One of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ period‘s most impressive, and most complex, artefacts is the so-called ‘Franks Casket’. A lidded whalebone box, covered in intricate carvings and text, the casket appears to originate from an early eight-century Northumbrian context. But what was it used for, and what can it tell us?
Finding the Casket
The existence in the modern world of important archaeological artefacts is often the result of incredible good luck. The ring from the Snape Burial returned to a museum collection because the descendant of someone who originally ‘borrowed’ it reached out, the Bayeux tapestry was saved from destruction by a fortunate passer-by. The Franks Casket was being used, rather ignobly, as a sewing box in France. It does rather make you question how many other ground-breaking historical artefacts are hidden out in the world – is there medieval goldwork being used as a table-coaster by some unsuspecting people?
Whale, Whale, Whale
Within archaeology, the concept of materiality is incredibly important – how an objects is perceived and humans interact with it is affected by the physical characteristics of that object. What is striking about the Franks Casket is that it is made of whalebone.
The use of whalebone itself is not as surprising as might initially be assumed. Aelfric’s Colloquy references the hunting of whales, and osteo-archaeological evidence suggests the inhabitants of early medieval ‘England’ might have eaten whale.
The casket itself acknowledges the surprising material choice in a runic riddle that runs around the front panel of the casket. This reads:
ᚠᛁᛋᚳ.ᚠᛚᚩᛞᚢ.ᚪᚻᚩᚠᚩᚾᚠᛖᚱᚷ | ᛖᚾᛒᛖᚱᛁᚷ |
‘The flood cast up the fish on the mountain-cliff
The terror-king became sad where he swam on the shingle.
Whale’s bone’ (Hough and Corbett 2013, p. 106)
This, interestingly, removes the option of hunting that Aelfric suggests – the whale is flotsam and jetsam.
What really makes the casket stand out is its intricate and complex carvings which illustrate a number of narrative frieze-frames. This isn’t a simple silent object, this is a book, to be read by its audience. Here’s an example of the front panel of the Casket:
Now, some serious debate has raged over what exactly these illustrated panels include. Help is provided, to some extent, by text that runs around the panels, outlining the activity within it. For the sake of simplicity, here is a list of the most popular interpretation as they stand:
Front Panel: Wayland the Smith, and the three magi visit the Christ-child
Left Panel: Romulus, Remus, and the wolf
Rear Panel: The Conquest of Jerusalem
Lid: An unknown story of Egil
Right Panel: An unclear pair – Hengist and Horsa? Sigurd and Grani?
What is remarkable here is the breadth of source material. There are Christian biblical stories alongside pagan poetic stories, alongside Classical mythology. This variation is accompanied by a linguistic variation in the text on the Casket, including Latin in the runic alphabet, Old English in the runic alphabet, and Latin in the Roman alphabet. (as an aside, if you’d like to learn either of these languages, I have some free language-learning resources here.)
What is the Frank’s Casket?
The actual purpose of the casket is unclear. The religious symbolism makes it possible that it functioned as some kind of reliquary, although the Pagan imagery alongside it makes this questionable. Perhaps instead it was a store for treasure – early Anglo-Saxon kingship is famous for its focus on the redistribution of wealth to gain loyalty. So far, the exact purpose of the box remains unclear.
If you want a longer-form exploration of the Casket alongside this one, I’d recommend listening to Dr Ramirez’s excellent podcast episode on the topic (alongside Time Team’s Tony Robinson) – Dr Ramirez is an excellent educator, and I have written about the quality of her shows before.