After a slight hiatus, the LAARC’s ‘A history of London in 10 Archaeological objects’ is back, and what better timing than on the Day of Archaeology! Half way through our history of London and we’ve now moved into another transitional period. From 842 AD Lundenwic (the Anlgo-Saxon settlement west of the abandoned Roman city, Londinium) came under successive attacks from Scandinavian/Viking raiders. King Alfred the Great (849 – 899) ordered the settlement back within the old Roman walls, and here our archaeological record within the city of London resumes…
‘Viking’ objects are rare in London’s archaeological record by comparison, but a number of artefacts have been discovered in the river Thames. A group of such objects have recently returned to the Museum from loan to the JORVIK Viking Centre in York.
My fifth object isn’t just representative of this chaotic period in London’s history but connected with a major London monument synonymous with the city – London Bridge. It once again asks us to question our literary sources (much like our Roman object did) in how myth, legend and history are created and then challenged or even perpetuated by archaeology.
Saxo-Norman/Viking (C11th) Iron & Copper alloy Battle Axe
What could be more representative of the Vikings than the battle axe? This particular axe was dredged from the Thames in the 1920s near London bridge and forms part of a Viking artefact assemblage including seven other axe heads, spear heads and a grappling iron and tongs. It has been suggested that the axe may have been deposited in the Thames (similar to our Iron Age dagger) as they were highly symbolic weapons, as well as being extremely practical. But this particular group may also allude to the legendary attack on London Bridge by Óláfr Haraldsson in 1014.
The first evidence for the existence of London Bridge after the destruction of its Roman forbear is in c.1000 AD. Archaeological timbers of the first Saxo-Norman bridge have been discovered and dated to 987 – 1032 through dendrochronology. The attacks on London Bridge by Viking mercenaries were previously thought to have inspired the English nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’. However, this has been debunked by the Museum of London’s Curator Emeritus John Clark as a folk memory.
The literary source of this attack is recorded by the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson in the Heimskringla of c.1230. Sturluson is actually quoting another Icelander, the court poet Ottarr Svarti (Ottarr the Black):
Yet you broke [destroyed] the bridge[s] of London,
You succeeded in conquering the land.
Iron swords made headway
Strongly urged to conflict;
Ancient shields were broken,
Battle’s fury mounted.
Despite the disassociation of this legend with the Bridge’s famous nursery rhyme, Bruce Watson & Jan Ragnar Hafland have recently emphasised the importance of manuscripts of skaldic verse, underused by English historians. Although these additional sources corroborate the reality of Óláfr’s assault, our battle axe is perhaps an example of how archaeology can sometimes only perpetuate a legend rather than authenticate it.