This is the first experiment in carving Anglo-Saxon artwork in green oak, as potential decoration for our reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo Ship. Known as Style II, or specifically, late Style II, this style of Anglo-Saxon art dates to the first decades of the 7th century; around the same time as the Sutton Hoo Ship may have been built. It is characterised by abstract four-legged beasts, which the academics call “quadrupeds”, and which are often intertwined with other beasts. These beasts commonly twist to bite the other beasts, or – as in the case of this carving – arch back to bite themselves. This style of intertwining, biting beasts, in which the designs and motifs are repeated over and over, lends itself to long lengths. (The carvings on the Oseberg ship also depict biting, gripping beasts along the prow and stern. They are of the later Viking Broa style, but the concept is the same.)
The beasts for this carving were copied from a row of beasts chip-carved into the cheek-guard of the Staffordshire Hoard helmet pictured here. Although this helmet was found in Staffordshire, there are many parallels with the Sutton Hoo finds, especially in the warrior helmet panels and late Style II artwork, suggesting that this helmet may have links to East Anglia, or was even built in the same workshop as the Sutton Hoo helmet. You can see very similar beasts, albeit in a slightly earlier style, arching round to bite their own bodies, on the dragon shield-mount from Sutton Hoo Mound 1. These are next on my list to carve and will be more suitable as potential decoration along the prow and stern of our ship. I chose the Staffordshire beasts as a first try because they are a simpler design.
As to the context of Style II art, there are a number of possible suggestions. The first is that such carvings may have been intended to provide magical protection to the wearer or to invoke the ferocious power of these beasts in battle. This could also be applied to a ship: beasts winding their way up the prow to give magical protection or strength to the ship, or to those who voyaged in it.
Another interpretation hinges on the abstract nature of the artwork. At first glance, many examples of Style II art seem like a writhing mass of indecipherable markings. But the more you look, the more creatures you begin to pick out; you find a head, and trace its body round to a limb, which intertwines into the next creature, and so on. From indecipherable chaos arises recognisable creatures, expertly crafted to fill every available space, which gives them an energetic, restless quality.
The Anglo-Saxons may have regarded it as quite a skill to be able to decipher these markings and, being reserved for the highest strata of society, it may have been a form of communication between members of the elite. In the absence of writing before the spread of Christianity, such carving may have been a sophisticated form of self-expression, able to convey stories, beliefs, tribal affiliations or political and military power. If so, what better way to represent the royal prestige of the Sutton Hoo Ship?
By Alec Newland