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.
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.
You have only to glance at the workmanship of helmets and shields, the beautiful cloisonné 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?