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Not So Dark Ages



"All the objects shone in the sunshine as on the day they were buried." — Basil Brown's diary, August of 1939.

Britain's "Dark Ages" may have formally ended in a field in Suffolk, England, on July 21, 1939. That's when archaeologist Peggy Piggott uncovered a tiny gold pyramid encrusted with garnets from the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Within days, the excavators had discovered a fabulous Anglo-Saxon hoard of precious metal objects. They had been buried alongside a local king, Raedwald, within a 90-foot-long ship. He died in 624 A.D., thus dating the site to nearly 1,500 years ago.

The so-called "Dark Ages" weren't dark any more. In one stroke, Sutton Hoo changed archaeologists' understanding of early English culture. If the inhabitants of seventh-century Britain (in the middle of "the darkest of the Dark Ages," according to the Oxford Illustrated Histories) were capable of making, or acquiring by trade, such intricate objects — see illustration — buried with their king, they can hardly be considered as anything other than enlightened. Check out The Dig, a dramatized version of the find (with Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, the working-class "excavator," and Carrie Mulligan as landowner Edith Pretty), reviewed by John Bennett in the Journal ("Digging Up the Past," Feb. 4). And if and when you visit London, treat yourself to a day at the British Museum, including an hour upstairs in Room 41, which houses the European Medieval collection. The literal centerpiece of this room is the Sutton Hoo ship burial, with nearly 300 pieces on display.

To be fair, almost no one now uses the term "Dark Ages." It originated with the worldly Tuscan scholar Petrarch, writing in the 1330s. Believing himself to be living in an age of darkness (despite the Renaissance), he looked back longingly to the enlightened and cultured "classic ages" of ancient Greece and Rome. Later writers identified Dark Age Europe as the time between about 500 and 1100 A.D., when records were few and classical learning all but lost. The Fall of Rome in 476 A.D. is usually given as the start of the collapse, even though subsequent Germanic kings maintained many of the Roman traditions (including the Senate), while the Eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople, survived for another millennium.

Modern historians, in avoiding the term "Dark Ages," refer instead to the Early Middle Ages. Not only do we now know much more about those times from archaeology, paleography and other fields of study, but ask yourself: Does an age that gave us Charlemagne, the Abbasid Golden Age of Islam, Beowulf, The Book of Kells, Peter Abelard, Hildegard of Bingen, Avicenna and more really deserve the label "dark?" And for that matter, were the dysfunctional, slave-holding, warring Greeks and Romans all that enlightened?

Barry Evans (he/him, swears his infatuation with Carrie Mulligan has absolutely nothing to do with his enjoyment of The Dig.

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