Giants, dragons and Middle Earth: the Anglo-Saxon fear of the past

When the Anglo-Saxons discovered the Roman ruins and ancient burial sites that dotted the British landscape, they were gripped by wonder – and no little dread, as Tim Flight reveals

The west Cornish tomb Lanyon Quoit, which dates to the Neolithic period (3500–2500 BC). The Anglo-Saxons believed that ancient burial sites were cursed – and guarded by dragons. (Image by Dreamstime)

The long, hot summer of 2018 proved an unexpected boon to archaeologists by scorching away the grass to reveal long-forgotten monuments dotted across the British landscape. We in the 21st century know more than ever about the past. But that didn’t stop these new discoveries reinvesting the landscape with a sense of wonder.

But how would our ancestors have reacted to the same phenomenon? An Old English poem might have left us a clue. Dating from somewhere between the eighth and tenth centuries, Guthlac A tells the story of Saint Guthlac, a former soldier who became a hermit in the Lincolnshire Fens.

The poem tells us that, while Guthlac was attempting to find a hermitage, a burial mound of indeterminate antiquity was suddenly revealed to him. “That place in the land had been hidden from the eyes of men until the Creator revealed a barrow in the woods,” we’re told. On the face of it, this is a description of God giving Guthlac a helping hand when he needed it most. But could this also be a reference to hot weather burning away the vegetation to reveal a forgotten prehistoric site? Given the uncertainty of the poem’s date, it is impossible to say. Intriguingly, however, experts believe that the Anglo-Saxon period was marked by meteorological extremes, with temperatures periodically matching the highs of the 21st century.

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