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Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

Originally posted on British Museum blog:

silver-gilt brooch detailRosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th…

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51 young males identified as brutally slain Vikings

The decapitated skeletons—their heads stacked neatly to the side—were uncovered in June 2009 in a thousand-year-old execution pit near the southern seaside town of Weymouth. (VSLM kept up to date and featured one of the first news here)

Already radio-carbon dating results released in July had shown the men lived between A.D. 910 and 1030, a period when the English fought—and often lost—battles against Viking invaders.
But until now it hadn’t been clear who the headless bodies had belonged to.

Analysis of teeth from ten of the dead—who were mostly in their late teens and early 20s—indicates the raiding party had been gathered from different parts of Scandinavia, including one person thought to have come from north of the Arctic Circle.

The new study, led by Jane Evans of the U.K.’s NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, investigated telltale chemical markers called isotopes, which can reveal a person’s geographic origins.

Oxygen isotopes from drinking water, for example, become fixed in people’s teeth as they age. Since isotope ratios vary with climate, Evans could tell that the had all been raised in much cooler regions than Britain.

“The values these individuals gave us could not be British,” Evans said, but the ratios do match those from Norway and Sweden.

In addition, nitrogen-isotope readings showed the men enjoyed a meaty, high-protein diet—similar to readings from remains from the same period found in Sweden.

“What’s fascinating about these findings is that Vikings are renowned for their pillaging, ransacking, and raping,” Evans said.
“But here we’ve got real evidence that it was the other way round: Anglo-Saxons rounded up these Vikings and executed them.”

Vikings Found With Hacked Heads, Naked Bodies

Many of the skeletons have deep cut marks to the skull, jaw, and neck. This suggests the men were war captives whose heads were savagely hacked off, said David Score of Oxford Archaeology, leader of the preconstruction survey that found the Vikings’ execution pit.

“The majority seem to have taken multiple blows,” he noted.

Other injuries hint that some of the slaughtered attempted to shield themselves from their executioners’ blows. For instance, the hand of one victim had its fingers sliced through, Score said.

The heads were neatly piled to one side of the pit, perhaps as a victory display.

Unusually, no trace of clothing has been found, indicating the men were buried naked.

Even if only their weapons and valuables had been taken, “we should have found bone buttons and things like that, but to date we’ve got absolutely nothing,” Score said.
Aside from their injuries, the headless Vikings “look like a healthy, robust, very strong, very masculine group of young males,” he added. “It’s your classic sort of warrior.”

Vikings Forced to Surrender?

The burial’s prominent location on a hilltop by the ancient main road to Weymouth also points to the victims being Vikings, Score said.

“Locations like this are classic sites for executions [by British-born warriors] in late Saxon and medieval times,” he said. “If you’re a Viking raider, you’re much more likely to leave people where you killed them in the town or on the beach.”

What’s more, the new isotope findings suggest that the slain men had much more diverse origins than would be expected among soldiers from the Saxons’ other enemies, such as ethnic Danes in northern Britain, tooth-study leader Evans noted.

Even before the new results were released, Kim Siddorn, author of Viking Weapons and Warfare, had thought the dead were Vikings.

“They had left their ship, walked inland, ran into an unusually well-organized body of Saxons, and were probably forced to surrender,” Siddorn speculated in July.

Despite the Vikings’ brutal reputation, there was actually little to differentiate Vikings and early English warriors on the battlefield, said Siddorn, also a founder of Regia Anglorum, a historical-reenactment society.

“You would find it very difficult to tell the difference between a Viking and a Saxon if they stood in front of you in war gear,” he said. Both used spears as their primary weapons, with swords and axes as backups, Siddorn added.

But Vikings usually had surprise and, in some cases, numbers on their side. “Whilst the Vikings were no better than the Saxons at fighting, they did come by the shipload,” he said.

“During the height of the Viking raids, it’s reasonable to say it was unsafe to live anywhere within 20 miles [32 kilometers] of the coast.”

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