Going to Sutton Hoo and not illustrating the famour helmet (even though it’s a reproduction) seems almost a betrayal. The good news, however, is that soon it will be more authentic than since first reconstructed. The experts at the British Museum have established that its left eyebrow was never backed by gold leaf to give the same radiance as the right. Instead it seems to have represented the blind eye of the great god Woden or Odin, meaning that its wearer was regarded as the god’s earthly representative. How appropriate to be told this while waiting to view the ‘Swords of Kings’ exhibition.
These treasures are part of the Staffordshire Hoard, found a few years ago in a field beside a Roman road. Nobody knows why the hoard was buried: it may have been loot; the destruction of Christian items suggests this. Few exhibits in ‘Swords of Kings’ are Christian, however. As the title suggests, many are fittings from weapons.
Whether the weapons have been intentionally destroyed – to negate their potency – is another question; they may have eroded.
Nonetheless, because the prestige of weapons was high in the Anglo-Saxon world they were elaborately decorated with gold, garnets and other jewels. In this they rivalled the iconography of religious artefacts. For comparison, a Byzantine crucifix is included beside the weaponry. In itself this is evidence of trade or loot.
Most exhibits are very small although one set has been mounted to show how its parts would have adorned different sections of a sword handle. There are also more pacific decorations such as the two fish apparent swimming in opposite directions. The shoulder clasp is one of a pair.
Some of the items in the exhibition, which continues unti 31 October, are from the site ar Sutton Hoo, others are from the Norwich Museum. On permnent display is another example of the wide-reaching contacts made by the Anglo-Saxons. As well as the garnet decorations, some of which came from Sri Lanka, there is a golden bowl decoated in relief with exotic animals, for example a lion. This is thought to be from Bysantium (now Istanbul), and may have been an object of trade or again loot. The exhibition is highly recommended, as is the renovated site itself, with a viewing tower giving splendid views on not only the burial ground of kings but also their distant commercial counterpart, the container port at Felixstowe.