It's been a bit of a week for me and I've been a bit distracted so missed my planned viewing of The Dig when it became available on the 28th. New plan - today in front of the TV with my Saxon oat cakes I'm going to revel in the story of an event that produced a life-long interest in matters historical when I was quite young.
Here's a simple (very simple) narrative of history - single-celled organisms in the Pre-Cambrian waters after the Earth cools from it's violent birth, the creatures emerging from the murk of the primordial soup; the dinosaurs; early man in the Rift Valley; stone age man; the ice age; iron age man; the Egyptians the Greeks; the Romans - who brought 'civilisation' to these islands and whose departure ushered in the 'dark ages'.
Wait, wait, WAIT - the DARK AGES!!! So what happened? Was it like the Arctic winter? Man lost the knowledge to create fire and light a candle! Did the Saxons (and Angles & Jutes) really only bring darkness and barbarity and was there really a dearth of culture and beauty?
Imagine my confusion and delight then when my history teacher told us of the Sutton Hoo treasure and even better, that we would be going to see it. In the summer if the first year in Senior School (now called Y7 here in the UK (11+)) we had a week of what was called Social Studies - brilliant, no lessons but some visiting speakers, films (on a massive cine projector in the hall) and visits to the Cathedral in Canterbury, the Roman Pavement, the museums in the city, the castle and St Martin's Church (important in the story of St. Augustine at the very end of the 6th century AD and thus the oldest church in England). For me it was a fantastic week... Roll on twelve months and it's social studies week again. This time we were off to London for days out (amazing) - Greenwich Observatory and a trip up the Thames, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and, best of all, The British Museum - mummies, massive stone gates, Roman mosaics, the most ancient of books and ... the treasure from Sutton Hoo.
The 'dark ages' my a***! No society that could produce such beautiful objects that projected power and influence and that would then bury such valued and valuable items items to take to the world beyond the grave deserved to be labelled 'dark'.
Discovered on the brink of the start of WW2, it maybe didn't receive the attention it would have attracted in different times but I defy anyone to deny the staggeringness of the items recovered from the burial site. Former World War I nurse Edith Pretty moved, with her new husband Frank, to Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge in Suffolk in 1926. She came from an affluent family and had traveled the world in her youth (she'd visited the pyramids) and had a life-long interest in history and archaeology. When Frank passed away in 1934, she began spending more time around the estate, and her attention was often drawn to an unusual array of 18 low mounds just 500 yards from her house.
She decided they needed to be fully investigated so approached a local museum for advice and the staff suggested Basil Brown for the job. He had left school at the age of 12 and worked a number of jobs, from gardener to insurance agent. As a self-taught archaeologist, he did not have professional tools, so he started the excavation using items from the Pretty household, including a coal shovel and a pastry brush! The first mounds he excavated in 1938 were somewhat disappointing: They had already been looted and produced only a few minor objects. However, when he began work on the largest barrow in 1939, he soon realized he had come across the find of a lifetime: the ghostly imprint of an 88-foot (27-metre) ship, now decayed, and a collapsed burial chamber full of precious treasures. This event is at the core of the film The Dig starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes.
The grave goods at Sutton Hoo were immediately recognized as one of the most important finds in British history. British courts ruled that all the treasure belonged to Edith Pretty (the law of treasure trove is part of common law in England and Wales dating from the time of Edward the Confessor and was last amended in 1996). She refused to sell the items, and instead donated the entire collection to the British Museum so it could be enjoyed by everyone.
This extraordinary generosity was recognized by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who wanted to honor her as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), which the ever-modest Edith politely declined. Because she donated the treasure during World War II, instead of going directly on display the items were packed up and hidden in an unused section of London’s underground to protect them from bombing raids.
One of the things I was planning to do and Covid-19 has stopped, is a visit to the site at Sutton Hoo, now in the care of the National Trust and with newly opened exhibitions and displays and artworks celebrating this important site - it will be the first place I visit when I am allowed to venture beyond the confines of the garden.
I made these for our annual Snow Drop Sundays last year (sadly cancelled this year) - they looked very rustic next to the sophisticated home-made cakes but they tasted wonderful and they all sold!
Honey, Oat and Spice Cakes
250g/8oz porridge oats
125g/4oz unsalted butter
50g/1¾0z chopped dried apricots or dried apples
4 large tablespoons runny honey
1 level tsp of ground cinnamon
1. Preheat your oven to 180C (160C in a fan oven)/350°F.
2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and remove from the heat.
3. Add the honey, oats, cinnamon and dried fruit to the butter and stir until everything is well mixed.
4. Grease a baking tray, spoon 12 dollops of the mixture on it and then flatten them slightly.
5. Bake in the oven for 10–12 minutes. Place the cakes on a wire rack and leave to cool before scoffing!
ps: A lot of the food eaten by Anglo-Saxons will still be familiar to us today. As well as hunting and fishing they kept livestock and farmed the land. The main crops they grew were barley, rye and wheat. They also ate dairy products such as milk, cheese and eggs. Sugar hadn’t been discovered yet so, to sweeten their puddings, the Anglo-Saxons used dried fruits and honey. Small cakes, such as the ones in the recipe, would have been cooked over a fire in a heavy iron saucepan with a lid.
pps One of the stories learned at school was of King Alfred and the cakes. Find out more here. As a side-note, we thoroughly enjoyed the TV series Vikings (available on Amazon Prime), which concluded recently and in which Alfred (the only King of England to be termed 'Great') features heavily.
ppps: The title comes from a diary entry by Basil Brown.
pppps: The last book I read to a class of children was The Buried Crown by Ally Sherrick. The story is set in Sutton Hoo at the start of WW2 and is a rip-roaring historical story weaving in events current to the time and references the mystical past and the man in the mound.
Word of the Day is ...
Earsling actually brings together the Old English equivalent of “arse,” ears or ærs, and the suffix –ling, which is related to the –long of words like livelong, headlong and endlong. It ultimately means “in the direction of your arse”—or, in other words, backwards! Arseling still survives in a handful of English dialects.
Extra ps: If you are an Arsenal fan you might be aware of St. Arseling's Day - Google it!!!
"I am a part of all whom I have met". - Alfred the Great
"Food over flame burns, food over heat cooks" - attributed to Alfred the Great