Secrets in the Stones: Decoding Anglo-Saxon Art
New research by Thegns of Mercia member James D. Wenn, focused on a seemingly unrelated subject area, and a series of chance discoveries, have led to transformative new learning perspectives with wide-ranging implications. A book due to be published soon by Canalside Press will lay out many of these discoveries, with key concepts discussed in an upcoming public lecture in April 2023, but neither can fully document the application of these new perspectives on the corpus of Anglo-Saxon art. In the coming weeks we will, therefore, be publishing a special series of articles, here, which will explore the decoding of Anglo-Saxon art made possible by these perspectives.
Although the Anglo-Saxons spoke an early form of our language, and although we have some of their writings in Latin and later, Old English, a bottleneck, particularly in the 7-8th centuries, combined with the subsequent catastrophic loss of valuable archaeological, architectural, and written material due to the Viking invasions, Norman Conquest, subsequent developments, and the Reformation, have left us with very few resources which can bridge their written and visual language, in a way that would help to explain the meanings of the latter.
Surviving Anglo-Saxon literature gives us glimpses of a rich tradition of networked, oral storytelling, and it’s quite reasonable that designs on many early Anglo-Saxon artworks were intended to work as visual aids to illustrate such stories. In some very rare cases - such as the Franks Casket or Ruthwell Cross, the connections between visual designs and storytelling / mythology are made explicit and obvious.
It has become a staple of interpretation of early Anglo-Saxon artworks to identify faces with certain pagan gods, particularly Woden (cognate with Norse Odin); to identify paired bird-heads which sometimes surround these faces, with the ravens known in the Norse texts as Huginn and Muninn, and so on. A little later we see overt Christian symbolism added to the mix, though these nevertheless represent a small minority of the elements which make up early Anglo-Saxon designs; those parts for which we cannot find an easy explanation are often dismissed as merely decorative. We do so at our peril, for everything else we know about Anglo-Saxon material culture tells us that such art should be crammed full of meaning, even if we might not understand it. Artists often made seemingly illogical choices – to use certain materials or techniques even though they would increase the difficulty or expense of a work tenfold. We also see shifts in aesthetic – sometimes relatively sudden and so radical that, without prior knowledge you might imagine these objects belonged to totally different cultures. These choices are ‘non trivial’ – we should expect them to be made with good reasons. The technical excellence of some pieces of early medieval jewellery exceeds the capabilities of the best modern jewellers, yet we somehow expect to see, in these artworks, no real conceptual or intellectual sophistication. There is a real danger that, when all we see are pretty patterns, or jumbles of animal parts and human faces in these artworks in a way that seems naïve – even childish – it is simply the childish gaze with which we look at these items which is being reflected back at us.
The experience of truly, closely studying early Anglo-Saxon art, with the intensity necessary to attempt to make replicas of such items, is humbling. It is like attempting to read a foreign language when you only know perhaps three or four words. Perhaps it is, more than we would like to admit, similar to the experience of early Egyptologists gazing upon walls and walls of mysterious hieroglyphs prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.
What we desperately need, to truly unlock the Anglo-Saxon’s visual language, and in turn, to see into their minds -understand what was so important to them that they felt the need to encode it in their most valuable items – is a kind of 'Anglo-Saxon Rosetta Stone' – a key learning perspective which unlocks their visual language and allows us to read their artwork in a totally new way.
Beginning during the COVID lockdowns of 2020, Thegns of Mercia began holding weekly virtual meetings, initially for mutual support, and increasingly, to share research and ideas. A series of seminars allowing specialists within the group to share some of their personal expertise fired conversations on a number of topics, and opened up a number of leads. In particular, already ongoing research predominantly concerning later architectural history by member James D. Wenn – graduate of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic studies at Corpus Christi College Cambridge and with a masters degree in the study of Country Houses - combined with the archaeological knowledge of various members of the team, and insights from members with backgrounds in other fields ranging from mathematics, to classics, to geology, social history and even musical theory. Breakthroughs followed, many by serendipity, most significant of which was the chance-discovery of a long-overlooked building, from centuries later, into which two massively influential enthusiasts of Anglo-Saxon art and culture, living at a time of fierce persecution and upheaval, had hidden Anglo-Saxon treasures and carved their understanding of their forgotten codes, in stone. What followed was a quest to fully investigate and make sense of these leads, led by James Wenn and aided particularly by James Syrett, Thegns coordinator Æd Thompson, and Tim Ashton of Soulton Hall.
For much of this time we have kept the discoveries secret, allowing time to properly organise and document this work before presenting it for wider scrutiny, to tentatively stress-test the theories and interpretations, and to involve national and international heritage stakeholders at the highest levels. We have all, at various times, been dogged by fears of hubris; disbelief that so much which now seems obvious could have been missed for so long, or forgotten, and bewildered that we have somehow found ourselves involved in this unfolding story.
A book by James Wenn, due to be published soon by Canalside Press lays out the full story of these discoveries, with huge implications for our understanding of subsequent history, the interpretation of more recent English architecture, philosophy and religion, and even concepts of modern identity. A public lecture delivered to important representatives of national, and international institutions with a stake in the later heritage impacted by this research in April 2023 will lay out many of the key concepts, in advance of the publication of the book. However, given the scale of this research it will not be possible for either to explore its impact on the interpretation of Anglo-Saxon art.
In the coming weeks we will, therefore, be publishing a series of special posts which lay out some of the key perspectives from this research as they pertain to Anglo-Saxon art. The application of these perspectives to the corpus of Anglo-Saxon art is still ongoing and new discoveries continue to be made.
Some of the concepts may seem abstract or fanciful, yet, once aware of them, it is impossible not to see uncanny confirmation ‘hiding in plain sight’, woven throughout the corpus of Anglo-Saxon and later art and architecture. We are confident that after reading this series, you will be unable to look at Anglo-Saxon art in the same way ever again.