My lumps, my lumps, my Anglo-Saxon lumps
December 5, 2016 7:43 AM   Subscribe

"Scientific analysis reveals origins of odd 'lumps' in Anglo-Saxon grave. How did bitumen from Syria wind up in a buried Anglo-Saxon boat?"

"Long after the discovery of Anglo-Saxon graveyards at the Sutton Hoo site in East Anglia, England, scientists are still analyzing the treasures uncovered there. Perhaps the most famous grave at the site was discovered in 1939 by Suffolk amateur archaeologist Basil Brown. Inside a mound, he and his colleagues discovered the remains of a 27 meter-long Anglo-Saxon ship packed with grave goods including shields, cauldrons, jewelry, and a now-iconic iron-and-bronze helmet.

"Remains of the high-ranking individual buried here were dissolved by the acidic soil, but a lot of his loot remained intact. Safely ensconced at the British Museum, many items from the burial chamber in the ship have been catalogued and displayed. Still, a few mysteries remain. For decades, no one could identify a cache of hard, black nuggets. They were tentatively categorized as pine tar, which the Anglo-Saxons would have used for waterproofing ships. Now a team of scientists have figured it out. Writing in PLoS One, they describe using techniques including mass spectrometry and gas chromatography to analyze the chemical composition of the lumps."
posted by Celsius1414 (11 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Downvoted for My Humps reference in post title.

Wait, where's the downvote...wait a second, this isn't Reddit!!
posted by Naberius at 7:47 AM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

It was either that or the Presidents of the United States of America which, while a better song, is both from last century and a bit of a trigger at the moment.
posted by Celsius1414 at 7:51 AM on December 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's amazing what people forgot generations ago about the breadth of trade networks. There is a beautiful ancient vase called the Luck of Edenhall which, according to the noble English family who kept it for generations, was a gift from the fairies. Where else could such a strange, delicate artifact have come from? Syria, that's where.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:56 AM on December 5, 2016 [16 favorites]

The (short) first article gives it away, and some more interesting facts, in the final paragraph:
We may not yet know how the Anglo-Saxons used Syrian bitumen, but we now have a better sense of how far their trade networks stretched in the early Medieval world. Given the geopolitics in Britain at the time, it was easier for an East Anglian noble to get bitumen from Syria than from the west of England.
The Wikipedia page on Sutton Hoo includes a great amount of information on what has been found and identified from the mounds, including the "Bromewell bucket" decorated with a Syrian- or Nubian-style frieze, depicting naked warriors in combat with leaping lions, and had an inscription in Greek that translated as "Use this in good health, Master Count, for many happy years." (Google books preview)

More fun reading on this topic: Imported Grave Goods and the Early Anglo-Saxon Economy (By J. W. Hugget, 36 page PDF, as published in Medieval Archaeology Volume 32 (1988))

The world has been relatively small for some while.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:59 AM on December 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

It's pretty incredible that trade networks of the 7th century made it easier to get bitumen from Syria to East Anglia than from western England.

I will also admit to being a little puzzled that they found a substance often used in embalming in a tomb and are trying to find other reasons why it might be there. I'm guessing the amount and/or shape isn't right, because obviously the archaeologists know more about this than I do.
posted by Copronymus at 7:59 AM on December 5, 2016

The helmet really is cool.
posted by Bee'sWing at 8:01 AM on December 5, 2016

...wait a second, this isn't Reddit!!

Tomorrow, you will be waking up with Suzanne Pleshette.
posted by y2karl at 8:04 AM on December 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm okay with that...

Hell, at this point, I'd take waking up and Bobby Ewing's in my shower.
posted by Naberius at 8:30 AM on December 5, 2016

Frankly, that sounds like Something Awful....
posted by y2karl at 8:48 AM on December 5, 2016

I'm not sure it's that surprising. We already know that some of the goods in the burial ship were from Byzantium. Syria at the time of the burial (about 625?) was still part of Byzantium and ten years away from the Muslim invasion. Whatever the bitumen was it could well have been part of the same set of items, potentially a Christening gift.
posted by Emma May Smith at 10:37 AM on December 5, 2016

I recently binge-watched The Detectorists, so I feel like I am somewhat of an expert in Anglo-Saxon ship burials by now. I wonder if there is a bitumen dance?
posted by Rock Steady at 12:46 PM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

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