Video transcript

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the British Museum and looking at one of the real treasures of early medieval British history. This is the Sutton Hoo ship burial, which comes from East Anglia. It was found at a farm in the 20th century. I think it was 1938 that a series of mounds were excavated. It was a series of burials. Most of them had already been robbed. But the largest one, they found a ship in it. And in the ship was treasure. And we think originally the body of the man who owned this material. He would have lived at a moment when what would become England was in chaos. DR. BETH HARRIS: The Roman Empire had fallen several hundred years earlier. England had been part of the Roman Empire. But then, through a series of invasions of Germanic tribes, invasions from Denmark, England had become a series of different kingdoms. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Which were often at war with each other. DR. BETH HARRIS: Which were often at war with each other. Various attempts were made by people like Aethelbert to unite those kingdoms. Also at this time, Germanic tribes and Danish tribes were Christianized in the 500s and 600s. So with the Sutton Hoo ship burial we have some very rare artifacts from a period when there's not a lot of building. There's not a lot of painting. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Yes. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's a very unstable period in medieval history. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: You really get a sense of what that world was like from the things that we found in the burial. You find objects of warfare. You find this man's-- DR. BETH HARRIS: Swords. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: --this man's helmet, shield. It's also very finely wrought material. Probably one of the most famous objects is this purse lid. DR. BETH HARRIS: Which is made of gold and cloisonne. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Yeah, enamel cloisonne. The backing is a reconstruction. DR. BETH HARRIS: Underneath it would've been a leather bag. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So it's long gone, right. The gold and the glass have survived. Let's take a close look at the style. DR. BETH HARRIS: We have typical interlacing of abstract forms. Also, the introduction of animals. Along the bottom, we have, on either side, it's a very symmetrical design, frontal human figure who seems to be attacked on either side by wolves. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It looks pretty serious. Yeah, you see that doubled, almost as if it's a kind of mirror. His mouth is open. It looks like he has a mustache. His face is a circle ringed with a pattern that could almost function as hair. But the mouth is open almost as if it's a kind of scream or a kind of distress. His arms seem to be folded up. And then those animals, their mouths are open. They seem to be ready to devour or, perhaps, to tell him a secret. One or the other. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's impossible to really know what's going on. We read that expression on his face as one of horror. But who knows? Maybe this is a suggestion of power. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That caution that you just suggested is really important. DR. BETH HARRIS: Yeah. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is all conjecture. DR. BETH HARRIS: We really have no idea. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's absolutely right. Let's go further inside. And you see a kind of bird of prey that seems to be attacking a more passive bird. Do you see that? DR. BETH HARRIS: Right. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Like a duck. DR. BETH HARRIS: Perhaps an eagle attacking another bird. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Yeah. Perhaps a duck or something like that. There is this beautiful interlacing, as you called it, this kind of knotting which we'll see in Hiberno-Saxon art. And then you've got this cloisonne. And, in certain cases, you've actually got garnet. DR. BETH HARRIS: And so the cloisonne is this kind of division of areas using metal wire and then filling in those spaces in between with enamel. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's interesting that almost everything in the ship burial has disintegrated. Almost everything has rotted. Even the bones of the man that would have been buried have dissolved. Really what's survived is the enamel and the gold. DR. BETH HARRIS: And we actually have the gold coins that were in this purse. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: In the purse. DR. BETH HARRIS: And we're looking at something from the early 600s, from a period in European history when so little remains for us to understand what it was like during this period. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But we do get a sense of what their costume must have been like from the purse lid, from the belt buckles, from the shoulder clasps. DR. BETH HARRIS: Or, at least, the costume of a very wealthy, very powerful, likely, king.