Treasures to bring our past alive

Ipswich is to host an exhibition of priceless treasure dating back hundreds of years. JAMES MARSTON finds out more.

James Marston

Ipswich is to host an exhibition of priceless treasure dating back hundreds of years. JAMES MARSTON finds out more.

HOW did our ancestors display their wealth and status hundreds of years ago?

What were their coins like?

These questions and others are set to be answered this summer as an exhibition of some of the region's best Anglo-Saxon artefacts come to Ipswich.

Ancient coins and jewellery are going to be the dazzling centrepieces at the exhibition of Anglo-Saxon art held in Ipswich's Town Hall Galleries.

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Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service's latest exhibition features an array of objects and stories never seen before in Ipswich, in the ornate surroundings of Gallery 3.

Anglo-Saxon Art in the Round will take visitors on a journey back in time discovering mighty kings and fabulous beasts, with Anglo-Saxon art and beautiful coins.

Caroline McDonald, curator of archaeology for the Ipswich and Colchester Museum service, said: “The stunning exhibition features rare items, including a collection of gold and silver coins that are over 1,200 years old.

“The pieces come from the De Wit collection, recently purchased by The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund.”

Mark Blackburn, keeper of coins and medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum, said “I am delighted that this collaboration between our museums will enable the people of Ipswich to see these extraordinary coins with their vibrant imagery. They compliment the museum's superb collection of Anglo Saxon metalwork found in Suffolk.”

The coins feature bold images of people, animals, birds and beasts as well as grand symbols of religion and intriguing runes. Some very famous faces can be seen on the coins too, including Offa, king of Mercia, the legendary Charlemagne and the earliest known English coin that shows the face of Christ.

With elaborate designs, gold and garnets the exhibition also displays some beautiful examples of early medieval jewellery. The famous Boss Hall Brooch, from Sproughton, can be seen for the first time in Gallery 3 as can the Kennard Brooch - both of which are more than 1,300 years old.

The exhibition will feature a ship design as the centre-part of the stunning display. The sail will be rigged by a specialist sail maker and as part of the exhibition images will be projected on to it.

Caroline added: “Our in-house design team has created a fantastic stern and prow to give visitors the experience of an Anglo-Saxon ship as they enter the gallery.

“Topped by a professionally rigged sail it will act as a great echo of those original intrepid Anglo-Saxon travellers crossing the water, bringing with them aspects of their culture and art that will form the 'display at the heart' of the ship”.

In their first public display ever, the exhibition will also show items from the Coddenham Bed Burial. This collection shows weapons buried with women and warriors, from an Anglo-Saxon burial ground, that equipped them on their journey into the after-life.

As preparations got under way at the gallery, Caroline said many of the exhibits are usually displayed in Ipswich Museum.

She said: “Each exhibit acts as a testament to the artistic merit of our ancestors and the skills they employed. Each coin is a miniature work of art in its own right; each one has a work of art on it.

“The exhibition also introduces those individuals intimately connected to the story of the Anglo-Saxon objects on show. From Nina Layard, an Edwardian woman who saved much of the archaeology at the Hadleigh Road Saxon cemetery site in 1906, through to Basil Brown the archaeologist at Sutton Hoo,”

Special security measures have been put in place to house the exhibition.

Caroline, a small finds expert, added: “These are some of our best treasures from the Anglo-Saxon period including the Boss Hall Brooch and a gold fragment of Anglo-Saxon workmanship loaned by Braintree Museum.

“The fragment has runes on it and lettering. It is not known exactly what it says but we think it has the word box on it. It was probably part of something that was smashed up during a Viking attack in 9th century Essex. It is part of a story of social upheaval and warfare.

“The Boss Hall Brooch was found in the grave of a woman buried 1,400 years ago in Sproughton area. It is absolutely stunning and the pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship. She would have been a wealthy inhabitant of early Ipswich and was sent into the after-life with her best jewellery.

“It is something she probably wore in life.”

Caroline said to call Anglo-Saxon England the dark ages is not really accurate.

She said: “They didn't have the technology that we have but they could produce jewellery and artefacts that we cannot produce today.

“This period after the Romans fade in British history is often called the dark ages but it was just a different time in history, these objects showcase the things that were being achieved.”

The exhibition has been produced by Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service with the support of Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, Norwich Castle Museum, Braintree and District Museum Service, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge, Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service and the many individuals who loaned items.

Caroline said the exhibition has been developed to meet special needs.

She added: “There is an audio guide and we are trialling a visual guide for deaf people. We want to make it as accessible as possible to people.”

Anglo-Saxon Art in the Round can be enjoyed free of charge in Gallery 3 and visitors are urged to see the stunning objects and discover the stories behind this fascinating and rare exhibition.

Anglo-Saxon Art in the Round takes place at Gallery 3, Ipswich Town Hall Galleries Friday March 6 - Saturday September 5 2009.

What do you think? Have you discovered something dating from Anglo-Saxon England? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or send an e-mail to

Caroline said: “Ipswich was one of England's earliest towns. The settlement was then called Gippeswyck and it was almost certainly the town used by the royal family that is buried at Sutton Hoo.

“Trade with the continent was very important and the docks were at the heart of the town. It was a merchant town.

“Parts of Ipswich still use the Anglo-Saxon street plan and we speak a language that derives from the language they spoke. There are clear links with us and our ancestors.”

Ipswich was England's first Anglo-Saxon town, founded in around 600 AD.

Anglo-Saxon describes the invading tribes in the south and east of Britain from the early 5th century AD, and their creation of the English nation, to the Norman conquest of 1066.

The Benedictine monk, Bede, identified them as the descendants of three Germanic tribes.

The Angles may have come from Angeln, and Bede wrote that their whole nation came to Britain, leaving their former land empty. The name England or Aenglaland originates from this tribe.

The Anglo-Saxons spoke closely-related Germanic dialects and may have traced a common heritage to the Ingvaeones as described by the Roman historian Tacitus.

The Saxons chopped off hands and noses for punishment.

The most famous work of literature from this period includes the poem Beowulf.

Early Anglo-Saxon buildings in Britain were generally simple, constructed mainly using timber with thatch for roofing.