Category: Archeology and important finds

The People in the Bayeux Tapestry

Scene 29 – “Here they give the crown to Harold”
Scene 29 – “Here they give the crown to Harold”, image on web site of Ulrich Harsh

Although referred to as a tapestry the Bayeux Tapestry is in fact an embroidery.

It was not made in Bayeux, but most likely at Canterbury, and was probably commissioned by Odo of Bayeux and made during the 1070s.

Its first appearance in the documentary record is the 1476 inventory of the treasures of Bayeux Cathedral where it is described as “A very long and narrow tapestry, made of cloth and embroidered with images and inscriptions, which shows the Conquest of England” and further explains that it was hung around the nave of the church on the day and the octave of the Feast of Relics.

It comprises 9 panels sewn together into a length of about 70m and it is probable that there was a 10th panel on the end (there was certainly more at the end but we don’t know for sure how much). It is about 50cm deep, split into three horizontal narratives of 7cm, 36cm (the main story) and then 7cm. Sometimes the three bands merge into a single story at critical moments of drama. In total there are around 60 scenes with (mostly) Latin text describing people, places and actions.

There are shelves and shelves of books, and a large number of web pages that can tell you more about the story; almost half of it is set in 1064 before the invasion of England, and was designed to try and justify it. However, in this article we are going to look at the named individuals in this dramatic tale.

In total there are 15 people named on the tapestry: 14 men and 1 woman. We can identify some others as well but they are not specifically named – Queen Edith for example is at King Edward’s deathbed but is not mentioned by name.

To begin with there are the major characters, kings and nobles: King Edward the Confessor, King Harold Godwinson, Duke William, and Guy of Ponthieu, who captured Harold when he landed on the Ponthieu coast, between Flanders and Normandy. Guy was well known for capturing and ransoming nobles from ships and must have been ecstatic to find Harold in his grasp; but William was his overlord and soon took control.

Other characters include Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain, William’s half-brothers. Odo has a much more prominent role than might be expected (including in the feast scene which seems to be modelled on the Last Supper and in which Odo sits in Jesus’ place) which suggests evidence that he was the commissioner of the work. In addition we meet Wadard, who supervises some pillaging, and Vital, who brings news, and both of whom have been identified from other documentary sources as probably being men of those names in the service of Odo.

Harold’s brothers, Leofwine and Gyrth, are identified in the battle scenes at Hastings reminding us that Tostig and Harald Hardrada, and the events at Fulford and Stamford Bridge, are noticeable by their absence from the tapestry. Describing these events would have legitimised the English King Harold and emphasised his authority and right to the throne. Meanwhile Eustace of Boulogne is shown carrying a banner and is the highest ranking non-Norman in William’s army who is depicted.

Archbishop Stigand is depicted at Edward’s deathbed, looking exhausted and unshaven, and later with King Harold. He was famously excommunicated by 5 different Popes for un-canonical behaviour and this meant that he did not crown William as king but only assisted the Archbishop of York. He was finally deposed and imprisoned in April 1070.

A man called Turold appears at Ponthieu holding the horses belonging to William’s messengers to Guy. The name is common for the period, and he is not a Norman because he is at Ponthieu. He may in fact be a dwarf and it has been suggested that his costume indicates that he was a jongleur or court entertainer and would have been a celebrity one for his name to be quoted. The name itself was very common but it is fun to speculate that he may be the Turold who is sometimes suggested as a possible composer of the “Song of Roland” (written c. 1040-1115).

The 14th man is Conan who is shown fleeing Dol during the campaign led by William and on which Harold accompanied him in 1064. Conan finally has to surrender Dinan to William and is depicted handing over the keys on the tip of a spear.

Only three women are shown in the tapestry and only one is named: Aelfgyva. She is clearly extremely important but no one can be certain who she is – although theories abound. There certainly seems to be reference to a sex scandal as there are some very explicit images in the margins at this point.

The other two women are Edith of Wessex, wife of King Edward and sister of King Harold, who is shown in Edward’s deathbed scene; and an unnamed woman fleeing a burning house with a boy when the Normans pillage the countryside around Hastings. Here’s another piece of speculation to consider: the house is near Hastings and clearly quite grand, so one possibility is that we are seeing Harold’s wife Edith Swan-neck and little son Ulf escaping Harold’s property.

Orm’s Sundial, Gregory Minster, Kirkdale

Orm’s sundial, St Gregory’s Minster, Kirkdale
Orm’s sundial, St Gregory’s Minster, Kirkdale. Photo © 2019 PWicks

At St Gregory’s Minster in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire, in the south porch you can still see the 11th century sundial made by Hawarth when Brand was the priest.

The full inscription can still be made out.

The sundial at Kirkdale, line drawing
The sundial at Kirkdale, Yorkshire from Wall, J. Charles (1912), Porches & Fonts, by Roger Griffith, Public domain

On the left hand side:

+ORM GAMAL SVNA BOHTE SCS GREGORIVS MINSTER ÐONNE HIT ǷES ÆL TOBROCAN & TOFALAN & HE HIT LET MACAN NEWAN FROM GRVNDE XPE & SCS GREGORIVS IN EADWARD DAGVM CNG &N TOSTI DAGVM EORL+

Orm, son of Gamal, bought St Gregory’s Minster when it was all broken and fallen down and he made it anew from the ground for Christ and the Saints in King Edward’s day and in the days of Earl Tostig

In the centre:

+THIS IS DÆGES SOLMERCA + ÆT ILCVM TIDE+

This is the sun marker of the day and at each time

On the right hand side:

+& HAWARÐ ME ǷROHTE & BRAND PRS

Hawarth made me and Brand the priest

Little of Orm’s rebuilding programme has survived beyond the sundial. There was probably a church there in the 8th century but there are no remains for that. The south and west walls incorporate Orm’s work: an archway, some shafts and capitals.  The church also has sculptures on display including some cross heads, a tomb slab associated with Bishop Cedd (died 664 AD), a tomb slab associated with King Æþelwald of Northumbria (died 765 AD) and a stone quern (hand mill) which may in fact be the oldest item there.

The sundial is located above the porch as you enter the church. If you feel agile and non-litigious you can scramble up onto a stone ledge to get a closer look. This may not have been its original location but the porch at least protects it from weathering now.  It is nevertheless likely to have been placed on the south side of the church to catch the sun.

The format of the dedication is similar to the one at Jarrow on the 7th century St Paul’s Church. Most of the characters inscribed on the sundial are from the Latin alphabet and the language is Old English. Beyond the conventional Latin alphabet the Old English characters of “ash”, Æ, (“a” as in “ash”), “thorn”, Þ, (the “th” sound), eth, Ð, (also “th”) and wynn, Ƿ, (W) are also used. There is also the & symbol, the Tironian note used in Old English for “&”.The abbreviations used are indicated with a short line above them, as in manuscript writing.

Four of the personal names (Orm, Gamal, Hawarð and Brand) are all Scandinavian in origin, as the area was heavily affected by Danish and Norse settlers. King Eadward is of course Edward the Confessor and Earl Tostig is Tostig Godwinson, Earl of Northumbria from 1055-1065. This provides a timeframe for the date of the sundial. It is generally assumed Hawarð was the sculptor and Brand the priest who understood the “computus” or science of calculating times and dates, especially for Easter. Orm himself can be identified in the Domesday Book as Orm at Chircheby (probably Kirkdale).

Sundials were old technology. There are Roman examples in the same half-dial format as this one, and also early (7th century) Anglo-Saxon ones at Bewcastle on the Cross, and at the church Escomb above the south doorway used by the laity.

Most people would have used landscape shadows as a means of telling the time, so the sundial probably had a more symbolic meaning given its position at the church entrance, possibly relating to the need to keep watch for the Second Coming, and the concept of the day, and all of life, as a pilgrimage. For example, Ælfric in one of his sermons compared sun to Christ, and the waxing and waning of the moon to cycle of birth and death. Likewise the Old English poem, the Menologium, links the passage of the seasons with the church calendar, starting with midwinter and the birth of Jesus.

St Gregory Minster
St Gregory Minster, Kirkdale, (c) PWicks 2019

Beagnoth’s Seax

The Seax of Beagnoth
The Seax of Beagnoth from the British Museum, by S Marshall, CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1857 an extraordinary find was made: a 10th century Anglo-Saxon seax, almost 2 feet long, and inscribed with runes, was found by a labourer in the River Thames near Battersea. A seax is a large, single-edged knife and was characteristic of the Anglo-Saxons. The word is even thought to have given the Saxons their name.

‘Seax’ is in fact the generic Old English word for knife, but tends to be used by archaeologists to describe the larger iron single-edged knives which first appear in Anglo-Saxon graves of the seventh century. Later examples tend to be isolated finds, often from rivers, like this example. Seaxes were used for hunting and combat.

Detail of the futhorc inscription on the Seax of Beagnoth
Detail of the futhorc inscription on the Seax of Beagnoth on display at the British Museum, BabelStone [CC BY-SA 3.0]

This particular seax was clearly a prestigious object. It is the only one found to have a full set of the Anglo-Saxon set of the runes, known as the futhorc, inscribed on the blade, along with the Anglo

-Saxon name “Beagnoþ.” It is not known if Beagnoþ was the sword-maker or its owner.  Other seaxes have also been found with inscriptions, using either runes or Latin lettering.

Beagnoþ’s blade was originally inlaid with silver, copper and brass wire. A similar inlaid example was found deposited at Keen Edge Ferry in Berkshire, so close to Beagnoþ’s seax in shape, method of construction and decoration that they may have been from the same workshop.

The order of the runes does not match the usual sequence recorded elsewhere, and some of the individual runes are written slightly differently from usual too. It may be that the craftsman was not familiar with runes or else had problems inscribing the letters into the blade. However, all the runes from the futhorc are included.

It appears that the seax may have been deposited deliberately in the river, like other similar finds, but it is not known for certain why such valuable objects were treated in this way. It may have been for religious reasons, perhaps as protection at difficult crossing places on the river, based on pagan beliefs. At this period there may have been Viking or Scandinavian influences at work, and the law codes of King Cnut and Archbishop Wulfstan in the early 11th century, which forbade such rituals, certainly indicate that such practices were happening at this time despite widespread Christianisation.

The seax of Beagnoth can be viewed in the British Museum in London.

Street House Anglo-Saxon Cemetery

Saxon Princess Reconstruction
Saxon Princess Reconstruction, Kirkleatham Museum by Prioryman, CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the most spectacular Anglo-Saxon finds was in Street House in North Yorkshire,  where a cemetery dating to the 7th century has been investigated.

The site was excavated between 2005-7, originally as part of an investigation into an Iron Age settlement. However, it soon became apparent that an Anglo-Saxon cemetery of significance was also beneath the soil. The site itself had evidence of human activity from the Neolithic through to Roman periods and the cemetery was an unanticipated delight.

The team led by Dr Steve Sherlock found 109 graves arranged in a square plan with the most spectacular finds in the centre. The high status jewellery found among the burials allowed accurate dating which placed it in the second half of the 7th century, with some finds dated 650-675 AD. This means that it was a “conversion” cemetery; a cemetery at the time of the conversion to Christianity with rapidly changing funerary practices being evidenced. Such sites have mostly been found in the south of Britain so this was even more unusual, and most excitingly it revealed the only known bed burial in the north of England. The original occupant of the bed burial in Grave 42 was a noble, possibly royal, female.

Princess Pendant
Princess Pendant, by Prioryman [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Grave 42 was near the centre of the cemetery. The bed is thought to be made of ash and it is 1.80m long and 0.80m wide with especially decorative iron work cleats holding it together and may have once had a canvas awning over it. The skeleton had dissolved entirely in the acidic soil, but the quantity and quality of the associated finds indicated the burial of a very high status individual.  The jewellery consists of three gold pendants, two glass beads, one gold wire bead, and a fragment of a jet hair pin. The pendant, which became iconic of the find, is a shield-shaped jewel inlaid with 57 red garnets and a larger scallop-shaped gem in the centre, and is of exquisite craftsmanship. The design has been linked to early Christian belief as a symbol of rebirth through baptism but it is not clear whether the owner in this case was a Christian or not.

Beads from Grave 62
Beads from Grave 62, Photograph by Dave Currie, “An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Street House, North East Yorkshire”

As well as the bed itself, over 100 beads were excavated from sixteen graves, mostly of glass with one amber and some metal. There were few beads in each grave, reflecting a trend for smaller but higher quality jewellery at that period.

Grave 43 revealed some unique items: a gold triangular shaped pendant, three gold wire beads, two silver wire beads, four silver bulla, two glass beads and a silver annular brooch dateable to the third quarter of the 7th century.  The triangular pendant reuses Iron Age beads as part of its construction, a particular feature of finds in Conversion Period cemeteries.

Jewelled brooch (grave 70)
Jewelled brooch from the Street House Anglo-Saxon cemetery (grave 70) by Prioryman, CC BY-SA 3.0

Grave 70 uncovered a spectacular gold brooch, unique in the north, along with glass beads, potsherd, iron key set, glass fragment, a gold bicone bead, a gold cylinder and a small gold chain. The pendant is 44.5mm in diameter and was decorated with red gemstones, and has been repaired with a new suspension loop.

There was also an amulet of black annular twist glass bead, broken in two. Similar examples are known from at least six sites including two other cemeteries (Swallowcliffe Down and Shudy Camps) where there are bed burials. There were five graves that had amulets in a variety of materials including jet, glass and amber, and four of the five pieces were broken.

Iron Age gold coins were found in grave 21 with glass beads which had been formed into a necklace. This is unique, in that whilst coins are found in Anglo-Saxon graves, similar date coins have not been found to be adapted in this way.

The date and location of the cemetery encouraged speculation that the inhabitants may have known Abbess Hild of Whitby, who lived at around this time and was also of royal connection. Hild had also spent some time in East Anglia, where other bed burials have been found.

The cemetery appears to have been used for around 30 years, and to be based around the woman in the bed burial, which seems to have been the first grave dug. It is speculated by the team that she was “a female member of the local aristocracy, probably a princess and an outsider, whose personal status was strong enough to act as a catalyst for the site.” The site may therefore have been dedicated to her immediate household or family and ceased to be used after they had all died.

In this video, archaeologist Dr Steve Sherlock talks about his discoveries at Street House with Kirkleatham Museum curator Alan Pearce; the museum has an exhibition of finds from the excavations.

The Prittlewell Princely Burial

Map of the Anglo-Saxon burial in Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea
Map of the Anglo-Saxon burial in Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea, CnbrbOpenStreetMap contributors [CC-SA 2.0]

In the autumn of 2004 there was great excitement in the world of Anglo-Saxon archaeology with the announcement of the discovery of a burial near Prittlewell in Essex (found 2003).

Prittlewell today is part of Southend-on-Sea, which only really expanded from a small settlement in the 19th century with the arrival of the railway. The Domesday Book of 1086 lists Prittlewell as a settlement but traces are few. The church of St Mary’s has a filled in stone doorway dating to the 7th century; as most churches were wooden the presence of a stone or partially stone building indicates it was a settlement of some significance. There is also evidence of Roman tiles in the Anglo-Saxon doorway indicating Roman buildings in the vicinity. Some pre-Christian burials have also been discovered in the village, supporting an early date for the settlement and its location on the Thames Estuary would have made it attractive because of the river’s status as an important trading route.

The burial found in 2003 was initially dated to the 7th century, firmly in the Saxon period, and was described as the most important find since the one at Sutton Hoo in 1939. Since then carbon dating has resulted in a recalculation of the date to the slightly earlier time of the late 6th century (c. 580 AD).

The burial chamber had been discovered during an evaluation of a proposed road widening scheme proposed by Southend-on-Sea Council in 2003. Saxon finds had been made in the immediate area in the 19th and early 20th century so it was anticipated that there may be some further remains to uncover, but nothing so significant was expected. The burial chamber was wood-lined and included a rich collection of grave goods indicating a very high status burial.

Organic material, such as wood, fabric and bodily remains had disappeared in the acidic soil but the goods remained undisturbed and in their approximate original positions. Some dental remains were also retrieved but were too far decayed to do more than

Senior Archaeologist Ian Blair who led the excavation said:

“to find an intact chamber grave and a moment frozen in time is a once in a lifetime discovery. The fact that copper-alloy bowls were still hanging from hooks in the walls of the chamber, where they had been placed nearly 1,400 years ago, is a memory that I’m sure will remain with all of us forever.”

Over 100 objects were found and identified in the chamber, including items originating in the Mediterranean and a folding chair. Two gold crosses are thought to have been placed on the eyes of the deceased, but are probably but not necessarily indicative of Christianity. At this time Christian symbolism was appearing as one thread among many in royal and noble artefacts.

Referring to Bede we learn that the first East Saxon King to become Christian was Saeberht in 604 AD. However, his sons reverted to paganism after his death. Then King Sigeberht II “the Good”, an ally of Kings Oswald and Oswiu of Northumbria, converted in 653 AD. It was Oswiu who finally persuaded him to convert and sent Cedd to Essex to minister to the needs of the people. The foundation of St Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-the-Sea, the oldest intact Christian church in England, dates to this time.

One current theory is that the man in the chamber may be Saeberht’s brother but there is no definitive evidence of either the identity or religious persuasion of the deceased.

Other items in the burial chamber include a cast bronze flagon, a bronze bowl, gold coins, glass vessels, decorated wooden drinking cups, gaming pieces, musical instruments, buckets, caskets, a sword, shield and standard. One of the wooden caskets represents the only surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork on its lid. The number and variety of goods compares well with those of Taplow, the other known princely burial, but is not as rich as Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. However, the gold and garnet jewellery of Sutton Hoo is largely absent, and the gold buckle of Prittlewell is less elaborate and would have cinched a tunic but probably not held a sword; neither has a helmet been found.

Findings have been published and there is an excellent interactive website to introduce you to the burial at https://prittlewellprincelyburial.org/  or the Museum of London Archaeology at https://www.mola.org.uk/blog/prittlewell-princely-burial-secrets-revealed

The Shorwell Helmet

Image of Shorwell Helmet replica
Replica of the Anglo-Saxon Shorwell helmet, made by Dave Roper (Ganderwick Creations), free to use

The Shorwell Helmet was found in 2004 on the Isle of Wight, and it dates to the early 6th century. It was found in a grave of a high status individual. The pieces were so fragmented that initially it was thought they came from an iron bowl but later analysis identified them as belonging to a helmet. The grave had also contained an iron pattern-welded sword blade, a silver pyramidal-shaped pommel, part of a gilded copper alloy scabbard mouthpiece, the socket from a broken spearhead, a shield-boss with extended grip, a copper alloy buckle (perhaps from a sword belt), a clear, fluted glass vessel, the remains of a Celtic copper alloy hanging bowl with bird-shaped mounts and two pieces of flint that may have been worked. A nearby square gold mount of Mediterranean origin inlaid with garnet and glass was also found. Later in 2007 a gold solidus was also recovered and is believed to have come from the same grave.

It was possible to reconstruct about two-thirds of the helmet from the fragments found, but by comparing it to other similar known artefacts, which are symmetrical in construction, it has been possible to envisage the final size and shape of this helmet.

Eight separate iron plates were riveted together and the frame was formed by an encircling brow band, a brow to nape band and two lateral bands. It is smaller than the Sutton Hoo or York Helmets, and is not believed to have had a nasal piece, but rather to have been in the style of a close fitting cap.

While the helmet would have needed to be worn with padding it is not clear whether this was present in the burial, and it may have been used over a separate woollen or linen cap rather than lined.

The helmet is very plain and functional rather than an elaborate object such as Sutton Hoo or the Staffordshire Hoard examples.  However the quality of work and thoughtfulness of the design imply it was made by a specialist such as an armourer.  It is typical of designs throughout Europe at the time, and the style is most closely parallel to Frankish helmets.  However, there are some differences. It is constructed from three bands, one joining the brow to the nape and two side bands, rather than only two bands crossing one another, for example.

The date c. 500-550 AD means that this helmet represents a bridge in  the  chronological  sequence  of  helmets  within  the  British  Isles  between  examples deriving from the Roman occupation and  the  helmets  known  from  the  Anglo-Saxon  period,  ie the  late  6th  to  the  late  8th  century. However the link to Frankish helmets also indicates it could be an example of a very early import or a local product influenced by Continental design.

Helmets were very rare and elite objects so the grave occupant is believed to have been a high status individual. The Frankish influence combined with the other finds in the grave, such as the belt plaque and the solidus, suggest that the owner may have been a Frankish warrior serving in the retinue of a local warlord.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet

Image of the Sutton Hoo helmet

Figure 1: Photo of the Sutton Hoo helmet from the front, British Museum, public domain

The Sutton Hoo Helmet is an icon of Anglo-Saxon England. It was buried in the 7th century in a ship under a mound of earth above the River Deben in East Anglia, and when it was discovered in 1939 for the first time it provided evidence that the poetry of Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons was more than flights of fancy, but represented very real power, wealth and artistry in the early medieval period.

It weighs around 2.5kg, and was made of iron decorated with tinned bronze. The decorative panels depict dancing warriors, a horseman spearing a fallen warrior (akin to the gravestone at Hexham of Flavinus, a Roman soldier), and an interlace design. There are winged birds or dragons on the face and over the head. The eyebrows of the face are asymmetrical, with the left hand eyebrow deliberately darker than the right. This may be intended to represent the one-eyed god Woden.

Martin Carver, Professor Emeritus, Department of Archaeology, University of York explains further:

“The helmet is the armoured head of a warrior, attended by gods. Made of hammered iron, proof against spear, sword and axe, it is also covered with protective metaphors.

Across the face is a bird with splayed wings, its body forming the warrior’s nose, the tail his moustache and the wings his eyebrows. The bird soaring up meets the jaws of a dragon plunging down, its thick iron body inlaid with zigzag silver wire curving over the crest.

Image of a replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet

Figure 2: Replica of helmet, British Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0

The man’s head is equipped with defence at every angle, like a battle ship: the wingtips finish in wild-boar jaws, guarding the lateral blind spots; the dragon has a snarling mouth at its tail, bringing up the rear. All the heads, even the bird’s, have sets of sharp fangs: the bared teeth of the animal bodyguard.

On the top of the crest is a little hole to carry a plume, and the sides of the helmet carried small panels commemorating victories – an enemy ridden down by a horseman, triumphant warriors dancing. Dragon and bird each have two gleaming eyes of red polished garnet, extra vision for the warrior’s own eyes, watching within their hollows, menacing as dark glasses.

Dragon, wild boar, bird of prey – these are the symbolic animals of Anglo-Saxon East Anglia where the helmet was found – part of an immense treasure buried with a political leader in a chamber, in a ship, in the early seventh century AD. Helmet and ship-burial were elements of a language of belief then shared widely among the peoples of the Northern Seas. In partnership with their animal gods, men win battles, hoard wealth, claim land. Ruthless, brave, enduring, these people built the kingdoms that northern Europe still has.

The Sutton Hoo helmet is more than a face-guard – it is a poem, a political manifesto in silver and iron.”

The similarity with Swedish helmets has been much discussed but current thinking is that the helmet was made in England. Generally it is considered that the burial was that of King Rædwald, one of the Bretwaldas listed by Bede, and the man who sheltered Edwin of Deira when he was in exile and helped him to regain Northumbria. However, it is by no means proven that it was in fact his grave.

The Coppergate Helmet


Figure 1: Coppergate Helmet, photo (c) PWicks

12th May 1982 saw the discovery of the “Coppergate Helmet.” At about 2:40pm at the Coppergate dig in York, the bucket of the site’s mechanical digger struck a solid object. Believing the object was a stone, work was stopped to see how large it was. Examination of the object exposed a golden looking band on which lettering was clearly visible: it was not a stone but a helmet! It required rapid and careful removal as exposure to the air from its anaerobic soil resting place put the fragile remains at risk of rapid corrosion and the helmet was lifted at about 8.30pm.

The following day work resumed to try and establish some context for the find, but the helmet pit, the helmet, and the associated deposited items were to provide the only evidence for the Anglian period. Despite this, the helmet is incredibly important. Anglo-Saxon helmets are rare enough but the condition in which the Coppergate Helmet was found is exceptional even so. The water-logged soil in which it had rested since it was deposited had preserved it remarkably well. The actual metal survives rather than just the corroded deposits. There was some damage to the helmet caused before it was buried and further damage had been caused by the mechanical excavator before it the helmet was spotted in the ground. The Coppergate helmet consists of four major elements; an iron cap with brass decoration and edge bindings, two iron cheek-pieces with brass edge bindings and suspended on either side of the cap from iron hinges, and a mail curtain, predominantly of iron, attached at each end to the cheek-pieces and suspended from the edge of the cap. In order to preserve the helmet from exposure to the air, which could cause rapid erosion, within 48 hours of discovery, the helmet was safely sealed in a high humidity box with a transparent acrylic lid and a nitrogen gas flow. It was only when the helmet was removed for photographing or closer examination that rusting started to occur noticeably.

The pit in which it was found had been cut into the natural clay and lined with re-used oak planks; later building work had avoided hitting the helmet by a matter of only centimetres. There were a number of other items or fragments found within the pit but these were distributed randomly through the infill, so were probably mixed in with the soil used rather than placed in the pit directly. Dating of some wood fragments confirmed an Anglian date for the pit and infill.

The Coppergate helmet itself lay near the north-east corner of the pit, face downwards and with the crown of the helmet facing towards the southeast and tilted slightly towards the corner. Inside the helmet was a mail curtain which formed a protective barrier for the neck of the wearer when suspended from the helmet rim. The mail curtain consists of 1947 rings arranged in 28 horizontal rows, the longest of which is now 81 rings long.

Once examinations were completed as far as possible, and over 12 months later,  the helmet was sent to the British Museum for reconstruction.

The nasal strip is decorated with sinuous and interlocking beasts and the eyebrows are grooved, ending in snarling animal heads. The strip over the crest of the head also terminates in animal heads.

An inscription runs over the top of the helmet, in Latin:

IN NOMINE : DNI : NOSTRI : IHV : SCS : SPS : DI :

ET : OMNIBVS : DECEMVS : AMEN : OSHERE : XPI

On each side of the helmet, running from the crown towards each ear is a subsidiary inscription:

IN NOMINE : DNI : NOSTRI : IHV: SCS : SPS

OMNIBVS : DECEMVS : AMEN : OSHERE

Both inscriptions can probably be understood as meaning:

“In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy

Spirit (and) God; and to (or with) all we say Amen. Oshere’.

The name Oshere is a well-attested Old English name. The helmet cannot be associated with any particular individual, nor can the name itself help to date the text. The name is probably that of the owner of the helmet; it is possible, but less likely, that it is the name of the maker of the helmet.

Dr Elisabeth Okasha of University College, Cork observes that:

“Neither of the two other existing Anglo-Saxon helmets are inscribed, although several Anglo-Saxon inscribed weapons have survived. The motive in inscribing a helmet was presumably similar to that in inscribing a sword, a scabbard or a knife, to commend the owner to the protection of God. The two versions of the helmet text are fastened into place so as to form a cross. It seems that this is less likely to be accidental than to symbolise the same desire for divine protection.

It seems highly unlikely that the cross shape formed by the two inscriptions is purely accidental. No other crested helmet has such an arrangement with what is, in effect, a second crest of virtually identical structure at right angles to the first. If the repetition of the prayer may have been intended to double its force, then an arrangement of the  elements into a cross shape may have been intended to add another level of protection. The cross is used as a protective symbol, for example, on the nasal of the Benty Grange helmet.”

Along with the protective inscriptions, the cross symbols and the animal motifs, the helmet was designed to protect its wearer in battle. We’ll never know how well it succeeded.

In the words of the Beowulf poet:

“Figures of boars, bright

and fire-hardened, gleamed gold-adorned

above the cheek guards: in war the boar

helped guard those fierce men’s lives.”

It seems appropriate to end our discussion with a quotation from Ailsa Mainman’s book “Anglian York” (2019:127) which considers the helmet in the wider context of activity in York at the time of its production:

“This striking and evocative object therefore usefully serves to tie together many of the disparate pieces of the Anglian jigsaw described [in this book]. It was being worn, perhaps in conflict, at a time when burial was coming to an end at the Belle Vue House cemetery but was continuing at the Queen’s Hotel site on Micklegate. At the same time the main period of settlement at 46-54 Fishergate was coming to an end, but both occupation and commercial activity was becoming established along the banks of York’s two rivers and perhaps in the Coppergate / Ousegate area. The helmet attests not only to the networks of supply bringing fuel and raw materials into York, but to the spread of complex technological skills. It belongs to the period of Alcuin, when art and scholarship were flourishing in the city and in the wider kingdom of Northumbria. Somewhere in York the church of Alma Sophia was under construction, while Alcuin himself was forging contacts in Europe which would later take him to join Charlemagne’s court in Francia. It was made around the time of the recorded expulsion of Frisian merchants from York, during a period of political turbulence when kings of Northumbria were being regularly killed, murdered, deposed, expelled – and replaced.

The helmet brings us face to face with these higher social orders who are referred to in the written sources but who were previously invisible in the archaeological record, other than in the coinage of kings and prelates. The helmet might well have been made in York and, perhaps most strikingly, it illustrates the highly developed skills of 8th century metal workers who painstakingly made each tiny link of chain, hammered together the orin cap, fitted the brass bindings with their inscribed prayer and attached the decorated nasal guard and eyebrows. It also demonstrates that they, like their powerful patrons, belonged to a world that was literate, wealthy and fully cognisant of current artistic fashions.”

Archaeology and Important Finds

In this part of the website we cover key archeological finds from the Anglo-Saxon period.  You can see the list of subjects in the menu on the right, or use the search option to look for specific items or areas.

We will be writing new pieces regularly so do come back to see what is new.

The Benty Grange Helmet


Figure 1: Watercolour by Llewellynn Jewitt depicting the Benty Grange helmet and associated finds, 1849, public domain

3rd May 1848 saw Thomas Bateman’s discovery of the iconic Benty Grange Helmet. The helmet is a rare and precious surviving example of a boar crested helmet. Other similar finds, and references to them in poetry such as Beowulf, as well as imagery, indicate that they were an important symbol to the Anglo-Saxons representing strength and endurance.

Although the burial that Bateman was excavating had long been looted he found an iron framed helmet with horn plates. Uniquely in such finds there was also a boar studded with gold, fierce garnet and copper-alloy eyes and gilded silver hips, on the crest. Meanwhile on the nasal strip there is a silver Christian cross.

Bateman described it as follows:

“The helmet has been formed of ribs of iron radiating from the crown of the head, and covered with narrow plates of horn, running in a diagonal direction from the ribs, so as to form a herring-bone pattern; the ends were secured by strips of horn, radiating in like manner as the iron ribs, to which they were riveted at intervals of about an inch and a-half: all the rivets had ornamented heads of silver on the outside, and on the front rib is a small cross of the same metal. Upon the top, or crown of the helmet, is an elongated oval brass plate, upon which stands the figure of an animal, carved in iron, now very much rusted, but still a very good representation of a pig: it has bronze eyes. There are also many smaller decorations, abounding in rivets, which have pertained to the helmet, but which it is impossible to assign to their proper places, as is also the case with some small iron buckles.”

The Benty Grange helmet was constructed with eight horn plates on the iron frame and padded inside with leather or cloth which has decayed.  Although it offered some protection its ornate design implies it may also have been intended for ceremonial use. It probably weighed about 1.4kg when complete, or possibly more. Given the scarcity of such objects it was clearly high status.

Bateman also noted the presence of silver fragments attached to the helmet but did not understand their relevance and he didn’t collect them. On the basis of Sutton Hoo, Vendel culture, and now the Staffordshire Hoard, it is likely that the fragments were the remains of decorative silver foils like the tinned copper ones on the Sutton Hoo helmet.

In addition, previously missed rivets, and a line of expanded corrosion on the browband suggest the horn-work of the helmet actually continued down around the face, beyond the iron skeleton, similar to the deeper cap designs seen on Sutton Hoo, Coppergate and Wollaston helmets. It may therefore have had horn cheekpieces and some kind of neckguard which have since been lost.


Figure 2: Reconstruction of helmet (c) Museums Sheffield [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The helmet is dated at early or more likely mid- 7th century, similar to or soon after the time of the Sutton Hoo burial, which was not discovered until almost a century later. At this period the Anglo-Saxons were beginning to convert to Christianity but often adopted a mixture of Christian and pagan symbols as protection. The boar in Norse mythology is the animal associated with Freyr, his mascot being called Gyllinbursti, meaning “golden bristles” which matches the decoration on the helmet’s boar. It did not translate across to Christian symbolism after this early period, but there are a number of other instances of boar imagery in artefacts, all associated with high status graves. Usually only the head is depicted, and examples appear on Kentish brooches as well as the Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps and a sword (also 7th century) from the River Lark in Cambridgeshire. However, bones from a boar have been found in graves such as that of a woman buried at Roundway Down. The Anglo-Saxon name for York was Eoferwic or Boar Town.

The date and location of the helmet place it within the tribal area of the Pecsæte. It is likely that the previous looters removed other artefacts, perhaps including a sword or shield, which may have accompanied the owner of the helmet into the afterlife.