A few months ago, I came across a fabulous description of a sword found near Embleton. WG Collingwood, writing in 1902, described, ‘…an iron blade in a bronze sheath, with red and green jewels on the hilt–the Excalibur of some ancient Briton not without wealth and art.’1
Then, last weekend I was wandering the halls of Tullie House’s new Roman Gallery2 and found myself face-to-face with a narrow iron sword, not too short, not too long, with a matching scabbard. They were decorated in a very distinctive red and greenish chequerboard design and bells started ringing in my mind. There was no label, so I enquired of the attendant who informed me that yes, it is the Embleton Sword, on short loan from the British Museum.
With the assistance of the curator, I was finally able to track down some information about the sword which meets the exacting standards of professional historians, which I hope will be used to correct some of the more random information found on local sites across the county.
The sword is iron, and is believed to have been made in the Late Iron Age – somewhere between 50BCE and 50CE – before the Romans reached Cumbria in 72CE.3 The style is officially La Tène (Celtic).4 It’s nearly 58cm long, and is in good condition barring a few chips on the blade. The cast guard is decorated with a double-lobed motif with rings and dots in red and yellow enamel (although the yellow looks more green now). Below that is a row of twelve rectangular cells, each also filled with red and yellow enamel to create its distinctive chequerboard effect; the copper alloy scabbard has similar decoration. The domed pommel is worn, but also has red enamel cells.
The people who lived here at the time were a Brythonic (an old Welsh dialect) -speaking people, who the Romans later called the Brigantes. We’ve no way of knowing if that was what they called themselves, as they didn’t write anything down, and we have to use archaeology and legends written in decades and centuries afterwards to work out what they believed. We know that they had their own pantheon of gods – Afallach, Modron, Mabon, Belacutadrus, Cocidius, Hueteris, Lugus, and almost certainly lots of others – and, like other Celtic cultures, revered the head; there are lots of Celtic head sculptures at Tullie House in Carlisle. We have also discovered bog bodies – well-preserved human remains ritually deposited in boggy ground. Cumbria was a pretty good place for a culture that found land that was half water, half land interesting; they believed that these ‘liminal’ areas were routes to their gods.
Mary Fair, a stalwart of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society, stated in 1947 that the collection was found near Wythop Mill, a mile south of Embleton. The word, ‘wythop’ means ‘open area of willows’, which makes me wonder if the sword was ritually deposited in liminal boggy ground, as is seen elsewhere in the country. This location is interesting for another reason – directly in line between Wythop Mill and the Bassenthwaite Lake is Castle How, a scheduled ancient monument and ‘Iron Age or Post-Roman’ hill fort.6 Castle How is a high point, with naturally steep slopes on two sides and rock-cut defences on the other two. This was a place lived in by ‘some ancient Briton not without wealth’, to quote Collingwood, and it’s very enticing to wonder if he was the owner of the sword.
By 1870 the Crosthwaite Museum was closed and the contents put up for auction. Mr Bryce Wright, believed to be a dealer acting for the British Museum, bought, ‘a beautiful Roman (sic) sword… after an exciting contest… knocked down to Mr Wright at £32.‘7 He also acquired another sword blade and two spearheads, which were believed to have been found with the Embleton Sword; nobody knows what happened to the triangular and circular pieces described by Smith.
The Embleton Sword is on display in the Roman Gallery at Tullie House until 30th November 2011, when it will be returned to the British Museum. Update: as of 30.11.12, the sword is still at Tullie House, where – dare I offer – it belongs.
- The Lake Counties by WG Collingwood, 1902
- See www.tulliehouse.co.uk. My thanks to Tim Padley, who was both gracious and informative under fire.
- Although I understand that CM Piggott, in Swords and Scabbards of the British Early Iron Age, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 16. 1-28 (1950) argues that the date could be a bit later than that.
- See the British Museum’s entry: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=831601&partid=1
- Smith, 1857, quoted by the British Museum, see above. Source described as ‘Smith (1857), 153 and 22on., pls 33 and 34′.
- See English Heritage’s entry: http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=9936
- Carlisle Journal 23rd September 1870.
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