Sunday, August 29, 2010

AtF: Who's Buried in Raedwald's Tomb?

So, this week on After the Flood, we find out that things that have nothing to do with anything are deeply, deeply important.  Let’s start this out.

During the summers of 1938 and 1939, there came to light one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the century. It was the Sutton Hoo burial ship of one of the great kings of East Anglia. It is commonly believed to be that of Raedwald (or Redwald) who became Bretwalda in the year AD 616 (his name appears on the genealogy).

Now, the Sutton Hoo burial ship was a fantastic archaeological find.  We’re talking King Tut’s Tomb fantastic here.  So let’s talk archaeology and what Sutton Hoo means.

In order to talk Sutton Hoo we can go with something people have heard of a little more about.  Like, say, King Tut’s Tomb.  Specifically, why King Tut’s Tomb mattered.

We all know about the Egyptian pyramids.[1]  The lesser story about the pyramids is why they disappeared towards the end of the Middle Kingdom.  Basically, they were giant targets for grave robbers.  See, that was the crazy thing about the Pharaohs.  They were gods on Earth, but they were also paranoid, and with good cause.  They built giant friggin’ mausoleums out in the desert as a way of saying, “Hey, look at me!”  They then filled said mausoleums with as much shit as they could stack inside.

Said shit then got stolen.  A lot.  And I’m not talking about the looting of archaeological sites like we see all over in the Middle East now.  I’m saying that pyramids were getting looted during ancient times.  That’s why there were all kinds of crazy traps and curses inside the tombs.[2]

So they moved to the Valley of the Kings, which was only marginally more successful.  And by “marginally more successful,” I mean, “rather than being entirely looted, the tombs of the Pharoahs were only mostly looted.”  This is why so many people know of King Tut.  It’s not that he was a great ruler, it’s that he was the only ruler who’s tomb had been found intact up until that time.  Period.

Let’s move two thousand years in to the future.  Pretend that in between now and then the writings of every single President have been lost save William McKinley.  Future historians know that there were a bunch of Presidents and have a general idea who they were, when they were in office, and what the fortunes of the United States were under them.  But then they find a stash of letters written by William McKinley and all of the sudden they’re all, “Holy crap, we know something specific!”  That’s what King Tut’s Tomb is all about.

William McKinley never makes the list of the best Presidents, nor does he make the list of the worst Presidents.  Mostly we just kind of forget that he was a President.  That’s basically where King Tut would have been in the list of Pharaohs.  But we remember him because of something that happened three thousand years after he died and because of an awful lot of coincidences that happened in between those times.  Such is the nature of archaeology.

This thought in mind, let’s talk Sutton Hoo.  It was a major archaeological find in exactly the same way King Tut’s Tomb was.[3]  It provided a snapshot of a bit of the Anglo-Saxon culture in England at the time of the burial.  Most importantly, it provided a snapshot where an awful lot of things that had not been found together were all in one place.  Of course this isn’t to say that we can learn everything about the East Anglians from Sutton Hoo.  But it taught us a lot more than we knew before.

There are limits to what we can learn from pure archaeology, though.  Especially if there is no language to speak of.  Imagine if your house were suddenly to become an archaeological site, but for whatever reason your books and junk mail and recipes or whatever you have floating around with words on it disintegrated between now and whenever it was found.[4]  So those future archaeologists have to wander in a decide who you were, what your social standing was, and how you spent your life based on a lot of circumstantial evidence.[5]

If you’re Bill Cooper, of course, you won’t think about Sutton Hoo quite like this.  Oh, no.

The royal title of Bretwalda appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS. C - British Museum Cotton MS. Tiberius. B. i.) as Bretenanwealda, and means literally the one ruler of Britain. In other words, Raedwald was the supreme king to whom all the other provincial kings owed obeisance. Now Bede (4) tells us that Raedwald was born of the Wuffingas, as were all the East Anglian kings, and it is this title that tells us something of the seriousness with which the Anglo-Saxons kept their pedigrees.

Except that East Anglia never, ever, ever…ever, was in charge of all of Britain.  Ever.  It was – briefly and during the time of Raedwald – possibly the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but it never ruled all of Britain.  The other kingdoms maintained their integrities and eventually knocked it down a peg or three again.  Cooper’s own genealogy should show that East Anglia never, ever took over completely.  So…yeah.  Although I kind of wish I was a Wuffinga.  That’s an awesome family name right there.[6]

It’s possible, as I mention in footnote [6], that the so-called “Wuffing Dynasty” is actually a bastardization of a Norse clan from Sweden.  If this is the case -- which I’d consider highly likely, given the connections between the Sutton Hoo burial site and Sweden (also in footnote [6].  I’m being lazy about holding together complete thoughts tonight.  Sorry)[8] -- then the fascinating thing about Bill Cooper’s use of Sutton Hoo is this: it totally blows his actual argument out of the water.

I love it when he makes my (self-appointed and booze-soaked) job easier, especially when he goes and digs that hole just a little deeper.  This is a direct and egregious violation of the First Rule of Holes: When you find you’re in a hole, stop digging.  Of course I suppose that you need to acknowledge that you’re in a hole and Bill Cooper probably gave up on that acknowledgment the moment he said, “You know what I should do?  Write a book.”

See, the primary source of the Anglo-Saxon migration idea comes from the Venerable Bede, who lived and worked at the tail-end of the 7th Century.  By that point the Germanic tribes had been in charge in England for between two and three centuries.  That’s a lot of slack time.  And that’s a lot of time for things to get confused.

So can we say that the primary migration came from the people we think of as Angles, Saxons, and Jutes?  Yes.  Probably.  We’ve got an awful lot of evidence.  But the Scandinavians were most certainly involved.  For one thing, there’s some question as to whether or not the Jutes were actually Geats.  But that’s just splitting hairs.

Basically, the idea is this: the Romans never truly conquered Britain.  When they withdrew from the island it created a power vacuum that really wouldn’t be properly filled until Alfred the Great, although it’s possible to argue that William the Conqueror was the one who actually managed to do it.  So you had the Angle, Saxon, and Jute clans looking across the water thinking, “Hey, that looks like a pretty sweet place to go.”  But you also basically had the proto-Vikings of Scandinavia.

So let’s look at Raedwald and his East Anglian kingdom.  Let’s say some Angles and some Geats showed up at roughly the same time.  Somehow these people intermixed and we ended up with the Angles getting the place name and the Geats getting the dynastic name.  This is not a hard concept to imagine, given the idea that we’re looking at a mass migration of people who had a loose cultural connection to each other to begin with.

Then, by the time they actually start writing down their genealogies and folks like the Venerable Bede show up, time has destroyed part of the memories.  So they recall, vaguely, someone named The Wolf as a semi-legendary king, when “he” was, in fact, a Geatish clan known as the Wolf Clan.[9]

For the record, it’s no crazier than Bill Cooper’s theory.  And it’s backed up by a minimal amount of real-world knowledge…


[1]Hopefully.  If you don’t, then you really, really need to re-think your education.

[2]The most famous curse, of course, being the one in King Tut’s Tomb, which supposedly ripped through Howard Carter’s entire team.  The second-most-famous was the one in Imhotep’s tomb, which very nearly killed Brendan Fraser on several occasions, but ultimately did not succeed due to merchandising concerns.  Then Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took over the franchise, in what I consider “the greatest idea ever had by anyone at any time, ever.”  Other than, y’know, Kitten Mittons.

Also, you know what’s awesome about The Rock?  He has, as best I can tell, zero actual acting talent.  He is the epitome of the “guy who plays himself.”  And he’s fucking awesome at it.  He’s basically been parodying his own acting career since he first showed up as the Scorpion King and didn’t have a single line.

[3]Just without the curses and whatnot.

[4]Now that I think about that, though, it’s a crazy thought.  I’m looking around my living room and there’s almost nothing that doesn’t have some words written on it.  Basically, future archaeologists would get a look at my couch, loveseat, coffee table, rug, and dining room table.  Also my random stuffed duck that sits on my left speaker.  And my talking Kick the Cheat.  But the point is that the ratio of things with words:things without words is quite high.  Such is the nature of living in a literate society.

This is actually one of those places where we can’t understand what it was like to live in the before times, the long long ago.  We take words for granted, to the point where we don’t usually notice them.  Try to conceive of living for a day in a world without written words.

I honestly cannot.

[5]Many, many years ago, like when I was 12 or something, my mother got me a copy of a book called Motel of the Mysteries about a future archaeologist discovering a motel room and attempting to excavate it.  My favorite prof at WIU used that same book to start out History 301 on ancient Greece.  I loved that.  This is also one of those places where it seems pretty obvious to say that parents should encourage their kids to learn and read.  I suppose I was somewhat precocious, but by the same token my parents were constantly buying me crazy books and encouraging me to learn.  Then one day I found my college prof using one of those books my mother had randomly gotten for me years before.  And I enjoyed the book a hell of a lot more the second time around because I got what it was all about.

[6]Wuffa, said ancestor who started the Wuffings, comes from the Old English word for wolf.  This is also one of those fascinating things, since the family name probably means that the Wuffings were an offshoot of a Geatish clan known as the Wulfings, who were mentioned in Beowulf and a few other Norse myths.  On the off chance you’re thinking, “Wait, wouldn’t that mean that the Wuffings were actually Scandinavian and not Anglo-Saxon?” you’d be right.  One theory actually holds that Beowulf was composed in East Anglia.

There were actually many items in Sutton Hoo that appear to have Scandinavian origins.  Artifacts at the site are linked to artifacts found at a gravesite known as Vendel at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden.[7]  This points to a much more complicated story of the settlement of Britain than the simple, “The Angles, Saxons, Jutes came over and set up shop,” that we usually get.  This should be surprising to no one, save, perhaps, Bill Cooper.

[7]Gamla Uppsala was also the location of the Thing of all Swedes, which was a general assembly of sorts.  And, yes, the word that we use to describe random items that can’t really be properly defined descend directly from that word.  Considering the current state of affairs in Congress…

[8]Hmm.  That sentence included a comma splice and parenthetical thought within a hyphen within a nested clause.  I’m reasonably certain I just broke the English language with that one.

[9]I’m going to go out on a limb and assume they had BattleMechs.


James Dunning said...

OK, I can't find your email address. You can reach me at I want to send you an excerpt for that book I'm toying with. Also, you should replace "Oasis" with "Lost Immigrants" on your music/bands list. Just saying.

Big A said...

is there perhaps some alternate universe where both "Oasis" and "Lost Immigrants" can exist?

MikhailBorg said...

I read "Wolf Clan" and thought, "Heh, Natashia Kerenski." Then I read your footnotes and saw that you beat me there. I doff the cockpit module of my Hatcheman to you!

Geds said...


Yeah...I keep my email account buried in the profile. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Also, I thought the Lost Immigrants were in the sidebar. Apparently that's what I get for never reading my own blog.

Big A:

That's just crazy talk and you know it.


For the record, I saw you'd posted and I was like, "Holy crap, it's MikhailBorg!" How're you doin'?

Anonymous said...

God, I love this series. It's just one big string of awesome.