The moment I sunk into the warm mismatched chairs at The Haunch of Venison, I knew that Salisbury was a special place. Sitting down for a hearty meal of soup, bread, and beer in a city so old makes modern problems seem trivial. My thoughts were not on myself, but rather on who was there before me.
Did a 14th-century traveller once warm himself by the same fire? Who knows, but my imagination was ignited. Welcome to a tour of the quintessentially English city of Salisbury.
Tucked away and hidden from most casual passersby, the British Museum’s latest exhibition Hoards: The Hidden History of Ancient Britain is much like the once-buried treasure it displays. I found it in a small room located on the edge of the ancient Roman gallery on the museum’s second floor, adjacent to the Department of Coins and Medals study room. Despite its size, it holds a wealth of knowledge about this fascinating practice of prehistoric and Roman-era Britons.
When we hear the words “Anglo-Saxon literature,” Beowulf is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Then we might think of the beauty of illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow or the Lindisfarne Gospels. In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener talks with Professor Larry Swain of Bemidji State University about these works, as well as Norse and Irish influences on Anglo-Saxon literature and the significance of the Byzantines, Theodore and Hadrian, who came to Northumbria in the seventh century CE. Professor Swain recommends learning Old English in order to be able to read works in Old English, of course, but equally intriguing, to allow us to better express ourselves in modern English.
Grand, centuries-old cathedrals distinguish Great Britain’s cities and towns, providing spiritual nourishment to those who visit. These places of worship seem ancient almost beyond imagination. But long before Gothic cathedrals…long before recorded history even, Britain’s stone circles were this land’s sacred spots.
Stonehenge is the most famous of these — and has a new visitors center to serve nearly one million annual sightseers. As old as the pyramids, this site amazed medieval Europeans, who figured it was built by a race of giants. Archaeologists think some of these stones came from South Wales — 150 miles away — probably rafted then rolled on logs by Bronze Age people.
Most believe stone circles functioned as celestial calendars, and even after five thousand years Stonehenge still works as one. As the sun rises on the summer solstice (June 21), the “heel stone” — the one set apart from the rest — lines up with the sun and the altar at the circle’s center. With the summer solstice sun appearing in just the right slot, prehistoric locals could tell when to plant and when to party.
Despite the tourist hordes, Stonehenge retains an air of mystery and majesty (partly because smartly designed barriers, which keep visitors from trampling all over it, foster the illusion that it stands alone in a field).
While much of Europe was consumed by social disarray in the centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, a remarkable golden age of scholasticism and artistic achievement began in Ireland. Untouched by centuries of Roman rule, Ireland retained an ancient cohesive society characterized by rural monastic settlements rather than urban centers. From c. 400-1000 CE — an era more popularly known as the “Age of Saints and Scholars” — Irish missionaries spread Christianity, bringing monastery schools to Scotland, England, France, the Netherlands, and Germany. In doing so, they also transmitted a new, effervescent style of art throughout western Europe: Insular art.
The ancient Picts of northern and eastern Scotland were as enigmatic to their contemporaneous neighbors as they are to modern-day scholars. Nevertheless, despite the shadowy and wild stereotypes that still abound in popular imagination, recent archaeological excavations across Scotland have revealed astonishing works of art, impressive fortifications, and evidence of strong links with continental Europe.
In this exclusive interview with the Ancient History Encyclopedia, James Blake Wiener speaks to Dr. Gordon Noble, an archaeologist and professor at Aberdeen University, about these recent archaeological discoveries and how we should best understand the Picts in the history of ancient Britain.