By Dr Neil Faulkner
Last updated 2011-02-17
The East Lincolnshire sword - Leading Lincolnshire archaeologist Kevin Leahy recently identified five separate, beautifully decorated pieces of gold, found by a local metal-detectorist, as fittings from a single Anglo-Saxon sword handle of the seventh century AD. There was a pommel cap, two plates from the pommel and the crosspiece respectively, and two ferrules from the hilt itself.
Each bore decoration in gold filigree, the applied wire fused with the metal beneath to form an invisible bond. Garnets had been inset in 'cabochon' style - which means they had not been cut, but were left as pebbles and polished. The bottoms of the cells in which the garnets had been placed were formed from corrugated gold foil, which reflected the light, making them glitter.
How was the sword lost? - The sword fittings had been found beside a river, but archaeological investigation revealed nothing more - not even the iron blade. Had the sword been lost in battle - during a contested river-crossing, perhaps? Was it an accidental loss - even something as valuable as a sword with a gem-encrusted golden hilt might not have been recovered if the land was marsh?
Other suggestions are that its loss could have been deliberate, a ritual offering to the deity of the river in the twilight years of Germanic paganism. Or it could have been placed in a burial - perhaps at a boundary, so that the warrior whose sword it was could continue to guard in death the land he had once defended in life. We do not know: the golden fittings are left floating in an archaeological vacuum.
Anglo-Saxon warriors - Most men in Anglo-Saxon England (AD 450-1066) probably did not fight in any real battles at all: they were simply ploughmen and shepherds. The mass of men who did fight - the free Saxons of the fyrd (militia) - were armed with spear and shield, and they formed up for battle shoulder to shoulder, many ranks deep, presenting to the enemy a shield-wall of projecting spear-points.
Each clump of spearmen was led by their local lord - a thegn (an Anglo-Saxon knight) - and only at this level of society would men own swords. The thegns in turn owed allegiance to ealdormen (earls, Anglo-Saxon barons) or to the king himself. Only at this highest level might a man be found rich enough to own a gold-hilted sword.
Gifts in the mead-hall - Anglo-Saxon swords were masterpieces of the armourer's craft: pattern-welded steel blades designed to withstand blows that would shatter simple iron. Men treasured and venerated their swords. A good sword was the greatest gift that could be given in the mead-hall of an Anglo-Saxon lord. A gold-hilted one was among the most precious things known.
Found in Lincolnshire by Kevin Leahy, while searching with a metal detector.
Discover more amazing finds at the Portable Antiquities Scheme database.
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