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What might a backwards beast badge say about you?

PUBLISHED: 19:30 14 August 2019 | UPDATED: 14:17 15 August 2019

Backward-facing beast brooch found at Burgh Castle.  Picture: Norfolk Museums Service

Backward-facing beast brooch found at Burgh Castle. Picture: Norfolk Museums Service

Norfolk Museums Service

Hundreds of brooches featuring a running animal have been unearthed across Norfolk. Could the mysterious brooches be a badge of belonging belonging for proud East Anglians in Viking times?

Distribution of Distribution of "backward facing beast" brooches Map from Viking East Anglia by Tim Pestell, published by Norfolk Museums Service

If you'd lived in Norfolk 1,100 years ago, you might have worn a circular metal brooch, decorated with a four-legged animal, looking back over its shoulder as it runs.

Hundreds of these small discs have been unearthed across East Anglia - and almost nowhere else in the country. Most were found in Norfolk and date from the early 900s.

Why are so many found here? Were they made in Norfolk? What do they show? What do they mean?

Tim Pestell, senior curator of archaeology at Norfolk Museums Service, suggests they could have been worn to emphasise a shared East Anglian culture, at a time when the region was being absorbed into the new kingdom of England.

Dr Tim Pestell, senior curator of archaeology for Norfolk Museums Service, with a Thor's hammer  found at Surlingham.  Photo: Steve AdamsDr Tim Pestell, senior curator of archaeology for Norfolk Museums Service, with a Thor's hammer found at Surlingham. Photo: Steve Adams

Each has a running animal, its head on the left of the design with a mane flowing down the left of the brooch, its spiky tail pointing upwards and its snout filling the space above its back as it glances, with a circular eye, back over its shoulder.

These "backward facing beast" brooches are just some of Norfolk's wealth of Viking-era treasures.

Their stories are featured in Tim's book, Viking East Anglia, written to accompany the major Viking exhibition at Norwich Castle, which has brought ancient treasures from the British Museum and rich hoards of Viking coins and weaponry from Yorkshire - displayed alongside some of the most recent Norfolk finds.

The story they tell, of Viking-era villages and battles, jewellery and coins, is still unfolding. Since the exhibition opened in February, more clues about East Anglia's age of the Viking have been unearthed.

Norfolk is the capital of metal-detector finds, with 16,000 reported every year - more than anywhere else in the country. It also has the most treasure (previously called treasure trove) cases. And the intricate "backward facing beast" brooches are not the only Norfolk speciality. There are also more than 200 brooches with a tracery of lines carved into knots, known as borre knotwork brooches, which are mainly found in Norfolk, and more of the pagan Viking good-luck charms, Thor's hammers, have been found in Norfolk than anywhere else.

Tim said: "While the to brooch types could be seen as representing internally divided Scandinavian and East Anglian factions, the similarity of the brooches suggest they should be regarded as essentially the same type. Against this backdrop, the West Saxon kings were conquering and absorbing former Danelaw areas like East Anglia into a new, larger, kingdom - England. Many in East Anglia may have been less than happy to have these new outsiders."

Tim's book throws new light on the Viking era in East Anglia, from the devastating raids and battles, through the hoards of treasure buried across the region (and hidden for 1,000 years, suggesting the owners perished before they could unearth it,) to the legacy of language and place names the Vikings left us. It is not just Norfolk, for at the time, the county was part of an East Anglian kingdom covering modern-day Norfolk and Suffolk.

"We are beginning to see the sheer numbers of Vikings, or Scandinavians, that settled in East Anglia," said Tim. "There's an enormous Scandinavian legacy. You can see that in the place names." From the village names ending in …by, (Norse for settlement) such as Hembsy, Scratby and Filby, to the street names ending in …gate, from the Norse "gata" meaning street, such as Norwich's Colegate and Fishergate.

Tim also delves into the story of East Anglia's saint and king, killed fighting the Vikings, and suggests King Edmund was crowned in one of the Burnham villages in north Norfolk.

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Tim's love of history was sparked as a child. He was intrigued by the round-towered churches he saw from the school bus and, discovering some are rooted in Saxon times, became fascinated by Anglo Saxon, Celtic and Norse history. It led to a degree and then a career in archaeology.

Viking East Anglia, by Tim Pestell, is published by Norfolk Museums Service.

MORE: Where to find Vikings in Norfolk

MORE: What did the Vikings do for us?

Viking: Rediscover the Legend is at Norwich Castle until September 8. Summer holiday activities run until August 31 and the programme, which changes daily, includes the chance to make your own Coppergate Helmet and Viking navigation chart.

A family drama inspired by Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon brings Hiccup the Viking and his pal Fish Legs to the Castle on August 22.

Susie the storyteller recounts old Nordic tales on August 23, 30 and 31.

Fight choreographer for stage and screen, Keith Wallis, demonstrates Viking battle tactics on August 21 and 28.

And for grown ups, an immersive Nordic scavenger hunt, Plunder Wonder, is performed by Collisions Theatre on September 7.



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