Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Little Light on the Dark Ages by Joanna Fulford

The Dark Ages (broadly 500–1000AD) was a period marked by frequent warfare and the virtual disappearance of urban life.  It followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.  When the legions left Britain in 410AD, their absence created an opportunity for invading tribes of Jutes, Angles, Saxons and Friesians who competed for land and power.  It was the era of Bede and Hilda and Cuthbert, and the legendary king called Arthur about whom so much has been written.

The period is described as ‘dark’ because we know relatively little about it.  The surviving evidence is thin on the ground.  And yet what does remain offers a glimpse of something tantalising and at variance with preconceived notions about intellectual darkness and barbarity.

Burial mound

On my recent research trip into Suffolk (see previous blog) one of the places I visited was Sutton Hoo.  It’s a must-see for anyone interested in the early medieval period.  My visit coincided with an anticyclone, but storm winds and driving rain added another dimension to the sombre beauty of this ancient Saxon burial ground.  There are several burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, but the largest and most famous is believed to be that of the mighty East Anglian king called Raedwald who died around 625AD.  Excavation of the grave revealed the outline of a great ship.  The timbers have long since decayed in the region’s acid soil but a host of other artefacts remain.  These range from weapons and armour to coins and cauldrons; cups and gaming pieces.  Most astonishing of all is the beauty and craftsmanship of the jewellery.  The originals are in the British Museum in London, but the exhibition centre at Sutton Hoo has excellent replicas.  As soon as I saw these, a lot of preconceived ideas about ignorant Dark Age barbarians went up in smoke.

Sutton Hoo helmet
belt buckle

There is nothing remotely primitive about these fabulous pieces, and the hand that made them belonged to a master craftsman using techniques that have changed very little since.  The level of sophistication involved is self-evident.  Stunning design is used throughout.  Sword and belt fittings, purse lid and shoulder clasps all reveal it.  Into the glorious gold settings the goldsmith set red stones: rubies brought from India; garnets from Northern Europe.   He cut and shaped them and then set them into miniature cells of gold, each backed with gold foil to reflect the light through the gem.  The stepped interlocking patterns were built up with geometric precision and balance.  In some instances the design is freer and represents interlaced creatures and protective animal, bird and man-like figures depicting a visual language once widely understood in Northern Europe but whose meaning is now obscure.  Each piece is a work of art in its own right and speaks volumes about the power and status of the king for whom it was made.  In modern values, the equivalent cost of recreating the shoulder clasps alone is estimated to be in the region of £100,000 – roughly $156.000.  Yet they were just a small part of Raedwald’s treasure.

Purse lid
The king’s sword had a superb blade forged by a highly skilled pattern welder.  One of the three hanging bowls discovered in the grave carried brightly enamelled and patterned fittings of Celtic design.  Silver dishes, bowls and spoons reveal Roman and Byzantine production.  One of the bowls came from North Africa.  Excavations of cemeteries in central Sweden reveal ship-burial customs and contain helmets and shields very like those from the Sutton Hoo ship.   King Raedwald, and rulers like him, belonged to an international culture in which the sea was not a barrier but a path of communication.

Shoulder clasps
Sutton Hoo has provided valuable insights into the past and has caused me to re-evaluate the Dark Ages.  Certainly the departure of the Roman legions from Britain had a profound effect and, yes, it was a period of warfare and invasion.  However, it seems to me that that isn’t the whole story.  I can’t buy into the idea that Britain and Europe and this time were inhabited solely by mindless barbarians: the existing evidence suggests something very different. 

The Dark Ages continue to fascinate us: I come back to an earlier point about the sheer volume of stories written about Arthurian legend.  Perhaps our love affair with the period is partly concerned with its obscurity; with not knowing for sure; with the continual exercise of the imagination.  Perhaps too it is about those occasional gleams of light when an enthusiast with a metal detector unearths another hoard of ancient treasure and suddenly our understanding of the past alters dramatically.  For the novelist such moments are pure gold.

I’d love to hear about your light-bulb moments. What was it that changed your perception of the past or provided you with fresh insight?


  1. What a fascinating post! This period of history is so different than what most people think! Thanks so much for sharing!


    1. Thanks for that, Lana. I'm so pleased you enjoyed it. Any light bulb moments to share? If so, I'd love to hear.

  2. Definitely plenty of fodder for the novelist! Thanks for this post - just been on a trip to the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilder in Denmark where a similar ship-burial is vividly described in one of the displays.

    1. Leonie, that sounds fascinating. Denmark has a wealth of material about this period. It's on my wish list of places to visit.