Few objects in early Anglo-Saxon archaeology are more evocative, than the so-called “warrior-lyres” or “hearpes” which have gradually emerged from analysis of mostly quite poorly preserved remains from some of the most famous 6-7th century burials. For those exploring this historic period, they also possess a unique power – transmitting to us another sensory dimension to enrich our sense of the Anglo-Saxon world. With accurately built replica lyres, we are granted the unique opportunity experience the sound of the 6-7th century mead hall, echoing across the centuries, which accompanied the first recorded stories and poems in our language.
In autumn 2018, member Æd Thompson (having previously produced Dreamgifu – a reasonably faithful replica of the perfectly preserved 6th century Alemannic lyre from Trossingen) embarked on a project to produce two new lyres, of the (in some ways) more challenging Anglo-Saxon design.
Nothing is more synonymous with Anglo-Saxon archaeology and history than the fabulous treasures which were uncovered in 1939 at Sutton Hoo, yet there is nothing “typical” or “representative” about the vast majority of this truly remarkable assemblage. The enormous highly decorated shield, for example, integrating hundreds of components, lacks any particularly appropriate English parallels, and its closest comparators come from similarly impressive burials from the roughly contemporaneous Vendel Culture in Eastern Sweden. So remarkable and “exotic” is the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 (SHM1) shield, that the still foremost study of Early Anglo-Saxon Shields; Dickinson & Härke (1992) all but excluded it from consideration. Anglo-Saxon shields with even modest metallic decoration (such as appliques or boss apex discs hardly visible except at very close quarters) are exquisitely rare and occur mainly from the mid 6th century; it is unclear to what extent this reflects a decline in the fashion or is simply an already rare item among furnished burials becoming invisible with the decline of the rite itself. Variation in the lavishness of shield ornamentation could be a battlefield indicator of rank and status, though most fittings are too small to have been particularly visible in this context, and although it is possible to sort the limited sample of decorated shields into “ranks” of embellishment (Dickinson (2005) and Mortimer (2011)) there is a danger of implying false near-equivalence between the only “top rank” shield of SHM1, and “second rank” shields (the most elaborate from the more commonly regarded “English sample”) such as 6th century Bidford-182 (see our reconstruction and article here) and the Tranmer House Shield (Sutton Hoo Grave 868), which are, in terms of crude count of components, at least 20 times less elaborate. Given extremely limited organic preservation, painted designs, wooden or leather appliques might be feasible, but the picture from grave archaeology is that, despite being the largest, most conspicuous “display surface”, even a high-status Anglo-Saxon warrior’s shield would have looked quite plain.
Contrary to this picture from undisturbed grave-shield finds, fragments of decoration from the robbed Sutton-Hoo Mound 2 (SHM2) equivalent to elements of the SHM1 shield suggest that the latter was not, in fact, unique, and the enormous abundance of jewelled 7th century “warrior bling” in the Staffordshire Hoard (STH / “the Hoard”) provides overwhelming evidence for conspicuous wealth and status display, in the form of jewelled war-gear, on the battlefields of the early-to-middle Anglo-Saxon period. The most senior battle-companions of the occupant of SHM1 (probably Raedwald – King of the East Angles) would likely be similarly bejewelled, and so would other 7th century kings particularly characters like Edwin and Oswald of Northumbria, and Penda of Mercia, who, through political manoeuvring and conquest would succeed Raedwald as notional holders of Anglian “imperium”; it is hard to imagine these warrior kings – wearers of bejewelled helmets and wielders of gold-hilted swords – not having similarly impressive shields.
Armed with the precedent set by the SHM1 shield, pieces of possible shield-decoration from the Staffordshire Hoard, and current understanding of 7th century shield evolution, we embarked on a project to produce a shield that would not look out of place in the hands of Penda, Oswald, or one of their lieutenants.
A wide range of shades, from white through creams to greys and browns, and even black were achievable simply by means of sorting sheep fleece before spinning, or by different retting techniques and sun-bleaching of plant fibres like flax, hemp and nettle-fibre.
In the Anglo-Saxon period there seems to have been an increase in access to purer white wools, and with it came expansion of potential for bright colours from dyeing using techniques which first began to be practised in North Europe in the late Iron Age.
Many native plants can be used for dyeing yet relatively few specific plant dyes appear in the archaeology; most famously, indigo blue from woad (Isatis tinctoria), luteolin yellow from weld (Reseda luteola) or dyers greenweed (Genista tinctoria), and reddish colours (alazarin) from the roots of various bedstraws including most famously, dyers madder (Rubia tinctorum). The latter, though popular among the Romans, is peculiarly all but absent from early Anglo-Saxon archaeology, returning tentatively in the 7th century, usually in expensive trim. Other dyes (tannins, lilacs and purples from lichen varieties, and others) were in use, but many secondary colours are possible simply by overdyeing these three principle plant dyes, but also through modification using alternative mordants and additives.
Plant-dyed cloth has a particular quality in terms of look and lustre that is hard to simulate or even adequately describe, and there is therefore more than just an intangible payoff for living historians pursuing truly plant-dyed costumes. It is further, false to assume that "plant dyed" means "dull", "soft" or "pastel" tones, as the results of successful plant-dyeing can be blindingly bright, though often fading with time. The affinity of light, natural de-greased wool for dyes is quite staggering, and only enhanced by mordants. Plant fibres, on the other hand, do not have a strong affinity for dyes, and at best, plant dyes produce softer hues on them. To what extent the Anglo-Saxons used plant dyes on the likes of linen is a matter of debate; there is next to no evidence of dyed linen in the archaeology, though it could be argued this is an artefact of preservation, with pigments more likely to be retained (to be detected by scientific analysis) in wool, over 1000 years in the earth, compared to linen.
Over a number of years, our team (members Lindsey and Æd in particular) have been exploring plant-dyeing, experimenting on various scales, with various dyes and recipes, drawing on the advise of a number of more experienced experts. We are particularly indebted to the Mulberry Dyer, Deb Bamford, for her guidance and expertise. Plant dyeing has a satisfying "alchemical" quality, often involving mysterious colour changes, odd ingredients, and not uncomplicated recipes.
One of the most ancient, and most famous dye plants, with evocative "magical" associations, woad - a relative of cabbage - works totally differently to other dyes, as the dye chemical from the plant is wholly insoluble. Crushing and simmering of the leaves will simply release the blue powder from the leaves, which will collect in the pan (and can, patiently, be dried, if desired, to be mixed with binding agents to form a paint! Such a paint was used, among other places, in the detailing on the cover of the Stonyhurst / Cuthbert Gospel). The challenge with woad, therefore, is to find a way to dissolve it so that it can soak into the fabric, and here, to the rescue, comes some surprisingly advanced chemistry.
What is required is a reducing agent; a chemical which will strip the oxygen from the dye molecules. Through this, the indigotin (insoluble) is converted to indoxyl, which is soluble and can soak into the fabric, although this will rapidly turn back to insoluble indigotin on contact with air. Through this process, temporarily soluble dye can enter the network of fibres which comprise the cloth or yarn, but afterwards transform to insoluble powder within its matrix and, for the most part, cannot wash back out. But what reducing agent? As with so many ancient and medieval crafts and industries, the answer was urine. Specifically the ammonia which is produced by its fermentation. This foul business is the reason dye industries tended, along with tanning, to be banished to the outskirts of medieval and later settlements.
Though not knowing the actual chemistry underpinning the process, generations of experimentation and the sharing of expertise would have led to an intuitive understanding of how to achieve good results, and it is interesting to speculate how the process by which these particular leafy greens and stale urine, when associated, can be used for dyeing. Traditional herbalism holds that woad leaves can be used as wound-dressings, and as one of the most ancient "cleaning agents" stale urine may have been used by ancient people to clean wounds. If both were applied together, ancient people may have found that their skin magically turned blue as the dressing was taken off, and through this, would have become aware of this mechanism of dyeing.
In practice, at least on a small (bucket with lid) scale, our experience of woad-dyeing with urine was frustrating as well as foul. The fabric would come out of the green vat vaguely pale green, and turn pale blue on contact with air, but weak activity of the reducing agent often meant that it would be wholly used-up reacting with air introduced along with the cloth or yarn, and take a day or two to regenerate.
A bolt of fine diamond-twill wool, of a kind frequently preserved on the back of early Anglo-Saxon brooches, was the starting point for a 6th century Anglo-Saxon dress, which was then dipped multiple times into an active woad vat; entering white, absorbing the yellow to green dye, and then spectacularly converting to brilliant blue on contact with air. Additional, shorter dips (long enough to allow more dye to soak in, but not so long that the dye already locked in would be attacked by the reducing agent) allowed the colour to be made deeper and stronger, and to even out some patchiness. Pale and dark patches occur as the vat typically will have "blooms" of concentrated dye near the surface, while, additionally, in any one dip, it may be difficult to ensure the whole bolt of fabric is fully submerged without trapping bubbles. Dyeing "in the yarn", however, would mean any variation in shade would even out once it was woven, and it may be that this approach predominated.
We finished the dress with brightly coloured 6th century Snartemo-V-style tabletweave in madder red, weld yellow, and woad-weld green.
We were keen to produce another garment that displayed the full potential of madder. The dye in madder (alazarin), like most other plant dyes (but not like woad!) is soluble; steeping the chopped madder roots will release the dye into solution, rather like making tea, and this "tea" will easily soak in (and wash out!) of the fabric. What is required, then, is another chemical to help trap the dye; a mordant. Much is made of the etymology of mordants (related to the French mordere- to bite) but this is unhelpful, for, unless something has gone very wrong, no chemical should "bite" into the fibres. Rather, mordants are soluble (and polar) chemicals which will easily soak into fabric, but have a tendency to "clump" together with dye molecules when they are mixed. The resulting clumps, chains and blobs ("dye complexes") of linked dye and mordant molecules, if formed while inside the network of fibres which make up the yarn or cloth, will be entangled, too big to easily wash out. Thus the dye will stay in place. Because they sit linked up with the dyes, some mordants can modify the resulting colour.
As previously noted madder-dye is rare in the early Anglo-Saxon archaeological record, and is gradually re-introduced during the 7th century. Its scarcity may at least partly be accounted for by the fact that madder dyeing (more-so than the extremely strong yellow dyes) is particularly reliant on expensive mordants and as the pigment's colour changes with pH, acidic mordants such as natural tannins are not a good choice.
Wary of piercing this fine fabric, tiny loops in the tablet-weave were integrated as it was stitched on, which provide attachment points for a brooch without pushing a pin through the weave.
Both garments demonstrate the vivid colours available to our ancestors. Having been dyed "in the cloth" the colour is uniform rather than alternating, with the weave pattern only visible as texture. Though it is likely the majority of dyeing was done "in the wool/yarn", colour-patterning so often seen on Anglo-Saxon living historians' costumes is actually rare in the Anglo-Saxon archaeological record, and hardly ever occurs, even in better preserved late Anglo-Saxon textiles. The look of this wool, with its subtle diamond pattern but single colour, is therefore arguably more representative of these finds.
Owen-Crocker, G.R., 2004. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Boydell Press.
Rogers, P.W., 2007. Cloth and clothing in early Anglo-Saxon England, AD 450-700 (No. 145). Council for British Archeology.
The Mulberry Dyer. [Online] https://www.mulberrydyer.co.uk/
The inspiration for this project was the magnificent lyre from Grave 58, Trossingen, Baden-Wuttenberg, South-West Germany, uncovered as part of emergency excavations in winter 2001/2. During these excavations 12 graves of this late Migration-Age presumed "Alemannic" cemetery were uncovered, of which Grave 58 was the most spectacular; a princely chamber-grave with organic grave-goods remarkably well preserved due to the waterlogging and uniquely heavy clay subsoil.
Grave 58 contained a man aged around 40 years old who, thanks to dendro-dating of the chamber timbers, we know was buried in the late summer of the year 580 CE. Strontium isotope analysis revealed he was local to the Trossingen area. He was 1.78m tall and his skeleton showed little signs of physical labour. He lay in a frame bed constructed from beautifully turned beech posts, furnished with red and yellow woollen blankets, and was surrounded by many other sophisticated grave goods, including candle-holders, a turned round table, an elaborate throne, wooden canteen, various bowls, a 3.6m long spear, a bow, a shield of alder, a riding crop and remains of a saddle. A comb lay by his head, a sword (with silver inlaid hilt) lay at his right arm, and at his left was the most perfectly preserved warrior lyre so far discovered. The overall picture is of a high status princely burial that must inevitably be compared to the likes of Sutton Hoo, Prittlewell and Taplow, though with fewer examples of jewellery, and, instead, a great array of wonderful organic items. Trossingen 58 creates the tantalising possibility that other contemporaneous princely graves may have been as, of not more lavishly furnished with beautifully made organic items (in addition to their preserved metallic finds) which have simply not survived.
Prior to the discovery of the Trossingen lyre, it is fair to say that our understanding of Germanic warrior lyres was largely based on ill-preserved fragmentary remains from various contexts, preserved but isolated components, manuscript depictions, conservatism and sensible conjecture.
Being so wonderfully preserved, Trossingen provides the first evidence for previously unknown features including sound-holes, and elaborate surface decoration beyond anything we could have dared imagine prior to its discovery. Its entire surface was covered with decoration, including friezes of animal interlace, and processions of warriors carrying shields and spears.
Our reconstruction, produced over approximately 6 weeks, is overall faithful to the original, though differing in some aspects to account for material limitations. The first lyre Æd had ever made, it was produced following detailed instructions and advice from personal communication with experienced lyre-maker Michael J King (www.michaelking.com).
Given difficulty sourcing a large enough piece of Acer campestre wood for the body, we instead used a piece of English lime, having excellent properties for carving and lacking the characteristic "flame" seen on sycamore maple which could obscure the decoration. For the soundboard we sourced a minimally flamed sycamore tonewood (Acer pseudoplatanus - again an appropriate substitute for the original's field maple) though it wasn't quite long enough to allow the sound board to extend all the way up the pillars on the original. We therefore terminated the sound board a few inches lower on the pillars, in a fashion consistent with the design of the remarkably similar contemporaneous lyre from Oberflacht.
The body of the lyre was cut, the sound-box carved using chisels, scraped out, and then, importantly, the profile of the body was gradually tapered down to be considerably thinner at the at the string arch than at the base, following closely the dimensions of the original. The sound-board was carefully shaped and sanded, and positioned using ash (Fraxinus excelsior) positioning-pegs as on the original, and finally installed using hot animal-glue. After a week of drying the outside of the lyre was shaped and sanded.
The original lyre showed various signs of repair in antiquity, including non-original iron pins used to re-fix the sound board to the body. We chose not to include these so as to give an impression of the lyre when it was first made. Similarly the original lyre had an unusual mixture of ash and hazel pegs, of different design, and it is suggested that some of these were replacements. We chose to incorporate a matching set of ash pegs, corresponding to the spoon-shaped design of the original's ash set, whittled by hand and knife.
The bridge was hand-carved, as the original, out of a piece of willow (Salix spp.).
Recreating the elaborate surface decoration took a substantial part of the time spent on this build, and was undertaken closely following the instructions of lyre-maker Michael J King. This unusual technique - "Kolrosing" - is essentially a means of 'tattooing' the wood, leaving decoration which is totally smooth to the touch and does not remove material or alter the surfaces of the instrument, thereby not affecting its sound.
The technique involves finely sanding the surface of the lyre, then incising the design into the surface using a scalpel, in the form of many shallow vertical cuts, removing no material in the process. Charcoal is brushed into these cuts, and the surface is then sealed with an oil or wax and sanded over.
As this is the only example of such a warrior lyre where the surface of the body was preserved, it opens up the possibility that other lyres were similarly decorated with this technique, although we will never know for certain. The evocative processions of shield-carrying warriors, all with unique faces, reaching for a huge spear, may be a reference to some story or myth in the owner's oral tradition, and may have served as a visual aid for storytelling in the mead-halls of the 6th century. The decoration on the reverse of the lyre, however - particularly the hugely complex knot work of snakes, must surely be simply an aesthetic indulgence.
"Dreamgifu" - meaning "gift of music" in Old English, we hope, helps to illustrate the wonderful craftsmanship that those in what we call the "Early Anglo-Saxon period" applied not just in their now much-celebrated metalwork, but also in organic materials. We hope it also highlights the importance of music and performance in Migration-Age warrior culture. It could not have been a more perfect find to recreate for Connor - combining three of his greatest loves; historic music, tattoos, and snakes.
Students of "Dark Age" clothing and textiles will surely be familiar with tabletweave - the tightly woven bands used as strong straps and to decorate clothing. Mineralised remains of textiles with tabletweave structure occasionally show up on the back of brooches, buckles and other metallic items from early Anglo-Saxon graves though it is rare for any fragment to be in sufficiently good condition for any pattern or colours to be inferred.
In the late 6th and early 7th centuries CE, a new variant of tabletweave arrived in Britain from the continent; first via Kent and the South coast before spreading north. This lavish new technique - brocading - involved working additional weft threads through a plain-coloured tabletweave as it was woven, to build up an embroidery-like pattern. This paved the way for the intricade brocades popular in the Viking Age, but brocading in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain began with metallic brocades, where strips of fine metal - almost foil - were worked through the weave to produce shimmering patterns. It is thanks to these metal brocades that we can trace the arrival of the technique, for, unlike normal tabletweave, these metal strips (usually gold), with impressions of the threads impressed into their surfaces, survive our harsh soils.
The earliest and most abundant examples are narrow bands with simple patterns, from female graves in Kent and the Isle of Wight. These are almost always found near the head, and may have been used as glistening headbands for securing veils. More spectacular are the remains from the famous Taplow princely burial - the second most lavish burial found from the Anglo-Saxon period, which contained, alongside shields, feasting gear and sword, over 2.5m of exquisite, often very wide, finely woven metallic gold brocade.
Due to the shortcomings of the 19th century excavators of the burial, the position of the fine strands of gold found in the burial cannot be stated with any confidence, and as such, we cannot say for certain if the huge amount of gold brocade formed the decoration of a cloak or other garment, or perhaps a sword harness or belt. The famous gold Taplow buckle had adhesions of both leather and tablet-weave-structure textile on its back, so it may have been associated with the brocade.
To illustrate what such a belt may have looked like, and as part of ongoing efforts to recreate and "bring to life" princely treasures from the 7th century, in 2016 we embarked on a project to build a gold brocaded belt inspired by the Taplow burial. The project began with team member Aed learning the gold brocade technique, first experimenting with a narrow band based on one from Chessel Down, Isle of Wight (in blue, at the top) before moving on to the more complex band from Taplow. The pattern we chose to reproduce is known as the "narrow band" for it is the narrowest element identified from the burial, although it is still wider and more complex than any gold brocade from any other early Anglo-Saxon burial. The replica band took over 150 hours of high-concentration work.
Upon completion it was sewn, using the same threads, to a piece of prepared, stained and burnished veg-tan leather, and the buckle and retaining loops were installed, such that the belt could be clasped without the buckle being covered, or the delicate brocading needing to pass through the buckle or be strained.
Rather than the Taplow buckle (a replica of which we had used on a previous build) we chose to incorporate an exquisite replica of the contemporaneous and similarly styled buckle from Alton, Hampshire, produced by Ganderwick Creations.
The final result was more subtle than we expected; the gold foil woven through the belt is quite subtle until light hits it at just the right angle and flares, revealing the pattern vividly against the ground weave. It looks particularly good glistening in firelight, and it may have been this that attracted our ancestors to the technique. After all, while coloured tabletweave will appear dull in the dim light of the meadhall, gold brocade glistens and sparkles in light cast by dancing flames. What better assemblage to, along with replicas of finds such as the Staffordshire Hoard, illustrate that the 7th century really was the "Age of Gold"?
Beginning in 2014, we embarked on a project to envision what a complete, kingly-status, large broadseax from the late 7th century would have looked like, drawing on elements from the corpus of English broadseax burials, and taking inspiration from the later phase material from the Staffordshire Hoard.
Our associate specialist weapon-smith Paul Binns (of Paul Binns Swords) produced a blade of extraordinary beauty and breathtaking complexity. This has a slim band of ‘pattern-welding’ sitting below two deep parallel grooves, themselves bearing subtle ribbons of patternation, and a graceful wave-like pattern interface between the blade-core and the carbon-steel cutting edge.
The blade is 48cm long, 4cm wide and 8mm thick at the spine edge. Longer than is typical for a light broad-seax, and a little more slender than is typical for a heavy-broad-seax, this blade arguably falls into the category of “atypical broad-seaxes”; a more elegant form which arguably foreshadowed the advent of the more familiar and fearsome longseaxes of the 8th-10th centuries.
Paul, an artist of iron, relishes interesting projects and the opportunity to push his skills to new limits. I am sure he would not mind me saying that the blade he produced for us was, to a great extent, far more elaborate and impressive than we had really anticipated, and necessitated us re-thinking our original plans in order that the other elements; hilt and sheath, would live up to the magnificence of the blade. It is a nervous and sometimes agonising business, attempting to add to another craftsman's masterpiece, and we only hope we have done it justice.
Gilt bronze hilt collars, decorated with filigree work, were custom-made for the blade by our associate historic jeweller George Easton, taking inspiration from a number of items from the Staffordshire Hoard. The hilt was capped with a gilt bronze replica of the pommel-cap STH-K347 made for us specially by Mr Easton for this project.
Although some broad-seaxes, notably those from Northolt Manor and Purton have very long grips of at least 24cm in length, most vary between 10 and 20cm. Taking into account the proportions and balance of the blade we settled on a hilt length of 19cm, with the actual grip (excluding the jewelled elements) measuring 9.5cm, producing a grip comfortably wide enough for one hand. Because of the size of the grip collars, the hilt was made wasp-waisted to some degree with an offset central widening to promote a comfortable grip. The haft was carved in sections from walnut using spacers of black cow-horn.
The result is, expectedly for such a weapon, blade-heavy, but nevertheless comfortable in the hand. Such weapons, and their even more substantial brothers – heavy broadseaxes – seem to have been optimised for heavy chopping blows, and this is no exception.
The thick veg-tanned leather was tooled to a conservative and well evidenced design, featuring lines delineating the shape and fullers of the blade contained within, with other tooled elements having been designed in a manner informed by, and sympathetic to the metallic elements of the sheath. It was lined with fine animal hide to further protect the blade (-an approach more commonly associated with wood-cored sheaths, but nevertheless evidenced having augmented the core-free sheath of the seax from Buttermarket G2297). The sheath was closed using a myriad of tiny copper-alloy pins on the suspension-flap following the style of Buttermarket G1306, and likewise, an L-shaped copper-alloy fitting of U-cross-section was added to the suspension-flap at the mouth of the sheath. Further decoration came from 7 rivets interspersed with 5 larger decorative copper-ally buttons 16mm in diameter showing what at first sight looks to be an abstract chip-carved design but is actually a devolved Salin Style-II picture of what I take to be a raven. Such large decorative rivets are seen on the sheaths of continental large seaxes but are not unknown in England, being found in Buttermarket and the smith’s grave at Tattershall-Thorpe, which was dated to the late 7th century. The buttons and rivets used here, though not precise replicas of either find, mirror their styles and arrangement closely and together, we hope, are highly representative of these overtly Frankish-influenced, highly decorative and wealth-displaying sheaths.
The suspension system relies on two iron three-way strap-dividers and utilises two of the large brass studs to secure the vertical straps. Adjustment is via a small iron buckle on the anterior strap and a larger iron buckle on the breast strap of the baldric. This system produces very comfortable carriage of this big seax with no damaging torsion being placed on the straps.
This is a speculative weapon reconstruction but the sheath and suspension have been kept very disciplined and within what is well-evidenced.
The name we have given to this ‘atypischer Breitsax’ is ‘Átorþorn’, which means ‘poison-thorn’ in Old English. The Anglo-Saxon term ‘þorn’ actually means ‘a sharp point on a stem’ and has always had the associated idea of its causing pain. In Norse poetry the term was sometimes used to describe a jötun. Our blade has the classic seax twist-welded pattern now described as ‘herringbone’ or ‘Anna’ but which was known in Anglo-Saxon times as ‘átertánum fáh’. This meant ‘poison-twig pattern’ and was clearly a kenning for the venomous adder whose markings it resembles. We particularly like the wave-like appearance of the area of the blade which marks where the hard steel edge meets blade core. It is now known that good quality seax-blades did sometimes show this interface which some have likened to the hamon on a Japanese sword.
Having taken well over two years of planning and research, this project has, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, taken copious quantities of ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. We hope the end result has been a replica seax and sheath worthy of a late c7th king of Mercia, and brought to life what such a weapon assemblage might have looked like at the time of its making.
Drawing on research for the previous reconstruction (see discussion here), work began with fashioning the board. Once again, 10-year seasoned ash planks sourced from trees felled less than 14 miles from Bidford were used. While ash sits among less commonly used timbers for Anglo-Saxon shield construction, evidence from the Tranmer House cemetery suggests that this timber was used preferentially (and even imported from neighboring regions) for high status shield boards, perhaps due to its outstanding toughness, split-resistance and durability compared to wood such as willow, poplar or maple more commonly used for shields. The toughness of ash surely posed a challenge for shield-makers, being highly resistant to carving, and it is this fact which most likely made other, weaker but more easily worked timbers more widely used.
Planks for the board were laboriously thinned to within a few millimeters of the target thickness, glued together with hot hide-glue, then re-thinned and painstakingly sanded by hand, before being cut to shape and sanded further, with board thickness declining gradually towards the edge which was itself carved thin on the front-face, producing a subtly very slightly convex outer face (yet with flat reverse) corresponding to inferences from cases such as the shield from Sutton-Hoo mound 1. Unlike the previous reconstruction (Bidford-182) this shield was made larger but thinner, measuring approx 5mm thick at the centre - corresponding to the lower end of estimated shield thicknesses inferred from early Anglo-Saxon finds. Given the greater durability of ash compared to other potential shield woods, but also it's increased density, it is argued that shields made of this material may well have been carved thinner than otherwise to normalize weight without strength being compromised due to the excellent properties of the timber.
Leather was added to the front face with hide glue, with a leather edge stitched in place and hand-burnished. The leather face was treated with natural oils and finally, polished with a protective coating of beeswax. The grip - corresponding to the extant remains of the type 1b grip from the grave, was formed around an ash core and fixed in place by means of small clench-nails. The boss - produced by our associate smith closely corresponding to that of the original, was rivetted in place along with two disc fittings and a rare lozenge fitting, in an arrangement based upon the positions of these finds relative to the boss in a photograph of the grave in-situ during excavation in 1923 (see below). Larger, more elaborate lozenge fittings feature heavily on impressive shields from high status burials of the roughly contemporaneous related east-Swedish Vendel-culture, but all extant Anglo-Saxon examples are smaller, plain, and usually single. The fitting from Bidford grave 33, precisely reproduced here, was the largest found in England at the time of publication of Tania Dickinson's influential synthesis of early Anglo-Saxon shield finds in the 1990s, and is the 'type specimen' for such fittings in England. Although the purpose of such lozenge fittings is not known, and they may have been purely decorative, it is possible they were added to shields to reinforce observed weaknesses or points of damage. Here, the lozenge has been positioned bracing two of the planks.
The result - the final in this series, we hope provides a representative impression of what a more typical early Anglo-Saxon shield would have looked and felt like based where possible on evidence from the particular grave in question, and otherwise from understanding of early Anglo-Saxon shields more broadly. It is interesting to note that, despite being of considerably greater diameter than our previous reconstruction of the shield from grave 182 and constructed of precisely the same materials, the modest reduction in board thickness (through reduced thickness of both wood and leather) has led this larger shield to weigh slightly less than its brother. Members of the public are often surprised by the weight of combat shields, but this reconstruction might demonstrate that Anglo-Saxon shields were perhaps not quite so heavy after all !
The modern town of Cannock sits in an interesting position in the heart of the Anglo-Saxon territory of Mercia, on the important Roman road of Watling Street, and only a few miles from the find-site of the Staffordshire Hoard. Although the oldest part of the oldest building in the modern town (St Luke's Church) dates to 1100 AD, the parish and its surroundings are steeped in earlier history.
The Thegns have been proud to be involved, this year, in helping St Luke's Church to communicate and promote Cannock's rich history as part of their 900-year anniversary celebrations.
As part of this effort, the Thegns were commissioned to produce a special reconstruction to mark the 900 year anniversary.
In this charter, the parishes which were transferred were first listed, and then their boundaries were described in detail. One of these parishes; Hagethorndune (Hawthorn Hill, now Hatherton) almost certainly included the area of the modern town of Cannock.
This important piece of local history was chosen to be reproduced for St Luke's by the skilled hand of Thegns-of-Mercia and English Companions member Harry Ball; a specialist in Anglo-Saxon texts and their reproduction with authentic techniques.
Although the charter's authenticity has been questioned, it does refer to a real event, and the boundaries described are from a genuine pre-Conquest survey. However, as the form in which the text comes down to us is itself a copy-of-a-copy (produced by the 17th century antiquarian Dugdale) the original form of the charter is not known.
With reference to other, more provenanced charters (including, in particular, the contemporary charter S878 for nearby Abbots Bromley) Harry has reproduced the relevant parts of the charter (the overview, description of the bounds of the Hatherton parish, and the witness list) in insular minuscule script handwritten by quill on high-quality sheepskin parchment, producing a result close to how the original may have looked when it was first produced.
It is hoped that this reproduction will raise awareness of the detailed local history of the area dating back to the latter parts of the Anglo-Saxon period. While the introduction to the charter mentions nearby town names including Bilston, Willenhall, and, significantly, Ogley (Hay) where the famous Staffordshire Hoard was found, the more detailed parish-boundary description for Hatherton contains a wealth of detail about the landscape which local people may still be able to recognise. Finally, the detailed witness-list (including Æthelred, king of the English, and each archbishop and senior bishop in Anglo-Saxon England at the time) highlights that in the 10th century, this land transfer was sufficiently significant for the most important folk in the land to take an interest in the Cannock area.
It is fortuitous, to say the least, that our ancestors chose to write their records on a material which if properly prepared and treated well can last over a thousand years, and therefore that these important pieces of local history have not been lost. There is no reason why this reconstruction might not last equally long, and we hope that, in the keeping of Cannock's central church and oldest historic building, it might serve to help future Cannock residents feel connected with their area's rich heritage.
In Christ. This be the land boundary that Wulfrun has done into the minster of Hamton*, and the town names that this privilege about speaks. First from Arley and Ashwood and Bilston and Willenhall and Wednesfield and Pelsall and Ogley** and Hilton and Hatherton and Kinvaston and the other Hilton and Featherstone.
And many good men also with these both ecclesiastics and laymen. ****
*Hamton - Settlement which at some time after this land transfer became known as "Wulfrun's Hamton" and today known as Wolverhampton.
** Ogley - Now known as Ogley Hay -nearest known settlement from Anglo-Saxon times to the find-site of the 7th century Staffordshire Hoard.
*** Long Street - Phrase usually used in relation to old Roman roads, and in this case almost certainly referring to Watling Street, now the A5.
**** The copy of the charter from which this replica is based included a further 26 additional witness names, which are glossed here using this familiar phrase borrowed from charter S1459.
Following the success of the previous project to reconstruct the famous 6th century shield from Bidford-on-Avon grave-182 with the kind help of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, we were honoured to be asked by the Trust to produce for them a reconstruction of a 6th shield to be shown to visiting school groups, alongside the original finds in their collection vaults, as part of their educational programme in support of teaching for the new national curriculum.
Although simplifying some aspects of the construction to maximize durability and keep costs for the Trust low, we were pleased to be able to produce a satisfying result; a highly durable but convincing reconstruction with details linking directly to items in the collection and drawing particular inspiration from Bidford-on-Avon graves 33 and 182.
A size of approximately 60cm in diameter was chosen; a reasonable size to be handled by pupils in the target agegroup, close to the modal size for 6th century Anglo-Saxon shields, and also fitting comfortably in the upper half of the "medium shield" category (Dickinson and Härke, 1992). Key details of interest which were integrated into the reconstruction included a boss hand forged by our associate smith corresponding to the form of the well preserved boss from grave 33, in the SBT collection, with rivets capped with pure tin achieving a similar look to those of the boss from grave 182, tinned board disc fittings like those of grave 33, an iron lozenge fitting corresponding to the type specimen from grave 33, and a type 1a(i) grip.
On completion of the project, three members of the Thegns of Mercia were pleased to be warmly welcomed to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon to present the reconstructed shield to staff in person. It is hoped that this shield, displayed alongside matching finds in the collection, will help to bring the Anglo-Saxon age to life in the minds of visiting school pupils, inspire learning about the period, and encourage pupils to consider various basic aspects of interpretation of archaeology.
With the kind help of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, over 2013-14 we researched the find and attempted a convincing reconstruction with the help of our associate craftspeople, hoping to recreate what the shield may have looked like when new, and with the intention to raise awareness of this important Midlands find.
The effort began with substantial research; first to track the find down, and then to explore its context. With Bidford-182 sitting in the "borderlands" between the Wessex-influenced upper Thames valley region and the tribal regions that would later form Mercia, it was particularly important to investigate the affinities of the Bidford finds, and the items from grave 182 in particular. Before recreating the artistic elements, it was also worthwhile exploring their meanings. (Our discussion on the cemetery, its finds, affinities, and the meaning of the 182 shield art can be seen here).
A shield boss closely matching the dimensions of the original was commissioned from our associate smith, while replicas of the decorative gilded copper-alloy fittings were commissioned from our associate historic jeweller. It was necessary to be extremely precise with these items so as to ensure that the gently curving fittings would, in shape, to the sweep of the boss flange. Our jeweler was also able to produce gilded disc fittings corresponding to the reported measurements of the originals.
The board was constructed by Thegns members Dr Andrew Thompson and Æd Thompson, using 10-year seasoned ash which had been cut from trees felled less than 14 miles from Bidford-on-Avon itself. The board planks were thinned using authentic adzes and chisels to an appropriate thickness, then glued together using hot animal-glue, producing strong bonds between the plank edges. (More detail on the reconstruction here). With no evidence to infer the size of the board of the Bidford-182 shield, a diameter of 68cm was chosen, taking into account inferences from neighboring finds.
The board was then covered with oak-tanned leather, fixed in place using hot animal glue, while an edge, again of oak-tanned leather was sewn in place through pre-drilled holes with strong linen thread. The leather was then treated with a beeswax and oil mixture, applied warm and with considerable polishing, to achieve a rich, water-resistant and scratch-resistant finish. Meanwhile, a grip had been prepared (Dickinson and Harke type 1a(I) ) corresponding closely to the degraded remains of the original. This was fixed in place using soft iron clench-nails (again corresponding to extant remains) atop a wooden component continuous with the boards themselves, then bound with thin calf-skin for added comfort - a technique well evidenced from other 6th century finds. Although previously skeptical about the security of this rather simple type of shield grip (and preferring the common and more sophisticated type 1b) we found the result to be both surprisingly sturdy and comfortable.
Following installation of the decorative pieces, the boss was installed using soft iron rivets peened onto roves on the reverse, while, for security, the decorative disc fittings on the board were attached in a similar manner. The shield boss rivets themselves were capped, prior to installation, with tin, as the originals had been, resulting in an impressive juxtaposition of black iron, gold mounts and silver-coloured rivet caps.
The result, we hope, reflects well what the original shield may have looked like before deposition at some time in the 6th century, with the elements available for study effectively recreated, and conservative choices made with respect to aspects which could not be inferred from the archaeology.