A UK metal detectorist has unearthed a rare 1,400-year-old Anglo-Saxon sword harness pyramid crafted in gold and garnet from India or Sri Lanka. This
A UK metal detectorist has unearthed a rare 1,400-year-old Anglo-Saxon sword harness pyramid crafted in gold and garnet from India or Sri Lanka.
This tiny, bejeweled treasure was discovered in April in Breckland, Norfolk, east England, by amateur archaeologist and metal detectorist Jamie Harcourt. The rare artifact dates to 560-630 AD and was used to hold a warrior’s sword in its scabbard while riding. It is thought to have been lost by a wealthy-warrior serving an Anglo-Saxon king at a time when the modern English county of Norfolk was part of the Kingdom of East Anglia.
“Sword harness pyramids” usually come in pairs and they pinned down two leather clasps that stopped swords jumping out of their scabbards when on horseback. However, the exact way in which the pyramids were attached to the swords and scabbards is not clear because the leather usually rots away.
Having been crafted between 560 and 630 AD the sword harness pyramid was functional when Norfolk was still part of the powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, that wasn’t fully absorbed into the Kingdom of England until 918 AD.
The pyramid was just over a centimeter square at the base, and was used to secure swords in their scabbard. (Andrew Williams / Norfolk County Council)
A Rare, But Not Unique Sword Harness Pyramid
The sword harness pyramid is highly ornate and would have sparkled in the sun when attached to the ends of two leather bands and wrapped around the hilt of a sword. Finds Liaison Officer at Norfolk Coroner’s Office, Helen Geake, told BBC News , that finding just one pyramid “was like losing one earring – very annoying”. The complex multi-faceted garnets that decorate the pyramid were individually cut then ground into the required shapes, and while this is certainly a rare discovery, it is not unique.
Discoverer, detectorist Jamie Harcourt, told Treasure Hunting , that the find represented his first post-lockdown outing and that it was the “find of lifetime.” However, he pointed out that the artifact is very similar to those examples recovered during the world famous 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo – the Staffordshire Hoard .
Stunning sword harness pyramids from the Sutton Hoo hoard. (© The Trustees of the British Museum )
The Pyramids Of Anglo-Saxon Wealth
The famous Staffordshire Hoard contains five pairs of sword harness pyramids and according to the official website these “elaborate and high-quality decorations” indicate the owner was “an elite warrior.” Measuring only 0.4-inch by 0.4-inch (1cm by 1cm) and weighing in at just 3 grams the gold mount is of exceptionally fine quality with incredibly intricate foil work on the back. Similarly to the examples gathered from Sutton-Hoo, Geake suggests this one also belonged to “someone of the upper class.”
Lords would have been “careening about the countryside on their horses and they’d lose them,” added the finds officer. She told the BBC that the owner was “somebody in the entourage of a great lord or Anglo-Saxon king,” and that he would “have been a lord or thegn [a medieval nobleman] who might have found his way into the history books”.
Enhancing Ancient Anglo-Saxon Gem Lines
Looking into the parts which construct the whole, the gold used to form the pyramid mount could have been sourced in Britain, but the same cannot be said for the red garnets which were imported from India or Sri Lanka . Helen Geake noted that the gemstones had travelled a distance of more than 5,000 miles, “underscoring the incredible global trade occurring at the time.”
Traditionally, Sri Lanka was known as “ Ratna-Dweepa” – the Gem Island. Explorer Marco Polo wrote that the island had the best “sapphires, topazes, amethysts, and other gems in the world.” Middle eastern and Persian traders began crossing the Indian Ocean to buy gems for trading during the 4th and 5th century. Now, with this new discovery, we have further evidence of an ancient trading network that channeled rare gemstones all the way from Sri Lanka and India to wealthy agriculturalists in Anglo-Saxon England.
Top image: The gold and garnet sword harness pyramid found in Norfolk, England. Source: Andrew Williams / Norfolk County Council
By Ashley Cowie