How the Mighty Fall

Sword, Yorkshire Museum

Sword, Yorkshire Museum

Since I last visited Tullie House in Carlisle to view the Crosby Garrett Helmet1, a curator’s comment has stuck in my head. There was a lot of controversy about the helmet, found by a metal detectorist in a field in the Eden Valley; some of it is worthy and true, and a lot of it is unmitigated codswallop and it’s the curator’s musings on the codswallop that caught me. He said he thought the root of some people’s determination to disbelieve that the helmet was found right here, as validated by a pukka archaeological dig and tentatively linked to a bona fide Roman fort at Carlisle, is that they just don’t believe that anything special – never mind exceptional – could be found right here in Cumbria.

In a similar vein, people have long imagined that Britain started with the Romans, when we had a lovely time in togas for four hundred years then didn’t bother doing anything else interesting until the Normans invaded in 1066. Walloping of cod applies here, too, of course, as Roman historians have made it perfectly clear that not only were the Brits here, but we were organised and armed with our own leaders, grand settlements and wealthy belongings. Even – especially, actually – oop north.

Embleton Sword detail c. Trustees of the British Museum

Embleton Sword detail c. Trustees of the British Museum

Even museums aren’t that good at talking up the native Brit. I’ve documented before the story of how I spotted the Embleton Sword2 at Carlisle’s Tullie House. I was wandering their brand-new Roman gallery in the aftermath of the Christie’s auction of the Crosby Garrett Helmet when, right in the centre of the floor, I recognised a mangy, rusty old sword from a black-and-white illustration in an antiquarian book in my possession. ‘My-my,’ thought I, ‘that looks awfully like ‘the Excalibur of some ancient Briton, not without wealth or art’’3. After some firtling around the floor and an interrogation of a member of staff, I ascertained that it was indeed the c.2,000-year-old sword4 found at Embleton, outside Cockermouth in Cumbria. Our very own, pre-Roman, native Cumbrian sword, complete with fancy coloured enamel decoration, on loan from The British Museum.

I’ve just come back from York where I popped into the Yorkshire Museum. On the upstairs floor, on a spare bit of balcony not devoted to the Starr Carr exhibition, was a selection of pre-medieval items. Right at the far left-hand side, at floor level, was a skull with its top lopped off and half a sword that really reminded me of our very own Embleton Sword. There were no labels – that seems to be the fashion – and there was no one to ask.

Unfortunately for the nation’s museums, I’m good at stewing. It kept pricking at my mind. I could have emailed my photo of it in the hope that someone would reply, but the odds were it would end up in some government spam filter for eternity. In the end, sanity demanded that I return the following day to find out. I asked at the desk, and two ladies exchanged slightly panicked looks, and one volunteered to go upstairs to see what I meant as long as she could take a walkie-talkie with her so she could consult her colleagues. Then their eyes alighted on three members of staff by the door and one young chap in particular, with cries of ‘he’llknowhe’llknowhe’llknow’. He did know, as it happens.

Said sword is Iron Age, like the Embleton Sword, with red and yellow enamel insets, ditto. It would have been about the same length as the Embleton Sword, but has such a small horn handle that people have wondered if it was ornamental rather than practical. In many respects, despite most of the blade being missing, it’s a more impressive example than the Embleton Sword, but then it was found at a site known for its originality and artistry. The Yorkshire Museum’s example was found in an ‘Arris Culture’ burial belonging to the pre-Roman native British Parisi tribe of East Yorkshire, not in one of their famous chariot burials, but nonetheless of the same tribe. The Kirkburn Sword, which belongs to the British Musuem, also has familial similarities, and it too was found in East Yorkshire.  I even wondered if the Yorkshire sword might have belonged to a woman, as grand burials from women have been identified amongst the Parisi.

Of course, the reason for the frantic desire to know was that I wonder if the Embleton and Yorkshire swords were made by the same peoples. They are of similar date – The British Museum seemingly more confident of the Embleton Sword’s than the Yorkshire one, but nonetheless – and both found in territories either side of the famous pre-Roman native Brigantes tribe. Given the Parisi’s reputation for art, was the Cumbrian sword made in East Yorkshire, for a special person? If the Embleton Sword’s date is roughly accurate (1st century CE), then it is of the date that Venutius, a British leader probably based in Cumbria (and who may or may not have led a tribe called the Carvetii), was in open rebellion against both the Brigantes tribe to his immediate east, and the up-and-coming Romans. The Parisi tribe in East Yorkshire was encircled by Brigantian tribes on the opposite side of the country. Did Venutius have allies amongst the Parisi, and is this how such similar, beautiful and warlike objects came to be shared or exchanged?

The skull lying next to the sword at the Yorkshire Museum was significant. Its owner had died when the top of his head was sliced off in the 1st century CE at Stanwick, a native British Brigantes settlement near Darlington that fell into a decline after the Romans finally sent the troops north, in about 70CE. This date marks the end of the story for the Brigantes, for Venutius and for the Parisi.

When you see exciting artefacts in museums, it’s tempting to jump to these conclusions, but the fact is that archaeology is governed by luck and survival – perhaps there are loads of these swords waiting to be found smack-bang in the middle of Brigantian territory at Darlington or Leeds or Tadcaster, but we just haven’t found them. It could be that this style was just what all northern British tribes fancied at around the time of the Roman invasion.

And in the meanwhile, let’s think of these mighty native Britons, who had art and skill and battles to fight long before the Romans got here. Their fabulous swords were buried with them, like the Yorkshire sword, or committed back to watery earth, like the Embleton Sword and so many other valuable metal items of the Iron Age. Great Britain did not start with the Romans, whatever people might say, and Cumbria, and Northern Britain in general, had a longstanding culture of its own.

© Diane McIlmoyle 10.02.14

  1. The Crosby Garrett Helmet, which is privately owned, is no longer at Tullie House but is soon to be displayed for three months at The British Museum in London.
  2. The Embleton Sword has also returned to The British Museum. I do not know if it is on display.
  3. As described by the historian, WG Collingwood in Lake Counties, 1902.
  4. These swords are hard to date, but estimate for the Embleton Sword are between 80BCE and the arrival of the Romans in the North in c.70CE.
  5. The Yorkshire Museum isn’t massive but has some interesting things, including the Coppergate Helmet and Gilling Sword. It has some things with Cumbrian connections, including quite a bit linked to Ralph Neville (who built Penrith Castle) and his descendants. It also has the Ormside Anglian/Viking bowl, found at Great Orton.

6 thoughts on “How the Mighty Fall

    • Hi there – well, indications are, through Roman records, that our native British tribes did respect women – this was the age of Cartimandua and Boudicca, after all! The sword at the Yorkshire Museum does have a conspicuously small handle, and that handle is horn. It’s quite odd to see a handle in situ as they’ve normally disappeared (wood?), leaving behind any metal fittings that were attached to it. It would be tempting to think the Yorkshire one was a dagger, but the museum does know it was a similar length to the Embleton Sword (which looks short compared to the medieval and viking ones one sees), presumably from archaeological evidence. Perhaps it did belong to a grand woman 🙂

  1. Embleton sword was on public display in the British Museum in August 2013, I made a good search until I saw it. Been keen to see it ever since reading about it in Frank Carruther’s book “A people called Cumbri”.

    • Hello Graham – well, I’m glad you got to see it in the end! It is funny that there are so many pictures on the ‘net that purport to be the Embleton Sword, but in fact, aren’t. Spectacular, isn’t it?

      It’s a good book, that. I’m not always that keen on these Cumbrian books written by ex-newspaper journalists, but that one has some stuff that’s hard to get hold of elsewhere. Thanks for coming over!

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