As part of our blog series surrounding our upcoming exhibition ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’ Claudia Rogers – PhD placement student at the Royal Armouries in Leeds – writes on the grave discoveries of the Wollaston Warrior. Discover more at our exhibition conference day, Saturday 11th June, find more details on our micro-site http://warrior-treasures.uk/
The Wollaston Warrior’s grave was first discovered in 1997 just outside the town of Wollaston in Northamptonshire. Alongside the scarce remains of the warrior himself, this seventh-century Anglo-Saxon grave contained a helmet (at the time, only the fourth Anglo-Saxon helmet to be recovered from England), a sword, knife, three iron buckles, a dress hook, and a copper alloy hanging bowl, with one surviving decorative mount.
During my PhD placement at the Royal Armouires in Leeds, I’ll be helping with the upcoming exhibition ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard’ – a collection of gold and silver military ornaments unearthed by an amateur metal-detectorist in 2009. In this exhibition, the Wollaston Warrior’s grave goods will be displayed alongside the small but stunning objects of the Staffordshire Hoard. Whilst the Warrior’s grave goods may not be as dazzling to the eye, they’re a precious collection of great archaeological and historical importance, and, I think, rather captivating in their own way.
I’ve spent the first part of my placement in the Collections department, undertaking research on the Wollaston grave goods. After receiving object handling training, it was a pleasure to view the objects in stores for the first time. A number of the goods were quite hard to ‘see’, due to the state of their preservation: I was quite reliant on labels on the artefact’s cases when it came to identifying the knife and buckles, which were encapsulated in centuries of natural deposits. The copper alloy hanging bowl (see below) however, was instantly recognisable, with its striking green-blue copper colouring almost glowing. Unfortunately, the bowl (like many of the artefacts) was damaged in the grave before its discovery, most likely due to the shallowness of the grave itself. Although it was sad to see the bowl in various pieces rather than intact, I was amazed that I was handling an artefact that had been buried for over 1300 years – it’s incredible such a delicate object has survived at all.
After viewing the grave goods, I was intrigued to learn more about who the Wollaston Warrior actually was. As the archaeological findings and excavation report established*, his skeletal remains are very fragmentary and poorly preserved, which really limits what we can find out about him. Most likely, though, he was a lightly-built adult who died before he reached the age of 25. Following the examination of his skeletal remains, Wollaston’s mystery man has been resting peacefully in Northamptonshire archaeological stores.
We can also learn more about the Warrior from the grave goods themselves, which indicate that the grave belonged to a male of high status. The hanging bowl, for example, was made from one sheet of bronze, requiring the talents of a highly-skilled craftsman. The bowl would have originally been suspended from three hooks and decorated with escutcheons: these embellishments would have been made of brass or high-tin bronze – rare alloys used sparingly to adorn high-status objects in the early Anglo-Saxon period. This bowl, then, certainly reflects the standing of the Wollaston Warrior, although it remains unclear what uses the bowl had. Historical research into early medieval hanging bowls generally focuses on their Romano-British origins, for which they’re often associated with Christianity and liturgical contexts. How the Anglo-Saxons adopted them for use, though, is still largely uncertain. Accordingly, what the Wollaston Warrior used his hanging bowl for remains a mystery (for the time being).
Along with researching the historical context of the Warrior and his grave, I’ve completed a number of different tasks during my time in the Collections department, as well as having the privilege of taking part in planning meetings and other ‘behind the scenes’ things. I found that one of the most challenging jobs was to draft exhibition labels for the hanging bowl, buckles, and dress hook – something completely new to me. Writing object labels definitely encouraged me to think about what’s most important about each of these precious artefacts, but trying to tackle all the key points about the artefact in question – age, production, physical description, state of preservation, purpose… – in less than 60 words made for an exasperating afternoon of word counting and calculations. Yet, despite the maths-related trauma, it was an enjoyable lesson in prioritisation and writing concisely; I hope it’s worth it in the end! I’ve certainly been kept on my toes.
The next part of my work placement will be with the Interpretation team, focusing on the staging of the ‘Warrior Treasures’ exhibition. I’ll keep you posted with how I get on!
*Ian Meadows, An Anglian Warrior Burial from Wollaston, Northamptonshire (Northampton: Northamptonshire Archaeology & Northamptonshire County Council, 2004 [digital edition 2010])