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Samuel D R




Location: UK
Joined: 04 Mar 2017

Posts: 53

PostPosted: Wed 08 Mar, 2017 10:32 am    Post subject: 5-7th century Seaxes         Reply with quote

From 400-600 AD (basically the Migration Period), I've not seen a single Saxon seax. A bit odd, given their name probably (this is for some reason controversially debated) derives from seax. The first one (I'm aware of!) is the Sutton-Hoo seax. Sadly no reconstruction seems to exist, though I've seen it in the physical museum (don't remember it, though :/).

My question is, from continental finds, can we "guess" about the general way seaxes would look like from the first invaders (ignoring Foederati) up to the time of Sutton-Hoo? 400-600 AD.

I've not found anything too convincing so far. The only three seaxes I found before 600 AD were Frankish. One was Childeric's, one a Norse King's, and one Theodoric's. All three were Frankish, as I said, and in other words had a cloisonné pommel, were gold-hilted, and gold wire around the grip, and were thin, sword-length "narrowseaxes".
On the other hand, axes, swords, spears and arrows seem to be in plentiful supply all over the continent and Migration Period England.
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Andrew W




Location: Florida, USA
Joined: 14 Oct 2010

Posts: 79

PostPosted: Wed 08 Mar, 2017 12:56 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Seaxes are comparatively rarer in English archaeology than other kinds of weapons (spears being most common, followed by swords, then seaxes). In the database of ~850 English weapon burials that I've built for my PhD dissertation, I don't have a single example where a seax was buried with anyone before the mid sixth century. After this, you can find them in something fewer than 5% of graves for the next half century, but their frequency suddenly spikes in the seventh century to 1 in 3 graves.

Many of these seaxes are really just big knives. Archaeologists tend to define anything as a seax that has a blade longer than 17cm. Some of these seaxes, however, have pommels and look much more weapon like.

In my database, these burials contain a seax. I've included a hyperlink where the site report (including a sketch of the seax, and discussion of how it was made) is available online for free download:

Buttermarket, grave 1306
Shrubland Hall Quarry, grave 01
Springhead, grave 2121
Springhead, grave 2134
Springhead, grave 2620
Butler's Field, grave 40
Butler's Field, grave 155
Butler's Field, grave 172/1
Worthy Park, grave 49
St. Mary's Stadium, grave 5352
St. Mary's Stadium, grave StM5488
St. Mary's Stadium, grave StM5537
Saltwood Tunnel, grave W1767 (see figure 62)
Saltwood Tunnel, grave C1325 (see figure 173)
Alton, grave 04
Finglesham, grave 159
Finglesham, grave 198
Updown, Eastry, grave 76:19
Mill Hill, grave 79
Park Lane, grave 339
Kilverstone, grave F113
King's Garden Hostel, grave 14
King Harry Lane, Verulamium, grave 09
Dover Buckland, grave 56
Dover Buckland, grave, 65
Dover Buckland, grave 93
Dover Buckland, grave 135
Polhill, grave 44

You might also be interested in Eleanor Blakelock's thesis on Anglo-Saxon knives: https://bradscholars.brad.ac.uk/handle/10454/5517?show=full

Edit: Karen Hoiland Nielsen has developed a typology of Anglo-Saxon seaxes in Hines and Bayliss, Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods... (2013). Not light reading, but her chapter (chapter 5) gives a good overview of the styles of objects recovered from the burial archaeology.
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Samuel D R




Location: UK
Joined: 04 Mar 2017

Posts: 53

PostPosted: Wed 08 Mar, 2017 1:07 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks. What are the chances the fact they only appear so late is random, rather than they didn't use them before the 6th century?
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Andrew W




Location: Florida, USA
Joined: 14 Oct 2010

Posts: 79

PostPosted: Wed 08 Mar, 2017 1:16 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It's certainly not random. Over 200 (about 25%) of the graves in my database date to the late 5th or early 6th century, but none contain a seax. This is too strong a pattern to be a sampling error.

It could be that seaxes were not buried for cultural reasons before the mid sixth century. Burial only shows us what people took to and left at the funeral, and that might not have included seaxes. Else, it might mean that these larger knives were simply not popular until the sixth century. I personally lean toward the second option, as I think it's risky to assume something existed for which no evidence survives unless we have a very good reason to doubt what the archaeology tells us.
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Samuel D R




Location: UK
Joined: 04 Mar 2017

Posts: 53

PostPosted: Wed 08 Mar, 2017 1:53 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

We know beyond reasonable doubt that the Saxons buried objects to take to the afterlife, Hel. Couldn't it be that maybe they didn't need knives in Hel? It seems very odd they didn't favour seaxes when it's almost certainly the source of their name.

Could it be the Anglian and Jutish influence? I mean, by all accounts, most of the people who migrated before the 6th century, when you've found seaxes appear, weren't Saxons. Here are a few of the initial invaders according to... sources...

Hengest: Anglian nobleman who was a mercenary for the Danes and then leader of a Jutish tribe.
Horsa: Anglian nobleman leading a Jutish tribe.
Hryth: Anglian
Eomaer: Anglian
Esla: Saxon (???)

Yes, yes, you don't need to tell me everyone except Hengest and Horsa probably didn't exist here.

Cerdic's Wessex was likely formed from British-Saxons, Britons, and also Jutish tribes along the Thames. Sussex was admittedly Saxon, so was Aelle.
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Samuel D R




Location: UK
Joined: 04 Mar 2017

Posts: 53

PostPosted: Wed 08 Mar, 2017 1:55 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Some more:

English descends from Anglian dialects of English
England means Land of the Angles
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Andrew W




Location: Florida, USA
Joined: 14 Oct 2010

Posts: 79

PostPosted: Wed 08 Mar, 2017 2:43 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Saxon is a much older name on the Continent, so while it might have originally have come from these peoples' association with knives (I don't think this etymology is certain, in academic circles), the Saxon == knife association could easily have fallen away centuries later when persons descended from Saxon ancestors crossed the North Sea, or (even later) when kingdoms in England adopted this ethnonym for themselves (the earliest record we have of people in Britain calling themselves Saxons or Angles is in the seventh-century Tribal Hideage; in the sixth century, Gildas calls others 'Saxons', but whether they would have agreed with this label is something we can't know). Cultures (both today, and in the early middle ages) are pretty fluid, and there's no evidence that carrying a knife was a constant / unchanging way to signal one's 'Saxon' identity across the centuries.

Knives do seem to have become a more important part of persons' identities in the seventh century, though I personally suspect this has more to do with increasing elite attempts to control who could use and display proper weapons than with a new kind of ethnic identity. Alex Knox has some interesting thoughts on this in a recent issue of the Archaeological Journal, available free via her academia.edu page: https://www.academia.edu/26563337/Archaeological_Journal_The_Subtle_Knife_Using_Domestic_Objects_to_Access_the_Middle_Anglo-Saxon_Worldview

As a further point of clarity, people were buried with small utility knives from the fifth century onward. These averaged blade lengths of less than 4cm, however, and archaeologists refer to them simply as knives in the literature to distinguish them from the much larger, probably military or hunting-related 'seaxes' whose blades could sometimes reach nearly half a meter in length.
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J. Nicolaysen




Location: Wyoming
Joined: 03 Feb 2014
Likes: 31 pages

Posts: 688

PostPosted: Wed 08 Mar, 2017 6:59 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hey Andrew,

Thanks for sharing your research with us. What's your PhD dissertation about and do you have plans to host it somewhere like an academic database for people like us to read? hint hint.

Very interesting stuff.
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Andrew W




Location: Florida, USA
Joined: 14 Oct 2010

Posts: 79

PostPosted: Wed 08 Mar, 2017 7:21 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

My dissertation, which is not finished (though will be soon, I hope), is on the spear in early Anglo-Saxon society. I'd love to share (and hear feedback / critiques) once things have come more together.

For now, a piece is published here (if you can sneak around the paywalls, I'm afraid): http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00665983.2016.1175891
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Niels Just Rasmussen




Location: Nykøbing Falster, Denmark
Joined: 03 Sep 2014

Spotlight topics: 15
Posts: 800

PostPosted: Mon 13 Mar, 2017 1:41 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

How certain are we to the meaning of Seax in anglo-saxon - does it only mean knife?

The Scandinavian cognate "Sax" means a one-edged weapon (whether knife or sword length).
NB: Yet this could have the following reason:
As it is shown in the image from Denmark (in the thread below) - the Sax grows quite a lot in length from 550-750 AD and actually takes the roll of the sword in the late germanic iron age / early viking age transition (750 AD).
See thread: http://myArmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=32090&highlight=

So since the Jutes traditionally started arrived in 449 AD to "England" from Jutland, then they likely only had small knife-sized seaxes.
A) So if the lengthening of the Seax DIDN'T HAPPEN in England, then it would make sense that the word means "knife".
B) If you have a parallel development with Denmark, then the word probably means one-edged knife/sword more in general..

So do you have sword length seaxes in England?
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