July 22, 2024


Sixth-century Anglo-Saxons may have traveled from Britain to the eastern Mediterranean and northern Syria to fight in wars, researchers have suggested, shedding fresh light on their princely burials.

St. John Simpson, a senior British Museum curator, and Helen Gittos, an Oxford scholar, concluded that some of the exotic items excavated at Sutton Hoo, Taplow and Prittlewell, among others, originated in the eastern Mediterranean and northern Syria and cannot be conventional trade goods, as others have suggested.

Simpson said that “compelling evidence” suggests that the individuals buried at those sites were involved in Byzantine military campaigns in northern Mesopotamia during the late sixth century, fighting the Sasanians, an ancient Iranian dynasty.

He noted that finds from several sites include objects of low value such as Sasanian personal seals and silver drachmas, challenging the “rather simplistic view” that everything non-local came to these shores through long-distance trade.

Armor and royal clothing buried with those individuals include designs of Eurasian origin and ones that were widely worn in the Byzantine east and throughout the Sasanian empire.

Simpson said: “These finds put the Anglo-Saxon princes and their followers at the center of one of the last great wars of late antiquity. It takes them out of insularity England in the plains of Syria and Iraq in a world of conflict and competition between the Byzantines and the Sasanians and literally gave those Anglo-Saxons a taste for something far more global than they could possibly imagine.

“It adds an international dimension to those sites. We looked at the Anglo-Saxon in a rather insular way.”

Simpson, the British Museum’s curator of ancient Iran and Arabia, is an archaeologist whose specialties include the archeology of the Sasanian empire.

He said: “We are all used to looking at our subjects from within our own academic disciplines or within modern political boundaries. The most important thing is to notice what seems out of place and therefore explain what it is and how it got there.”

Excavations at Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, have unearthed a rich Anglo-Saxon burial in a 27-metre long nave, one of the UK’s most spectacular archaeological discoveries. His treasures included Byzantine silverware.

At Taplow, in Buckinghamshire, the remains of a man wearing a Eurasian-style riding jacket were among the discoveries. At Prittlewell, in Essex, a burial chamber was found with a brass flag depicting St Sergius in a Sasanian-style roundel, among other artefacts.

Simpson said: “The pearl roundel on the Prittlewell flag is unique and places its iconography firmly in a Sasanian design language, suggesting that it was made further east, in a Sasanian workshop.

“The eastern connections of the warrior tunics at Prittlewell and Taplow, together with the design of the shoulder clasps from Sutton Hoo, reinforce the idea that these individuals returning from Syria are even more closely aligned with the late antique fashions of the Byzantine-Sasanian elite warrior society.”

Discussing lumps of bitumen found at Sutton Hoo, which some assumed were related to ship-making, he noted that the Sasanians used bitumen in the lining of pottery and that major sources came from the Middle East, while the first-century Greek physician Dioscurides wrote of its extensive medical uses, for everything from asthma to hip pain.

He said: “Scientific analysis of the [Sutton Hoo] lumps of bitumen show that they came from a specific source in northeast Syria…I think this is another item brought back with perceived or actual healing power…by superstitious warriors who may have even converted to Christianity on effective Byzantine crusades against the Sasanians.”

A pottery bottle from Sutton Hoo – the only pottery from the entire burial – has long puzzled scholars because it is unlike anything found in the northern Europe. Simpson said it was typical of pottery of this period produced in northern Mesopotamia, and that he believed it contained fragrant oil from that region.

The evidence leads him to conclude that these Anglo-Saxon warriors served under Tiberius II and his successor, Maurice, who noted in his military handbook that “Britons” were good at fighting “in the woods”.

When asked why the Anglo-Saxons would have engaged in their wars, Simpson suggested “a combination of adventure and pay”. He. said: “The Byzantines were recruiting across Western Europe for what was effectively a new model of mobile army.”

Gittos, a fellow and tutor in medieval history at the University of Oxfordsaid: “It opens up a startling new view of early medieval British history.”



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