Sunday 8 August 2010

Where beth they beforen us weren?

This was something that happened in our village last year, and I talked about it on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure.  (Funnily enough, only a few days later a really huge Anglo Saxon treasure was discovered up in the Midlands.  This was not it.) I make no apology for reposting here what I said then, because no rewritten account could give the sense of immediacy and excitement we felt.  It seems like time for an update, though, as if you click on the link at the bottom of this post you'll find pictures of the excavation, and the amazing Anglo Saxon brooch that was found.  Plus some of the early suppositions (about the sex of the skeleton, for instance) turned out to be wrong. 

I took a brisk walk out this morning to the Anglo-Saxon grave.

It was only discovered yesterday. We were out for an afternoon stroll in the mellow sunshine, taking a lane that runs out of the village towards the Downs in the distance, when we realised the wide, flat fields were full of widely separated, slowly walking figures (some women, but mostly men) with bowed heads, swinging long metal detectors like oddly shaped proboscises. Every so often one would stop and dig a little hole, pick something up, then wander on. The big farm was running a metal detectors’ rally, proceeds of the camping fees to cancer research.

We started talking to some of the men. One pulled out a wallet and showed us a medieval silver penny. Another had more pennies, Roman and medieval: and belt buckles: and buttons. ‘And over there,’ they all said, pointing towards the furthest field behind a belt of trees – ‘over there, that’s where they’ve found an Anglo Saxon grave!’

Everyone was alight with it. A huge gold brooch had been found, together with some bones. The police had been called immediately and had thrown a cordon around the site. The archeologists were already examining the brooch, which was over in the marquee beside the farm. We headed back to look for ourselves, on the way chatting to a group of three men who wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place at a Saxon chieftain’s burial. Big lads, with acres of tattoos. One had long black hair, another a shaved head. One wore an enormous plaited gold ring on his thick forefinger.

‘Any luck?’ we asked. They were friendly, shook their heads: ‘Nah. Only rubbish today. Here’s what we got, on this table over here, take a look if you like.’

‘If you want some, have some,’ added the black-haired man. ‘It’s rubbish. It’s all going in the bin otherwise. But have you heard about the gold brooch?’

On the table was a clutter of stuff. Bits of pottery, coins, harness buckles, buttons, crumpled tin and lead. ‘Take it! Take it all!’ exclaimed the black-haired man. He shovelled it all into a plastic container. It was heavy.

‘When you start this game,’ explained the man with the gold ring, ‘you’re really excited about a coin or two, but then you get ambitious. Tell them about that ring you found.’

‘18th century, with seven diamonds,’ said the man with the black hair.

‘We’ve all found rings, one time or another,’ said Gold Ring Man. He laughed. ‘Once you start this game, you get addicted.’

We went on down to the tent. The brooch was there on display. It was the size of a large jam-pot lid, with a white coral boss surrounded by an inlay of flat, square-cut, dark red garnets. Around that, a broad band of bright yellow gold, with four set garnets standing out from it. Then more coral. And around that, a ring of intricate silver filigree, now black and dirty. People pored over it, photographed it, stared at it with awe, excitement, and reverence.

‘There’ll be another one,’ the archaeologist was saying. ‘They always come in pairs.’ And he had a look at the ‘rubbish’ the big guys had let us take away. It included four Roman coins, a bit of a medieval ring brooch, some Roman pottery, a lead musket ball the size of a marble - cold and heavy in the hand - and an 18th century thimble. Just a tiny fraction of what still lies under the dusty ploughlands.

So this morning, as I was saying, I walked out to see the site of the grave. Our village is probably Anglo Saxon in origin. The site was about two miles out from the farm, along a flat and dusty track between the fields, tucked away behind a strip of woodland, with a view of the Downs three miles away. It was marked out with striped tape, like a crime scene, and guarded by police vehicles. One of the archeologists gave me a lift the last quarter mile.

‘We think it’s a high status chieftain,’ she said. ‘Seventh century.  We’ve found bones. We think it’ll be a major excavation.’

I stood there, in the sunshine and the light wind, looking at the place where, thirteen centuries ago, some Saxon warrior was laid to rest, and I had a lump in my throat.

Where beth they beforen us weren,
Houndes ladden and hawkes beren,
And hadden feld and wood?

I keep being told by my editor that there’s no market for historical children’s fiction; that it’s difficult to sell. Well, all I can say is, most of the people I met and talked to out on the fields yesterday were enthralled not merely by the idea of treasure hunting, but by the romance of the past. And well they might be, because this is England and the past is all around us. And surely children feel it too?

Where, asks the anonymous Middle English poet, are they who were here before us, who once led their hounds and carried their hawks and owned both field and wood?

Still here, it seems, is the answer.
They’re still here. 

And here is the link to see more pictures of the brooch, the burial, and the story of the excavation:  Saxon Grave


  1. A lack of children's historical fiction was part of the reason for me reading adult historical fiction by the time I was 12 (that and my mother had become fed up of me running out of holiday reading so quickly - she made me find the thickest book i could that I thought would be interesting, which was Sharon Penman's The Sunne in Splendour)

    The first stories I wrote outside of school work(i think i was about 8) were historical/time slip stories - but then again, we spent alot of family holidays visiting ruins, castles and stately homes - guess it's not the same if your family holidays are to disney world or the beach

  2. There seemed to be quite a lot about when iw as a child. Jane Lane (who seemd to write a lot about Bonny Prince Charlie); Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece; Rosemary Sutcliff - then I migrated to older and earlier writers like Margaret Irwin... And I think it's still a veru popular genre. Just - not with editors, or not mine, and not this last year!

  3. (sorry about spelling mistakes there - it must be my bedtime.)

  4. I'm so envious that you got to see it all for yourself! I've always loved archaeology, and the Anglo saxon sites that have been found over the years are just fascinating...
    I agree with you about historical fiction for children, it caught my imagination then and its still my favourite thing to read now...

  5. Went over to the Saxon Grave site - it's fascinating. I agree with the farmer who was surprised how little damage had been done by ploughing. It's always amazing that such undiscovered treasures are there only just under the topsoil.

  6. I know! And we may be in for a sequel: rumours that the metal detectorists are being invited back in a few weeks, once the fields have been harrowed. Watch this space...

  7. So glad you re-posted this - I somehow missed it on ABBA.

    It gave me the authentic hair-rise experience.

  8. Ditto for me. I'm very glad you posted this again and I'm envious of the history lying at your feet. I could read about a find like this in the news, but it wouldn't make me feel almost as if I had seen it for myself. You do that with your beautiful writing. (Oh, and the large tattooed men remind me of gentle giants, which is a fantastical addition to the tale.)

  9. I like that idea, Cathrin - giants guarding the gold!

  10. Yes, surely children can feel it too! I've been fascinated by the past for as long as I remember. Thank you for sharing this lovely experience with us.

  11. How exciting! Thanks for posting the link. I was a big Rosemary Sutcliffe fan as a kid. Keep meaning to re-read her.