Warrior Treasures: meet Dr Sue Brunning of The British Museum

British-Museum-Sue-BrunningThe Royal Armouries ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’ temporary exhibition opens TODAY until the 2nd October 2016. To complement the exhibition, Royal Armouries is running a blog series providing behind the scenes details on how these fascinating items were discovered, conserved, and prepared for the exhibition. In this post Dr Sue Brunning of The British Museum talks about what about the Anglo-Saxons attracted her studies.

Find out more at our exhibition conference day, Saturday 11th June, see details on the Warrior Treasures exhibition website.

When I was growing up, fantasy movies were my thing. Something about these strange worlds of heroes, villains, magic and monsters captivated me – especially when legendary swords were involved. I spent hours in my garden trying to perfect my sword-swirling skills with a gardening cane, imagining I was Red Sonja or She-Ra. So when I went to study History at university, it was inevitable that the Anglo-Saxons would draw me in. Their way of looking at their world, as painted by Bede and Beowulf, echoed my beloved fantasy movies – but it was real! There were heroic kings like Edwin, terrifying warriors like Penda, monsters lurking in fens and – crucially for me – revered, ancient swords that seemed to have characters of their own. While I knew I was viewing these things through the lens of third parties, I grew determined to find out if such swords truly existed, or were just poetic motifs. The seeds of my PhD were sown.

As a way in, I looked for evidence of ancient swords in the Anglo-Saxon archaeological record. I hunted physical signs of wear, repair and modification in the belief that these weapons had probably been around for some time if these changes had taken place. To my excitement, I found plenty of evidence. I saw lots of worn-down sword pommels (the fitting at the end of the hilt), often appearing in patterns that showed the sword’s owner had rested his hand on it when the sword was sheathed at his side. In a couple of cases the wear-patterns were so distinctive that I could make an educated guess as to whether the owner was right (usually) or left (rarely) handed.

Silver Gilt pommel
Silver and gilt pommel

I also found swords that had been modified over time by having fittings added to or removed from them. A few had differently-decorated fittings from different times, making them like visual timelines of their histories. Others had holes drilled into their pommels to attach a curious ring-type fitting. Experts think these rings were given to warriors when they swore an oath of allegiance to their lords. Empty holes on pommels show that some rings were removed later on. Had the sword’s owners broken his oath in some shameful incident? Or was the sword passed on after his death, its new owner not inheriting the same oath?

I felt I was building a picture of swords that could ‘live’ long lives, have many owners and maybe could become famous among those who encountered them. We can’t know for sure if the Anglo-Saxons thought their swords were really ‘alive’, but this long circulation, the building of memories and relationships, is a form of ‘life’. It becomes clearer if we think of our relationships with objects today. Own an object for long enough and it takes on a character of its own. Think of your car – do you talk to it? Do you curse and praise it depending on how it ‘behaves’? Have you given it a name? I’ve done this. When an HGV hit my car several years ago, the most upsetting thing was watching my faithful old friend, crushed and unrecognisable, being raised onto the recovery truck. All those memories, the trips taken together, the scratches and dents, and the stickers I’d put in the windows, were all gone. Black Shuck had done his job by protecting me so that I walked away uninjured, but I was devastated to have lost my companion.

Staffordshire Hoard - group shot
A selection of items of the hoard

I wonder whether the Anglo-Saxons had similar thoughts about their swords. Maybe they took on life because they were precious heirlooms linking owners to beloved ancestors or friends; they became a boast of oaths sworn, allegiances made; they protected you through rough adventures; they were literally attached to your side, proclaiming your standing and success. These ideas make my hairs stand on end when I think about what the torn-off sword fittings in the Staffordshire Hoard might represent. Imagine the owners of those swords, probably losers in battle, watching as their cherished swords were stripped of the fittings they knew so well, that had become worn down by their hand or added to mark some proud occasion. It would be a heart-breaking, demoralising experience. Perhaps the victors knew it would be, and that was why they did it – a way to inflict total and utter conquest upon an enemy: a soul- as well as a bone-crushing defeat.

When we visit the Staffordshire Hoard in the Royal Armouries Warrior Treasures exhibition (opens Friday 27th May), it’s easy to marvel at the craftsmanship of the individual fittings and be dazzled by the glittering precious metals and gemstones. But take a moment to look closer, and you’ll remember that these weapons once belonged to real warriors and carried so much meaning beyond their silver and gold. ‘Living’ swords were not limited to the world of fantasy movies – they existed in the hands of the Anglo-Saxons.

Gold Hoard Images created by BM&AG
K1497 – Decorative filigree mount from a sword hilt, probably in the shape of a horse.

All images © Birmingham Museums Trust unless otherwise indicated.

To find out more about the Royal Armouries upcoming exhibition ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’ please visit our exhibition website http://warrior-treasures.uk/

Join our Warrior Treasures exhibition conference Saturday 11th June to hear from leading experts in the field, who will explore the many aspects of this remarkable Anglo-Saxon find and explain how it is adding to our understanding of the people that made, used and buried this magnificent hoard. Please see full details and purchase tickets viathe Royal Armouries website.