Secrets in the Stones: Decoding Anglo-Saxon Art. Part 1
From Egypt to East Anglia: design in the Sutton Hoo scabbard bosses
Amongst the glittering masses of gold and garnet treasure, from the Sutton Hoo royal burials in East Anglia and the Staffordshire Hoard to the smaller discoveries of furnished graves and chance finds, it can be hard to concentrate on individual pieces. In the scabbard bosses from Sutton Hoo, however, close inspection reveals an exciting possibility — that the people who created these masterpieces of jewellery not only had the most sophisticated craft skills, but also possessed mastery of classical philosophy from the Eastern Mediterranean.
James D. Wenn holds an MA in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic from the University of Cambridge, and an MA in The English Country House from Leicester University. He is a trustee of the Essex Cultural Diversity Project, and founder of Byrga Geniht consultancy. He has been a member of the Thegns since 2019.
A note on methodology
It is very rare to have the intentions and meanings of art exhaustively explained in plain words by the individuals and cultures. For this reason, art-historical criticism usually focuses on the formation of discourse around works of art and networks of creative output, and the development of that discourse as further connected matter is introduced and evaluated through the learning perspective(s) that the prevailing discourse has adopted. Put simply, there are things we cannot know for certain, and so often we deal not so much in ‘knowledge’, but in a curated cloud of possibilities we have chosen to focus upon.
What follows is the outline of an initial observation putting two pieces of primary evidence (the scabbard bosses from Sutton Hoo, and Ptolemy’s Harmonics) together, and seeing where entertaining the possibilities that arise can take us in discourse. We will never know the truth with absolute certainty, but setting out a case for including these ideas within our discourse is the goal of this research activity.
Ptolemy practised both astronomy and astrology. Feke has explained (on pp. 168–176) how in an age where the words were perfectly interchangeable, Ptolemy established a subtle distinction between the two; ‘Astrology studies qualitative changes in the sublunary realm caused by the superlunary movements and configurations studied by astronomy’ (p. 170). Both were used to predict the future. Whilst astronomy helped to predict things like where a star or planet would be at a particular time, helping to measure time more accurately and create calendars, astrology aimed to divine what the future effects of such movements might be on Earth. It is easy to empathise with the theory behind ancient astrology — the obvious correlations between the movement of the Sun with day and night, and the seasons, and between the movement of the Moon and the rhythm of the tides, would lead to speculations about what additional hidden effects the observable movements of planets might cause.
In the attached diagram, from Harmonics, book III, we can see how Ptolemy arranged the strings of his instrument on a circle representing the zodiac.
To our minds, there is a fair deal of circular thinking in Ptolemy’s work here. Ptolemy found all the ratios for strings needed to make the harmonies of the musical theory of his time within divisions of the zodiac circle. This geometry supported the ancient practices of astrology; ‘It is because opposition, trine, quartile, and sextile are characterised by the ratios of the octave and concords that zodiacal signs in these relations are astrologically active’ (Feke, p. 107). However, the initial division of the zodiac into twelve was a human, socially-constructed choice (the lunar calendar, which gives the number twelve, does not match up precisely with the solar calendar), and the choice of sounds to privilege in a theory of music was also not detached from aesthetic preferences. Whereas the text gives a sense of a universal harmony (unsurprising as a goal for a work on harmonics), what is somehow intrinsic to nature and what is a human cultural construction is complicated. For his own part, Ptolemy was clearly anxious to set out his case through designed practical, repeatable experiments. In Scientific Method in Ptolemy’s ‘Harmonics’ (Cambridge, 2000), Andrew Barker has analysed Ptolemy’s scientific method, its rigour, and whether or not Ptolemy was led by experimental evidence, or used the valour of its mention to support claims arrived at entirely conceptually.
Setting aside this delicate topic, it is nevertheless clear that Ptolemy’s work provided a powerful synthesis between the world of visual observation (the light from stars and planets), and the world of auditory phenomena (the sounds from his experimental stringed instrument). In attempting this synthesis, it is possible to see Ptolemy building upon the thought of Plato, centuries earlier. A significant part of Plato’s work known as Timaeus discusses how matter is constructed of four elements (fire, earth, air and water), and how their structure (we might say atomic structure) is philosophically linked to the geometry of some perfect solids (which we still call Platonic Solids). Fire is linked to the tetrahedron (with its four faces made of equilateral triangles; earth is the cube (six square faces); air is the octahedron (eight triangular faces); and water is the icosahedron (twenty triangular faces). Initially Plato proceeded to explain the way these elements could combine to create less pure matter, but he then went on to examine the ways in which the human senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch) apprehend the nature of these combinations of elements.
Timaeus is a very short and assertive book, and we can contrast what it has to say with the length and (claimed) experimental rigour of Ptolemy’s treatment of similar subject matter. On the subject of ‘sounds’, this is what Plato had to say (translation by Desmond Lee, 1965);
The third organ of sense which we must examine is hearing, and we must explain the various sensations occurring in it. Sound may be generally defined as an impulse given by the air through the ears to the brain and blood and passed on to the soul; and the consequent motion which starts from the head and terminates in the region of the liver is hearing. Rapid movement produces high-pitched sound, and the slower the motion the lower the pitch. Regular motion gives a uniform, smooth sound, irregular motion a harsh sound. Large and small motions produce loud and soft sounds. Relationships between sounds we must deal with later.
We can now claim that our account of the universe is complete. For our world has now received its full complement of living creatures, mortal and immortal; it is a visible living creature, it contains all creatures that are visible and is itself an image of the intelligible; and it has thus become a visible god, supreme in greatness and excellence, beauty and perfection, a single, uniquely created heaven.
Harmonics received attention from classical philosophers within Plato’s tradition known as the Neoplatonists. One of the most famous Neoplatonists, Porphyry (c.234–305 CE), wrote a long commentary on Ptolemy’s Harmonics, which has been translated by Andrew Barker (Cambridge, 2015). Unfortunately we do not have commentary addressing book III, and Barker has set out how scholarship cannot claim any knowledge as to whether the gap is due to Porphyry having not completed the work, or later damage and loss during the transmission of the text.
The loss of Porphyry's reaction to book III is a great shame, because the added detail and the judgement of over a century of mediating scholarship would have illuminated much in terms of the reception of the next two diagrams from the Harmonics reproduced here. These represent how many equilateral triangles and squares can fit inside the zodiac twelvefold division of the circle. In astrology these represent arrangements known as opposition (two bodies opposite each other on the zodiac), trine (three celestial bodies disposed equally around the zodiac), and quartile (four celestial bodies), and sextile (six bodies). In practice, trine, quartile and sextile always refer to relationships between just two points of an imaginary shape, and the angles between them seen from Earth: 180 degrees, 120 degrees, 90 degrees or 60 degrees.
(Rendered by J. Syrett)
Introducing the Sutton Hoo scabbard bosses
Gold scabbard boss. Hemispherical in shape, and set with inlaid cloisonné garnets in a cruciform design, incorporating mushroom and step-cut cells. Some of the cells are lacking their garnets. The edge of the design consists of twenty-four outward-pointing garnet segments, between which are twenty-four inward pointing gold 'teeth', which together produce a petal-like effect. Around the rim of the boss are two narrow bands of serrated garnets in small cells. The garnet-inlaid cells are underlaid with gold foil, stamped with a hatched design. On the reverse of the boss is a staple-like loop set into a circular stud.
Using Ptolemy’s Harmonics to understand the Sutton Hoo bosses
The first thing to strike us is how the toothed border of the domed surface provides us with the number 24 (either counting the gold triangles pointing into the centre, or the garnet infill pointing outwards). This number could spark all sorts of speculations on its own (for instance, given that the Elder Futhark, the early runic alphabet system, was composed of 24 runes or letters), but through the eyes of the learning perspective we are currently adopting, the critical thing is that 24 is divisible by 12. The possibility to see pairs of triangles as representing a gradation of the zodiac alerts us to the possibility of an astronomical or astrological interpretation of the design.
The domed shape of the overall design could also represent the vault of the sky, and activate allusions to astronomy or astrology.
At the centre of the design is a square element (albeit with corrugated edges). In a context connected to Plato and the Neoplatonists it would be very straightforward to identify this as symbolising the (static) Earth, around which the zodiac wheels in Ptolemy’s cosmology.
At this point we have a diagrammatic representation of the ‘overhead view’ of the Earth and the ecliptic adopted by the diagrams prescribed in Ptolemy’s Harmonics, book III.
Because they are directly comparable, we can suddenly see the gold triangles in the border as inspired by the triangles around the border formed by the lines of Ptolemy’s representations of the four triangles and three squares inside the zodiac. This causes us to look within the gold and garnet patterns for trine or quartile relationships.
The majority of lines within the overall design are corrugated (in a stepped, zig-zag pattern, with 90 degree corners). These are perhaps reminiscent of lightning, given that there is a celestial theme at work.
Thrusting through the zig-zag lines, however, is a set of four linking lines emanating from each quadrant of the design. In a grouped trio of gold triangles, the left hand one sprouts a gold line swinging away to the left. The right hand one sprouts a gold line swinging away to the right. Discounting a garnet pellet immediately in front of it, the middle triangle appears to be the conceptual origin point of two lines, one swinging left and one swinging right, following alongside the lines emanating from its neighbours like train tracks. Its lines connect with the triangles that are exactly 90 degrees in either direction.
Although three triangles are involved in the operation at each quadrant, because the peaks are halfway along the shapes, they do in fact compass two units. In other words, the broad bands of garnet between the curving gold lines bracket a zone corresponding to one twelfth of the zodiac (a single sign). This bracketing is similar to the way the zodiac (the zone within which the sun travels in the sky) itself is a broad belt either side of the ecliptic line. This may be underlined by subtle differences in the colour of garnets chosen. Within the curved lines the garnets appear slightly lighter and more orange, and outside them deeper and more purple in colour.
Taking the ribbons of garnets in between the curving lines to be regions of quartile significance, the pellets would appear to represent celestial bodies whose relationships to each other are being spelled out by the curving lines.
An astrological speculation based on the discourse so far
If we entertain the possibility of the artist’s knowledge of and interaction with either Ptolemy’s Harmonics or the tradition of astrology to which Ptolemy belonged, we can read the scabbard bosses as a reflection on war itself. Both opposition and quartile traditionally represent celestial forces literally in opposition or at cross purposes (our modern language and culture have been historically shaped by an astrological outlook more than we may care to admit). For fittings attached to a sword, these allusions to conflict, made heavy by circular repetition around each piece, seem highly appropriate.
Going further, it is legitimate (but, again, ultimately unanswerable) to ask ‘does this art signal “I am generally to do with war”, “I (mystically/astrologically) control war itself”, or “I (practically/materially) am excellent within war”?’
If this learning perspective is entertained at this level, a deeper level of art-historical and sociological (even theological) speculation is unlocked. Many brooches and Christian crosses from the range of Anglo-Saxon history have roundels, bosses and other features arranged in a cross or a quincunx (the pattern with which the number five is depicted on dice). If non-combatant and ecclesiastical dress and accessories featured a pattern associated at an early date with war or excellence in conflict, perhaps at a celestial rather than material level, this could have implications for our understanding of the Anglo-Saxons’ reception of Christianity during the conversion period, and also more complicated meditations on Anglo-Saxon preparations for and mitigations against conflict beyond the narrowly military.
A musicological speculation based on the discourse so far
Can music as well as astrology be read into the Sutton Hoo scabbard bosses? Yes, because the pellets that we have thus far taken to represent heavenly bodies are shaped like domed pegs, and could conceivably represent tuning pegs at each end of lyre strings. This would satisfy both the meaning within Ptolemy’s diagrams and the unusual choice of design in the gold and garnet work. This is not, however, to say that the neatness of this explanation reaches a threshold of established fact rather than an intriguing possibility to entertain.
Potential corroboration from other Anglo-Saxon jewellery
The scabbard boss from Cotgrave is extremely similar to the Sutton Hoo design. Similarities include the 24 gold triangles fringing the dome of the boss, and the paired curved lines that would seem to designate the zones of quartile relationships between a unit of the zodiac in each quadrant. Two key differences are helpful to us.
Musicological: the Fuller Brooch
Stylistically dated to the late ninth century CE, the silver and niello masterpiece known as the Fuller Brooch is taken as a meditation on some of Plato’s discussions in Timaeus. A broad border around the circular edge contains four sets of four roundels, and the designs in each reflect a division of nature (into Man, plants, beasts of the ground and birds of the air). Within the main circular body of the design there is a division into quartiles made by four curving lines that start at (or pass through) four small raised bosses or nodules. This creates four lens-shaped compartments, and one pointed cross-shaped central compartment. The five senses are depicted (taste, smell, hearing, touch, with sight in the centre).
What conclusions, if any?
What we do gain, however, is a call to action to re-evaluate the corpus of gold and garnet jewellery from this period, as well as other items and cultural products, to see if this learning perspective gains any ground when applied to additional material.
The next question is what the discourse set out in this article means for us today — how we think about the period, how we feel about the period, and what we do with the period (in terms of curating and presenting it to others). Some questions are of great interest to us today, but our thirst for solid facts is greater than the ability of the evidence to provide certainty. For example, one person approaching this topic (accepting the perspective of this article) may wish to see it as evidence of direct contact between the Kingdom of the East Angles in the seventh century CE and Egypt (in the last days of Byzantine rule there). Part of the reason for this might be to disambiguate the status of the so-called ‘Coptic Bowl’ (British Museum, 1939,1010.109) found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial, whose name derives from its typology rather than place of origin, which cannot be placed more narrowly than the Eastern Mediterranean generally. Another person, entering the discourse with a different motivation, for example wishing to disambiguate early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms’ relationships to Rome at the time of St Augustine’s 597 CE mission to Kent, may well point out that Porphyry wrote a commentary on Ptolemy’s Harmonics and died in Rome, meaning that texts were likely as available there as in Alexandria. A third person, wishing to frame Anglo-Saxon elites as former mercenaries with experience in the Roman army, might fancy that classical ideas were learned in military service. A fourth person, fancying that the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons was a process that did not destroy some aspects of Romano-British continuity, might attribute all this to an unbroken living tradition. A fifth person might place Anglo-Saxon knowledge of (or independent discovery of) these ways of thinking and presenting thought to be an important plank in their historiographical platform.
In short, there are some questions where there will be no disambiguation, but so long as there is discourse and debate, the period is to some extent honoured and made alive, as much as the passage of time allows. Please join in this discourse in the comments section below, and at our events.
Instructions for the diagrams from Ptolemy’s Harmonics are given clearly within its text, but the versions produced here were adapted from those set out in John Wallis’ printed transcription of surviving manuscripts (Oxford, 1682).