Friday, September 25, 2009

Sungon sigebyman: maþþum oþres weorð!

Big news yesterday or the largest trove of Anglo-Saxon artifacts ever discovered, running to more than 1,300 objects so far, many of them gold. Just about everybody seems to be talking about it, so I’ll keep my own comments fairly brief.

The hoard, taken together, adds up to some eleven pounds of gold and more than five pounds of silver. The remark-able discovery was made by one Terry Herbert with his trusty metal-detector in soft soil in the Staffordshire countryside, right in the heart of the English Midlands. The estimated dates of the items — no doubt, these will be refined in time — range somewhere between the seventh to eight (or even early ninth) centuries. The dates and location, therefore, suggest that these treasures belonged to the Kingdom of Mercia during its ascendancy, not long after the Christianization of England. Indeed, one of the items is a gold band bearing a Latin inscription from the Book of Numbers (or Psalms), which seems to read: [.]irge domine disepentu[r] inimici tui et [f]ugent qui oderunt te a facie t[u]a.

What is a discovery like this worth? Let’s not even mention the record prices of gold recently (apophasis, I know; so here you go). Scott Nokes said it best, I think:
This BBC report is unintentionally hilarious […] Worth a seven figure sum, eh? How about “priceless,” instead? It’s rather like saying a lost child was found wandering the streets and “experts say his organs might fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the open market.”
And naturally, it hasn’t taken long for the news sites (so-called) to begin invoking Tolkien with rather more enthusiasm than good sense, as here, where the Times Online compares the row between the landowner and the “metal detectorist” to the struggle for possession of Sauron’s Ring. I suppose such comparisons are inevitable, even if silly, but wouldn’t a better comparison have been made with the hoard of Smaug?

PS. The title of this post is a mash-up of phrases from the Old English Exodus and Maxims I (in the Exeter Book). Feel free to try your hand at translating it if you like, and leave your effort(s) as a comment. :)


  1. As I said at Unlocked Wordhoard, it does legally have to have a value put on it. But since then I've learned that guy who found it is on disability benefit, so really not a rich man; his concentration on the richness of it is probably because he has just seen the largest worry of his life removed, but will also know that this jackpot could take years to pay out. He should be given credit for a certain amount of justified desperation here.

  2. Yes, you’re right. It’s easy enough for us to sit here, thousands of miles away, and say, “Oh, you could never put a price on such a discovery ...” But of course, for many reasons, it will need one. In order to insure the collection, for one thing — especially if any of it ever travels out of the country (as the Tutankhamun trove came here to Dallas last year). And in order to pay out finders’ fees, for another.

    I hope the two fellows involved can remain friends, and I am very happy to know that both will be compensated (to whatever degree, over whatever timetable) for bringing this up out of the ground. I am not judging Mr. Herbert for seeing gold in his dreams, nor for focusing on the fee he’s expecting. It certainly beats a day-job, and it’s “more fun” (his words) than playing the lottery. And as you say, it sounds like he’s physically unable to work a job in the first place. So good for him!

  3. Of course, when I saw the name of the nearby village reported, my first act was to check a map of Staffordshire to see how close it was to Great Haywood. Not tremendously far!

  4. About how far was it, David? That’s the thing about England, though, isn’t it? Nothing is really that far from anything else, at least not when compared to the kinds of distances we deal with in the U.S., Canada, Russia, China (and many other countries).

  5. If you read the beginning of Bill Bryson's Notes on a Small Island, you won't think it's that small. Britons really do talk like that, and it really does take longer than an American would think to drive between any two places, even if they're on the motorway.

    Anyway, the site of the Staffordshire Hoard is about 10 or 12 miles away from Great Haywood by road, on the other side of Cannock Chase (which Tolkien's training camp was on).

  6. Your title: is it something like, "sing the man's victory: another rich treasure"?

    I like your use of the word "mathom," by the way. Quite likely if the hobbits had had 67 spare pommels, they would have wound up in the Mathom-house. :-)

  7. David, yes, I just read that book! (I couldn’t tell whether you realized that, or whether it was coincidence that you mentioned it.) Bryson makes the point that it is small, but that its inhabitants definitely do not perceive it that way. And God help you if you get the locals down the pub started on arguing about the best directions to ... well, anywhere. Great stuff, like all his books.

    And 10–12 miles is definitely close. Even if you couldn’t catch a train or bus (considering the vagaries of public transportation in England), that’s not more than a long ramble on foot. Okay, yes, a pretty long ramble, but Bryson does it all the time in Notes.

  8. Pinon, that’s pretty close. Good job! Where you say “man’s victory”, I think you are reading sigebyman as *sigeby + man “man, one, anyone, people”; not unreasonable, but that’s breaking the compound in the wrong place. I’ll give you the hint that it should be sige + byman. I’ll also tell you that óþres is a pronoun and weorð is a verb, where I think you’ve taken them both to be adjectives. Now, care to give it another shot?

    I agree completely with your comment about the Hobbits and their mathoms. Part of my thinking in choosing that quotation. :)

  9. Harm J. Schelhaas10/26/2009 4:35 PM

    H'm. Based on what you and Pinon have written, and looking in Bosworth/Toller (via your link) I make of it: ‘The trumpets of victory sounded (lit.: sang), treasure changes hands (lit.: becomes another’s)’. If I read the abbreviations correctly, the Exeter Book bit is actually quoted by B/T under maðum, and the Exodus bit under sige-bíme. It helps of course (me at least) that worden in Dutch is still rather similar in meaning and conjugation to A-S weorþan.

  10. And the prize goes to Harm. Well done; that’s exactly right! And of course, you can see the relevance of my Franken-quote to the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard. (Nice use of modern Germanic cognate forms, by the way. :)

  11. Harm J. Schelhaas10/29/2009 9:27 PM

    I note that B&T actually say ‘treasure shall change hands’, but I've taken that for praesens profeticum - or might someone have been influenced by German werden being the auxilliary verb of the future (among other things)? Except, being only an amateur at philology, I don't know at what stage it became that - somehow I doubt it was early enough.

    Incidentally, bíme, byme ‘trumpet’ reminds me of the Rohirric (i.e. actually Anglo-Saxon) name for Oromë: Béma. Obviously it refers to his ‘Great Horn’ (with masculine ending?): the attribute has become the name of the god.

  12. Harm, since Old English had no actual (conjugable) future tense, it’s fairly common for verbs conjugated in the present-tense to be interpreted as if they refer to the future. And not only in German, but in Old English, the verbs willan, sculan, beon, and weorðan often conveyed futurity, even from a very early point in time. Recently, an article appeared on this topic, with a careful analysis of the occurence and frequency of these auxiliary constructions: Wischer, Ilse. “Markers of futurity in Old English and the grammaticalization of shall and will.” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: An International Review of English Studies 42 (2006): 165–78. You can read it online, here. Interestingly, though all four were used in both Old English and Old High German, willan and beon were more common in Old English, sculon and (especially) weoðan more common in Old High German.

    Incidentally, bíme, byme ‘trumpet’ reminds me of the Rohirric (i.e. actually Anglo-Saxon) name for Oromë: Béma.

    As it should! Coincidentally, I have written a substantial essay on this very topic, which will be appearing in Brad Eden’s The Scholar as Minstrel: Music as Conscious / Subconscious Thematic Material in the Mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien (McFarland, forthcoming).

  13. Thinking about it a little more, it occurs to me that Modern English “become”, even in the present tense, really carries an inherent sense of futurity. It is really “to be” + “to come”, or “to come to be”.

  14. Harm J. Schelhaas10/30/2009 9:30 PM

    Thank you for the explanation! I think I've understood most of the article as well.