas of some of Britain’s most spectacular early medieval artefacts.
Not only did the students get to explore the finds and talk to Paul and his insights into the artefacts, even the University’s Vice Chancellor popped in to say hello. He thanked Paul for his contribution and took a look at the replicas. We hope Paul can visit us again in the future.