By Patrick Ottaway
Published Online (1995)
Introduction: An indication of the vital role of the blacksmith in Anglo-Saxon England is to be found in the well-known passage of Aelfric’s Colloquy in which the pupil speaking for the smith asserts his primacy amongst the secular crafts.
The ‘Counsellor’ answers: … You, what do you give us in your smithy but iron sparks, and the noise of hammers beating and bellows blowing?
The ‘Carpenter’ says: Which of you doesn’t make use of my craft, when I make houses and various vessels and boats for you all?
The ‘Blacksmith’ answers: Oh carpenter, why do you talk like that when you couldn’t pierce even one hole without my craft?
In spite of this literary testimony, however, there has been little archaeological evidence for either the products or the working methods of the Anglo-Saxon blacksmith until the last twenty years or so, except in respect of the specialised branch of the craft involved with weapon production. This situation is largely the result of, on the one hand, a lack of excavation of settlement sites, and, on the other, the character of the artefacts from pagan graves and of the chance finds of all Anglo-Saxon periods made during building work, ploughing, river dredging and the like. Objects other than weapons, including tools and riding equipment, have been found both in graves and as chance finds, but they are relatively few in number when compared to the large assemblages which have been recovered from settlements. The monastic site at Flixborough, for example, has produced c. 5000 objects and Anglo-Scandinavian contexts at 16-22 Coppergate, York c. 4500.
The aim of this paper is to describe the principal products (including arrowheads, but excluding other weapons) of the blacksmith in the Middle and Late Anglo-Saxon periods, and provide a substantial, if not exhaustive, body of references in which well-stratified objects from recently excavated and/or published settlement sites figure prominently. These sites will include those of the Middle Anglo-Saxon period at Flixborough (N. Lincs.), Hamwic (Anglo-Saxon Southampton), Thwing (East Riding of Yorkshire) and York (Fishergate site). The Late Anglo-Saxon sites referred to include Goltho, Repton, Thetford, Winchester and York (primarily 16-22 Coppergate).