It is not very often that a career in journalism can be considered the prudent option, but, aged 21 and faced with a choice between a master’s in journalism or medieval history, it seemed so. My chances of becoming the next Lucy Worsley were slim, and Old Norse is not often much use on a CV. Still, I’ve never been able to consider that particular sliding door quite shut.
Clinging to that other life, I have visited the burial mounds of Birka, on Lake Mälaren in Sweden, and Orkney’s Tomb of the Eagles, entered through a low, narrow passage with the aid of a skateboard placed under your stomach; Richard the Lionheart’s burial place at Fontevraud Abbey, France, and the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, more magnificent than any cathedral, in Oslo. In Stockholm I stared at strangely familiar Viking-age needles, made in bronze and iron.
And, when restrictions lifted further on 17 May, the first thing I did with my newfound freedom wasn’t abandon the search for beer gardens with umbrellas and heaters, or even hug a friend, but return to the British Museum, to rooms 40 and 41. There you can see the rich objects found at the Anglo-Saxon burial of Sutton Hoo – the haunting helmet, treasures in gold and garnet cloisonné – and parts of the hoard of silver found in Cuerdale, Lancashire. A comprehensive picture of the Viking world in a single burial, it contains thousands of ingots, hacksilver and coins, some originating from the Byzantine and Islamic kingdoms.
Beyond the allure of literal buried treasure there is, I am sure, something morbid about the appeal of history before dense written records; in place of scribed accounts we read dirt and decay, skeletons and foundations. We see cultural changes in what we find in the ground: we can roughly date the start of the Anglo-Saxon period, for example, by the appearance of new burial styles – cremation and the inclusion of grave goods – to the second quarter of the fifth century.
But I also love the sheer puzzle of it all: the unknowns, the space for imagination. Even where there are written sources, interpretation is required to separate legend and propaganda from what we can reasonably believe to be fact. It was revelatory, as an undergraduate with a mind full of national archives and newspaper reports and textbook answers, to hear a lecturer say “we don’t know”; to openly accept that our best understanding of the past may be wrong, unavoidably clouded.
My favourite example of this is the Red Lady, a partial skeleton discovered in 1823 in Paviland Cave, Gower, by Reverend William Buckland, a theologian and early pioneer of archaeology. Alice Roberts, in her book Ancestors, tells of how Buckland believed the skeleton to be that of an old woman – because of the presence in the grave of ivory rod and rings, and periwinkle shells – dating from the Roman era, and variously suggested she had been a witch and a prostitute. The Red Lady is, in fact, the skeleton of a young man who died 34,000 years ago; Buckland, partially (and understandably) influenced by his religious beliefs, didn’t realise he had found the earliest known burial in Britain.
Sometimes treasures were placed in the ground not as offerings or with bodies, but as a means to protect what is most precious from an outside threat; hoards are reliable markers of unrest. If you plot the known hoards in Britain across time, the greatest spike occurs during the Civil War of the 1640s, and there are others during the Norman Conquest and the Viking invasions. By AD 400, as the Roman empire crumbled, the wealthy of Britannia were burying hoards at an average rate of ten per year.
As I studied the gleaming Fishpool hoard (buried during the Wars of the Roses) at the British Museum, I thought about our great time of crisis, and the records of it we will leave behind. As I asked my grandparents about their memories of the Blitz for school projects, will I show my grandchildren the picture I took last April of a perfect avocado, because it was the most exciting thing in my day? Is there anything I treasure enough to bury in the dirt to protect it? Pondering the mortality of people who lived centuries before you is far more enjoyable than examining your own.
This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism