British Museum Purchases Exceptional Anglo-Saxon Sword Hilt

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 05 January 2007
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photo of three gold sword hilt parts decorated in an interlacing pattern and set with gemstones

The 7th century pommel. Courtesy NHMF

The British Museum has acquired a set of decorative Anglo-Saxon sword hilt fittings that provide valuable clues about trade and workmanship in medieval times.

Discovered by a metal detectorist in 2002 near Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, the high quality fittings are the first of their kind to come from Anglo-Saxon England, being dated to between 600-650.

The pommel and hilt fittings, bought for £125,000, are covered in an intricate Celtic pattern and set with large garnets, making it a very rare find. The price was raised with the help of £70,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and funds from the Museum and its Friends.

“It is wonderful that the generous support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the British Museum Friends has enabled us to preserve this extraordinary set of sword hilt fittings in the public domain,” said Sonja Marzinzik, Curator of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum.

“We will probably never know whether the sword they decorated was ever used in battle, but there is no doubt that it would have been a stunning weapon to anyone who saw it.”

photo of a gold sword pommel decorated with a raised pattern of interlacing cord

© Lincolnshire County Council

The ‘cocked hat’ style pommel and hilt collars are made of gold sheet decorated with filigree wire and an interlaced design woven over the surfaces, ending in angular animal heads. The pieces have been described as exceptional by experts, some of the finest yet discovered, highlighting the skill of the makers and indeed the importance of Anglo-Saxon England in the wider medieval world.

Comparable finds have been found in Italy and Scandinavia (at the Nocera Umbra grave and Stora Sandviken respectively), raising questions about the mobility of people and goods in the early middle ages. The deep bands binding the grip are very unusual – unique in fact – in an Anglo-Saxon sword, being found more commonly on continental swords.

The large garnet settings have been pointed out as extraordinary, too, as substantial garnets like this are scarce, particularly in the 7th century when supplies from the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka dried up. Analysis of the gemstones and their provenance could shed light on trading networks of the time.

photo of a sword part containing some broken wood

The collar, surrounding remains of the sword's wooden grip. Courtesy NHMF

Research on the Market Rasen find will also give crucial insights into 7th-century workshop practices, about which little is currently known. One finding is that the ornamentation is slightly asymmetrical, which it has in common with other finds in the Anglian area of England, in contrast to items found in Kent, for example, which tend to be more symmetrical.

There are similarities with the famous sword found at the Sutton Hoo burial, but there isn’t any obvious connection between the two. The Market Rasen sword may have been deposited in a grave, but archaeological investigations at the place where the fittings were found did not yield any evidence of a burial.

The fittings are currently on display in Room 2 at the British Museum, and will shortly be moved to the medieval galleries. They will also be loaned to Lincolnshire, where they were found, at some point.

“These rare sword fittings provide valuable clues about medieval trade and travel in Anglo-Saxon England,” said Stephen Johnson, Head of the NHMF. “This National Heritage Memorial Fund grant has ensured it is displayed among other treasures from this fascinating period.”

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