How Do We Best Interpret The Decoration On Early Anglo-Saxon Artefacts? By Alison Smith (BA Hons)

by Dave Sadler

This essay will discuss ‘How do we best interpret the Decoration on Early Anglo-Saxon artefacts?’ by discussing how personal items had a symbolic meaning to Early Anglo-Saxon people. The essay will describe the decoration of three artefacts; The Coppergate Helmet, The Sutton Hoo Shield and The Finglesham Man and discuss the interpretations of the decoration. This essay will then discuss how interpretations focus on the origins of Legends and their symbolic meanings and also comparisons with other similar items from the Continent. This essay contains contradictory views by comparing changes in decoration, symbolic meaning, fashion styles and migration. This essay will discuss the migration of people from the Continent settling in Britain and how they brought with them their own symbolic meanings, how written evidence of the early Anglo-Saxons was from a later date because of illiteracy and also how people who wrote them were unfamiliar with early Anglo-Saxon culture and beliefs. This essay will conclude with how there is no definite interpretation of early Anglo-Saxon decoration because there is no way of knowing for sure the symbolic meaning, it was possible, the decoration was just to fill in the space of the artefact. The essay will lastly conclude on how examining the source of the origins and beliefs of the symbolism is possibly best for interpreting the decoration on early Anglo-Saxon artefacts.

How we best interpret the decoration on early Anglo-Saxon artefacts is possibly by studying the decoration of a few artefacts and comparing them with others of the same date and then compare them with documentary evidence of origins, interpretations and explanations of iconographic and symbolic meanings.

Many artefacts were decorated to communicate memories and are associated with a person’s idealised past. These artefacts were then buried with those people to emphasise their symbolic meaning and also as a connection to their ancestors (Williams, (2006), 40). These artefacts are mainly jewellery, swords, shields, pottery and also many other personal items. Brooches have many symbolic and iconographic meanings within their shape and decoration (Williams, (2006), 46). Colour was also important by stimulating a reaction to the viewer because it too was a symbol of meaning to the wearer and also to the viewer but each person would have a different meaning from their own experience (Caple, (2009), 8). These artefacts were used as decoration with social and ideological functions but they were also used as symbolic signs and also tools for garments, weaponry and every day functions (Caple, (2009), 9). Gold coins were also decorated, they were used not only for trade and gift exchange but also some coins had loops added to them and were worn on necklaces. It is possible; these coins also had certain meanings to the people who wore them because these coins were popular to keep (Hinton, (2006), 49). Brooches seem to be the most popular artefact for decoration in the early Anglo-Saxon Period.

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Fig. 1,  The Coppergate Helmet. (Addyman, ‘et al’,(1982).

Example 1 is The Coppergate Helmet, which has two symmetrical animals with interlacing ribbon-style bodies and spiral hips. The eyebrows of the helmet have a criss-cross pattern which ends at the animals heads (Addyman, Pearson, Tweddle, (1982), 191). These animals have long snouts with bared teeth, domed foreheads and comma-shaped eyes. One of the animal’s ears is facing downwards and turns into a spiral on the other’s neck. There is a third animal at the intersection of the eyebrows, this animal has an expanding muzzle and a curved end. This animal has ears which are placed at the back of the head. At the back of the helmet, there is a binding with a copper-alloy band; this is decorated in ‘Repoussé’ with a Christian inscription running front to back. There are also other inscriptions from the brow-band towards the crest with words from the inscription on the brow-band (Addyman, ‘et al’, (1982), 191). There are only three known Anglo-Saxon helmets from England; The Coppergate Helmet, The Benty Grange Helmet and The Sutton Hoo Helmet. The Benty Grange Helmet has a boar on the crest and is similar in comparison to The Coppergate Helmet but The Benty Grange Helmet has a small Latin cross on the nose. They both contain animals’ heads at the intersection of the eyebrows. The Sutton Hoo Helmet has a good deal more intricate decoration which is embellished with silver wire, impressed foils and has gilding and garnets. The decorations on these helmets are similar to Swedish helmets from Vendel and Valsgarde, in Swedenand also of the same Period (Addyman, ‘et al’, (1982), 192).

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Fig. 2,  The Sutton Hoo Shield. (Maryon, (1946).

Example 2 is The Sutton Hoo Shield, which has a band of zoomorphic decoration surrounding the Central Boss, from this; there is a band of five dragon’s heads running downwards over the main boss. There are five more dragon’s heads rising up at intervals between these dragon’s heads, from the lower part of the boss and are made of gilt bronze. At the top of the shield, is a bird and at the bottom, is a dragon. The bird and the dragon are of remarkable design. The dragon has four pairs of legs or possibly wings and the bird is covered in gold foil. Both the dragon and the bird are ornately chiselled in gilt bronze and have garnet inlays and ‘niello’ decoration. There are also panels of zoomorphic animals separating gilt-bronze bosses on the border of the central boss.The Sutton Hoo shield is similar to other shields found at Vendel in Sweden. There are differences between these shields but there are also similarities within the general design (Maryon, (1946), 24-28).

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Fig. 3,  The Finglesham Man  (Chadwick Hawkes, Ellis Davidson, Hawkes, (1965).

Example 3 is The Finglesham Man from Finglesham, Kent and is a Buckle-plate of a man wearing only a horned helmet and a belt and holding two spears. The horns on the helmet curve into what appear to be bird’s beaks, possibly similar to birds of prey. The buckle- plate is made of a bright yellow gold. The Finglesham Man is similar to a horned man on one of the plates of a helmet, found at a Valsgärde grave, The Sutton Hoo helmet and also a disc-brooch from Pliezhausen in Württemberg ( Chadwick Hawkes, ‘et al’ (1965), 18-19).

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Fig. 4,  A gold helmet cheek-piece decorated in an ‘Anglo-Saxon style II’, (Leahy, Bland, (2009), 23).

Interpretations of these decorations are similar and relate to the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘Beowulf’. The quality and appearance of weapons reflect the status and identity of the person holding them. The decorations of these objects are an influential ocular declaration (Williams, (2005), 267). Beowulf was a Scandinavian 6th Century hero and a mighty warrior who ruled the land for many years. There are descriptions of a fierce creature similar to a dragon or a serpent, where its breath could burn flesh and armour. Beowulf destroyed the dragon but died, making him a hero and a legend. The dragon on The Sutton Hoo Shield possibly symbolises that the owner sees himself as brave as Beowulf. The bird is possibly a symbol of a chief and a boar possibly symbolises Beowulf himself because he carried a banner of a boar’s head (Maryon, (1946), 25-26). There are also similarities to Old Norse literature; Vanir deities Freyr and Freyja, who owned a golden boar. Early kings of Sweden wore boar helmets and were associated with birds of prey. An eagle symbol was possibly important because it was on great ceremonial shields (Chadwick Hawkes, (1965), 24-25).

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Fig. 5,  The Great Gold Buckle from Sutton Hoo (Carver, (1998).

The interpretations focus on the origins of the legends and symbolic meanings by analysing where the descriptions originated from and could also possibly date the artefacts. The symbolism of the bird passed to Celtic art through Anglo-Saxon art from the Pagan Period (Clapham, (1934), 55). The Sutton Hoo treasure was possibly imported from the Uppland Province of Sweden, anytime up to 655 AD and most of the treasure was possibly produced in Sweden from the Vendel Age (Maryon, (1946), 28). The bird on the shield from Sutton Hoo is similar to eagles on Germanic Shields from Vendel and Valsgärde, which were Pagan symbols in the 7th Century (Chadwick Hawkes, (1965), 25). Germanic animal art was named ‘Style I’ and contained animal heads and bodies intertwined, it was found on jewellery and other personal objects (Hasselhoff, (1974), 1-15). ‘Style I’ was also contemporary with styles from the Continent. Germanic animal art contained several different animal themes within a design (Leigh, (1984), 36-42). A brooch could be turned to different angles to hide or reveal an animal or human face, similar to the bird on the Sutton Hoo Shield. It is possible that German people had a fondness for puzzles and riddles (Kristofferson, (2001), 36-42).

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Fig. 6,  A human face in the leg of the bird from The Sutton Hoo Shield  (Care Evans, (1997), 54).

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Fig. 7,  The bird from The Sutton Hoo Shield (Care Evans, (1997), 54).

The animals on The Coppergate Helmet could possibly be dated to the 8th or 9th Century but it is possible that they are copied from earlier pieces or fashion changed slowly in that region (Addyman, ‘et al’, (1982), 194).

A local jeweller or craftsman could easily copy an object’s decoration. This craftsman could have Swedish connections or even have been a Swede himself (Chadwick Hawkes, (1965), 22).

Coins also changed in style and decoration, Merovingian coins began in the 6th Century and originated from France, they copied Byzantine coins of Justinian, Justin II and Maurice Tiberius (582-602 AD) (Bruce-Mitford, (1952), 77). The decoration and style differences are useful when dating coins.

‘Style I’ animal art was later replaced with ‘Salins Style II’ (Speake, (1980), these animal figures are clearer and are easy to replicate (Gannon, (2002). Gilded bronze or silver became very elaborate with garnet-set Cloisonné decoration on the back of tongues, geometric chip-carvings on buckle loops and ribbon interlaced animals as decoration (Chadwick Hawkes, (1965), 18). The dragons on the shield boss on The Sutton Hoo Shield has manes similar to a horse, this style changes in later decoration with the mane represented by a row of bosses or a criss-cross border (Maryon, 1946), 29).

Continental Germans slowly migrated and integrated into communities in Britain bringing with them Germanic preferences and tastes. The island of Britain encountered a gradual and constant migration of new people who brought with them new ideas which possibly changed original meanings in artefact symbolism (Clark, (2009), 2, 12).

Early poetry and literature was written in the late 10th and 11th Centuries and were shaped to fit Christian belief, because of this, the beliefs of early Pagan people of Scandinavia cannot be used as evidence. Germanic animal art has been the basis for interpreting English and later ScandinavianLiterature  in Anglo-Saxon England but these written sources are from various dates that the symbolic meanings could not necessarily be the same (Hines, (2003), 315). There are no contemporary written accounts of any pre-Christian religious beliefs of the early Anglo-Saxons because they were virtually illiterate. The only accounts that do exist of early Anglo-Saxon life and death are from outsiders who are foreign with their customs at that period and location (Hines, (2003), 314).

Conclusion.

This essay has discussed ‘How do we best interpret the decoration on early Anglo-Saxon artefacts?’ by discussing how Anglo-Saxon people connected personal items with symbolic meaning and giving three examples of Anglo-Saxon decoration, followed by interpretations of the symbolic meanings and interpretations on the origins of Legends and also their symbolic meaning.Every person has a different meaning for a symbol because of their own views and beliefs.

There are contradictory views throughout the essay by comparing earlier and later artefacts and changes through fashion styles, symbolism and migration. The decoration was compared with other artefacts of similar style from the Continent. The essay discussed fashion, tastes and colours and how they changed in style and belief with later artefacts. Salin’s Style II replaced Style I and became more elaborate but easy to duplicate.

The migration of people from the Continent to Britain is possibly the largest factor of artefacts meaning and symbolism. These people brought with them their own views and meaning and possibly integrated their beliefs with the people of Britain, because of this, Scandinavian Literature, Germanic animal art, The Legend of Beowulf and Continental beliefs could possibly become the origins of this type of decoration. However, most written evidence from the Anglo-Saxon Period was written at a later date and by people who were unfamiliar with their culture at that time and region.

Unfortunately, there is no definite interpretation of the decoration on early Anglo-Saxon artefacts because there is no way of interpreting for sure the symbolic meaning of the decoration. It could have possibly been a person’s choice of decoration or possibly just to fill in the vacant space. The spears of the Finglesham Man are possibly just to fill the space on the Buckle Plate ( Chadwick Hawkes, (1965), 18). It is possible to best interpret the decoration on early Anglo-Saxon artefacts by examining the source of the origins and beliefs of the symbolism; as an example, the 6th Century Scandinavian Hero Beowulf.

References.

Addyman, P., V., Pearson, N., Tweddle, D. (1982). The Coppergate Helmet. The Journal of Antiquity, 56:218, 189-194.

Bruce-Mitford, R., L., S., Allan, J. (1952). Sutton Hoo-a rejoinder. The Journal of Antiquity, 26:102, 76-82.

Caple, C. (2009). Objects: reluctant witnesses to the past. Oxon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Chadwick Hawkes, S., Ellis Davidson, H., R., Hawkes, C. (1965). The Finglesham Man. The Journal of Antiquity, 39-153, 17-32

Clapham, A., W., F.S.A. (1934). Notes on the Origins of Hiberno-Saxon Art. The Journal of Antiquity, 8:29, 43-57.

Clark, J. (2009). The Kayenta Diaspora and Salado Meta-Identity in the Ancient U.S. Southwest. Paper presented in the 26th Annual Visiting Scholar Conference, U.S.A.

Gannon, A., (2002). King of all Beasts – Beast of all King’s Lions in Anglo-Saxon Coinage and Art. Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 18, 22-36.

Haselhoff, G. (1974). Salin’s Style I. The Journal of Medieval Archaeology, 18, 1-15.

Hines, J. (Ed.). (2003). The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century. Woodbridge, United Kingdom: The Boydell Press.

Hinton, D., A. (2006). Gold & Gilt, Pots & Pins: possessions and people in Medieval Britain. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Kristofferson, S. (1995). Transformation in Migration Period Animal Art. The Norwegian Archaeological Review, 28(1), 1-17.

Leigh, D. (1984). Ambiguity in Anglo-Saxon Style I Art. The Journal of Antiquaries of London, 64, 36-42.

Maryon, H. (1946). The Sutton Hoo Shield. The Journal of Antiquity, 20:77, 21-30.

Speake, G. (1980). Anglo-Saxon Animal Art and its Germanic Background. Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon University Press.

Williams, H. (2006). Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, H. (2005). Keeping the dead at arm’s length: Memory, weaponry and early medieval mortuary technologies. The Journal of Social Archaeology, 5(2), 253-275.

Illustrations.

Fig. 1    Addyman, P., V., Pearson, N., Tweddle, D. (1982). The Coppergate Helmet. The Journal of Antiquity, 56:218, 189-194.

Fig. 2   Maryon, H. (1946). The Sutton Hoo Shield. The Journal of Antiquity, 20:77, 21-30.

Fig. 3   Chadwick Hawkes, S., Ellis Davidson, H., R., Hawkes, C. (1965). The Finglesham Man. The Journal of Antiquity, 39-153, 17-32.

Fig. 4   Leahy, K., Bland, R. (2009). The Staffordshire Hoard. London, United Kingdom: The British Museum Press.

Fig. 5   Carver, M. (1998). Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings?, London, United Kingdom: British Museum Press.

Fig. 6   Care Evans, A. (1997). The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, London, United Kingdom: British Museum Press.

Fig. 7   Care Evans, A. (1997). The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, London, United Kingdom: British Museum Press.

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