The King and His Cult: The Axe-Hammer from Sutton Hoo and Its Implications for the Concept of Sacral Leadership in Early Medieval Europe

By Dobat, Andres Siegfried | Antiquity, December 2006 | Go to article overview

The King and His Cult: The Axe-Hammer from Sutton Hoo and Its Implications for the Concept of Sacral Leadership in Early Medieval Europe


Dobat, Andres Siegfried, Antiquity


Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, erected on the banks of the River Deben to commemorate an East Anglian leader during the first half of the seventh century AD, covered one of the most lavishly furnished graves known from Europe. The burial is set apart not only by the material wealth of the grave furnishings, but also their complexity and the unique character of several of its elements (Bruce-Mitford 1975, 1978, 1983; Carver 1998, 2005). The burial also reflects a fundamental political break in the history of Europe: the transition from Germanic kingdoms with a strong pagan background to dynastic royal houses based on the ideology of the Christian church. From the end of the Migration Period, this process of change led to the upheaval of traditional patterns of leadership and the division of power into ecclesiastical and royal authority, constituting the two pillars of society. Facing the newly Christianised kingdom of Kent in the south and the Frankish dominion on the Continent, the ruling elite of East Anglia used the burial as a demonstration. It was a parade in which the material components of the grave assemblage communicated a set of traditional identities and values. The boat and the ornamentation on weapons seem to reflect ancestral myths, illustrating the alignment of the dead and his dynasty with Scandinavia; huge cauldrons, dishes, drinking horns and a lyre relate to the pagan ideal of feasting in the great hall; the regalia, a sceptre made from a whetstone or the sword-ring on the shield resemble the poetic motif of the ruler as the sharpener of swords and the giver of rings; the golden shoulder-clasps, whose origins must be searched in Roman prototypes, appear to be Germanic interpretations of the Imperial body armour of the Roman Emperor (Bruce-Mitford 1978: 533; Carver 1998, 2000; Filmer-Sankey 1996).

However, a few objects in the grave deposit still remain mysterious with regard to their original connotations. One of these objects is the so called axe-hammer, a unique artefact, which has been interpreted in various Ways. Citing its contextual relation to the mailcoat, Bruce-Mitford (1983: 842) proposed an original function as a horseman's axe or a war-hammer. Emphasising an association with banqueting, Werner (1986: 493) proposed a classification as a butchery tool used for the slaughter of cattle. Carver (1998:128 and pers. comm.) suggested that its use referred to the repair of the ship, including the hammering of rivets.

This paper presents an alternative explanation and argues that the axe-hammer was one of the strongest symbols of traditional pagan leadership, in which the concept of the sacral king was of vital importance.

The axe-hammer from Sutton Hoo and its context

The axe-hammer, which at the time of its discovery was strongly corroded, had a total length of 750mm, while the length of the head can be estimated to have been around 200mm (Figure 1). The wedge-shaped head consists of a narrow blade, a hammer-shaped butt and a rectangular shaft-hole. The iron shaft is characterised by a rectangular to circular profile. A circular metal fitting with a ring was attached to its lower end (Bruce-Mitford 1983: 833-43). The original weight of the piece can be estimated to have been around 3kg.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The axe-hammer was found in the centre of the furnished chamber. Following the reconstruction of the layout of the grave proposed by Carver (1998: 122), it was put inside the supposed coffin at its eastern end (Figure 2). Found at its very bottom, the piece must have been one of the first implements to be deposited. Above the axe-hammer several heaps were built up; containing among other things the mailcoat, hanging bowls, wood and horn cups, leather garment, metal buckles, a silver bowl with several combs, four knives, small wooden bottles, a silver ladle and finally a fur cap (Carver 1998: 125).

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The shape of the axe-hammer and its design provide limited indications of its original function.

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