Hands on with the Sutton Hoo sword I Curator’s Corner Season 5 Episode 1

Hands on with the Sutton Hoo sword I Curator’s Corner Season 5 Episode 1

What do Babe Ruth, Jimi Hendrix and the man in the mound at Sutton Hoo have in common? I’m Sue Brunning, curator of the European early medieval collections at the British Museum and this is my corner. So today we are doing a sequel to my
previous episode all about early Anglo-Saxon swords but today we’re actually going to be looking at the most famous anglo-saxon sword ever discovered and that’s the sword from the Sutton Hoo ship burial which is laid out beautifully in front of me here. Now for those of you who perhaps don’t know what the Sutton Hoo ship burial is it was a grave that was made in the eastern part of England in a county called Suffolk which at that time was part of the East
Anglian Kingdom in Anglo-Saxon England. Now to call it a grave is to sell it
short slightly because it was actually no ordinary grave it was actually a
grave made in the middle of a twenty-seven meter long ship that was
buried beneath a gigantic earth mound and inside a burial chamber that was
placed in the middle of the ship were laid out some amazing treasures drawn from all over the known world at that time and one of those pieces was this
magnificent sword and the quality and the quantity of the pieces that were laid out inside that burial chamber were so great that the speculation is that
actually what we have here is the burial of an early Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia. So let’s look a little bit more closely at the sword itself. So here we have the blade of the sword which is made from iron and of course the reason that it looks like this kind of brown and a bit lumpy is because it’s corroded in the ground over time, you can see it’s now in two pieces but originally this would have been a very shiny, iron weapon that was made with a technique called
pattern welding which is quite complicated but it basically involves the twisting of iron rods and the grouping together of a bunch of these which are then hammered and then create these beautiful patterns inside the blade so originally this would have been quite a piece of work. Then at this end we have the various pieces of the hilt or the handle of the sword which is the part that’s obviously held in hand so here we have the lower guard plates
which are, as you can see, made of beautiful lustrous gold. In the middle, we have the grip, which is the part that the hand holds on to and on this side
towards me we have two decorative gold clips and this part, it’s actually going to be the part that I’m going to speak about the most today, is the pommel cap, which is made from gold, inlaid with these beautiful red lustrous stones which are garnets. Now what’s interesting about the pommel is that it actually provides us with quite an intimate detail about the person that was buried
at Sutton Hoo. Although the Sutton Hoo sword pommel here looks absolutely pristine, it looks almost as if it was made yesterday, it’s still very shiny and perfect looking. In actual fact it has one of the most striking patterns of wear of any Anglo-Saxon sword that I’ve ever studied or seen. So we can see that the edges of the pommel here are decorated with gold beaded wire you can see lots of these individual beads running all the way along the edges of the pommel here but at this end of the pommel we can see that it’s it looks more like a flat strip now that was originally beaded wire like the rest of it around here but where the person’s hand has been resting
on that over time it’s actually worn flat and where gold is quite a soft metal it starts to flatten down and those beads start to lose their integrity and it looks more like a flat strip which is what we can see at the very end. But interestingly, if I turn it around the other way we can see that the mirror image part that’s flat on that side still retains its beads, still looks quite you know like a piece of beaded wire on this side but in order to sort of explain how this has come about I need to bring back my trusty foam sword which I’m sure many of you remember and enjoyed from last time so you get to see it again… Here it is, so I’m gonna stand up again. Now in early Anglo-Saxon graves
the sword as I mentioned in the previous episode they are normally buried very
close up to the dead person and they’re normally on the left hand side of the person so the side of wearing. So they’ll be buried, you know, normally in about this location like this. Usually also on early Anglo- Saxon sword pommels we find that their are two broad faces are decorated with
different designs so one side is normally more complicated with its decorative design than the other side. There we go. And normally it’s the plainer side of the pommel
that has the more degradation it’s more worn, whereas
the other side is normally better preserved and that’s because probably
the slightly less interesting face is worn on the left-hand side of the person
rubbing against their clothing, we can imagine a large cloak on the person here and so that planar face is rubbing against the clothing whereas the more decorative face, the one that’s outside so that people can admire it, is a bit
more protected from that sort of thing and so if we think that the sword is
always worn with the same face looking outwards then the same part of the top
of the pommel is always angled upwards and, as I mentioned in the previous episode, that’s the part that the hand is resting upon and so over time we can see how that side of the pommel is just going to become worn and this part is more protected from that type of wear. So that’s what we have. When we go back to Sutton Hoo things start to get a little bit weird so we might not quite be able
to see but I assure you that it is the case, the two faces of the Sutton Hoo
sword pommel are differently designed so it’s it’s quite subtle but it is there so if you focus in particular on the little cross motif that’s in the middle, we can see that that’s surrounded by a greater number of cells of differently shaped garnets than if I spin this around the other side so we have a slightly more complex face on this side there is a slightly more complicated
design if that more complicated design is facing outwards and the sword is worn on the left hand side in the Sutton Hoo sword case then the wear pattern is actually in the wrong place the wear is actually underneath, which is, you know, the part of the sword that would be more protected. Now that kind of messes with
my lovely pattern a little bit. But if we switch the sword over to the opposite side onto the right hip and we have that more complex face looking outwards then actually the wear on the Sutton Hoo sword pommel is facing upwards where the hand would rest upon it and lo and behold it fits with the profile again and what that means potentially is that the person who is carrying the Sutton Hoo sword was left-handed. Now that’s obviously very interesting, a very intimate detail about the person that was buried at Sutton Hoo and we do actually find some corroboration for this theory in the grave plan at Sutton Hoo. So famously no human remains were
found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial but what we do have is a sort of human sized void or gap inside the burial chamber with the grave goods laid out around it and the Sutton Hoo sword is laid out in the position that we might expect to find a human body. If we imagine a human being back into that gap that I mentioned then the sword is actually found on the right hand side the side of wearing if the person was left-handed. So with the wear pattern on the Sutton Hoo
sword pommel and also with the grave plan at Sutton Hoo we are starting to build a case that maybe this person was actually left-handed and I’m sort of fairly fairly comfortable with that idea. Now this is very interesting because it
starts to make us think a little bit about how this person may have been
perceived in society now there’s been a bit of a historic stigma surrounding left-handedness in many places around the world, throughout time and to some degree the idea that being left-handed is somewhat of a disadvantage is still l part of society really, because society is geared up for the right-handed majority but I can think of one situation in which perhaps actually being left-handed in early Anglo-Saxon England may have been an advantage and
that’s in combat. Now I actually have some very limited experience of this sort of thing because I’m a very very rookie boxer so most boxers are right-handed including me, the orthodox stance and that means that most boxers
whether they are right or left-handed are used to facing right-handed
opponents and so the hardest punches are coming from the right hand side. Now if you’re left-handed or southpaw stance everything is opposite, so when you’re
facing a left handed person it’s a completely different prospect and that kind of throws you off a little bit and it’s only in those split seconds where you kind of adjust and you have to compensate for that
that’s all the time that is needed in actual fact for that person to put your
lights out. I’m wondering if it could have been similar in the early Anglo-Saxon period… So of course these are different styles of fighting; boxing and sword fighting they’re not the same thing but actually I would argue that the principles could be the same this idea of being used to a right-handed fighter and then being faced with a left-handed fighter in actual fact some of the reenactors that I’ve spoken to talk about this very thing so they say that you expect, as a sword fighter, sword strikes to be coming in from a certain angle and so you stand you hold your
shield in a way that can compensate a gap against that but when you’re actually facing someone left-handed the sword strikes are coming in from the complete opposite direction and that’s a bit of a nightmare, quite frankly, to face. And it’s similar, I think, with boxing when you’re faced with a left-handed, southpaw fighter. So in actual fact the person buried at Sutton Hoo may have been viewed as even more powerful, even more formidable, rather than being at a disadvantage and the way that the grave is laid out is also really interesting in this respect because it shows us that the mourners burying this person didn’t feel the need to correct that left handedness by placing the sword on the orthodox side on the left hand side, at the side of wearing if you were right-handed in actual fact they chose to enshrine that left handedness by placing the sword on the right hand side, the side that that person would have worn it in this very public very very visual context of the funeral. This left handedness is shown there for eternity, in the grave. Now when I first put this theory together and I noticed these things about the sword and what they might mean I had a little electrical moment because Sutton Hoo is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time and the mystery at the very heart of it is who was the person that was buried there? You know was this person a king? If so, which king? what was that person’s name? And sadly I think these might be unanswerable questions, we might never know who this person was, but when I look at the sword I actually feel a lot less sad about that because by looking at these signs on the sword and signatures of wear on this pommel here we actually get such an intimate detail that this person may actually have been left-handed, which is really incredible to me and it shows me that, although
these objects might sit quietly in a display case, these are not actually quiet objects, they’re really full of messages, they’re loud with information about the people in the past and the other thing that I find amazing about this wear pattern on the sword is that these marks were made by this person’s actual hand, you know, how close can you get. We can, you know, by touching those wear patterns we’re almost touching that person’s hand through time, so even though this person is a mystery to us and is separated from us by 1500 years or so we can really still actually almost reach through time and touch that person’s hand and get to know that person in a really intimate way. By the way if you haven’t made the link they’re all left-handed! Now if you’ve enjoyed my corner today you can find my previous curator’s corner over here all about early Anglo-Saxon swords and if you like that please also subscribe to our YouTube channel where you can find many more wonderful videos.

100 thoughts on “Hands on with the Sutton Hoo sword I Curator’s Corner Season 5 Episode 1

  1. I don't know if it's been mentioned, but I visited a castle recently where they explained that all spiral staircases were twisting in the same direction, to the left when going down and of course, to the right when going up, so that friendly soliders going down would have and advantage over enemies coming up, because their right sword hand wouldn't be obstructed by the center stair column. Of course, this is another time when being left handed would be an advantage of you were part of the invading party.

  2. I know Sutton is south of London, but what about an early raid by the Norman "Kerr" clan, known and famous for left handedness . Just saying, I know Sutton Hoo was seventh century, and the Kerr's first became known at the battle of Hastings in 1066, but what's 300 years. All Kerr fortifications were designed for left handed swordsman, that and being gingers rounds up the unpopularity of a people, all hail "the Kerr clan"! the much reviled reavers of the Scottish border marshes. HUZZAH!!! Great presentation Sue.

  3. I have studied hand to hand combat and weapons combat. The principles are the same. Any fighter will tell you "all it takes is that split second to get that win.

  4. Cool video and a wonderful bit of kit. Too bad he was a "toxic white male" huh? Right? I mean isnt that a forgone conclusion in you people's minds? What's left of them.

  5. Why don't museums like yours hire sweordsmiths who could make replicas of the sweords so that people can see what the original sword might have looked!>??

  6. Wouldn't that mean that the throat of the scabbard, and the blade, then were assymetrical?
    In order for the sword to always be in worn in the same position.

  7. Bizarre there are so many women in the field of history in the UK. When I was at college learning the subject in the US it was at least 80% men.

    Perhaps The British Museum just hires women….

  8. Are all the garnets of the same type, i.e. were they all from the same source, or were they different types, meaning they had to be sourced from multiple locations?

  9. I've done a lot of Phillipino stickfighting, which is essentially swordfighting with sticks. I'm a left-hander, and can confirm that left-handers are MUCH better at fighting right-handers than the opposite. It is a huge advantage.

  10. My guess the flatened part on the pommel is a "pinkie finger rest" when holding the handle.
    These type of handles are more like 3-3,5 fingers lenght… And due to the size of the lower guard thrusting hits need additional support. Like a break that stops the hand from sliping.

  11. Can you cooborater the wear on the helm or other pieces?

    Adjusting and removing the helm would be anchoring the main hand on the same spot every time

  12. I'm surprised she is not wearing a reflective vest as do just about everyone in England does, after all, who knows what might happen …….

  13. they probably buried all this for a reason, idk if they would be too happy about random people digging up their graves and taking all their shit and putting it in a museum

  14. You need to try fencing, Sue. Left handers do, indeed, have an advantage. Remember the ambidextrous, also, an ambidextrous person might choose to be a left handed fencer, or choose to switch sides to throw his opponent off.

  15. I'm left handed. And during pugil stick fighting (with a stick that's padded on both ends, something we did in the Marine Corps), being left handed was a huge advantage. I beat people who were far better fighters than me because they left openings to a left-hand stroke.

    That being said, as advantageous as it might be in a one-on-one fight, it would be a disadvantage in any kind of battle. I believe the Anglo-Saxons generally fought in some form of shield wall, and a lefty in the middle there would throw the whole thing off.

  16. In a shield wall the end is a weak point, to cap your formation with left handed fighters there would be an advantage. More so in the swine formation.

  17. Great series. I can tell you as a fencing coach, left handed fencers are very comfortable facing right handed opponents, but not the other way round.

  18. Do the artifacts recovered as part of the 'Staffordshire Horde' date from the same time period as the Sutton Hoo artifacts? Some of the pieces and craftsmanship look identical.

  19. Great point about the southpaw sword, and beautiful workmanship. Also great that you have some martial experience.

  20. Very interesting video, with fantastic host, but I cannot stop myself to think about the claim, that if owner of the sword wore the sword on his right side (which from the evidence shown seems likely) meant,that he was left handed. For example roman spatha swords (which are approximately of the same length) are in many depictions worn on the right side of soldiers and when you are in tight formation, such as shieldwall, it is easier to draw the sword from your right side than left side when you are right handed. I am not an expert on Sutton Hoo burial and there might be other evidence that buried individual was left handed, but just from wearing sword on the right side, I would not be convinced, that the buried individual was left handed. Nonetheless great and interesting video and great way to popularize history and archaeology to the public. I wish that similar projects were in my country. Keep up the great work.

  21. I'm in love! Both with the sword and with Sue. 🙂

    What a wonderful lecture! First video I watch, but I subscribe right away.

  22. Being left-handed would be a disadvantage while fighting in a shield wall. Also, it is possible to draw a (not too long) sword with the hand on the same side as it is carried (and there could be some advantages to do so while fighting in a tightly packed shield wall.
    Yes, it might be more likely that the owner of this sword was left-handed, but it is far from being the only possibility.

  23. Which one is older, rarer and more valuable? The Sutton Hoo sword or the ancient foam sword? I'm guessing the foam sword is older, because it looks King Arthur-ish… Lol! Seriously though, I'm blown away by the craftsmanship of the 'jewelers'(??) who produced the decorative gold and garnet pieces! That's some serious skill, at an age where jewelers loupes and micro-tools weren't exactly common.

  24. Firstly the part of the sword that is the handle is called the tine. The method used to make the sword is called Damascus. It is a method still used today, example being the Japanese Samurai swords. When the Smith or Cutler pattern welds the strips of iron during the process, as they were using charcoal forges, they would unwittingly introduce carbon to the iron producing crude but harder than iron, steel. Damascus swords and knives tend to hold their edge better than plain forged swords. Lost knowledge of how these articles were made, includes methods of tempering the article to harden it.
    The method of heating and shaping iron or steel with hammer and anvil is even today known as "Drawing" the iron or steel. A blacksmith will draw an iron bar to thickness before shaping it into a horseshoe. We all know of the mythical king of the Britons who battled the invading Anglo Saxons, had established his credibility to become king by, "drawing" his sword from the stone.
    I've always said "Archaeologists should consult with tradesmen and craftsmen before concluding their theory." Your knowledge of boxing was clearly as valuable as your academic knowledge of archaeology.

  25. I initially thought it was Siobhan Thompson from Collegehumor/Anglophenia since she looks very similar to Sue and has an archeology degree.

  26. I am not impressed by your knowledge on the blade.

    It is NOT made of IRON. it is made from STEEL as all of thier swords from this era was.

    I am also disturbed tgat you never showed the sutton ho replica sword made by jim hrisolous and donated to your museum

  27. Hi Sue, a thought for you. If you notice how the "beads" are worn down, but the surrounding metal isn't, I was thinking this could be from the bearer wearing a ring. If you had a ring on your right hand, it could fall right onto those beads, and I could easily see a "nervous tick" motion where the person would run it back and forth to feel the bumps through their finger. This repeated metal on metal contact would wear down the beads (and perhaps the ring) without wearing the surrounding areas. Just a thought. Fascinating video, thank you.

  28. Wow, sword expert! boxer! beautiful! can't tell from the gloves, but if you're not married or in a great relationship, I'm your guy,

  29. From a boxer stand point, It is the openings you get because of your stance, you have to put a foot backwards in a fight to hold your stance and give powerful strikes,so I believe you are completely correct because they could possibly like you say, end a fight before it even starts just because of where they place their feet, and their shield, and even if they had training and can compensate in time, the left handed person has mostly or only trained with right handed people while the right handed person has only most likely only ever trained with right handed people.

  30. Thanks Sue, would you say that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the Sutton Hoo burial was that of Raedwald?

  31. I have a vert odd and possibly very old sword that I need help identifying…to whom or where can I go? Anyone please

  32. All hail 'Sutton-Sue'!
    So this southpaw's opponents had to contend with unexpected strikes if they weren't mesmerized by the sword to begin with. I can picture him decked out in armor with his right hand resting on the pommel as he spoke to his subjects. He was probably as gifted in communication as he was with swordsmanship judging by the exquisite quality of the sword; it was a status symbol as well as a weapon of war.
    Many of our leaders, presidents, etc. have been left-handed as a study shows that southpaws have a knack for manipulation and the machinations of being a ruler. I'm wanting to think he was a noble that spent as much time ruling as he did warring.

  33. He probably harvested many kills due to being left-handed. In a shield centric culture, in a shield centric period, being used to fighting right-handed enemies and being those enemies not accustomed to left-handed opponents, it makes perfect sense.

  34. You keep calling it a grave, and yet there was never any sign of a body. Graves generally have bodies in them, burial yes, grave no, and that pommel was probably knocked rather than worn. Wearing generally does exactly that, it wears away and that doesnt look worn, just a bit flatter where it was knocked or dropped. The side with more pieces in it was probably the back, it doesnt look fancier it just looks like the maker run out of bigger bits of garnet. The left handed theory is interesting.

  35. As a fan of weaponry through the ages I love her explanations. The methods and metals used to create swords is often hard to convey to modern people, as is the lovely gold and gem work (this is an amazing example of both). Subbed and going to watch the backlog of all her videos.

  36. A left handed 'soldier' would have been awkward. Couldn't fit into a formation. An off-handed 'warrior' would have been formidable. "OK boys, stand back and let Sinister do his thing." Or at least put him on the left hand end of the shield wall formation.

  37. Imagine nearly all combat training being focused on right handed warriors. You learn to block and defend against right handed attacks. But if a lefty comes at you then now you are thrown off your game. All your training is to step right handed attacks. A lefty would be at the least regarded with more caution.

  38. This this sword is speaking loudly about the past, should have provided MORE information… – what about the metal composition, date timeline and more. . . You could have stated what you did in half the time.

  39. As most people are right handed, the sword was usually worn on the left side of the body.So when the bearer griped the sword to with draw it from the scabbard the hilt would catch in the buttons and flap of the shirt. Hence to avoid this SNAG, the flap was reversed. So now you know why men's shirts are opposite that of a woman.

  40. "What do Babe Ruth, Jimi Hendrix, and the man in the mound as Sutton Hoo have in common?"

    Uh, they're all dead b

  41. The left-handed advantage is already mentioned in the bible, in the story where Ehud kills king Eglon (Judges 3).

  42. Was the person left handed or were swords worn on the right side for right handed people as was the case in the Roman world? I would love your Insight, British Museum

  43. Sue has the coolest job in the world and you don't.
    Great presenter and a boxer to boot.
    She's Britain's answer to Indiana Jones 😀

  44. Something to consider is maybe not left hand by choice, by that I mean maybe he lost his right arm (or hand) in battle or an axe injury while working on a farm or such.
    Also, maybe he did not lose his right arm, but it was damaged in combat or born with arm that he could not used (for example, Tamerlane, who was lame, a person in history and he over came his disadvantage). Probably was he left hand, but got to open to other possibilities to, I suggest.

  45. facing a left handed boxers orientate movement to your left ,if you move to your right your walking into there strength ,,,,

  46. The same left/right theory can be seen in American baseball when a pitcher throws against a left or right handed batter.
    Batters who are "switch hitters" can adapt to either left or right handed pitchers.

  47. Your talking one on one combat. I don't think being left handed would help in a shield wall? If he was a king maybe he would have fought on horseback.

  48. long ago I saw a video fo a judo practitioner because of an injury he learned to play judo from the left side he became a champion due to his opponents inability to compensate four left side attack

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