The British Museum has continually sought to highlight cultural significance through its geographically and thematically organised curatorship of objects. Its handling of the British’s gradual conversion to Christianity has always been a highpoint, despite lacking the grotesque pizazz of the Egyptian mummies or the rich contextual history of the ‘Elgin Marbles.’
The ever popular ‘Elgin Marbles’ at the British Museum.
Slaloming through French schoolchildren, heading out of Mesopotamia and speeding east into Anatolia, you notice that the static groups of apathetic looking youths start to be replaced by fluid, determined tours, barrelling past exhibits filled with Stone and Bronze Age Celtic paraphernalia. Even in London’s finest museum, you find people unable to kick the commuting ethos.
The destination is usually, of course, Roman Britain. Julius Caesar was on the curriculum when I attended primary school (about 80 years ago now), and he still seems to be, if the fogged-up glass around the gladii and spearheads are anything to go by. It’s easy to be disparaging of the ‘Great Man Theory’, as I readily am, but when 2 millenia old bits of iron kick up this much attention, it becomes obvious that promulgation of ‘great’ human characters is amongst the best ways to get people into history.
Julius Caesar…ever-popular on the curriculum it seems!
The dissolution of Rome’s hold over the Britons and the arrival of Christianity sits just beyond this, a few metres further along this magnificent, gaping corridor. Early Christianity within post-Roman Britain had no superstars; even the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in c. 450 AD wasn’t some sort of sweeping conquest led by an early-Teutonic hero.
When Bede was writing what would become one of the only comprehensive sources of early Anglo-Saxon history, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, his mission was to promote the work of the Church in Britain, marking Northumbria as the primary see of his day. Any mention of rulers or kings was purely window dressing to this end.
So this is when the British Museum comes into its own. Its assortment of objects from across the (what we’d now call) United Kingdom is a staggering reflection of the conversion, telling us what written sources cannot. The Hoxne Hoard, for example, is a huge coin and jewellery find dating to the early fifth century.
Relics from the Hoxne Hoard: the largest hoard of late Roman jewellery and coins found in Britain.
The Chi-Rho symbol found on some of the Hoard’s items evidences at any rate the presence of Christian symbolism in the land, at least two centuries before Bede recounts the first conversions of an Anglo-Saxon king. Alongside the likes of the Hoxne Hoard, there are silver trays decorated with pantheons of Roman gods and statuettes of Minerva-like ‘pagan’ deities that haven’t been documented anywhere else before. Unassumingly placed next to each other, this section of the exhibit is an expression of the wide and varied beliefs of a post-colonial set of peoples.
On the other hand, the Sutton Hoo exhibit has been shuffled, somewhat awkwardly, downstairs, to make space for the five year renovation of its typical resting space. As such, it’s tucked away behind a gift shop selling replica erotic Japanese art and papier mache Caligula heads, which seems more than a little incongruous. Despite the clear cultural significance of the horde, especially for our relatively unfurnished understanding of mid-conversion Anglo-Saxon England, it’s disappointing that the exhibit finds itself in little more than a retailer’s annex.
A replica of a helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.
The Sutton Hoo discovery is one of the main reasons I can proudly profess to be a fully-fledged Anglo-Saxon fanboy. It is magnificent, not just because of how intact it is, but of how the implications of its discovery are just a massive middle finger to the concept of the ‘Dark’ Ages. This is a burial site of a genetically Norse Anglo-Saxon pagan-Christian-hybrid ruler whose very existence counteracts the kind of blanket ecclesiastical statements that Bede was making. The first floor eastern corridor will one day re-open into this room, and it will again astonish with its wealth of material and everything it tells us about a hushed but wonderful period of history.