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Object in Focus: The East Ord Cross

The East Ord Cross

Synopsis of a talk to the Border Archaeological Society, 3 April 2023

A ‘holy cross’ of the early Northumbrian Church: signs and mysteries

Professor John Hines

The East Ord Cross was found by metal-detecting on the bank of the River Tweed in late October 2019. It was reported to the county Finds Liaison Officer under the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and as an item of precious metal could be acquired for Berwick Museum and Art Gallery under the terms of the Treasure Act of 1996. It is just over an inch (26mm) long, and of a gold-silver alloy comprising around 54% gold and 37% silver plus some copper. There is a report in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (www.finds.org.uk) under the cross’s ID number DUR-B62F57.

The object is clearly shaped as a familiar Christian cross, and it was evidently worn as a pendant. At the terminal end of the longer leg or shaft of the cross it can be seen that an original suspension loop has broken off, leaving a curved dent at this the end, and a new perforation drilled through to replace it. That hole, however, has passed through the runic inscription on the face of the pendant: it was therefore inscribed before this repair took place.

The runic script is an alphabetic form of writing. That means that separate graphs or letters represent, relatively closely, the distinctive sounds (both consonants and vowels) which are used in any natural spoken language. The runic script developed as a medium for writing names, words and eventually longer texts in the Germanic languages of northern Europe — a language family whose modern descendants are English, German and Dutch together with the Scandinavian languages. While the subject has been much discussed, it seems most likely that runes were created by adapting Latin or ‘roman’ letter forms — alongside some evidence for supplementary use of the Greek alphabet. At present, it appears that the runic script came into use by the second half of the 2nd century AD. It was introduced to Britain with the Anglo-Saxon settlements which also brought in the form of spoken language that would eventually become English. Our earliest datable runic inscription from England is an inscribed animal bone, probably used as a gaming piece, from close to Norwich, which dates to around or just before the middle of the 5th century.

What had been inscribed on one face of the East Ord cross includes three equal-armed or ‘Greek’ crosses, themselves Christian symbols, in each of the three short arms around the head of the cross. This triplet straightforwardly represents the Trinity. It is also the case that at least one cross of this kind is very commonly added to a runic inscription of Christian character, or with a personal name, indicating either that the person named was a baptised Christian or that they were in some form of Holy Orders.

The runic letters themselves form one row, and all of the runes are clearly legible and identifiable, even where some part has been removed by the drilled hole. As is usual but not invariable, they read from left to right, and comprise six graphs, the last two of which stand on their own but the first four of which have been ‘ligatured’ or joined up into two ‘bind-runes’. The first of those bind-runes is that which has been drilled through, but it is still perfectly clear that we have here the runes e followed by a. That these did form a bind-rune appears to be confirmed by the fact that below the hole (i.e. to the left when the cross is viewed hanging down and face on as in the image above) there is the vestige of the foot of a single, shared, upright stave. The second pair of graphs forming a bind-rune after the hole are d and r. The r is quite similar to the following rune u but the angle in the shorter right-hand leg is clear enough, and plainly different from the single straight line of the u rune. The sixth and final graph is f.

Runes identified on the East Ord Cross

Marking the bind-runes with a curved linking bar, we would transliterate this inscription then as:

          e͡ad͡ruf

We can proceed on the basis that a short inscription such as this on a valuable object (both in terms of the material and its symbolic significance) is intrinsically likely to be a personal name, and indeed this does immediately resemble familiar personal names of the Anglo-Saxon period in England.

There is quite a large number of names known which begin with Ead-, a term which is associable with a word meaning ‘wealth’ and which is particularly common in Old English as the adjective eadig, meaning ‘happy’, ‘favoured’. However there are only two known Ead- names which have a second element beginning in r-, the male names Eadred and Eadric, neither of which can be identified with a sequence eadruf.

There is also a large number of known names which begin with Eard-, a word which means ‘land’. It is possible, although it would be unusual, for the bind-rune in the sequence d͡r actually to represent those sounds or letters in the inverse sequence -rd-. Here again, though, there is no known, or even explicable, name Earduf.

However Eardwulf (‘land-wolf’) is very commonly attested, and this offers us a credible solution for reading the inscription. Dropping or assimilating the initial w- from wulf to ulf is no problem at all: it is frequently found. Simplifying ulf to uf is far less usual. A late 9th-century Canterbury charter (Sawyer no. 344) does have the name of a Kentish nobleman which we would expect to appear as Eðelwulf dux in the form Eðeluf dux; this witness list, however, is full of repetitions and copying errors, as well as having exactly the same names with the second element written more as we would expect it, as –uulf.

This document does show that this spelling representation of this name is possible, even if it does not explain it as anything that is grammatically or orthographically regular. Eardwulf, we may claim, is therefore the personal name most likely to be represented by the runic text on the East Ord cross. The curious way it has been written here, assuming it to be correctly identified, could either be due to sheer incompetence in writing or to the name being disguised in a slightly cryptic form. The importance and value of the object, and the general competency in the forming of both single and bind-runes, definitely favours the latter.

That, then, has a truly intriguing implication, because Eardwulf was the name of the last Bishop based at the monastery of Lindisfarne on Holy Island, who led the cathedral community off the island to what was intended to be the greater safety and security of the site at Norham, not far from East Ord. That was around the year 875. It was deep within the Viking Period, although in fact a few years after a Viking force had conquered Northumbria and begun to rule from its principal city of York; it was the start of a period of peregrination for the Lindisfarne community with the venerated remains of their early Bishop, St Cuthbert, successively to Norham, then to Chester-le-Street, and by the end of the 10th century to Durham. Within that period the Bishop with his chapter, and the Abbot with his monks, may at times have been separated; it can also be suggested that, rather than simply fleeing the Viking threat to hide in safety, the removal may have been by negotiation and agreement with the new Viking kings of York, who preferred to have this leading church community on the mainland and nearer to York.

We can be confident that a gold pendant cross such as this was likely to have belonged to a leading churchman (or churchwoman). St Cuthbert himself was buried with an exceptionally fine gold pendant cross, set with garnets. But is there any further basis for suggesting an association of the East Ord cross with Eardwulf, Bishop of Lindisfarne?

At least we can mount a reasonable argument that the East Ord cross may very well be of the right date — while Cuthbert’s cross, by contrast, is of a style which we know to be typical of the later 7th century. The runic inscription itself does not, unfortunately, narrow the date down at all. The form of the a rune is unknown in England before the mid-7th century, which is about as early as we could expect to find any explicitly Christian artefact like this in this newly converted society. Runic writing went out of widespread use in England by the end of the 9th century, but did in fact survive, occasionally, in ecclesiastical contexts, so in theory the cross with its inscription could be from any time within the Christian history of the Anglo-Saxon period — the 7th century through to the 11th.

St Cuthbert's pectoral cross

St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross 

St Cuthbert’s cross, however, has the shape of a Greek cross: that is, it is a cross formed with four arms of equal lengths. That was very much the most familiar form of the cross used in Christian art in the earlier centuries of Anglo-Saxon church. The alternative form of a cross with an elongated shaft — the most familiar form to us now — is known as the Latin cross. We do find Latin crosses used as Christian symbolism from as early as the 7th century, for instance on some coins, and in an illuminated manuscript folio in the Parker Library in Cambridge that was probably created at Lindisfarne. But Latin crosses become considerably more regular as time progresses through the 8th century towards the 10th century. One important factor in this development is the association of the cross symbol with representations of the human body: in the form of crucifixes on which the suffering Christ is portrayed in His passion, and also on grave slabs, as well, indeed, as on the wooden coffin in which Cuthbert’s body was reinterred at the end of the 7th century.
A Latin cross on a MADELINUS gold coin from the Continent, 7th-century.

A Latin cross on a MADELINUS gold coin from the Continent, 7th-century.

Left: Gospel fragment, Lindisfarne scriptorium. Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 197B. Right: Grave slab, Hexham Abbey Both 7th-century.

Left: Gospel fragment, Lindisfarne scriptorium. Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 197B.

Right: Grave slab, Hexham Abbey

Both 7th-century.

A gold, enamel and ivory reliquary with crucifixion. 10th-/11th-century. (Victoria and Albert Museum 7943-1862)

A gold, enamel and ivory reliquary with crucifixion. 10th-/11th-century. (Victoria and Albert Museum 7943-1862)

We are dealing, therefore, at best with balances of probability that suggest that the East Ord Cross was at some time in the possession of a leading male ecclesiastic called Eardwulf, and that it could well date from the 9th century. Rather clumsy though the repair was, the fact that it was done at all also implies that this was an object which was curated because it enjoyed some respect and veneration. The circumstantial case that the East Ord Cross could indeed have been the pectoral cross of Eardwulf, the last Bishop of Lindisfarne on Holy Island, is a credible as well as a tantalizing one. There is no certainty in this association. It is, though, certainly possible. What we must continue to try to assess is how probable this proposition is.

 

This Object in Focus is a synopsis of a talk to the Border Archaeological Society, 3 April 2023 by Professor John Hines.

Acquired with support from the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Headley Trust and the Friends of Berwick and District Museum & Archives.