A truly fascinating and very significant object has returned to our studio for conservation work, and I have been the lucky conservator to work on it, on behalf of the Novium Museum.
The Bersted sword is over 2000 years old, discovered during excavations for a new housing estate in Bersted, West Sussex. It was found with the remains of a man, since dubbed the ‘mystery warrior’, alongside his helmet and a very elaborate and unusual headdress. Archaeologists believe he was a refugee French Gallic fighter who fled Julius Caesar's Roman Army in Europe around 50BC.
The sword itself is bent into a v-shape, understood to be a ritual ‘killing’ of the weapon at the time of burial with its deceased owner.
X-rays and investigative cleaning were undertaken by CMAS in 2010, which were able to expose parts of the sword beneath the thick corrosion products, revealing that it is fused to a ribbed iron scabbard, complete with intact suspension loop and two copper alloy rings for attaching the scabbard to a belt. Remarkably, remains of horn, which is a material frequently lost due to decomposition on burial, are still present on the hilt. The tip of the sword was missing, but discovered separately during the excavation.
The annual tradition of ‘Beating the Bounds’ or ‘perambulations’ has been carried out for many centuries in our parishes in England, Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, the tradition was known as ‘Riding the Marshes’; a method of reaffirming the parish boundaries from way before the introduction of maps. In some parishes, this annual ritual is still very much part of village or town life. It is believed that this religious practice was first introduced in Vienne, France, around AD 470 by the Holy bishop Mamertus. There were many reasons for the ceremony but the parishioners believed that it would ‘avert great calamaties’. It would affirm their devotion to God; ask him for forgiveness from sins and for protection from evil and to bless the congregation and the fruits of their labour.
Other phrases were used for this ancient custom; ‘Rogation Week’ (from the Latin word ‘rogare’ meaning to ask or to pray), the ‘Common Walk’, ‘Gangdays’ and ‘going a- ganging’. Rogation Week is also known as Rogantide, the week in which Ascension Day falls in May, beginning with Rogation Sunday, the Sunday before Ascension Day. Religious ceremonies would take place over a period of three days of this week; Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, involving the parish priest, churchwardens and other officiates of the church. Old parishioners mixed with the young to pass on the knowledge of the boundaries. The youngsters of the parish, usually boys, would be armed with long birch or willow twigs to beat the specific landmarks such as an old tree or stones. In some cases, the boys themselves were beaten with the sticks, so they should never forget the crucial information passed on to them by their elders. Usually, the boys would have their heads bumped against the boundary marker whilst prayers were read from the Litany of Saints. The girls and women would wear and carry garlands of flowers and foliage. The Milkwort flower (Polygala vulgaris) is also dubbed the Rogation flower and was often used in the garlands.
This printed account inside a parish register held in our archives at the History Centre, give details of the 12-14 mile route taken during the ceremony along the parish boundary of Leigh Delamere. The start of the route begins with; ‘from the old ditch on the Streta Fosseway. Here there is a cottage and a junction of a road to Littleton drew. The cottagers came out and joined in the short service, the sign of the Cross was made on the ancient roadway and the long walk began along the old Roman road...’
With the Summer Solstice fast approaching we start to see our visitor numbers increase in Wiltshire. It is a bumper time for our tourist industry as people from all over the world descend upon our county and join in with this ancient celebration.
The Summer Solstice is known to Pagans as ‘Alban Hefin’ which means ‘Light of the Shore’. It occurs on the 21st June when the sun is at its highest point in the sky and the days are at their longest. The nights begin to draw in after this date, which is a scary thought as summer has only just got going. The Druids celebrate this event with special ceremonies and rituals that are believed to date back several millennia. Although the 4000 year old monument of Stonehenge has been the centre stage for these ceremonies; Avebury, Woodhenge and the Kennet long barrow have also attracted worshippers at this special time of year.