Sue’s favourite Anglo-Saxon sword I Curator’s Corner season 4 episode 4

Sue’s favourite Anglo-Saxon sword I Curator’s Corner season 4 episode 4


One of these swords is my absolute favorite sword in any Museum, anywhere in the world
I’m Sue Brunning, I’m curator of the European Early Medieval Collections and this is my corner.
So today I’m going to talk to you about my favorite artifacts in the museum,
which are early Anglo-Saxon swords so I’ve got three swords here to talk to you about
they all come from the 6th to early 7th century so this is the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain
in the early Anglo-Saxon period swords were really the only weapon
that was made and used exclusively for warfare
so Spears could be used for hunting for instance, same with arrows
and axes were kind of related conceptually also to tools.
Whereas swords were the only weapon that were basically made for killing other human beings.
Swords were also the most prestigious weapon most prestigious type of fighting implement
for the early Anglo-Saxons and we see this in the art and literature from the time
but we also see it in particular from the archaeology which is what I’m particularly interested in.
So for example, during this period when these swords were made,
in the 6th and 7th centuries the Anglo-Saxons were burying their dead with grave goods
and that meant that the dead person was placed inside the ground surrounded by an array of artifacts
we find with swords that they’re often buried very close to the body
sometimes they’re overlaying parts of the body like the arm and the shoulder
and sometimes they’re actually cradled into the arm
as if they’re sort of being being hugged like a really beloved possession.
So we have this this closeness between the dead person and a sword
and I think that’s because swords were particularly important to that dead person’s identity
they said something about the person that was in the grave.
One of the things that I was really struck by when I first started studying Anglo-Saxon swords
was actually how shabby the condition of many of them are.
Now I’m not talking about the blades of the swords when I say that,
these are made from iron so after about 1500 years or so in the grave
they do tend to come out looking like this, it’s very highly corroded
What I’m talking about is actually the hilts of these swords
so the handles the parts of the sword that are held in the hands.
These fittings often show quite a lot of wear and tear with the decoration has been worn down
or some of the surface ornaments, such as gilding, those sorts of things has been worn away.
I have one example here this is probably dating to the 6th century
and it was found at a cemetery in Faversham in Kent so not very far away from where we are in London now
and the part that I want to talk to you about is the pommel which is the piece at the very end of the handle
or the hilt of the sword here now if we take a very close look at the pommel here
we can see that this decoration that runs along the front there’s a line here starts to disappear towards this end
and also on the top of the pommel here as well we have quite deep sort of almond shaped slashes
that have been gilded so covered with a layer of gold
and we can also see where the depth of those starts to become shallower
where it’s worn away and become kind of just less distinct and less deep.
In order to demonstrate how the pommel got into that condition
I have a handy prop which is my trusty foam sword, here’s one I made earlier.
So just stand up now in this period in the early Anglo-Saxon period
swords are normally being worn on the left hand side like this
and so that means we have it kind of here and that means also that
it forms a kind of a handy hand rest for the sword so you can see you know how this would be
quite an attractive place to sort of rest your hands and strike a quite an authoritative pose
but what that also means is that this part of the sword here which is the top part of the pommel
which is the same one that I pointed to on the sword on the table there
is becoming worn and that’s what I’ve used these pins to demonstrate
because the swords always being worn like this and the hand is resting on it like this
and so over a period of time that’s where we see the wear start to materialize
on those parts of the sword there that’s exactly what we find on our sword from Faversham.
One of the other signs of age that we find on swords during this period
is that they actually start to take on lots of different styles
and swords might pass between several different owners over the course of their lives
then they might acquire this kind of sort of Frankenstein look as I tend to refer to it
it’s a little bit like maybe wearing a Roman helmet with like a Victorian tail coat
and a pair of 1980 shell suit bottom trousers or something like that so you get this mixture of styles
and we’ve got one sword in the collection which is a bit like this
and that’s this one right here which is rather nice because it’s decorated with gold
these gold fittings that are attached to the sword here and this one here is also inlaid with red stones
which are garnets, these probably date according to their style to the early 7th century
so around the time when the Sutton Hoo ship burial took place for example
but the form of the hilt or the handle itself is actually thought to be quite earlier it represents an earlier style of handle
so actually this sword could have been around for quite a long period of time.
But the most common type of addition to swords that’s made during this early Anglo-Saxon period
are these sets of ring fittings which resemble two interlocking rings kind of do this
and they’re attached again to the pommel part of the swords and I have another example
again from King’s Field in Faversham on the table here
and we can see those interlocking rings attached to the pommel just here
now the most influential theory about what these ring fittings mean
is that they’re connected with the swearing of oaths in the Anglo-Saxon period
so for example if you’re a warrior and you’re entering the service of a lord
you might swear an oath of service to that person and then that might be kind of commemorated
with the addition of a ring to your sword so if it didn’t have one once you swore that oath
then the ring would be added. There’s all sorts of reasons why these rings may have been added
and removed but that’s quite a convincing theory I think.
So by looking at these these rings and the mobility of these rings the addition and removal of fittings
which we’ve talked about with these two different swords here
we can start to see actually how swords can build up their own biography,
they can start to create a life history of events and people that they’re related to.
The Anglo Saxons didn’t really seem to be too bothered about hiding those blemishes
or making those differences blend in. They were quite happy for these sort of mismatched things
and these these scars of life, for want of a better description, are quite front and center
and there for everybody to be able to see and that starts to suggest that there’s this idea
that actually age and experience are something to be to be kind of boasted about
are something to be shown for everybody to see, so an old sword is a dependable sword
it’s proven, you know that it’s faced a lot of fights, it’s come through those fights and it’s been dependable.
A new sword might look very shiny and very nice but actually it’s it’s got no credentials, it’s got no track record
it’s got no kind of wins underneath its belt whereas an old sword is something that feels familiar in your hand,
it’s not alien in your hand and so it becomes almost like a comrade rather than a tool
then we start to arrive at the reason why this sword, the plainest one on the table
is my favorite sword in any museum anywhere in the world.
So if we come and take a look again at the pommel which we looked at earlier
we’ve already seen that this is an old sword that’s seen a lot of wear during its life
but its owner or one of its owners has left us the tiniest little message, just the ghost of a message,
which is really packing an emotional punch. So very close up on to this you might just be able to see
the faintest trace of a rune, now runes are Anglo-Saxon letters which look a little bit like twigs
lots of straight lines and they’re being used in this period to make inscriptions including the one on this sword
Now this is an ash rune which looks a bit like a modern-day F
so it’s kind of like an F but the cross pieces at the top are angling downwards like that, so it’s very much like an F.
Now a poem survives in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript we call it the old English rune poem
and that tells us all of the meanings of the various runes.
Now the poem was actually written down sometime after the rune on this sword was carved
but if it preserves anything of the meanings of the runes in this earlier period when this sword was made
then its meaning is actually quite instructive,
the ash is extremely tall, precious to mankind, strong on its base,
it holds its ground as it should although many men attack it.
Now I think that the relevance of a verse like that is quite clear to a warrior in the early Anglo- Saxon period.
So we can start to build a picture of the warrior who owned this sword, carving this inspirational rune
upon his sword, something that would give him a kind of strength and inspiration
to face what was probably still a terrifying prospect even though warfare in those days
was much more commonplace than it is for the rest of us today.
But these swords are also great, I think, as a life lesson to all of us because they show us that
actually age is nothing to be embarrassed about, we shouldn’t be worried about our gray hairs and our wrinkles
and those sorts of things that they’re not a sign of weakness,
in actual fact we should embrace the strength the authority that they give to us.
S o that has been my corner, thank you very much for joining me today,
if you like this corner there are plenty more available on our YouTube channel
which hopefully you will subscribe to and get lots of brilliant content from all of my amazing colleagues.

100 comments

  1. I'm glad that history was dull in High School (in the 60s) I did well in physics and ultimately it paid the rent. What if it had been interesting like this and the minutiae of a sword could catapult you into the bigger themes in history? Would I now have a jacket with leather elbow pads? (Just joking!)

  2. Just draw a mole on her face, and you'll see that she is actually the woman from K'eyush The Stunt Dog. She can just quit this charade. The dog channel is better.

  3. I love the Curators Corner! It is a wealth of knowledge in a few minutes. Your Curators are so passionate about each item that it is such a pleasure to watch them. Thank you for them sharing their expertise.

  4. Anyone have an idea how expensive a sword like this would be around 650A.D.? (relatively speaking, of course).

  5. The Ash rune may also have been bestowed as an honor, for a feat in battle? To commemorate holding a position against many attackers, and surviving it? There's no way of knowing who engraved it, nor for whom.

  6. I've been trying to make white chalk come out my index finger for hours now,,,,,,,,, still can't do it,,,,she must be a wizard. 7:59

  7. Brilliant. Please good sirs at the museum, I want some more Sue? Let her bring forth, all the swords in the land.

  8. That rune in Norse is Ansuz (Ash in Saxonic). It was also Odins (Wotan in Saxon) rune so it is possible the sword is pre Christian Saxon in origin. Ansuz stands for wisdom, intelligence, knowledge and insight. The rune may be referring to a message, or the power of communication. A truly awesome thing to ponder considering the many centuries this message has been handed down from. It could also be asking for the blessing and protection from Wotan (Odin) himself. The ring on the other sword is a Torc ring. Just as a warrior swearing fealty to a King or Lord wore a Torc ring so to did their swords showing the swords loyalty towards their King.

    Really cool presentations Sue. Thoroughly enjoyable. Keep up the great work please 🙂

  9. The Ash rune was the first letter of his name. Old swords are heirlooms, the older they look the more likely you can convince your mates that the sword was the property of Beowulf from back in the day in Denmark

  10. A very personable look at these beautiful pieces of iron….the runic inscription was just FABULOUS ! History is is life lived, and the Anglo Saxon's lives were , for me, some of the most interesting lives, historically speaking.
    Well presented piece indeed, glad I discovered this 😃

  11. i hope you read this british museum. here s my true story im going to tell you, back in the 70s when i was a kid i found a sword and even as a kid i knew it was very old.so i thought how can i find out about it.so i took it to school and showed my history teacher.he said hed send it to the british museum,and that was the last i ever saw of it..i could give you more details ie the teachers name and where it was found.he could of lied and not sent it there,or its there and it belongs to me.i know it was nothing fancy i remember him saying its just a small side arm.even so till this day i still dont like how it was took from me.

  12. I've noticed some pommels have the interlocking rings, but instead are one solid piece of metal (as opposed to 2 actual rings as presented here). What is the meaning behind these types of "psuedo rings"? Were they decorative?

  13. I think the asymmetric wear on the pommel has somewhat less to do with an authoritative hand-rest, and more likely because someone bearing a sword to has to push down on the pommel to raise the point end when sitting down.

  14. Sue

    What’s your favorite reproduction Anglo-Saxon sword as in who makes every production that you find the most authentic

    Which vendor and manufacture

  15. When Sue was talking about embracing wrinkles and gray hairs as a sign of power an authority that age gives us, I'm pretty sure she was talking about Irving Finkel.

  16. I do not know about the Saxons but it seems that Angles and Danes sometimes had names for their swords. The sword Skræp is rather famous in Denmark. An then the sword and its users, king Vermund and his son Uffe (the meek) really were Angles. But they got "adopted" by a later age. Vermund had the sword burried as he was ashamed of his hopeless son. And then, at the Saxons threatened Denmark (which was Anglen, not Denmark) and Vermund was old and blind, Uffe rose to the task of defending "Denmark" in a duel. Skræp was dug up (not rusty?) and Uffe killed the two Saxon champions. Vermund was about to drown himself but then he heard Skræp sing! And knew that the day was won.

    As a later age reformatted the tale.

  17. Weren't they a status symbol which means the owners usually had others to do the killing? wouldn't want to chip the pretty blade XD

  18. Sure is nice having such a pretty Bri'ish lass to display cool weapons: it lessens my guilt at the homoerotic nature of admiring long, hard, objects made to penetrate people. Very informative analysis of the forensic evidence young lady, your intellect is a complement to your fair and comely ways. Cheerio!

  19. Hey guys!? You're going to need and modify this for your American viewers. I saw the title…"Sue's Favorite Anglo-Saxon Sword" and thought it was something ENTIRELY different! (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)

  20. Her educated guess is quite correct. The user of the sword would like to be able to draw the weapon on their dominant hand.

  21. Someone who knows that the history of the owner is just as important as the piece that is preserved has my support and respect. Well done to Sue. Your dedication, experience, knowledge, professionalism and genuine interest in learning about history all go into preserving pieces of the tapestry that is the past. Excellent video and very informative. Kudos to the British Museum and Sue.

  22. Facinating take, I often restore guitars, and I am always mindful of the playing styles of it's history, you can read the chords and notes played on its fretboard and I try to keep the soul as far as not to be detriment to its playability, thanks for that glimpse into an ancestors life.

  23. imagen getting a sword 1500 years ago from a young ago keeping it until you die at an old age and having people talk about it and study it 1500 years later

  24. The swords of the future will never degrade & will be in pristine condition after millions and millions of years & they will even have inscribed in them the DNA of all their victims.

  25. Possibly the sword with rings may have been used by the black knight who no longer needed it due to his "mere flesh wounds".

  26. I can only imagine the first men to come up with the sword. Two guys competing to build a bigger knife, until one day one of the other fuckers says, this isnt a knife, its a sword.

  27. Thank you so much for this wonderful lesson! History becomes so much more tangible if it’s possible to show that an artifact is not just an old dead item, but once was used by a real person. That’s what I would call “living history”.

  28. From what you surmised about the rings: Here in Southern California at Forest Lawn Memorial park (extensive cemetary an columbarium) they have 4 historic reproduction churches. One is an Anglo Saxon church resembling (possibly) pre Norman but made of stone.
    Out front is a stone structure of a large ring (1foot+ in diameter) with two seats so that a man and woman may sit on either side of the ring and extend their arms meeting inside the ring grasping hands. Appears to demonstrate loyalty, fealty and commitment. Very interesting in light of your ring presentation.

  29. whoa, axes, spears and arrows were totally designed to kill humans and animals, I am shocked and maybe a little concerned how you explain medieval weaponry. I hope your not teaching at university right now, you have gotten it all wrong.

  30. I think about a warrior dying long ago, yet having his thoughts and feelings a analyzed by someone like Sue ages and centuries later. The life has faded but that one rune preserved a piece of his thoughts, his soul to this day that now lives in all of our minds. Very powerful.

  31. ''The sword gains wisdom the more it is used'' reasurring line from a poem (Although it's funny to imagine people for whom this would not be the case..)

  32. As a martial artist I like to see weapons that are well maintained and show obvious signs of use. It speaks to the skill and dedication required to master both the weapon and the self.

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