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Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, c. 700 (British Museum, London) Multiple bronze, gold and silver objects of Anglo Saxon origin, found in Suffolk, England, including: a helmet, sceptre, sword, hanging bowl, bowls and spoons, shoulder clasps, a belt buckle, and purse lid. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
[music playing] 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 in a farm in the twentieth 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 in a moment when what would become England was in chaos. 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, and invasions from Denmark, England had become a series of different kingdoms, -Which were often at war with each other. Which were often at war with each other. Various attempts were made by people like Ethelbert to unite those kingdoms. Also at this time Germanic tribes and Danish tribes were Christianized in the 500's and 600's. 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 paintings, a very unstable period in medieval history. 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 swords, you find this man's helmet, shields. It's also very finely wrought material. Probably one of the most famous objects is this purse lid. -Which is made of gold and cloisonné. -Yeah, got a little cloisonné. The backing is a reconstruction; underneath it would have been a leather bag. Which is long gone, only the gold and the glass have survived. Let's take a close look at the style. 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. It looks pretty serious, you see that doubled almost as if it's a kind of mirror. His mouth is open; he 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, and they seem to be ready to devour. Or perhaps to tell him a secret, one or the other. 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. That caution that you just suggested is really important. This is all conjecture. We really have no idea. 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? Right, perhaps an eagle attacking another bird - 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 cloisonné, and in certain cases you've actually got garnet. And so the cloisonné is this kind of division of areas using metal wire, and then filling in those spaces in between with enamel. 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. And we actually have the gold coins that were in this purse. And you know, we're looking at something from the early 600's, from a period in European history when so little remains for us to understand what it was like during this period. 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 . . . Or at least, the costume of a very wealthy, very powerful, likely king. [music playing]