New member of staff Bret Gaunt is a local archaeologist with an interest in the religions of the ancient world, especially the archaeology of ritual and the use of amulets. He has made a study of the worship of water in Romano-Celtic Britain, the mystery Cults of the Roman Empire and the Gods of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. Here he provides an insight into an enigmatic site in the Derbyshire landscape, and the surprising objects that came from it:
There are many intriguing items on display at the Wonders of the Peak gallery, each with a fascinating story to tell about the people who lived in Derbyshire. One of them is a small beaver’s tooth amulet, kindly lent by the Trustees of the British Museum, which comes from a burial mound known as Wigber Low.
The Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain in the fifth to sixth century CE, a time that saw the collapse of the Roman Empire and Britain left to fend for itself – the first Brexit! The Germanic settlers who filled the power vacuum brought with them a new language, gods and artistic culture that defined the early medieval period.
One of the ways that the Anglo-Saxons seem to have stamped their presence on the landscape was by burying their dead in older Bronze Age burial mounds, of which there are numerous examples in the Derbyshire landscape. One of these is Wigber Low, situated half way between Kniveton and Bradbourne, in the White Peak. The site originally started off in the early Bronze Age as a platform for the practice of excarnation where the dead were laid out for the flesh to rot away before the bones were gathered up and placed in communal tombs. In the Late Bronze Age a mound was placed over the platform forming a familiar burial mound that dot the landscape of Britain.
In the seventh century CE the remains of three females and five males were placed in the mound, along with grave goods to accompany them into the afterlife. Items placed with the dead included a sword, five spearheads, combs, buckles, knives, a firesteel, a silver strap end, a quartz crystal orb, part of a gold bracteate (a type of pendant specific to Germanic people), two gilt-silver pins in the shape of a cross set with garnets (one of which is also on display at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery), and two beaver teeth amulets set with gold caps.
Wigber Low means ‘Wicga’s Mound’ and it is possible that Wicga may have been one of the people buried here. The grave goods certainly indicate wealthy status for the people buried here, possibly the ‘eorlas,’ a warrior elite who lived in this part of the kingdom of Mercia.
The beaver teeth amulets are intriguing – why would someone want to wear the teeth of an animal? The answer seems to be magical and the presence in the mound of the quartz crystal orb would suggest that one of the people buried here was a seer. Only six examples of beaver teeth amulets are known from Anglo-Saxon England and the presence of the gold cap clearly shows that it was an important and valuable item. There was a strong belief in magic at the time, and protecting yourself from malignant spirits that could cause harm was carried out by wearing amulets. In the animistic world of Anglo-Saxon Paganism many animals were considered sacred or imbued with special powers and It would seem that the beaver must have held some sort of special role in Anglo-Saxon society, but what, we do not know.
Whatever its purpose the amulet was held in such high regard that it would be buried with its owner to accompany, and help them, in the afterlife.
See the amulet alongside many other curiosities at Buxton Museum for free. Plan your visit here.