Editor’s Pick #8: CSI Sittingbourne

This week’s Editor’s Pick comes from Emma Payne of CSI: Sittingbourne, a very exciting community archaeology project (the ‘CSI’ stands for ‘Conservation Science Investigation’). You can read more about the project here, and follow the CSI blog here.

The artefacts here come from from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery site located in Sittingbourne, Kent. Emma writes:

This burial ground was excavated in late 2008 by Canterbury Archaeological Trust before the development of the site. The site dates to the 6th and 7th centuries AD and consists of 227 graves and 2 cremation urns; over 2500 objects were recovered, including jewellery and weaponry. However, because of the acidity of the soil, with the exception of those contained within the cremation urns, no human bones have survived. Furthermore, the land had formerly been used as brickfields; this involved disturbing and removing the soil, and so when the graves were finally discovered in 2008 they were found to be rather shallow and some objects were damaged. The site was a completely unexpected discovery and to deal with the conservation of the large number of finds CSI: Sittingbourne was set up. This is a community project established by local conservator Dana Goodburn-Brown in partnership with Sittingbourne Heritage Museum, Canterbury Archaeological Trust, and AMTeC Co-op; funded by Kent County Council, Marstens Brewery and Tesco. The project has enabled local people to become directly involved with the conservation of the objects under the supervision and guidance of professional and student conservators.

You can also visit the CSI Exhibition from 10am-5pm Mondays-Saturdays, details here.

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Editor’s Pick #7: Old English in Middle-Earth

This week’s Editor’s Pick touches on a fascinating subject — the uses made by J.R.R. Tolkien of Old English language and literature in the creation of his fantasy Middle Earth. Lynn Forest-Hill has created a very useful Study Guide outlining some of the ways in which Tolkien uses Anglo-Saxon. The extract below represents only a small part of the whole Guide, which was originally created for Tolkien enthusiasts, many of whom encounter Old English for the first time through his Lord of the Rings. The full text will be available when the Project goes live later in the year.

Old English in Middle-Earth

Part One

To help create this brief introduction to Old English – the language of the Anglo-Saxons – I have consulted Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English, Dorothy Whitelock’s revised version of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, and J.R. Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Out of respect for Tolkien’s feelings I have avoided the great Bosworth and Toller dictionary, although it remains a necessary tool for anyone who is serious about working on Old English. There are books, tapes, and teaching materials which will help you further.

If you have not yet read The Lord of the Rings, chapter references will help you to find the relevant passage.

As we know, Tolkien loved the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the people of Germanic origin who first came to Britain as a mercenary force after the Romans had left. They settled here and developed their own society, culture and language. That language is generally known, especially in its written form, as Old English, usually abbreviated to OE. Tolkien worked on it professionally as a philologist and translator, and used it creatively in The Lord of the Rings.

There were many dialect forms of Old English. Tolkien preferred the dialect of the west midlands known as Old Mercian and once said he thought he would speak nothing but Old Mercian.

All the Old English we are about to look at is primarily in the West Saxon dialect because that came to be the main literary language in Anglo-Saxon England and many of the most important texts that have survived are written in it, although they may have been composed in other dialects.

If you want to speak like the Anglo-Saxons it will take a much more detailed course than this short introduction to learn all the grammar, but you can learn some sounds and some words and phrases that are of particular interest as you read The Lord of the Rings.


The first steps in OE begin with learning some of the special Old English letter forms that are used in it, and how they sound. Old English used a few runic forms, especially þ (it is called thorn) which looks like a /p/ with a long ascender (the bit sticking up); and ð (which is called eth) which looks like a /d/ with a curved ascender with a little line through it. They describe the particular /th/ sound each is used for – the hard form of /thorn/ and the soft form of /eth/. TRY SAYING the words ‘thorn’ and ‘eth’ TO HEAR THE DIFFERENCE IN THE SOUND OF THE RUNES- it is quite subtle.

Next you need to recognise the very commonly used vowel combination æ (called ash, but more correctly spelt in OE, asc). It always has the sound of the /a/ in mat/hat/cat.

Then we have the frequent eo which is sounded – e+o but the sounds are run together, not said separately. You will be familiar with this if you have seen the films or listened to the BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

As Tolkien uses it in names, the /e/ in this combination should sound like the /a/ in ‘hate’, not like the /e/ in ‘bet’. It is a much harder vowel sound. The reason for this particular pronunciation is because names like ‘Éomer’ and ‘Éowyn’ borrow their ‘Eo’ syllable from the word for ‘horse’ – eoh, and this is a stressed syllable.

As a useful rule for pronunciation we can say that OE vowels are pronounced more like vowels in German or French.

There are some tricky consonants in OE. As with the name of the æ vowels sound, it is called /ash/ but the word is spelled asc in OE where the consonants sc taken together have a /sh/ sound.

The cg in OE words like ecg (meaning an edge or sword) is pronounced as /dge/ as in MnE (Modern English) ‘ledge’, ‘hedge’.

c can also be tricky. If you see it in a text with a dot over it then it is pronounced as we pronounce ‘ch‘.

Sometimes g will appear with a dot over it, or italicised in a word. This means that it has a ‘y’ sound. This happens frequently when making past tenses in OE. A dotted or italicised ge is tacked onto the front of some verbs to make a past tense, as in gelædan (guided, led). In these cases it has a /y/ sound, so the word is pronounced ‘yelædan’.

Using what you have just read, try saying this: Meriadoc gelædde þone eoh ‘Meriadoc led the horse’.

Be sure to sound the final /e/ of gelædde and þone. There are no really silent letters in OE. For example, cniht – ‘boy’ or ‘squire’, needs to have its /c/ sounded [it is not dotted so it has its usual sound], and even its /h/ needs to be ‘breathed’ in.

The ge is also sometimes found at the start of nouns like geweorc (work) and has the same /y/ sound. Modern editors always show by dotting or italicising the ge if it should be pronounced as a /y/ or should be left lone as a /g/.

It can also happen in the middle of words. If we look back a moment, just to make life difficult, in OE the word for ‘hedge’ is spelt hege, but the /g/ is pronounced as a /y/ so it sounds like ‘heye’, from which ‘hay’ as in the High Hay, is derived.

Words and phrases

Probably the best known OE phrase Tolkien borrowed, and one which is fun to use with friends, is the greeting Wes þu hal. It means roughly ‘good health to you’.

The archaic word ‘wassail’ comes from it and Tolkien uses a modern spelling form in the phrase – ‘Westu Theoden hal

The later greeting ‘Ferthu hal‘, or ferþu hal means roughly ‘health to your spirit’. See The Two Towers, Book 3 Chapter VI for the use of both these greetings.

There are lots of OE words that Tolkien transfers straight into The Lord of the Rings, mostly into the Rohan episodes.

For example: The names Theoden and Thengel are both common nouns in OE simply meaning ‘prince’ or ‘lord’. The OE word for ‘king’ is cyning and is pronounced with a hard /c/ (a /k/ sound) and note that the /y/ is pronounced as /i/ with lips in a whistling position so it sounds like the /u/ in French ‘tu’. See The Two Towers, Book 3 Chapter VI.

We could then say Theoden cyning rad þone eoh = ‘Theoden the king rode the horse’.

If we learn the verb ‘to be‘ in OE, we make up other sentences of our own. And this is easier than you may expect!

We can say things like – se hring is gold – ‘the ring is gold’; þeoden is wlanc – ‘The prince is proud’. You can see that is does not need to be translated. It has come down to us unchanged, so you use the language of the Anglo-Saxons every day of your life if you speak English!

There are many words in Modern English (MnE) that are the same, or almost the same as words in OE, as you can see with the spelling of ‘hring’ – only the /h/ is missing from the modern word.

Some examples:

  • Sam wyrceþ = Sam works [sounds like ‘Sam worketh]
  • Frodo bideþ = Frodo waits [biden gave us the word we use in the phrase ‘biding her (or his) time’]
  • Gollum biteþ = Gollum bites
  • Se stan is heard = the stone is hard
  • Ylfe lufiaþ steorran = Elves love stars
  • Sam lufaþ Rose = Sam loves Rose
  • Ic eom cald = I am cold
  • þu eart cild = you are a child [the /c/ of ‘cild’ may be dotted to show that it should be pronounced as /ch/]
  • he is wicing = he is a viking
  • heo is wif = she is a woman
  • wit waciaþ = we two keep watch [‘wit’ is the special OE pronoun used to mean ‘we two’]
  • we þencaþ = we think
  • git swimmaþ = you two swim [‘git’ is the special OE pronoun used to mean ‘you two’]
  • ge cunnon = you all can / know how to

It is easy to ask questions –

  • Hwær is se hring? = where is the ring?
  • Hwaet hring? = what ring?
  • Hwær eart þu = where are you? [this will sound like ‘where art thou?’]
  • Hwy stande ge idele? = why are you standing idle? [this will sound like ‘why stand ye idle?’]
  • Hwa is se cyning? = who is the king?

Some harder bits

We know that Theoden is cyning. Note that OE does not always use the definite article as we do in MnE (Modern English). The definite article in MnE is ‘the‘. When it is used in OE its form depends on whether the following noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter, and singular or plural. This is something we all need to look up until we have learnt the vocabulary very well.

Because OE is an inflected language, like French, German, Latin, the definite article the has different forms, and nouns change their endings depending on where they are used in a sentence.

OE may begin a sentence with a definite article, e.g. Se cyning – the king (a masc. noun with a masc. definite article). Seo cwen – the queen (fem. noun with fem. definite article). þæt sweord – the sword (neut. noun with neut. definite article).

But in a sentence OE does not always use the definite article in the way we do, so we find sentences like Oswald cyning his cynedom geheold hlisfullice. (Oswald the king held his kingdom gloriously.) You can see how Tolkien adopted this way of referring to a king as the form he uses to name the king in Rohan where he is addressed as ‘Theoden king’, not ‘King Theoden’.

With care we can come up with our own sentences such as se hol bytla feoll in þæm smygle.

Remember when pronouncing a sentence like this to sound all vowels and consonants. Remember /æ/ has the sound of /a/ in ‘mat’, and note that the /g/ in smygle is itself a /y/ sound so the word sounds like ‘smiyl’. The form of the word perhaps reminds us of Smeagol who lived in a hole, but Tolkien seems to have derived /smial/ from the OE word although he says in the Appendices that it is pronounced like ‘smile’. [Smeagol’s sneaking suggests his name has a closer relationship to OE /smeagan/, a verb which means ‘to investigate, look closely into’].

The whole sentence – se hol bytla feoll in þæm smygle means ‘the hole-dweller fell into the burrow’. Which is better, as we know, than saying se hol bytla feoll in þæt wætere (the hole dweller fell into the water)!

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Editor’s Pick #6: Images from Greensted Church

This week’s featured submission comes from an Oxford DPhil student, Kelly Kilpatrick, who has been conducting a photography tour of Anglo-Saxon sites for the Project. The following images and introduction are from her trip to Greensted Church in Chipping Ongar, Essex.

Kelly writes:

Greensted Church preserves a wooden Anglo-Saxon church, and it is the oldest wooden church in Europe and is believed to be the oldest wooden building in world. What is now the nave of the church, built of oak timbers in a palisade style, was the early Anglo-Saxon church. Dendrochonology dates of the timbers suggest it could be as early as the mid ninth-century (c. 845 A.D.), though a recent revision of the dating suggests it may date to the mid eleventh-century. There is some evidence in the chancel that there was reworking on the site in the Norman period. The brick chancel was added during the Tudor period in the reign of Henry VII. The panelled wooden bell tower was added to the church during in the Stuart period, probably in the early seventeenth-century. The roof of the church and the windows are Victorian. Also during the Victorian period, the timbers of the nave were raised and placed on a brick foundation to keep the timbers from decaying. Greensted Church also preserves a number of interesting early architectural features. The timbers of the nave are oak timbers which have been split and smoothed on the inside. The tool marks used in the construction are still visible in the interior of the church. A small fashioned hole on the north side of the nave was once believed to be a leper’s squint, which is where lepers could be administered communion since they were not allowed into the service, but current thought suggests it is a holy water stoup. In 1013, during a period of Danish rule, the body of St Edmund was taken to Greensted Church where it remained for a night enroute to Bury-St-Edmund. The St Edmund beam in Greensted church commemorates this event.

Click on any of these for a larger image.

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Editor’s Pick #5: Ashmolean Museum Artefacts

During the closure of the Ashmolean Museum for refitting, an online gallery was created showcasing the Museum’s Anglo-Saxon objects. By very kind permission of the Museum, we have archived this site in complete form within the project. However, we have also extracted the images posted to the online gallery and archived them seperately, so that users can now search among them (eg by place of discovery, or type of artefact) in order to identify particular objects of interest.

The gallery below represents only a small sample of the images archived: you can click on any image to see  a larger image and a short description of the artefacts.

The entire original online gallery is also available at the Ashmolean Museum’s site at http://anglosaxondiscovery.ashmolean.org/virtual_gallery/gallery_index.html

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Editor’s Pick #4 Oxford University Exam Papers

Once again, this has been a very busy week for the Project! The Oxford University English Faculty Library has very kindly given us permission to digitise a number of its papers relating to Anglo-Saxon matters: chief among these is the extensive pamphlet collection belonging to Professor Arthur Napier, and donated to the Library upon his death, and copies of Oxford University Old English exam papers dating back to the 1890s! As you can see from the preview below, some of these papers date back to the period when different examination papers were given for male and female candidates, reflecting the segregated teaching that took place during the period.

Page from 'Oxford University Examination for Women', 1894

Page from 'Oxford University Examination for Women', 1889

Perhaps even more interestingly, as we have gone through the Napier collection we have found a surprising number of doctoral dissertations written by female scholars, including Alison Drake (Columbia, 1894), Constance Pessels (Johns Hopkins, 1896) and Josephine May Burnham (Yale, 1911). This may provide  some interesting and previously unexplored material for those interested in the history and sociology of late 19th-century Anglo-Saxon studies.

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Editor’s Pick #3: Anglo-Saxon Beads

Welcome to the third Woruldhord Editor’s Pick! This has been a very exciting week for the project, with new submissions flooding in from our team of student photographers and a mention in the Times Higher Education Supplement (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=412770). Our highlighted submission for this week comes from Sebastian Rahtz, and features coloured beads discovered at an Anglo-Saxon inhumation cemetery at Sewerby, Yorkshire.

You can click on any of the beads to enlarge the image.

These images were originally published as microfiche in An Anglo-Saxon Inhumation Cemetery at Sewerby, East Yorkshire (York University Archaeological Publications), Susan Hirst, 1985.

If you have JSTOR access, you can read more in the article ‘Glass and other Vitreous Materials’,  Leo Biek and Justine Bayley, World Archaeology, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Jun., 1979), pp. 1-25  (http://www.jstor.org/stable/124331).

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Editor’s Pick 2: ‘Borges on the Wall’

Wes þu hal, and welcome to the second Woruldhord Project Editor’s Pick! Over the past week, we have received a number of exciting  submissions, including an electronic edition of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, a collection of images of Anglo-Saxon beads, and a podcast guide to the Anglo-Saxon exhibits at the British Museum!

However, our featured contribution this week is something slightly different. Poet and scholar Chris Jones has contributed a number of his own original works incorporating  Anglo-Saxon themes and elements. These offer a particularly interesting set of  insights into the ways in which Old English still forms a vital part of modern-day literature and culture. In particular this poem, ‘Borges on the Wall’, provides an excellent example of, and starting point for discussions about, the use of Anglo-Saxon elements in twentieth- and twenty-first century poetry.

Borges on the Wall

A song of truth I can drive out –

How the blind and brittle poet

asked to be hand-led by youth

down to the sea and along the harbour cobb –

trembling index of saint Andreas,

whose knuckle-bones stretch to Jutland…

His stuttering tread faltered

against uneven, frost-stained stones,

until, at the end of the world,

he stood to face the North Sea’s unlocked cruelty

(here, some versions say he faced the wrong way)

And then hurled verses of Beowulf at the spindrift,

expelling the storehoused grief of a life on loan

his pampas-dry, defiant tongue

lacing songs of the long-dead with latin accents,

the frayed syllables sinking into spume and spray:

Næs hearpan wyn gomen in geardum

Who knows at what wharf whose

hands hauled that cargo home?

Continue reading

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Editor’s Pick 1: ‘Who’s Who and Backstory in Beowulf’

Welcome to the very first Woruldhord Project Editor’s Pick!

In the two weeks that the project has been open for submissions, we have received a number of tremendously exciting contributions, including new editions of texts, archaeological images, teaching handouts and scholarly notes. As the project goes ahead, this blog will showcase samples of some of the items that we have been receiving.

Editor’s Pick #1: ‘Who’s Who and Backstory in Beowulf’

Bruce’s Gilchrist’s teaching handout ‘Who’s Who and Backstory in Beowulf provides students with a detailed guide to the poem’s characters. It places each character in a family tree while giving a short description of his or her key actions with line attributions. It also provides a guide to ‘What’s What and Backstory in Beowulf‘, identifying and describing important weapons and treasures in the poem. This is an excellent resource both for university students studying Beowulf, and for anyone reading the poem for the first time. Check out the sample section below, and download and read the entire handout when the project goes online later this year!

Beowulf sample 2

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Editors’ Picks

As submissions start to come in for the Woruldhord project we will describe some of them to inspire others.

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