Greetings once again, gentle readers! Today is a very special invasion brought to us by the Vikings! Or Anglo-Saxons, or Danes, or Geats, whichever you prefer. It has come to my attention that Vikings have once again invaded our popular culture. For those of you who play World of Warcraft, there’s the entire Wrath of the Lich King expansion (The entirety of Northrend, Hodir [Odin], Thorim [Thor], Freya [Freyja…], Loken [Loki], jormungars, vrykul [valkyrie], Hrothgar’s Landing, even a Mimir shows up…) and for those of you who watch HBO’s current hit series True Blood, there’s Eric Northman. There’s also been the continued presence of Norse things in various realms of metal music and fiction, which is never a bad thing.
But as awesome as these things are, today we are going to discuss another, less popularized aspect of Anglo-Saxon life: material culture!! It’s ancient arts and crafts time!
One of the best places to see a very wide range of material goods throughout the course of Anglo-Saxon history is the British Museum in London. If you can manage to tear yourself away from the wonders of the Egyptian Wing or the the Elgin Marbles, take a walk upstairs and you’ll eventually find yourself wandering past Roman goodies (keep a special eye out for some fun artifacts from Arbeia, a fort I dug at in 2005) and you will come upon several rooms full of these amazing metal and gem-encrusted THINGS. This is the Hall of Anglo-Saxon Fabulosity. Most people can generally agree that the people lumped under the label of ‘Viking’ are pretty cool to begin with. People really like to focus on the things like Odin, pillaging, longships and horned helmets. That’s all well and good, but if you take a look at the fancy things they made for themselves and their families, you can really get a sense for just how talented these people were.
Let’s take a look. One of the first things you’ll notice is that there is a whole lot of very, very intricate designs happening on the pieces. Whether it’s wood or metal, the surface appears to be woven. In some cases, it is! In others, it is simply the illusion created by masterful carving. And then there’s the jewelry! Looking at all the personal and ceremonial jewelry is not unlike watching an hour or two of Jewelry TV. The amount and types of gems that decorate Anglo-Saxon jewelry are pretty astounding. If anything, it serves as a visual reminder of just how active and widespread trade was in the ancient world. Folks up north would provide everyone in the Mediterranean with amber and in return they would get all kinds of shiny gems. Rubies, sapphires, amethysts, carnelians, agates, glass…all of it went into their work. As you can see from the pictures, there are some common elements to Anglo-Saxon jewelry. Knotwork, animals and symmetry factor heavily into the designs of most of the pieces on display in the British Museum. Most of these things are representative of beasties and people from the wonderful world of Norse mythology, and some are simply what they appear to be. There are, of course, the more identifiable items such as torques, horned helmets, Lewis Chessmen and goodies that have been excavated at the famous site of Sutton Hoo.
So remember, gentle readers, the next time you find yourself in a long hall listening to the epic tales of Beowulf or the trials of Odin or of how a brave expedition of men set off for a distant land and returned with stories of strange people and sea monsters, remember that they probably did it wearing some fantastic jewelry. If the Vikings have taught us anything, it is that there still is good value in artisan crafts (did you SEE these pictures??) and that it’s never a good idea to have any kind of wager with giants. You will always lose and they may crush you in the process. There are also some secondary lessons about the value of good mead and the importance of a good death in battle so that you may continue your life’s party in Valhalla, but those lessons will come later. Yes, there was a fair amount of pillaging, but life was a bit tougher then and sometimes you ended up on the receiving end of a bit of territorial squabbling. Until next time, I’m off to re-read Beowulf, one of the best stories of all time. Hwæt!