PhD student Brian Costello with the axe-hammer
Me in the Sutton Hoo helmet: I could get used to this… I think it went well with my lanyard staff pass.

The University of Chester recently hosted a very special pair of guest lectures by Anglo-Saxon living history expert Paul Mortimer as outlined here.

Brian and Ruth help ship in the replicas from Paul’s car

Paul talked first about “Sutton Hoo Remade: Illustrating the Value of Reconstruction” in which he discussed the value of replica artefacts from the 1939 excavations in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. He showed how the replicas assisted in interpretations of the early medieval originals.

Just to reminder readers: the burial assemblage from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo had been placed within a chamber, itself within a seaworthy ship on a ridge above the River Deben. It was then covered by an earthen mound. Mound 1 was part of an exclusive elite burial ground that may have commemorated the kings of East Anglia during the late 6th and early 7th centuries AD. Many assign the occupant of Mound 1 as Raedwald, whom the Venerable Bede writes in his Ecclesiastical History as an East Anglian apostate king.

Final-year students Chiara and Jenny investigating the shoulder clasps and clerical assistant Maxine looking on.

Paul then talked about his latest research on “Swords in England – 5th-7th Centuries AD”. He explored technical aspects of sword manufacture and argued that swords were perhaps far more common than their frequency in graves might suggest. He also presented a series of revised and new interpretations of the form, decoration and use of swords, scabbards and their fittings found across early Anglo-Saxon England and thus putting the high frequency of Kentish swords deposited in graves into a wider context. We discussed the detail of pattern-welded blades and their possible significance.

Together these were invaluable talks for the staff and students in the audience. They also made me think further about the way we, as a group and as individuals, interacted with the replicas. I certainly had a wonderful time trying on the helmet and playing with the stone, sword, shield and axe-hammer and even putting on the tunic but I think there was more to it than that. There are three key issues I would raise.

Brian with the sword

Treasure and Worth

Elsewhere, I have been forthright of my criticism of the popular reference, perpetuated by the British Museum, of referring to the assemblage from Mound 1 as ‘treasure’. Yes, this is true in historical and legal terms relating to the discovery and donation of the artefacts to the British Museum. However, I object to a burial assemblage being called a treasure on multiple grounds, not least because many of the items were not primarily precious metal in composition, but more importantly because the items together tell us far more than a ‘hoard’ might ever do about the artefacts’ individual and collective significance in early Anglo-Saxon society and within the burial rite.

Brian examining the axe-hammer and mailshirt

During Paul’s visit and demonstration, what struck me was that neither Paul nor his audience took a moment to obsess over the cost and value of the original objects or the clearly high value of the replicas.  There was respect for the items, but no veneration. Despite the high skill involved in creating the replicas, the fascination by the audience in their details, this was not an exercise in fetishing bling. Instead, as one might expect from archaeologists, historians and heritage experts, the discussion focused on the materials, the skills involved in creating their objects, the potential martial and symbolic meanings of the ornamentation and forms for past people, and how these artefacts related to each other when used/worn and buried together.

Ruth with the replica shield from Mound 1, Sutton Hoo

The burial context got less of a look in, but then the students know all about this from my lectures. Still, while it was accepted these were replicas of superb, unique and high-status items, and we were delighted to examine their details, their ‘worth’ was more about their historical and archaeological value.

Even today, the media are obsessed with the present-day monetary wealth of early medieval metal-detector finds, and I was delighted and proud to see both Paul’s attitude towards them and my student’s similar respectful but contextual approach.

Ruth with the axe-hammer, contemplating sacrificing her former doctoral supervisor…

I must say that there was another dimension. Me and my students  are so familiar with images of the originals and discussions of their context, that there was almost an emotional affinity exhibited to them. Even though replicas, it was like finally meeting friends I’ve otherwise only known previously on social media!

Handling and Dressing with Objects

Paul was very generous in allowing students and staff to circulate and handle the objects. This is a pretty obvious point to say regarding any living history person, but it needs to be said. While Paul came in dressed as Raedwald ‘in character’, quickly the artefacts were circulated and displayed, not hoarded on his person. This was key to how the objects were presentedand used in educating, rather than simply for theatre. It made me think about how these items might indeed have been circulated during early medieval ceremonies and funerals.

Final-year ug Nathan with replica beard and authentic Sutton Hoo clothing

As a student, matter how much one can examine ancient artefacts, handling replicas allows careful observation but also the ability to handle them in a more casual and less stressful manner. They remain objects valued and respected, but they are also objects that can be handled, moved, lifted, wielded. As such, one can rapidly gain the kind of first-hand experience of their potential uses one cannot easily acquire from fragile ancient objects.

Final-year ug student Jenny looking very pleased with the shield and axe-hammer, perhaps contemplating sacrificing her lecturer to Woden?

I was particularly delighted to handle the axe-hammer. I’ve been wondering a lot in recent years about the axe-hammer’s function and significance in the Mound 1 assemblage. I was particularly excited to get to play with the replica and get a sense of its size, weight and possible uses. Dobat argued in the journal Antiquity that this unique item might have had a ceremonial role in pagan sacral kingship in the slaughter of animals and this is how it is understood in the recently re-opened British Museum exhibition of the Sutton Hoo finds discussed here. I’m not so sure and handling the artefact gave me other ideas…

Gifts or Possessions?

One of the audience raised the question: were these burial gifts or were they really the possessions of one person? Paul responded that he considered them possessions defining the status of a particular elite individual, perhaps a king. Most interpretations go down this root, even recent ones. Otherwise, Paul said he was wasting his time.

Our super lovely Director of Corporate Communications examining the ceremonial whetstone

I would respectfully disagree because I think that these items need not be seen as the regalia of a single ruler. I also don’t think Paul needs them to be primarily the regalia and personal possessions of one person for them to be effective, authentic and powerful items for living history displays.

In my view, it was through their use and circulation together that made them powerful and significant items in early medieval societies, not their possession alone.

Equally though, I don’t think that dressing up with all the regalia is at all misleading. In doing so Paul is taking up a very similar role-play to that his own research is suggesting was key to the early medieval uses of many  artefacts: they were deployed on the body and in the grave to create an ideal role-play of perhaps  both secular ruler and creating the aura of an ancient ancestral or divine presence.

So, by circulating the items and displaying them in the educational setting, I feel these artefacts operated in a way akin to the fashion by which they might have been circulated and shared in early medieval halls and funerary ceremonies. Tales were told as the artefacts are passed through the assembled crowd. Many precious, some unique, and some of them displaying their age, these were more than apparel. They were artefacts with personalities and long biographies of use and reuse. As such, weapons, armour, vessels and ceremonial implements might have also been powerful in enchaining together different individuals through their exchange and inheritance through their sharing as much as their giving and receiving.

Thinking of the Sutton Hoo assemblage as ‘gifts’ to the dead therefore needn’t be in opposition to considering their power once assembled, especially if we also think of sharing as ‘giving without giving’. We are most certainly now indebted to Paul for his generous talks and for sharing his precious replicas.