The Anglo-Saxons gave us some of the world’s most visually complex and intricately crafted treasures. With a love of puzzles and riddles, they developed a sophisticated artistic language encoded with messages and symbols from their pagan and Christian beliefs. They used materials and techniques that brought together the ideas and mythologies of Scandinavia, mainland Europe, and the Middle East, and produced striking results.
The treasures below are some of the most historically significant and exquisitely crafted Anglo-Saxon artworks ever discovered. While some of the images may seem mysterious to us today, the Anglo-Saxons would have had no trouble reading the stories embedded within the decoration.
1. The Anglo-Saxon Treasure of Sutton Hoo, Early 7th Century, The British Museum
In 1939, archaeologists made a discovery that completely changed their view of Post-Roman Britain. The remains of a funerary monument in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, revealed a 27-meter-long ship with a burial chamber full of Anglo-Saxon treasures. For historians at the time, it seemed that Britain’s ‘Dark Age’ may not have been so dark after all.
In addition to the rich quality and quantity of the grave goods, ship burials were somewhat uncommon in Anglo-Saxon England. Experts are fairly certain, therefore, that this magnificent burial site was reserved for an Anglo-Saxon king. The most accepted theory is that Rædwald, the King of East Anglia, may have been interred here following his death in 624.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Among the artifacts, silver feasting and drinking vessels from Byzantium were discovered alongside finely crafted Coptic hanging bowls. Luxurious textiles, an ornately decorated shield, and gold accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets demonstrate the sophisticated craft techniques of the Anglo-Saxons. A set of spears, a sword decorated with a gold and garnet cloisonné pommel, and a rare helmet all show that the Anglo-Saxons were proud warriors.
The Sutton Hoo helmet is one of the most recognizable finds from the Anglo-Saxon world. Composed of an iron cap, a neck guard, cheek pieces, and a face mask, it was originally found in hundreds of pieces. Following reconstruction, it became apparent that many of its panels are decorated with heroic scenes of warriors and interlacing animal ornamentation.
The most fascinating aspect of the helmet is the face mask, which seems to work like a visual puzzle. At first glance, it appears as a human face. However, a closer look reveals that the apparent facial features may, in fact, be the body parts of a bird or dragon flying upwards.
Another of the richest finds from Sutton Hoo is a purse lid featuring seven gold plaques with garnet, cloisonné, and millefiori glass decoration. The plaques include mirroring images of a man standing heroically between two bird-like creatures. Similar images are known from Scandinavia and may have evoked a sense of courage and strength, the qualities necessary for an effective leader.
A whetstone found within the burial chamber features human faces carved in relief, and an iron ring mounted with the figure of a stag. A symbol of power and authority for the Anglo-Saxons, the stag is one of several animals engraved into the accessories and shields from Sutton Hoo. Such animals were likely considered sacred. Their inscription on weapons could have symbolized and emphasized their protection over the wearer, as well as signified that person’s authority within Anglo-Saxon society.
2. The Lindisfarne Gospels, Late 7th or early 8th Century, The British Library
The Lindisfarne Gospels are the culmination of centuries of artistic endeavor by the Anglo-Saxons. This richly decorated manuscript comprises 259 pages that illustrate the four gospels; the biblical books that recount the life of Christ.
Most likely created by Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721, the texts are illuminated with colorful, interlacing patterns and forms. Full-page portraits of each of the evangelists are also included, as well as highly elaborate ‘cross-carpet’ pages. So called due to their resemblance to carpets from the Eastern Mediterranean, they feature a cross set against a background of intricate ornamentation.
The manuscript is illuminated in the Hiberno-Saxon style, most likely from the Northumbrian school. This distinctive style was the result of the interaction of the Irish Hibernians with the Anglo-Saxons of southern England during the 7th century.
The Hiberno-Saxon style of the Lindisfarne Gospels demonstrates the fusion of Celtic curvilinear motifs and embellished initials, with the bright coloring and animal interlacing of Germanic design. A Mediterranean artistic influence is also thrown into the mix; an important element used in converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Its influence is most apparent in the representations of the human figure.
Given that the Anglo-Saxons held a love of riddles, the stories embedded within the decoration likely meant much more to them than to modern readers. Some of the most encoded features of the Lindisfarne Gospels include the zoomorphic symbols contained within the illustrations of the evangelists.
The image of Luke depicts a winged calf flying above his halo; a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, according to the historian Bede. A lion is included alongside the illustration of Mark, which represents the divine and triumphant Christ of the resurrection. An eagle signifies Christ’s second coming within the image of John, while the depiction of a man alongside the portrait of Matthew symbolizes the human aspect of Christ.
Perhaps most enigmatic of all, however, are the small idiosyncrasies left by Eadfrith on several of the most important and ornamented pages. It appears that he often deliberately left either a minor part of the design unfinished or introduced a detail at odds with the rest of the page’s design. To date, no satisfactory explanation has been given for this mysterious Anglo-Saxon riddle.
3. The Staffordshire Hoard, 6th and 7th Centuries, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Potteries Museum and Art Gallery
Comprising nearly 3,600 broken fragments when first discovered, the Staffordshire Hoard is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver artifacts ever found. The exquisite craftsmanship, the pure quality of the gold, and the lavish garnet decoration demonstrate that these objects once belonged to the elite of Anglo-Saxon society.
The individuals responsible for burying the hoard remain a mystery, but the martial nature of most of the objects suggests much of it belonged to elite warriors. In fact, the majority of the hoard is composed of fittings from swords; the apex weapon within the warrior society of the Anglo-Saxons. Some of the largest and most striking of these objects may even have belonged to kings or princely figures. The elaborate decoration and design of all the objects connected with war would surely have had a dazzling effect on the battlefield.
Almost a third of the fragments from the hoard was from a high-status helmet, the likes of which are considerably rare from this time period. It likely belonged to someone of high rank, as the intricate details and bold design indicate the importance of the wearer.
A small selection of the artifacts are larger Christian objects used mainly for ceremonial display. Among them, a processional cross made from 140 grams of gold is the largest piece within the collection.
These overtly Christian elements, combined with the pagan symbolism on most objects, perfectly demonstrate the varying influences upon the artistic endeavors of the Anglo-Saxons. Furthermore, the complex symbolism, sophisticated geometric patterns, and stylized zoomorphic figures would have encoded every object with powerful meanings deeply significant to their owners.
Although the objects were buried within the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, the rich amalgamation of styles and craft techniques indicate they were probably crafted in different places, at different times. Filigree ornamentation, made from gold wire, sometimes less than 1mm thick, is the most common decorative technique among the hoard. The Cloisonné technique was also used abundantly by the Anglo-Saxons who crafted these objects.
Alongside the various craft techniques, the diverse origins of the materials further demonstrate the sophisticated trade connections of the Anglo-Saxons. With garnets that originated from the modern Czech Republic and the Indian subcontinent, only those from the highest ranks of Anglo-Saxon society would have had access to the Staffordshire Hoard treasures.
4. The Franks Casket, Early 8th Century, The British Museum
Carved out of whale bone, the Franks Casket is an exquisite visual representation of the early Anglo-Saxon view of the history of the world. The surviving decorative panels of this rectangular, lidded box depict beautifully carved scenes from Roman, Germanic, and Christian traditions. The texts that accompany the images are just as diverse, with Old English runic inscriptions appearing alongside Latin and Insular script.
One side of the box’s front panel depicts a composite scene from the legend of Wayland the Smith. In Anglo-Saxon mythology, the talented smith Wayland exacted his revenge upon the king who had enslaved him by killing the king’s sons. He then drugged and raped the king’s daughter before escaping on a magical winged cloak that enabled him to fly. The scene carved onto the panel depicts Wayland offering the unsuspecting girl the drugged goblet made from the skull of her murdered brother.
From Christian mythology, the Adoration of the Magi is depicted on the other half of the casket’s front panel. The three kings can be seen worshipping and bestowing gifts upon the newborn baby Jesus.
Roman history is represented by a panel showing the capture of Jerusalem by the Roman general and later Emperor Titus in the year 70. Also, a depiction of Romulus and Remus being nurtured by the wolf conveys one of the most significant stories within Roman mythology.
The panel on the right side of the box remains somewhat enigmatic. Although most interpretations concur that it depicts a scene from Germanic legend, it is yet to be fully identified.
Although the carving style and inscription dialect point to a possible origin in Northern England, most of the casket’s history prior to the Mid-19th Century remains a mystery. What we can be certain of, however, is that it was made at a time when Christianity hadn’t been long established in England. Its diverse imagery, therefore, might reflect the Anglo-Saxons’ interest in how their pagan, Germanic past could relate to the histories of Rome and Jerusalem, as well as the emerging messages of Christ.
5. The Prittlewell Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial, Late 6th Century, Southend Central Museum
The earliest dated Anglo-Saxon princely burial, the ‘Prittlewell Prince’, has raised a few questions regarding the Christian conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. Among the finds from the intact timber-framed burial chamber, the earliest Anglo-Saxon Christian symbols discovered here pre-date the arrival of Saint Augustine to Anglo-Saxon England. Who was the mysterious princely figure interred here? Why was he buried with Christian imagery before Saint Augustine supposedly brought Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons?
There can be little doubt that the individual buried at Prittlewell in Essex was of significant status. Some of the luxury items, such as decorated bottles, cups, drinking horns, and latticed-glass beakers, all reflect a feasting culture provided by a lordly host. An ornate hanging bowl and a copper-alloy flagon from the eastern Mediterranean further demonstrate the wealth and trade connections of this person.
A complete set of whalebone gaming equipment and antler dice among the grave goods are also indicative of a high-status Anglo-Saxon man. Personal items, such as a silver spoon from Byzantium, are also typical of an elite burial. A skillfully crafted sword and other carefully placed weapons also signify that this burial was for a man of aristocratic or royal status.
A folding iron stool found in the chamber is a unique find from early Anglo-Saxon England. This intriguing object is thought to be a gifstol, as referenced in later Anglo-Saxon imagery. An Anglo-Saxon figure of lordly authority would have sat upon it to dispense judgments and rewards to his followers.
That the burial was Christian is indicated by the placement of two small gold-foil crosses over the eyes of the departed. A gold belt buckle, two gold garter buckles, two gold coins, and gold braiding from the person’s clothing were also found where the body once lay.
Experts have concluded that the burial may have been for Saexa, the son of the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelbert. Christianity may have informally come to the area a few years earlier than St. Augustine’s arrival, through Aethelbert’s Christian wife Bertha.