Saturday, 26 March 2016

Shields: How small is too small?

Shields: How small is too small?

 Few, or perhaps no items of personal warrior gear are more important to our image of an Anglo-Saxon, or Viking warrior than the shield. Our understanding of this most essential piece of war-gear is informed, to some extent by pictoral depictions and written references, but, mainly, by patchy but nonetheless reliable inferences from cemetery archaeology.

Of the studies of Anglo-Saxon shields, arguably the most frequently cited, and informative, is Dickinson and Härke (1992) which, among other issues, seeks to shed light on the murky subject of shield size. Many readers, particularly those from the reenactment community, will be surprised to read that shields could often be as small as 34cm – certainly of no use for building interlocking 'shield-walls' described in later poetry, which we are led to believe was the dominant combat strategy as far back as the period of pagan burials.

Over 20 years on from the publication of this still critically important work, this observation has gradually exerted influence on some modern impressions of warriors from the period, and even beyond, given the limited evidence for late Anglo-Saxon shields, and limited availability of information on 'Viking' ones. It is further, not uncommon to hear, repeated by respected historians, the assertion that most early Anglo-Saxon shields were “little more than bucklers”. To what extent is this statement accurate? Just how small were Anglo-Saxon shields?

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Fire (2/2)

Fire (2/2) - The Experiments

While the archaeology provides evidence for the use of firesteels, and there is linguistic evidence for the continued use of friction-fire in the Migration Period and Viking Age, there is little archaeological information to aid reconstruction of the full fire-lighting process which likely required a range of specially prepared materials, allowing cool sparks to be nursed to roaring flames.

To fill these gaps in knowledge it is necessary to experiment with techniques and materials that would have been locally available at the time, taking inspiration from modern bushcraft techniques and, importantly, other cultures from similar ecoregions (with similar materials available) which have maintained traditional firelighting skills that may be similar to those used by our ancestors.    

Our investigation into the fire-making process is ongoing, and we do not claim to be experts with respect to such techniques. However, we have attempted a number of experiments with locally available materials, informed by available information on modern bushcraft fire-lighting, and the techniques employed by other traditional cultures. It is worthwhile discussing the feasibility of many of the materials traditionally used, in terms of their availability or value in a rural Migration-Age West- European context, and their effectiveness when prepared using the technology available at the time.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Fire (1 /2)

Fire  (1/2)

Fire has played a hugely important role in the lives of human beings since prehistory. Though the importance of fires for providing essential warmth, and facilitating cooking is both obvious and difficult to overstate, the almost ubiquitous social practice of gathering around a fire was likely crucial to the forming of social bonds within early communities.   As anyone who has wild-camped, or spent a dark night in a reconstructed hall will tell you, the dancing flames of a hearth fire often have the miraculous effect of  banishing discomfort, creating wellbeing, and bringing people together.
Yet fire can also turn against us; burn, kill, or swallow homes and settlements whole. Fire is an essential yet treacherous friend, and, for this reason, our relationship with fire has always been a complicated one.

Given the importance of fires for life, and community, and taking into account its treacherous nature, the study of historic cultures' relationships with fire is particularly fascinating. How did our ancestors view fire? How did they make it? And to what extent did they understand the mechanisms which underpin this essential tool?

In this series we examine the techniques likely used by the Anglo-Saxons and "Vikings" to make fire and the evidence for them, and discuss snippets of mythology pertaining to fire which give us glimpses of these cultures' understanding. We, further, present some findings from our own experiments with historic fire-making using widely available, forage-able materials.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Review of the New Vic 'Hoard' Festival

Review:  "Unearthed" and "The Gift" at the New Vic Theatre's 'Hoard' Festival

Over the past few months we have been excited to follow the development of the Hoard festival at Staffordshire’s New Vic Theatre; a national-theatre and Arts Council funded project which began with a modest aim to tell the story of the famous Staffordshire Hoard and has since snowballed into the most ambitious project the theater has undertaken to date.

The festival has grown to include four stage plays ‘in the round’, a pair of studio-plays, a series of table-plays designed to entertain visitors in the theatre’s atrium and bar areas, and ‘400 pieces’; an unusual project involving volunteers and taking the drama out into the community.

During the later stages of development of the festival, the Thegns have been involved, in a small way, in advising the props, costume and set-design teams, helping the team develop a ‘look’ and ‘feel’ for those plays set at the time of the Hoard based on material-culture represented in archaeology from the time. We were highly honoured to be given front-row seats for the press-night during launch-week for the first set of plays; ‘Unearthed’ by Theresa Heskins, and ‘The Gift’ by Jemma Kennedy, and as the team had been keen not to spoil or leak any of the content of these plays to us save for the technical details, it is fair to say we sat down in the impressive theatre-in-the-round, feet quite literally on the stage, unsure of what to expect…