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.