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Top image: Left; Anglo-Saxon Sword Belt End Ornament, Right; Anglo-Saxon Shoulder Clasp, both from Sutton Hoo Burial, 625-630

New Study Shows 6th Century Anglo-Saxon Mercenaries Fought in the Middle East

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A fresh reexamination of artifacts recovered from ancient Anglo-Saxon burials has revealed some startling information about ancient Britain’s involvement in far-off military adventures in the sixth century AD. It seems there is good evidence to suggest that Anglo-Saxon people who lived in this period may have left Britain and traveled to northern Syria and the eastern Mediterranean region to participate in military conflicts, fighting on the side of the Byzantine Empire. 

A pair of English scholars, St. John Simpson, a senior curator at the British Museum, and Helen Gittos, a medieval historian from Oxford University, have concluded that some unique and exotic items retrieved during excavations at several ancient Anglo-Saxon burial sites came directly from northern Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. While the previous belief was that these objects had been acquired by wealthy Anglo-Saxon families with access to long-distance trade networks, Simpson and Gittos argue that this is not the case. 

In an interview with the Guardian, Simpson insisted that “compelling evidence” indicates that some of the men buried in elite Anglo-Saxon cemeteries like those excavated at Sutton Hoo, Taplow, and Prittlewell had been involved in efforts by Byzantine forces to conquer the Sasanians, an Iranian dynasty that controlled immense quantities of land and resources in the eastern Mediterranean region 1,500 years ago. 

Anachronistic painting by Piero della Francesca of the Battle of Nineveh (627) 

Anachronistic painting by Piero della Francesca of the Battle of Nineveh (627) between Heraclius' Byzantine army and the Sasanians under Khosrow II, which was pretty much the end of the Byzantine–Sasanian War. (Piero della Francesca / Public domain) 

Telling Trinkets Amongst the Treasure 

What helped Simpson and Gittos reach their surprising conclusion was the banality of some of the goods recovered from sixth-century Anglo-Saxon burials. Among the objects they cite as revealing are Sasanian personal seals and silver drachms, which have little value and were not the kinds of items anyone would be acquiring in market exchanges. They were much more likely to have been mementos or souvenirs picked up by people who had visited far-off lands and were looking for remembrances of their adventures. 

And in these instances, those adventures would have been of a military nature, the British scholars assert. They reached this conclusion because the collection of burial goods they studied included some gear that would have been worn by men participating in armed conflicts. This included armored suits and riding apparel that were designed and manufactured in Eurasia and were known to have been worn by Byzantine warriors dispatched to Sasanian territory in the east.  

In Simpson’s words, the presence of such grave goods adds “an international dimension” to ancient Anglo-Saxon burial sites. 

“These finds put the Anglo-Saxon princes and their followers center-stage in one of the last great wars of antiquity,” he stated. “It takes them out of insular England into the plains of Syria and Iraq in a world of conflict and competition between the Byzantines and the Sasanians and gave those Anglo-Saxons literally a taste for something much more global than they probably could have imagined.” 

Both treasures and other more practical items are found in the Anglo-Saxon burials.  

Both treasures and other more practical items are found in the Anglo-Saxon burials. (MOLA) 

The Sasanian Empire and its Enemies 

St. John Simpson is the curator of the British Museum’s Arabian and ancient Iranian collections. He is also an archaeologist who possesses a great deal of knowledge about the Sasanian Empire, which ruled from 224 to 651 and was an arch-rival of first the Roman Empire and later on the Byzantine Empire 

At the height of their power the Sasanians controlled an immense swath of territory, which included all of modern-day Iran and Iraq and parts of Saudi Arabia, plus sections of the Levant, the Indian subcontinent, the Caucasus region and Central Asia. For the Romans and the Byzantines, they represented a formidable foe, which would have given these European powers a reason to recruit fighting men from wherever they could find them—including in ancient Britain, as the evidence referenced by Simpson and Gittos seems to show. 

 At Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, archaeologists discovered an elite Anglo-Saxon ship burial that included Byzantine silverware among its rich collection of grave goods. They also found shoulder clasps for a uniform that likely came from Sasanian territory. 

Anglo-Saxon Shoulder Clasp, both from Sutton Hoo Burial, 625-630 

Anglo-Saxon Shoulder Clasp, both from Sutton Hoo Burial, 625-630. (CC0) 

While the discovery of the 90-foot (27-meter) long sailing vessel in this tomb captured most of the public’s attention, the presence of items that were of Byzantine and Sasanian origin was also highly significant.  

Another intriguing find was an ancient Anglo-Saxon burial discovered at Taplow in Buckinghamshire. One of the individuals unearthed here was dressed in a Eurasian-style riding jacket, which was a most distinctive and unusual form of dress. And at a cemetery unearthed in Prittlewell in Essex, multiple artifacts from the east were found inside an Anglo-Saxon burial chamber, including a suit of protective clothing and a copper flagon decorated in a style associated with the Sasanian region. 

“The pearl roundel on the Prittlewell flagon is unique and puts its iconography firmly within a Sasanian design language, suggesting that it was made farther east, in a Sasanian workshop,” Simpson said. 

“The eastern connections of the warrior tunics at Prittlewell and Taplow, coupled with the design of the shoulder clasps from Sutton Hoo, strengthen the idea that these individuals returned from Syria aligned even more closely with the late antique fashions of Byzantine-Sasanian elite warrior society.” 

And there was more. The ship excavated at Sutton Hoo was filled with lumps of bitumen, which had previously been assumed to have been used in the ship’s caulking. But according to Simpson the Sasanians lined their pottery with bitumen, and also allegedly used it for medicinal purposes (bitumen was believed at the time to have pain-killing and disease-curing properties). 

“Scientific analysis of the bitumen lumps show that they came from a specific source in northeast Syria,” Simpson revealed. 

“I think that’s another item that’s been brought back with perceived or real curative power … by superstitious warriors who’ve possible even converted to Christianity on effectively Byzantine crusades against the Sasanians.” 

A New and Fascinating View on Early Medieval British History 

Based on these and other similar discoveries, Simpson and Gattis are certain that sixth century Anglo-Saxon warriors participated in Byzantine campaigns in the east 

Simpson believes that these warriors would have served under the Byzantine emperors Tiberius II and Maurice, who ruled from 578 to 602 and carried out a relentless campaign against the Sasanian Empire. It is notable that Maurice actually singled out the Anglo-Saxons for praise in his military journals, commenting that they were good at fighting in the forest. 

As to why anyone from England would have gotten involved in such distant warfare, Simpson explained that the Byzantines paid their mercenaries quite well, and that they also offered opportunities for adventure for Anglo-Saxon aristocrats and other Britons who were looking to demonstrate their courage in battle. 

His research partner Helen Gittos agrees and emphasizes the paradigm-shifting importance of the pair’s interesting discovery. 

“This opens a startlingly new view onto early medieval British history,” she said.  

Top image: Left; Anglo-Saxon Sword Belt End Ornament, Right; Anglo-Saxon Shoulder Clasp, both from Sutton Hoo Burial, 625-630, Source:CC0/ CC0 

Nathan Falde's picture


Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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