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BEOWULF AND THE HARP AT SUTTON HOO IJ. B. Bessinger "In a Field of old Walsingham , not many months past," wrote Sir Thomas Browne in 1658, "were digged up between fourty and fifty Urnes, deposited in a dry and sandy soile, not a yard deep, not far from one another." Hydriotaphia; UrneBuriall is a prologue to the remarkable mediaeval scholarship of the period between 1660 and 1720 which produced figures like Dugdale, Hickes, and Wanley; and with Browne's speculations upon the urns modern archaeology in East Anglia also begins.' Some sixty miles to the south-east of Walsingham, at Rendlesham, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, was the seat of the Anglo-Saxon kings of East Anglia. Downstream from the site of Rendlesham, within the grounds of a private estate called Sutton Hoo, were found in 1939 the remains of an Anglo-Saxon burialship in which had been placed a royal treasure? A fact which struck many people about the discovery was the parallel between the burial of this rowing-ship in England and the Danish ship-burial described in the opening verses of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Surely one would have thought, if only a poem had described the event, that no primitive English or Danish people could have afforded to squander great wealth in the grave of a ruler? Yet there such a treasure lay in 1939. "A great obscurity herein," wrote Sir Thomas of the urns, "because, no medall or Emperour's Coyne enclosed, which might denote the dates of their enterrments." However there were coins at Sutton Hoo. The precise dating of the find (ca. 650-670) is made possible by them, and the ship-burial was most probably in honour of one of two kings and brothers, Anna or lEtheihere, who died in 654 and 655. In a Christian kingdom a king's body could not have been buried in pagan fashion with the ship; nor would it have been burned on a pyre, as Beowulf's was, for as Sir Thomas could have told us, "Christians abhorred this way of obsequies, and though they stick not to give their bodies to be burnt in their lives, detested that mode after death." The king at Sutton Hoo 148 Beowulf AND THE HARP AT SUTTON HOO 149 may have been buried elsewhere, in sacred ground; or perhaps his body was lost at sea or in a far-off battle, like King Hygelac's in Beowulf. At any rate, there were no traces of a body in the ship; it was a cenotaph, not a grave. This coincidence of poem and historical event is more than an archaeological curiosity. The boat-treasure informs us as well about Old English music and perhaps about Old English poetry, since instrumental music and oral poetry were in Anglo-Saxon times more commonly a joint phenomenon than now. The background of that poetry is further defined by the mixed foreign and native origin of the treasure. It may even be possible that techniques and motives in the Sutton Hoo treasure-pieces, as art forms, are somehow represented also in Old English verse. With Sir Thomas Browne as guiding spirit, "'Tis time to observe Occurences, and let nothing remarkable escape us; the Supinity of elder dayes hath left so much in silence, or time hath so martyred the Records, that the most industrious heads do finde no easie work to erect a new Britannia." I It would be impossible to list aJI the objects of the treasure in a short space, but the grave-goods included a sword with a golden pommel set with garnets and a helmet which is caJIed "one of the outstanding masterpieces of barbaric art."· Originally it was plated with a burnished silver, covered by a golden trellis-work, topped by a massive silver crest terminating in dragon-heads at both ends, and set off with garnets, gilded ornaments, and niello engraving. The reconstruction of the helmet has served an unexpectedly practical modern use by emending a textual puzzle in Beowulf.' Readers of that poem, and connoisseurs of dragons generaJIy, will admire the great battle-shield with the figure of a jewelled gilt-bronze dragon, a vigorous thrusting...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 148-168
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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