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Interview: Edoardo Albert

Author of Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon England

What a thrill to have Edoardo Albert, author of Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon England (pub 2019) stop by the blog this week! I really enjoyed chatting with him about this book. If you want to see my review of the book, click here.

For more info on Edoardo Albert and his books, check out his website!


Hi Edoardo! Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed here on my blog once again. Let me start by saying how much I enjoyed your latest book, Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon England. It was a wonderful mix of history and archeology, along with a fascinating glimpse of a real person who ended up being buried at Bamburgh back in the 7th century. I really loved it.

 Thank you! It was a difficult book to get written – you should see the number of rejected versions and chapters there are! – and it was only when I finally wrote what is the second chapter in the finished book on the Bamburgh sword that I really got a handle on what I wastrying to do in the book. The sword is made from different billets of iron pattern-welded together to make a whole far stronger than its constituent parts. Having written the chapter, I realized that that was what I was trying to do with this book: weld together different narratives into a whole stronger and more coherent than any of them on their own. I hope it works.

Edoardo Albert

Let’s start with the first question. You have written about this era before, both in non-fiction and fiction. What is it about the so-called Dark Ages prompts you to keep exploring this time period?

Because the ‘Dark Ages’ laid the foundations for pretty well everything in Britain (and much of the rest of Europe too). Think about it. Before, Britain was a Celtic-speaking province of the Roman Empire. Afterwards, it had become England, Wales and Scotland. The English counties were established in their historic boundaries. The language became English in England, rather than a descendant of the Gaelic languages of Wales and Scotland. And the country became Christian. So Britain, as three constituent Christian countries – England, Scotland and Wales – took shape during these so-called Dark Ages. So on the historical front, it was probably the most crucial era in British history. But from the point of view of the writer, it also offers the widest range of characters, adventures, marvels and wonders that I could possibly want, from the warrior saint Oswald to the last of the great pagan warlords, Penda. It was a time when a bare handful of men could found a kingdom, when a few monks might begin a civilization.

You have co-authored the book with Paul Gething, the archeologist in the book whofirst unearthed the “Son of Thunder”, as he names the unknown skeleton in the book. Can you tell us a bit about Paul and how he was involved in the book?

Paul is my brother-in-law! My wife is sister to his wife. Which is the whole reason why I, who until I got married had rarely been north of Watford, found myself writing about the North. You see, Paul invited us up to Bamburgh to see the work they were doing there (Rosie, his wife, was one of the four founders of the Bamburgh Research Project, along with Paul, Graeme Young and Phil Wood) and having run out of excuses we had to go. It was 2002, and I still remember the literally jaw-dropping sight when we took the road north from Seahouses and there was the castle, squatting atop the outcrop of the Great Whin Sill, dominating land and sea and sky. I had never seen a photo of Bamburgh Castle before, so it came as a complete surprise to me. Then Paul and the rest of the BRP told us about their work, and I learned something of the history of Northumbria, and realized that this was one of the great untold stories of British history. So I decided to tell it.

Paul himself is one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met: an archaeologist of genius and an astonishingly fluent communicator of what they have found at Bamburgh. Over the years, I have had hundreds of hugely stimulating conversations with him about Early Medieval Britain and I realized that if I could capture some of the excitement of these conversations on the page that it would make a book worth reading. With respect to writing the book, much of it was based on phone conversations between Paul and I (Paul lives in York and I am in London), which I would record, transcribe, and then incorporate into the text. That being written, I then sent the first draft to Paul, he would add in suggestions and corrections, and we would bounce it back and forwards until we were happy with it.

The Bamburgh Research Project features large in this book. I had the privilege of interviewing Graeme Young, the director of the project, here on the blog, which was fascinating. Have you ever helped on a dig in the summer?

 I’ve been there quite a few times during the season but, with young children, we’ve not helped with the dig.

The skeleton was found in an area around Bamburgh called the Bowl Hole cemetery. Can you tell us a little bit about this cemetery and who else was buried there?

The Bowl Hole cemetery lies about half a mile south east of the castle. The area south of the castle is a vast sand dune field, now grown over with sand loving vegetation such as marram grass and fescue, and it is a nature reserve and SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). It’s a wonderful area to explore (and sheltered from the often bitter easterly wind). The Bowl Hole cemetery was in use for well over two centuries and it seems to have been reserved for residents and visitors to the castle – the remains excavated there were all people who had been well nourished throughout their lives, suggesting they belonged to the elite. There are also a large number of people who were not native to the area, which makes us think that there were parts of the cemetery reserved for visitors who, unfortunately, died while visiting or staying at the stronghold.

In the book you craft a back story for the warrior who was buried at Bamburgh. In telling his tale you were able to bring the history to life by focusing on one individual. How did you handle the research for this part of it? What struck you most about this man’s life?

The research was, first, the work that Paul and the team at the BRP had done on the Warrior, including the bone analysis by Sarah Groves and the work on carbon 14 dating and isotopic analysis that allowed his remains to be dated and placed – the isotopic analysis revealed that the Warrior had been born and brought up not in Northumbria but in the sea-spanning kingdom of Dál Riata, from which the monks who converted the pagan Northumbrians came. Then came many hundreds of hours of conversation and interviews with Paul in particular, but also with other members of the BRP, Graeme especially, and other archaeologists too. And even more hundreds of hours of reading and research on my part.

What struck us both about the Warrior’s life is that we could tell something about it! Usually, anonymous skeletons carry no story – they provide a snapshot but no history. But with this man, this Warrior, we could tell something of his life story. And that is something that is vanishingly rare in archaeology, and use his story to tell the story of extraordinary events that he took part in.

As I’ve done quite a lot of research myself on 7th century Northumbria in the writing of my own books, I’ve appreciated the contribution of pioneering archeologist Brian Hope-Taylor. So I really enjoyed learning more about him in this book. What would you say was his major contributions to the study of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria?

He started it! His excavation of Ad Gefrin remains an archaeological classic. His sketches and drawings are masterpieces of the genre – little works of scientific art in their own right. Even when modern archaeologists disagree with him, they are working in his wake and on his legacy: Hope-Taylor set the framework for pretty well everything that came after him.

It’s really hard to pick a favourite chapter in the book, but one of mine was the one about the sword, and the intricate method used to craft them. Have you ever had the experience, as Paul Gething did in the book, to actually handle an authentic pattern-welded sword from this era? 

Not yet! But I hope too, in our next book, How to Make the Perfect Sword.

Can’t wait for that one! Was there anything new that you learned in doing the research for this book? What was your favourite chapter to research and write?

I learned many new things, too much to include here, but it’s all there, in the book. My favourite chapter is the second one, on Brian Hope-Taylor and the Bamburgh Sword (which was actually about the sixth or seventh chapter I wrote). That was the one that gave me the key to how to write this book. And I find Hope-Taylor a fascinating, although sadly a little tragic, character.

The discovery of the warrior’s skeleton featured in this book is only one of their discoveries at Bamburgh. Can you give us a summary of what else they have discovered, and what they are working on now?

There’s so much that I can only include a few highlights: the first glass to be found in Britain in a secular context (I was actually in Bamburgh when they found this and I remember the huge excitement among the archaeologists, but being a little underwhelmed myself when I saw that the glass in question was about the size of a penny); evidence of Roman occupation and use (remember, this is north of Hadrian’s Wall); the sheer continuity of occupation and use through millennia.

As to what they are working on now, the BRP is still digging in the Castle, reaching lower layers but with still centuries more to uncover. Paul has been working on a fascinating Neolithic site about five miles from Bamburgh at Bradford Kaims, which is producing a vast number of burnt mounds and many other ancient finds.

I loved the ending of the book. It was so lovely to know that all of the skeletons, including the Son of Thunder, were re-interred again in a special, respectful ceremony, and that they have been given their own crypt at St. Aidan’s church in Bamburgh. I’m so glad they honoured the dead in that way. Have you seen the crypt?

We were all delighted that the remains of the Warrior and the other people excavated from the Bowl Hole were interred in St. Aidan’s Church crypt. The church itself would have been known to most of the people buried in the Bowl Hole and, with the Bowl Hole itself eroding, this preserves their remains from being exposed and eroded away. I have not seen the new crypt myself yet, but will do so the next time I visit Northumberland.

Are you working on anything new? Tell us about it!

Paul and I are planning a new book, called How to Make the Perfect Sword: Lighting up the Dark Ages through experimental archaeology. We’re aiming to tell the story of some of the fascinating experimental archaeology being done by Paul and other archaeologists, where they attempt to make artefacts of the past using the tools and materials available at the time. It’s a fascinating study and one that only adds to our respect for our ancestors.

Thank you so much, Edoardo, for giving me some of your time to chat with me about your wonderful book. I will definitely be looking forward to your new one!


                                                      

Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon Britain, is available online at Amazon and other retailers. If you are interested in the other books by Edoardo Albert about Anglo-Saxon England, they are:

Non-fiction

Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom (also co-written by Paul Gething)

In Search of Alfred the Great: The King, the Grave, the Legend

Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon England (co-written with Paul Gething)

 Fiction:

Edwin: High King of Britain

Oswald: Return of the King

Oswiu: King of Kings

Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army

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