This paper looks to explore the parallels of Anglo-Saxon literature and archeology that existed from seventh century C.E. to tenth century C.E. A variety of historians and archeologists have taken a close look at the story of Beowulf, the Staffordshire Hoard and Anglo-Saxon artifacts to further understand the Anglo-Saxon time period. As archeology has progressed over time, much of the emphasis has switched from observing the artifacts, to looking at the overall social structure and message of the mounds, which leads us to new understandings of the time period in which all of this occurred.
Understanding the differences between the Old English version of Beowulf, and the Modern English version is significant when appreciating what the text is trying to tell the reader. This epic poem does not rhyme, but does however have various alliterations and kennings. Throughout Beowulf, these various alliterations and kennings are used regularly, however in Heaney’s translation he doesn’t always utilize the alliteration technique, but instead “alliterates in only one half of the line” (xxxvii). He decides to utilize this method to emphasize the natural “sound of sense,” using it to exceed the demands of the convention (xxxvii). Often translators are faced with multiple meanings to words that they are trying to translate. Heaney finds it very important to select the right word with the correct “note and pitch” while translating, because he believes that without some thought and “melody” put into the translation, it is hard to establish the original meaning of the text (xxxvi).
Kennings are often used throughout the poem of Beowulf as figurative language that is put in place of a single-word to make it more elaborate. Beowulf often spits a word in two different words, hinting at the same meaning of the single word. Throughout Beowulf, kennings are used to describe physical elements such as, but not limited to, swords, shields, ships, halls, treasure-hoards, rings, helmets, drinking horns, and musical instruments. For example a “battle-torch” is a more detailed way to describe a sword (Heaney 1523). In a way, kennings enrich our understanding of the objects.
The poem of Beowulf revolves around the young hero, Beowulf, and his killing of Grendle, Grendle’s mother, and the attack of the dragon. Beowulf is set up for success in the first few lines of the poem by the description of “that was one good king” (Heaney 11). Right from the very beginning of the poem it is apparent that Beowulf is going to encounter heroic events, and is a natural born leader that has “behavior that’s admired” (Heaney 24). When Beowulf’s heroic ability is called out by Unferth at the feast, Beowulf quickly assures that he defeated Breca and is ready to take what Gredel has to offer (Heaney 528).
Beowulf takes on Grendel, and the result is a defeat for the Danes. Grendel’s mother comes to attack the Danes, and after long hard fighting Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother as well. At the end of the poem, Beowulf goes and attacks the dragon, causing the death of Beowulf, and the only person that was there to help Beowulf was Wiglaf. The parallel that exists between the heroic deeds of the end of the poem and the end of Beowulf’s life is Wiglaf and his help to conquer the dragon. Therefore, after Beowulf died, Wiglaf was honored with being the next suitable successor for the Geats.
Courage that is shown through deeds that may lead to death, honorability, the display of facing overwhelming or impossible odds, strength, and victories are just a few of the characteristics of a great hero during the Anglo-Saxon time period. Beowulf is one Anglo-Saxon warrior that is depicted to have all of the characteristics of a great hero. When Beowulf goes to King Hrothgar and explains that he is here to help defeat Grendel he shows characteristics of a heroic leader. He assures Hrothgar that he is willing to fight through “life-and-death to fight with the fiend” (Heaney 439). Beowulf lives up to his reputation and the cause of his death is honored by the Geat people. Heaney explains that the Geat people described Beowulf as “the most gracious and fair-minded to his people and keenest to win fame” (1381). From the very beginning of the story up until the last line, Heaney depicts Beowulf as a heroic leader.
Women’s role in the Anglo-Saxon time period and more specifically in Beowulf, were the hostesses of the Mead Hall. Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, is described as the hostess of the Mead Hall in Beowulf. She is the one who presents “the goblet” to the men and “urges them to drink deep and enjoy it” (Heaney 617). Wealhtheow is the one who ensures that the Geats feel welcomed to the land of the Danes (Heaney 625). Being the Queen was a very crucial role during the Anglo-Saxon time period; Wealhtheow had to recognize the bravery of the men and had to perform the ritual of passing the mead cup around to all the weary troop members. The role of passing the mead cup was distinctly a female role and had a very important purpose of nurturing the men’s bodies and souls before fighting.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of the Anglo-Saxon time period that taught people how to read this type of literature. He taught how to understand poetry in the conventions of its own time. Tolkien argues that the structure of Beowulf is broken up into three main, great battles. The story that revolves around these three main battles includes digressions that amplify the characters. Tolkien also believed that Beowulf consists of good poetry if you understand the time period in which it was written. Tolkien further believes that Beowulf not only needs to be looked at as an historical content, but more prominently as a work of art as well (104). Tolkien states that Beowulf is “a product of art” and is often “overshadowed” by the “historical content” (105). “Both new faith and new learning” came from Beowulf (Tolkien 118). Tolkien depicts the monsters as evil, and without the heroic qualities of a good person, these monsters would not be defeated (118).
Many unanswered questions surround the epic poem of Beowulf. One unsettled question that is discussed in Tolkien’s critic is whether or not the Christian era was first composed in the original poem or if references to the Christian god were added later. Tolkien believes that Beowulf was a “product of education that came in with Christianity” (106). Christianity converted and transformed with the use of heroic poetry, and many researchers along with Tolkien and Heaney believe that as this story was passed from generation to generation, Christian references were inserted into the text.
While taking a further look into Beowulf we can understand and draw connections between Anglo-Saxon literature and material culture. John Leyerle looks at how “the structure of Beowulf is a poetic analogue of the interlace designs common in Anglo-Saxon art of the seventh and eighth centuries” (131). Leslie Webster looks at the parallels between the warrior culture of Beowulf and the archeological finds at Sutton Hoo. She believes that the “poetic description of Beowulf’s Burial and the great Sutton Hoo ship burial are both carefully constructed messages for their respective contemporary audiences, in which conceptions of the past play a significant part; but they may not necessarily have had identical aims in view” (212). Webster explains that what has been found in excavations only a small part of what was involved in the process, which can only be guessed at now (212).
The National Geographic Museum located in Washington D.C. presented an exhibit of the Anglo-Saxon hoard. This display presented interesting pieces of evidence from the Staffordshire Hoard, to help describe the Anglo Saxon culture. One of the displays offered in the museum taught viewers how the gold and garnet objects at in the Anglo-Saxon time period. The Cloisonné technique was used as a decorative technique that carefully cut and shaped garnets placed in cells and separated by strips of gold.
A tiny sheet of gold foil is placed behind each garnet, reflecting light and making the whole object glimmer and shine (National Geographic Society Museum). The gold that was found in the Staffordshire Hoard may have been made from Byzantine coins. Wealthy patrons might have given these coins to craftsmen to melt down and to mold into something new. Analysis shows that the checkerboard pattern on the Millefiori Stud was made using Ancient Roman glass dating back to 500 years ago (National Geographic Society Museum).
Archeologists propose many different reasoning’s behind the Staffordshire Hoard. One belief is that it was a collection of battle trophies hidden from invaders. Some believe that it could have been a cache buried for safe keeping and for later retrieval. Others believe that it might have been simply stolen objects and hidden by theft (National Geographic Society Museum). Although there are many suggestions about how the Staffordshire Hoard originiated, none of the theories have actually been proven.
Weapons and military equipment was very important during the Anglo-Saxon time period, and most prominently the sword. The sword was the most prestigious and important weapon an Anglo-Saxon man could own. The gold fittings on the sword would have made a weapon “glitter and flash as it slashed through the air,” allowing the confidence of the warrior to build within. Many of these swords were passed down, and the hilt findings could be changed or added according to the military success of the owner. Although no blades were actually found in the excavation of the Staffordshire Hoard, patterns suggest that they existed. The seax, a single edged knife, was also another type of equipment that was used during the Anglo-Saxon time period. Overall, the military equipment was highly valued, and the status of the warrior was reflected on its appearance and equipment (National Geographic Society Museum).
The seventh century was believed to be a period of spiritual transition in England from paganism to Christianity. A lot of religious artifacts were found which leads historians to believe that Christianity was present. A small gold artifact, with a garnet in the middle, surrounded by four rectangular gold pieces in the shape of a cross, with curvy designs on all four sides, and the top having a loop to place something through the object to carry, was known as a pectoral cross.
The inscribed strip was made of gold and silver, it was a long skinny object that was folded in half, one side had a setting for a stone and the other side had an animal head, the rivet holes suggested that the strip fastened to another object, perhaps a bible cover. The script that was written on this piece stated, “Rise up, Lord, may your enemies be dispersed and those who hate you flee from your face.” The pectoral cross, inscribed strip and the cruciform mount were put on display at the National Geographic Society Museum which helps lead historian to believe practices of Christianly came along during the Anglo-Saxon time period (National Geographic Society Museum).
Although the St. Chad Gospels are an incomplete manuscript, St. Chad was a significant person in the conversion from paganism to Christianity. The Gospels were most likely commissioned to adorn St. Chad’s shrine at the site of present day Lichfield Cathedral, which was located approximately three miles from the site of the Staffordshire Hoard’s discovery, and home of the surviving book. Anglo-Saxon art is displayed and found within the text of this book throughout the decorated frames and borders. All of these Anglo-Saxon symbols suggest a sense of strength and reflect the spiritual transition of the time period by combining earlier pagan designs with Christian symbols (National Geographic Society Museum).
Numerous associations and connections can be made from comparing the epic poem of Beowulf and the artifacts found at the Staffordshire Hoard. Many parallels such as the Sutton Hoo helmet, Mead Halls, warrior weapons, and other religious objects found in the Staffordshire Hoard also exist in the text of Beowulf too, which lead many people to relate the two. Furthermore, the Sutton Hoo helmet as referenced in Beowulf is worn when he is about to go off and attack Grendel’s mother.
The helmet had “boar-shapes” and “resisted every sword” that Beowulf has encountered (Heaney 1454). This Sutton Hoo helmet has also been found in the Staffordshire Hoard, and depicted in much of the same ways. The helmet was worn by only important, heroic, key figures during the Anglo-Saxon time period. Also the importance of the Anglos-Saxon sword during battle has been paralleled between the metalwork found in archeology and Beowulf. As referenced in Beowulf, the “battle-torch” is the kenning of a sword that was of high importance, just as it was in the Staffordshire hoard (Heaney 1523). “Hilt’s” were also discussed in the poem of Beowulf, where it was “handed down” (Heaney 1457). The museum also discussed the importance of hilts and how they were changed or had extra added designs, based on the owner (National Geographic Society Museum).
Throughout the story of Beowulf and the artifacts found at Sutton Hoo, many Anglo-Saxon parallels can be drawn and concluded from the two to create a better understanding. The Anglo-Saxon culture can be further understood by reading the text of Beowulf and looking at the objects found in the Staffordshire Hoard. Both of these main historical pieces of evidence from the Anglo-Saxon culture include the discussion or founding of the prominent ship burials.
Beowulf is asked to be buried with an ambiguity of gold and treasure, which explains that in a culture of heroism, fierce warriors who die for the good of others, get buried and imprisoned with wealth. This is also found in the Staffordshire Hoard, where the most significant and essential beings got a ship burial. Therefore the ship burials discussed in Beowulf and found in the Staffordshire Hoard brought about new understandings to art and the Anglo-Saxon culture.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf A Verse Translation. Ed. Daniel Donoghue. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2002. Print.
Leyerle, John. The Interlace Structure of Beowulf. Beowulf A Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2002. 130-52. Print.
National Geographic Society Museum. Washington, D.C.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Beowulf A Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2002. 103-30. Print.
Webster, Leslie. “Archaeology and Beowulf.” Beowulf A Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton &. 212-36. Print.