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. As a person who does Rapier and Longsword lefthanded (though I frequently switch if said hand is tired or I'm having a hard time mirroring a technique), it really does throw people off when they fight me initially, unless they have ample experience.

    Recently, I was doing a "King of the Hill" style sparring with Rotella and Spear. I ended up being "King" for most of the game/having the most wins partly because, as pointed out by people fighting me, I was lefthanded and they weren't used to defending with their right side as much.

  2. It's well known in fencing circles that left-handed fencers have the advantage of protecting their heart from right handed attacks and also have an advantage to laying a blow to the right-handed opponent's heart.

  3. Hi, perhaps the guy in the grave had only one arm (the left). So he could have been righthanded earlier in his life until he had lost his right arm.

  4. Help me out if I'm missing something, but isn't that an oddly specific spot to attribute the flattened wire to the resting of a hand? It's worn well past the frame of the inlay and the adjacent wires appear to have minimal wear. Only the corners of the pommel cap's peak seem to have been worn to a similar degree and they are essentially the proudest points of wire on the whole cap.

  5. What impresses me about the sword is its size. That must have been HEAVY, and to use that for an extended period of time must have been a workout. This guy either must have had muscles in his hair follicles, or there is something about the way they fought with these weapons I am just not getting.

  6. Sue, can you explain to me why there is a three crown coat of arms that Sweden are using as their coat of arms, but also used by Munster in Ireland? The helmet in Sutton Hoo is also very much the same as the Helmets found in Sweden, in a small town called Vendel & the era prior to the Viking era are called the Vendel Era. Is this becuase Swedes came to England or the other way arround & where do the Irish Munsterers come into the picture.

  7. I'd never thought I'd give a dusty fuck about old swords haha. But this is very well presented and by someone who's passionate about what they're talking about so it becomes interesting to listen to. Good stuff!

  8. I'm kicking myself for not subbing to the British Museum's channel sooner, because I've been missing awesome content like this.

  9. Jesus Christ. I thought I was duped by a thumbnail when I see an attractive young lady talking about this sword, and then I realize the original is in front of her!! Thank you and please keep up the good work.

  10. From what I understand anglo saxons fought in a shield Wall formation in battle. In a dual a left handed warrior may surprise an opponent. But I'm not so sure his compatriots would be very pleased with this left handed king now that a handy gap is made in the formation with his shield held in his right hand.

  11. It's the same in table tennis, and probably a lot of different individual sports. I hate playing a lefty at table tennis because the spin and all of the tactics are reversed

  12. CAMERAMAN: stop down the aperture a bit when doing close-ups of detail on things like the pommel. It's annoying to want to see ALL the detail, but you're shooting wide open and the depth of field is so shallow that most of the object you're shooting is out of focus.

  13. Sue, you are a consummate curator, conscientiously wearing rubber gloves as surely it wouldn't do to risk harm to a priceless foam rubber sword.

  14. Ok. Soooo- who has the body? I'm sure in later years, lots of acedemics have put forth theories or whatever. But there was a body.
    Smart is sexy. This girls brilliant.

  15. If the red cells are made from garnets, is it possible that the simpler side of the pommel, being made from larger garnets, could be the side of greater prestige, and thus more likely to be outward-facing?

  16. I'm a leftie! from boxing to hair dressing the only problems I had was mastering scissors and tin openers!.. I'm very unique and creative! I love being a leftie! We use both sides of our brains!…. Greater senses etc….

  17. If someone was barried with that sword what gives anyone the right to STEAL because that what ya did. From THEIR grave. Not ur grave. Man. Thats so disrespectful.

  18. Absolutely. My fencing instructor is a Lefty, very difficult to beat depending on style, especially with Niten Ryu, Sword in each Hand. In Kenjutsu we, yes we, have no Left Handed Swordsmen. For numerous reasons, the primary one was simply walking around town. In Nihon, they walked and still walk sidewalks like the UK roads. Strict Right handedness prevented Scabbards from clashing, which was considered an insult.
    BTW I know that you have Nihonto there.

    PS, It's speculated that Shinmen No Genshin Miyamoto Musashi was actually Left Handed.

  19. Beautiful artifact, I have been interested in the grave find for years. Great piece Sue. I have a question for you Sue not about this find tho. What would you use to preserve a leather belt from around the same time period. I have a belt from the Viking age ( what's left ) I need to know the preservation techniques of leather from that era. Thank you

  20. If you train against lefties on a regular basis they lose most of their advantage. You do have to completely change your stance and sheild position.

  21. As a person who is ambidextrous, I can tell you switching hands is always a great advantage in boxing, sword fighting, baseball, etc. I expected my children to be ambidextrous as well; however, my son is right handed and my daughter is left. Fortunately, I am able to help both of them to learn whatever skills they desire to learn, such as drawing, writing, sword fighting. I teach my son to take the sword in his left hand to confuse his opponents.

  22. As cool as that find is (and it is beyond awesome) kings were a dime a dozen back then, they were pretty much warring chieftans. Atleast until Alfred the great made his efforts of peace with his dream of one country/one ruler.

  23. This is the greatest find EVER for my people!! We never get properly represented in anything,especially time period movies. People always said there was something wrong with me,& I was treated differently. I could imagine this guy had to work 10x harder to prove himself to the righties in that time period. Well,King..It worked. You were A badass!!😎

    Also,spiral notebooks SUCK.😝
    Just saying.

  24. To play Devils advocate : The Roman army wore thier swords on the right. Could he not have been copying an earlier stylefrom the Roman Occupation?

  25. Here is a jeweler's perspective. Ms. Brunning is assuming that the "more complicated pattern" is the outward side of the pommel. However, she also mentions garnets. The larger a given gemstone, the more valuable. The displayed side might NOT have been the "more complicated" side, but instead the "richer" side, because it had the larger gemstones. "I'm the boss, I can afford bigger gems."

  26. You're pre-supposing that the "more complicated side" is the "front side". It may have been that the "less complicated" side was the one which was preferred to be worn to the outside. In which case the wear pattern would be consistent with RIGHT handed use. In short you simply cannot be sure which side was the "outside", you're imposing your pre-supposition on the object. In addition, it could be, that as the sword was placed a short distance AWAY from the body, it could be that it was placed to the RIGHT side of the body, as this would indicate the hand which was used to wield the sword when in use. NOT the side of the body the sword was worn on.

  27. In addition, the shield is placed on the LEFT side of the body in the grave plan, as when in combat the shield would always have been held in the LEFT hand, leaving the RIGHT hand free to use the sword. This placement of weaponry was key to dark age combat, as the main battle formation was the SHIELD WALL, where warrior's shields would have locked together to form a wall. This REQUIRES uniform LEFT HANDED use of the shield throughout the Shield Wall formation. Leaving the RIGHT HAND, (culturally speaking the "right" or "correct" hand) free to use weaponry. I don't think the evidence shows this warrior was left handed at all. It seems all consistent with conventional RIGHT handed weaponry usage to me (and I'm LEFT HANDED).

  28. I have 2 questions:

    Firstly, can the degree of wear on the hilt tell us how often the sword was worn? Only in combat? All the time in public? Just at feasts and formal occasions?

    Secondly, I noticed recently that the more elaborate pair of drinking horn terminals from Taplow are far more elaborately decorated on one side than the other; but the two terminals are "opposites". So does this suggest that their main decorative function was when they weren't being used and that they were intended to be displayed facing in opposite directions?…  or does it suggest that they were custom made for a specific pair of people (presumably the king and his queen) and that one of the two was left-handed? Or what?

  29. Wow…Anglo-Saxon metalwork always amazes me. The one thing I can't understand is why bury these works of art or throw them in lakes. I get that there is a ritual aspect to this behavior, but you would think they would use a plainer, cheaper version for these things and pass on the richer, finer versions to their heirs.

  30. I love vids like this but…. grave goods are sacred to the person who was laid to rest.
    Dig your holes, record it and then rebury the bones and artefacts.
    This type of archeology has no place today…nothing more than grave robbers!!

  31. I LOVE the term "scars of life", like Leonard Cohen's most quotable quote "there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in" it refames scars as badges of honour. Shame about flaws, imperfections and scars deserves to be challenged. Both on a personal level and when it comes to objects in our lives. Everything is disposable. Heirlooms and inherited goods are a thing of the past. Such a departure from life until this century.

  32. Kind of a tangent but I'd like to propose this person was a famous swordfighter and the mourners wanted to immortalize the tale of the lefthanded hero, but his epic feats have been lost to time.

  33. Left handedness, that's funny. My father had issues with males that were lefties. Hence I was born a lefty, but my father force me to learn with my right. I remember coaches through out my life asking me are you right or left handed. I was right handed just left footed as well. I box as a southpaw naturally. Samson in the bible I think is left-handed. They special people. As my dad told me growing up, "don't ever trust a lefty, there's something wrong with them." Lol. Bless my dad. He's dead. What was he thinking.

  34. I would argue that this person probably became something of a legend in combat due to the fact their left handedness gave them a straight up advantage over their opponents meaning they probably ended up being almost god like in the fact that they could bring down opponents very easily. That would support the notion they were buried in such a grand way, and as Sue says – the sword being placed on the right side of the body clearly showed society at the time really embraced the fact. Fascinating stuff.

  35. Because apparently she doesn't know anything about sword fighting especially the type that happened in that time. The big difference in this case would be instead of your sword beam directly across from your opponents Shield it struck across from your sword if you're left-handed you be used to fighting like that if you're not you would be

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