Shields were arguably the most crucial and universal tool of the Anglo-Saxon battlefield, and their degraded remains - mainly iron fittings - are fairly frequent finds from early Anglo-Saxon graves. While most shields appear. at least in terms of metal fittings, to have been relatively plain, the famous kingly shield from Sutton Hoo Mound 1 was enormously elaborate and ostentatious, with fierce and glittering golden animal fittings, a bronze rim, and an elaborately decorated shield boss integrating embossed foils and garnets. Between these extremes its fair to assume the visual impact of shields reflected the status of its owner, but what of the shields from the other famous treasure-filled princely burials? Were they similarly impressive?
Detailed examination of the remains of these lesser-known 'princely' shields reveals a number of surprises....
There is little doubt that the two-edged sword was the most cherished and doom-laden weapon in the Anglo-Saxon period, always of impressive craftsmanship, laboriously and expensively wrought, often richly decorated, and even sometimes named and personified (Brunning, 2013).
Given the strategic and cultural importance of these weapons, and the six century duration of the period, we might expect to see an ‘adaptive radiation’ of fundamentally different sword types, with different vocabulary preserved in literature, yet the design of Anglo-Saxon swords appears to have been highly conserved - tweaked and improved gradually over time but not splintering off into substantially different types. While it may always be tempting for weaponologists to introduce technical vocabulary and typology, such as the glossing of all swords from the Migration Age until the Crusades with the exotic and anachronistic term “spatha” (which refers more particularly to the related Roman “long” sword), the lack of coexisting diversity of blade types for most of the Anglo-Saxon period renders this unnecessary; it is perfectly sufficient to refer to all such weapons with the word they themselves used, and handed down to us; “sword”.
That being said, a variety of terms do occur in Old English texts to refer to these noble double-edged weapons. While most can be interpreted merely as kennings - figurative circumlocutions or euphemisms used in the place of the word “sword” in poetry to add colour, variation and/or to better fit the metre - one example; the word “mēċe” shows up surprisingly frequently and has its own set of compounds alongside “sword”. Could “mēċe” actually represent a distinct form of blade? Did the Anglo-Saxons use two different types of swords after all?
Few, or perhaps no items of personal warrior gear are more important to our image of an Anglo-Saxon, or Viking warrior than the shield. Our understanding of this most essential piece of war-gear is informed, to some extent by pictorial depictions and written references, but, mainly, by patchy but nonetheless reliable inferences from cemetery archaeology.
Of the studies of Anglo-Saxon shields, arguably the most frequently cited, and informative, is Dickinson and Härke (1992) which, among other issues, seeks to shed light on the murky subject of shield size. Many readers, particularly those from the reenactment community, will be surprised to read that shields could often be as small as 34cm – certainly of no use for building interlocking 'shield-walls' described in later poetry, which we are led to believe was the dominant combat strategy as far back as the period of pagan burials.
Over 20 years on from the publication of this still critically important work, this observation has gradually exerted influence on some modern impressions of warriors from the period, and even beyond, given the limited evidence for late Anglo-Saxon shields, and limited availability of information on 'Viking' ones. It is further, not uncommon to hear, repeated by respected historians, the assertion that most early Anglo-Saxon shields were “little more than bucklers”. To what extent is this statement accurate? Just how small were Anglo-Saxon shields?
(Article originally published in March 2016, Thegns of Mercia blog. Updated March 2021)
Few archaeological finds are as evocative as helmets - many items of war-gear can help paint a picture of ancient battlefields, but in framing (or in some cases directly representing) the face, helmets help to humanise warriors from centuries past. This is particularly ironic given that, at least in some cases, helmets in antiquity were designed to create an intimidating sense of “otherness”, occupying the “uncanny valley” between metalwork and man.
It is in our nature to recognise and emotionally respond to faces, and it is hard to stare into the eyes of the Sutton Hoo helmet and not feel as though you have, in some sense, met a person, rather than simply viewed an archaeological artefact. No surprise then, that over and above all the other treasures in that unprecedented burial panoply (including some with considerably higher bullion value) it is the helmet from Sutton Hoo that
has become emblematic of the assemblage, and the most enduring symbol both of Anglo-Saxon material culture, and even of British history itself.
The Anglo-Saxon period in Britain spanned six centuries, and although it is unfairly reductive to characterise it purely as a time of war, it is undoubtedly true that regular clashes between well-equipped armies peppered the period and dictated the convoluted path taken from locally identifying post-Roman communities to a coherent united England. The scale of Anglo-Saxon armies continues to be debated, and it is not entirely clear how well equipped they were, but archaeological discoveries in recent decades have provided abundant examples of war-gear – especially weapons – to inform our image of Anglo-Saxon warriors. Such gear is most abundant from the early period (5-7th centuries) thanks to grave goods from the ultimately doomed furnished-burial rite, but even from these centuries, that most evocative item of war-gear, the helmet, is exquisitely rare. We just don’t have many examples. There’s a bigger problem though; we don’t even know how many examples we have. Almost all running totals are wrong.
(Originally published in May 2020)
Exploring the history, archaeology and cultures of the "Anglo-Saxon Period" (encompassing the Migration and Viking Ages).