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To Winchester City Museum, for the launch of a new book ‘Danes in Wessex’, edited by Ryan Lavelle and Simon Roffey of the University of Winchester. The book stems from a conference held at the University back in 2011, but the editors also widened their net to include contributions from a number of specialists who were not at the original event.
As might be expected from a volume which covers a period when the power of the sword was more influential than the power of the word, a good number of the papers are about warfare. Thomas Williams looks at ‘The Place of Slaughter: Exploring the West Saxon Battlescape’, while the aptly-named Derek Gore conducts ‘A Review of Viking Attacks in Western England’. Among other dark offerings is ‘Death on the Dorset Ridgeway: The Discovery and Excavation of an Early Medieval Mass Burial’ by Angela Boyle. It’s not all cut and thrust, of course, and I, for one, look forward to reading about ‘Orc of Abbotsbury and Tole of Tolpuddle’, who according to Ann Williams, enjoyed ‘A place in the country’.
Another delightful offering is sure to be ‘Danish Royal Burials in Winchester: Cnut and his Family’, by Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjolbye-Biddle. Professor Biddle was at the Museum to give his blessing to the book and enthralled his audience by describing the action taking place on a fragment of stone sculpture from Old Minster. A prostrate, bound man grapples with a large dog-like animal, which has its muzzle pressed hard against his face. This may well be depicting the episode of Sigmund and the Wolf, from Volsunga Saga.
Having seen nine of his brothers devoured nightly by an evil-looking she-wolf, Sigmund is saved by his twin sister Signy, who sent her servant to smear his face with honey and put some in his mouth. When the wolf licked the honey and thrust her tongue into his mouth in search of more, Sigmund bit hard. The shock made the wolf jump backwards and break his bonds, but Sigmund didn’t let go and tore out the lupine tongue, killing the beast.
Reading about the episode I was transported back a couple of weeks to the cinema – and a viewing of ‘The Revenant’. I’m not sure a mouthful of honey would have done much to help Mr Glass in his encounter with the bear but despite the differences in time, terrain and weapons of choice, the film certainly conveyed the feeling of a rough, tough, raiding-party world.
The ‘Big Theme’ at several Hampshire Cultural Trust venues this year is ‘Royal Blood’, which looks at the role of royals from the Late Iron Age onwards. A touring show (Basingstoke, Winchester, Gosport) starting in September, is complemented by offerings at the Community Museums.
Ryan Lavelle & Simon Roffey (eds), 2016, Danes in Wessex; The Scandinavian Impact on Southern England, c 800 – c 1100. Oxbow Books.
Series by: Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.
The existence of this ivory beaker was first recorded in 1853. It was found in fields close to Basing House and , not surprisingly, has been associated with that place. It must be said, however, that the circumstances of its discovery are not clear. Considerable areas were disturbed by the digging of the canal and building of the railway in the late 18th, early 19th centuries, as well as the usual farming activities, but an exact provenance is elusive.
The cup is currently displayed at Basing House, where Sir William Paulet built his imposing Tudor mansion between the 1530s and the 1560s. He was created Marquess of Winchester in 1551 and died in 1572 at the probable age of ninety seven. It was his great-great-grandson, John Paulet, the fifth Marquess, who valiantly defended the besieged House during the English Civil War, but in October 1645 it fell to the Parliamentarian forces.
Within a matter of hours the valuable contents were plundered (an estimated haul of £200,000 then – £13m today) including jewels, porcelain and many other treasures which were loaded into carts and trundled away. ‘The Soldier’s account of the fall’ (Adair 1981) describes the prizes taken, which involved looting ‘the rooms and chambers in both houses completely furnished, which afforded the soldiers gallant pillage…A bed in one room cost £1500, great store of popish books, with copes and such utensils, silver plate valued at £5000 (£1/3m) some cabinets of jewels and other treasures…’. Following this, the ‘country’ (people) carried away what was left and Parliament ensured that Basing would be thoroughly destroyed, by encouraging local inhabitants to use the site as a quarry and take away brick and stone.
The ivory cup is carved from an elephant’s tusk: it is decorated in low relief with stylised zoomorphic designs. It comprises a cylindrical container standing on a circular base decorated with small open cylinders, a characteristic it shares with a number of similar objects held in other museums. Through its style, form and iconography, its place of manufacture can be identified as Owo, a city state of the Yoruba kingdoms in Nigeria. The exact date of its creation is uncertain, but is most probably the 17th or 18th century. It is just possible therefore, that the cup may have reached Basing before the Civil War, and its battered condition would be appropriate if it was present at the storming of the House. There is no clear evidence, however, that any of the similar vessels found their way to Europe before the 19th century. Considering the uncertainty surrounding the provenance and dating of the beaker, we cannot say for definite that it was in the House at the time of the siege.
With regard to the manufacture of ivory goods generally, after the European navigators arrived on the shores of West Africa in the 15th century, Portuguese sailors brought back souvenirs of carved items which found their way into the “curiosity cabinets” especially popular among the European aristocracy. Any carved ivory object from West Africa which had been acquired by the first Marquess would have been produced by the Edo carvers at the court of Benin who made such items up until the mid-16th century, a period significantly earlier than date of manufacture of the Basing beaker.
In this respect, the Paulet’s Elizabethan trade links were extensive, with imported Chinese porcelain and Italian and Dutch maiolica among the surviving fragments at the site. It would not be at all surprising if materials were arriving from the newest trade routes, and there is one small piece of carving with intriguingly African features but, as with the cup, the true story behind this piece may never be known.
Adair, J (1981) They saw it happen; contemporary accounts of the siege of Basing House. HCC
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.