And we think we have it all?

Not far from where I live in Suffolk is the ancient Anglo-Saxon burial site of Sutton Hoo. In this wild and magical place in 1939, archaeologists found the most valuable cache of Anglo-Saxon goods in Northern Europe. I have been to Sutton Hoo several times and I never cease to admire the intricate metal working of those ancient people. If you have never been and live close enough, I urge you to go and take a look. If you live too far away, then take a look on the internet.

Anglo Saxon Helmet

At first sight, there is little here. Grassy mounds of earth surrounded by lots of trees. But this was the amazing boat burial site of the ancient kings of Anglia, and probably most notably of Redwald. The most important finds, including the original helmet, were swiftly swept up to London to the British Museum and the ‘gold’ treasure left in Suffolk are all replicas, but there’s enough left here to give you the idea of these people, whose work is astonishing. And these people are still here, my ancestors, for they formed England, which did not exist when they arrived. They came into a dark place, a Britain after the Romans had left and before Christianity spread.They brought their culture, their poetry, their love of jewellery, amber, lapis lazuli, their trading links and they interspersed them with those of the local communities.

And they were clever. And they even have lessons for us modern writers.

You have only to glance at the workmanship of helmets and shields, the beautiful cloisonnรฉ brooches and pins, enamel work, silver filigree and gilded designs, to know that these were cultivated, able artisans. If they were alive today, they would understand more than 80% of our language, because they gave us most of it. And as usual, they got me thinking.

We would not understand them. The communication only works one way. And much of our past only works in one direction. Today, we buy machine-made artefacts as cheaply as possible, maybe from China and Japan, moulded and turned out in thousands. They are not handmade, hand turned, hand-woven. Everything we have comes from a factory. If something dire happened and our technologies failed, electricity disappeared overnight, we don’t have the knowledge to go back and make things from scratch. I could make felt from unspun sheep’s wool and turn it into clothing (that’s another bit of my life there) and I could rig up a loom to weave, but I can’t spin. How many of you reading this are blacksmiths who could turn metal into wheels, make nails for ships? And where do you get that metal? Any ship builders out there who can get us across the seas to trade for it? Farmers? Can you make do without your machinery? Where would you get your seed?

And even writers. Without our computers, yes, we can make do with pens, then pencils. And when they run out and there is no paper, we can perhaps make charcoal in the woods, but what will we write on?

Do we value what we have? I say glibly that I have to write, that it is who I am more than what I do and sometimes complain that I can’t fit it in, I’m too busy. But throughout history, people have had less time, less money, fewer materials, and produced some of the finest artefacts, sculpture, poetry and literature. They have given us so much with so very little.

If history had to work backwards, what would we give them?

Burial Mound at Sutton Hoo


28 responses to “And we think we have it all?

  1. This is the kind of thing that constantly preoccupies me, Pat.
    I still think there is so much value in a way of life which is slower, gentler, and more in harmony with our natural environment.
    I recently read Neil Oliver’s ‘History of Britain’ which also looks at these fabulous pieces of decorative weapons and jewellery – all supposedly made by primitive peoples before the Romans came along and ‘civilised’ us. I don’t think it was quite like that, somehow …and I think there’s more and more evidence that we were vastly more civilised than we are commonly taught at school.

    Really good article – thanks.
    (Sorry I went on a bit, didn’t I?)

    • Actually thought my post went on a bit! But it is a bit of a thing of mine. We are losing so much to technology and some things we can never get back.
      I make felt scarves, hats, bags and stuff and people think felt – squares of it from school. But it’s the world’s oldest fabric and few know how to do it now.
      Now I’m going on again. I’ll shut up!

      • Well – shh!! I’m a closet knitter, and I have a secret fetish for yarn and wool. There’s something about the tactile crafts that are so appealing, something that you just could never, ever replicate with a ‘virtual’ this or that.

        Good for you with your felts – keep it up, especially if it’s a dying art! ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Oh the same fetish! I knit a bit too. Fetish extends to fabrics like silk and velvet (I paint ’em) and from there into paper, obviously. Used to own an art shop (retail supplies) and felt the need to buy paper in other art shops.
          Drove husband wild!
          Keep it quiet. Although there is a blog on here that was talking about what was on desks and mine includes a ball of wall and a french knitting doll. Oops.

          • Got my stash under control, Pat – hidden firmly away in a wicker chest, and I only get it out for a special treat when no one’s around ๐Ÿ˜‰
            (Which means I’ve been knitting the same pair of socks for the last ….oh – forever! – but they won’t be laughing when I wear ’em, cos they are gonna be beautiful!)

          • And very warm! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. Pat this was a beatiful piece, I loved how words like cloissone (whatever that is), filligree, enamel, and other beautiful words made it in to this pleasing read all the while it made me think about something I agree with wholeheartedly; life is too fast these days and the things we know and understand won’t matter one iota should a monumental hiccup jump start the next ice age or apocalyptic ending. Medieval ages will be far advanced in many ways, from where we will be.

    • Cloisonne as I understand it (looks like mosaic) is enamelling inlaid with gemstones and glass with thin gold like wires. Beautiful.
      You’re right. Life is too fast in many ways and we’re forgetting many of the things that matter. And may matter very much if we get your apocalyptic ending.
      And Sutton Hoo has a great feel. Weirdly magical.

      • cloisonne sounds cool, I may have to go look it up. And as for the apocalypse, the thing is, we don’t even need it to be all kinds of biblical; just one hiccup big enough could send major sections of society out of balance, and then what what?

        I don’t mean to get all preachy, just another topic I think about alot.

        • You are not alone thinking about that stuff.
          Lots of possibilities. Oil being one.
          I shudder to think what would happen if the Middle East seriously imploded.

  3. I don’t know if this is a valuable skill, or not… but, I can turn a WordPress blog into a slew of hate emails and a few death threats. I can also turn a sentimental thought into an awkward moment and a church service into a more awkward moment. Don’t know if that will help anyone. ๐Ÿ™‚

    If you are in need of these services, let me know. Apparently I do them for free! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I can kinda hunt/make simple traps… coming from “the sticks” as I do. Impressive that you can make felt.

    • Very valuable. I’m sure there will be room for you and such incredible talents come the new millenium.
      Bet you can knit too. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Stir of the imagination. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  5. Wonderful post reminding us where we’ve come from. Yes, I often wonder how people made such wonderful things with none of the power tools and techniques we have now, And we make things in a fraction of the amount of time that those people took, and it shows… we don’t create things that sing with love and harmony and beauty and skill…Do we have the patience any more?

    • Neither the patience nor the skill set. Worrying really. And hand made has a bad ring about it here. Not seen as created with love, but slung together on the cheap. But real crafts, those old blacksmithing, smelting, enamelling crafts, are few and far between now.

  6. You are just too good for your own good.
    Can that be?
    Yes. It can be.

  7. I would love to visit Sutton Hoo some day. I have been to the Viking Museum in York (my hubby’s hometown) and admired the Viking helmet found there. Here in Canada we have a very short history but we also have some wonderful artifacts and sites of the First Nations People who’s history goes back a long way. I never miss a museum or historical point of interest and try to visualize what life was like back then. (Wouldn’t time travel be great!)

    • York’s Viking centre is very different, much more commercial. Many people complain that there is very little at Sutton Hoo. Small museum and a lot of landscape with bumps!
      And the Vikings are later 8th Century. Anglo Saxons arrived 5-7th centuries, but their craftsmanship is amazing.
      The place always gives me goosepimples!

  8. I once met Brian Bates (author of the way of wyrd) who let me try on a replica of Redwalds helmet – it felt awesome and I did consider a bolt for the door but thought better of it.
    On the lost crafts theme I did come across a book by Hank Wesselman (i think) who postulates that in a future where technology goes belly up, we could never get to that point again because we have squandered to much mineral ores and simply couldn’t reproduce enough metal. Not sure if this is accurate but I have sometimes pondered the earth as a finite resource – all we can really do is transform the raw material. From this perspective some of the plastic tat that is non bio degradable and all the junk we cast out into space – literally throwing away a bit of the planet, doesn’t fill me with hope for the long term. God this is turning into a gloomy reply, think I’ll leave it at that…

    • Not gloomy, well, maybe a bit. But we do such stupid things. And that plastic is only made to shore up the oil industry and we fall for it. If we grew hemp again… no, don’t get me started on sustainable stuff.
      And I am so jealous – you had the helmet on. Even a replica must be so cool!

  9. Very interesting question you’ve brought up here. Very true, also, in many cases. I don’t even want to think of what would be offered in return for what they’ve been able to give us. Seriously. I will not answer this question. (I was raised with one of the proverbs: If you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all. โ€” I will say nothing, in this case.

    When the electricity gets knocked out, neighbors have been known to come over to ask that we (my family) cook something for them (or a meal or two) on our grill or miniature bonfire, since all of them rely heavily on fast food chains and microwaves. It gives me a good laugh, but it’s actually pretty pathetic.

    • I don’t go a bundle on fast food and though I have a microwave, it isn’t used much.
      My idea of fast food is new potatoes washed and cooked in their skins with yesterday’s cold meat and some home made chutney. Or risotto (which I know isn’t especially fast, but I love making so it’s just another selfish thing).
      But you’re right, my question was serious and I do worry about where it will all end, maybe for our children or our grandchildren.

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