You may well have heard about the Cheddar Brooch now on display at the Museum of Somerset in Taunton. This rare Anglo-Saxon silver disc brooch dates from 800- 900 AD and is certainly a show-stopper. It was found in a field near Cheddar by metal detectorist Iain Sansome. Although it was covered in mud, Iain says it was clear that this find was much more special than a bottle top!
Thankfully, Iain immediately stopped searching once he unearthed the brooch and officially notified the find. The archaeologists were able to painstakingly dig their way down through the layers of different types of soil, and inclusions in it, which indicated what the conditions were like when each layer was formed. The Cheddar brooch was lying on its own in a layer of fine silt with freshwater snail shells in it. This leads to the belief that the brooch fell into shallow freshwater and was accidentally lost in mud at the bottom rather than being part of a burial or deliberately hidden.
The first time I saw the brooch was at the launch of its public display at the museum of Somerset. I was taken aback both by the size and the stunning quality of it. It certainly is, what we call these days in the jewellery world, a ‘hero piece’! Close up, the incredible detail and workmanship would have captivated and impressed the viewer. There is no doubt this kind of item would have been the property of a person of high rank, with power and money, they would have had access to the craftsmen of the highest skills.
The brooch’s intertwined animal (zoomorphic) and plant motifs are pierced into the silver disc and the copper alloy back plate was originally gilded (gold plated), so a glowing gold background would have set off the designs.
Amongst the animals featured on the brooch are the peacock and the wyvern. A wyvern is a two legged, winged mythical creature similar to a dragon (but dragons have four legs). The dragon was Wessex’s (and now Somerset’s) symbol as a county and is seen now on Somerset County’s flags and logos. Perhaps this very similar wyvern on the Cheddar brooch was the precursor to the dragon of Somerset. The peacock symbol was associated with religious and secular power at the time the brooch was made.
The Cheddar brooch has so much to entice us – the beautiful and highly skilled craftsmanship, its rarity, local connections and sense of undiscovered story. Speculation and discovery is undoubtedly a big part of the appeal of this piece. I’ve been part of many fascinating discussions about it and it seems the more questions asked, the more questions they lead to! Isn’t this just what keeps these rare and special items so loved, cherished and inspiring to us?. Have a look at it if you can; imagine who might have worn it and how it ended up in the bottom of a silty ancient water-way.
This was written and published as part of the ‘Hidden Gems’ series of articles by Erica Sharpe for the Western Daily Press.