Small Gold Medieval Cross Found in England Linked to Mysterious Eadruf
An unusual item unearthed by metal detectorists in 2020 in northeast England is puzzling scholars. In this case it is not the archaeologists who are puzzled, but linguistic experts who study the origins and evolution of the English language. The item in question is a small golden medieval cross that was found along the banks of the Tweed River near Berwick in the county of Northumbria, in northern England. The existence of this medieval cross was recently announced by the British Museum , as a part of its annual disclosure about significant archaeological finds unearthed in the United Kingdom in the previous year.
The runic writing inscription on the gold medieval cross found in Northumbria suggests who the owner was. ( The History Blog )
Tiny Gold Medieval Cross Pendant Provenance Baffles Experts
The tiny precious metal medieval cross is just one inch long and 0.6 inches wide (2.5 by 1.5 centimeters), and it has a hole in one end that shows it was worn as a pendant . Scholars have determined the cross was made sometime between the years 700 and 900 AD, when the Berwick region in the Kingdom of Northumbria was an important center of Christian worship.
Cross-shaped pendants aren’t all that unusual, and others have been recovered that were made from gold. What makes this small cross so extraordinarily rare is that it is inscribed with runic writing , and it is the first medieval cross pendant ever found that has this feature.
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And when the runic writing was decoded, it produced quite a surprise. The six-letter message apparently identified the owner of the cross, a man who seems to have gone by the name Eadruf.
This is a most unusual name, as it is the only name seen from medieval times that contains the word element “ruf.” Such an element has not previously been discovered in any language from the Germanic language family .
The appearance of this etymological anomaly raises an interesting question: who exactly was this Eadruf? And how did he get a name that is not shared by anyone else who lived in medieval England?
Eardwulf of Lindisfarne may have been the original owner of the gold medieval cross. In the ninth century he was the bishop of a monastic community that was initially located on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which is just off England’s northeastern coast. (Chris Combe / CC BY 2.0 )
A Linguistic Specialist Has a Theory about Eadruf
Historians believe the person known as Eadruf would have been an aristocrat or wealthy elite. Only someone with money would have been able to afford a pendant made from solid gold, they reason.
If in fact this person was an influential or powerful individual, it is curious that he would not be mentioned in any preserved texts from that time. Even though he would have lived more than 1,000 years ago, there still should have been mention of him somewhere in the historical record.
Professor John Hines, an archaeologist and ancient linguistics specialist from the University of Cardiff, has a theory about who the person referred to on the pendant might have been.
Hines thinks the unique name Eadruf might actually be a nickname, or a condensed version of a name that was quite common among the upper social strata of Northumbria in ancient times.
It is possible, Prof Hines told the Telegraph , that Eadruf is a contraction of Eardwulf. The latter was a popular name in the ninth century and was shared by a number of well-known historical figures. Included on this list is one interesting man in particular, who fitted the profile of someone who might have owned a golden cross pendant.
This individual is Eardwulf of Lindisfarne. In the ninth century he was the bishop of a monastic community that was initially located on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which is just off England’s northeastern coast.
Eventually, the members of the monastic community began a long and arduous migration from Lindisfarne’s Holy Island to Durham, which is located in the southern part of Northumbria. Eardwulf undertook this venture because of the threat posed by Viking invaders , who he feared would raid Holy Island and steal the remains of the legendary St. Cuthbert , which were under the monastery’s care.
Eardwulf would have been known in the Berwick area (Berwick is very close to Holy Island), and he would have passed through there on his meandering seven-year trek southward. Even if he wasn’t the owner of the cross he may have inspired it, as the person who commissioned it may have chosen to put the name of a respected religious leader on his cross pendant rather than his own.
Page from the Northumbria Lindisfarne Gospels, circa 700 AD, featuring zoomorphic knot-work attributed to Eadfrith of Lindisfarne, who preceded Eardwulf of Lindisfarne by about 150 years. (Eadfrith of Lindisfarne / Public domain )
Doing Archaeological Detective Work When Clues are Scarce
At this point, all attempts to identify the true owner of the mysterious golden cross are just speculation. There appears to be no way to determine who exactly the cross might have belonged to, or how it ended up in the location where it did. The spot along the Tweed River where it was discovered by detectorists was not the site of a medieval era settlement , but instead appears to have been a deserted area. This suggests the person who owned the golden cross simply lost it on their way through the territory, and if that is the case identifying that individual would seem to be next to impossible.
When archaeologists unearth many artifacts from the same site, they can put these pieces of the puzzle together to gain greater insights into the cultures that left them behind. Sometimes, they can even link interesting items to particular individuals who lived or worked at those sites in ancient times. But when a solitary object is found at an isolated location, contextual clues are missing. and it can therefore be incredibly difficult to determine anything about who produced the artifact and why.
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According to Ben Westwood, the liaison officer for archaeological finds in the Durham region, the individual who owned the golden cross pendant was “clearly embedded in … the early medieval, early Christian fabric of the Northeast region.” This may be all that is ever known about the pendant’s owner, unless a more conclusive and convincing reference to Eadruf is found somewhere else in the archaeological or historical record.
Top image: The runic inscription on one side of the gold medieval cross found by metal detectorists on the Tweed River near Berwick in the county of Northumbria, England spells a name that is entirely unique. Source: The History Blog
By Nathan Falde