East Anglian Bling

Click on the gold buckle for a link to the British Museum website. A nice readable book telling all about the treasure found in the Mound 1 ship is the one by Angela Care Evans called simply ‘The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial’. Available through the British Museum Press. It has excellent photos. There is a small but arresting black and white one of this very belt buckle lying in the soil of the dig next to the equally amazing purse lid with its cloisonne garnet settings. The date of the photo is 22nd July 1939 only a couple of months before Britain entered the Second World War. It captures a watershed moment in the study of Anglo-Saxon culture.

I won’t go on about the intricate decoration (two snake-like animals are highlighted on the above photograph) or its ingenious design. The object, which archaeologists like to call ‘material culture’ speaks for itself. Before Sutton Hoo the generally received opinion about the pagan Anglo-Saxons was that they were uncouth barbarians who grovelled in dirt pits under crude wooden shelters. Work at West Stow has shown that this impression was probably erroneous even for the lower eschelons let alone the nobility.

Much of this inherited classicist Renaissance snobbery was due to a nation moving towards a pompous idea of itself. The pompous idea is still with us but it has faded.

The idea survives nicely in the popular movie ‘Gladiator’. We find ourselves in sympathy with the aims of the civilising Roman Empire despite its shortcomings. The philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, played wonderfully by Richard Harris, sits well with the dark forests of Germania but of course he has no business there really. How ignorant and uncivilised seem the barbarians of Germania in that first action battle scene (which is excellent of course).

Yet the discovery of the Nebra Sky Disk with its evidence of scientific as well as magical knowledge of astronomy shows how different things may have been even in Bronze Age Central Europe. Many people immediately concluded that it was a fake. When it was shown to be genuine it was considered that its makers must have had access to Mediterranean learning. I think this too has been shown to be unlikely but I am no expert on the sky disk. It is, however, a deeply symbolic treasure emblematic of an evolving consciousness not dependent on writing for its formal means of communication.

Of course the Nazis were fond of bigging up barbarian culture. How they would have loved that sophisticated sky disk. As we know a spin can be put on anything. But then the Nazis were the dark apotheosis of the pompous idea.

In this there is a lesson it seems to me.