THE pommel of a Crusader’s sword, dating from the late 13th century and discovered on farmland in Selkirkshire, has been hailed as one of the most significant relics of the Middle Ages ever found in Scotland.
The relic, uncovered by Ashkirk stonemason and keen metal detectorist George Burns, has now been submitted to the National Museums for Scotland where experts have confirmed its prominence.
Mr Burns, 62, was detecting in a partly-flooded field in January when his device vibrated over what looked like a mud-covered brass doorknob.
“I have learned never to throw anything away, so I took it home and washed it down in cold water,” recalled Mr Burns, who has been metal detecting for the past 16 years.
As the clay fell away, he recognised the object as the pommel of a sword – the counterweight at the top of the weapon’s handle.
“I’d discovered a pommel before in the Blainslie area many years ago, so I knew what it was, but the near-perfect condition of what looked like solid bronze, the clarity of its design and inscription, and its 18 distinct facets really intrigued me,” he explained.
Mr Burns recognised the word SION which he correctly assumed to mean Jerusalem and called in his friend Selkirk historian and author Walter Elliot.
“When I heard about the SION inscription I immediately thought of the Crusades, but was only too aware there had never been any relics relating to these military campaigns discovered in the Borders,” said Mr Elliot. “Nor has there been any tangible evidence to suggest any of our nobles were involved in the last of the Crusades which ended in 1291.”
But after examining the artefact, Mr Elliot was in no doubt the pommel was part of a Crusader’s sword which had seen action in the Holy Land.
“The etched designs are quite crude and difficult to explain but, apart from SION, clearly visible are the letters US REX JUDE which is a fragment of IEUS NAZARENUS REX IUDEREM or Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. The pommels of Crusader’s swords were customised and this inscription was quite common in the 13th century because it was believed to give the user of the sword protection against violent death in battle.”
Mr Elliot first contacted the museum service of Scottish Borders Council, who photographed the pommel and, last month, it was taken to the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Now, experts from that esteemed institution confirmed the 13th-century provenance of the pommel and acknowledged a “particularly interesting find”, noting that the only similar vestige of a Crusader’s sword, a badly-fragmented pommel, was discovered a few years ago in Fife.
The item will now be studied, written up, catalogued and have its value as treasure trove assessed.
“Things move slowly in the world of archaeology, but there is no doubt that this amazing find should come back to the Borders and go on permanent display, and I will certainly be pushing for that,” said Mr Elliot.
He told us: “The Borders was something of a war zone during the Middle Ages, but the sword tells us, I believe, that much of the power was still in the hands of the Norman barons installed by King David I, who founded abbeys in Melrose and Selkirk in the 12th century, as feudal lords. It is possible the sword belonged to one of these barons, descended from families based in the south of England, who may well have been a Knight Templar and fought in the last Crusade.
“How the sword ended up in a field in Selkirkshire is anyone’s guess, but it could have been symbolically discarded after the Holy Land was lost. It does, however, conjur up the previously-unimagined image of at least one knight, in distinctive white mantle with a red cross, riding across the Borderland.”
Mr Elliot reckons the pommel, based on rarity, could be worth around £2,000, although he says its value as a Borders relic is “beyond price”.
“This is one of the most significant relics of the Middle Ages ever discovered in Scotland,” he added.
The cash worth of the pommel is of no interest to Mr Burns, however, who has made numerous contributions to the collection of the National Museums in his metal-detecting career.
“Apart from one occasion when I needed to repair my metal detector, every penny I have had in treasure trove has gone anonymously to Save the Children,” he told us. “I get my real satisfaction from adding to the knowledge of, and interest in, the history of the Borders.”
Peeblesshire-born Mr Burns developed an interest in metal detecting through a neighbour in Blainslie who would focus on land near the Roman road of Dere Street.
He said: “I have detected all over the Borders, but, for fairly obvious reasons, the locations of my finds are closely-guarded secrets, if only to deter so-called night hawkers, who detect without permission.
“But many of my finds have led to detailed archaeological excavations which yield so much information about the way we used to live and respect is due to the many farmers who allow me and fellow enthusiasts onto their land.
“The metal detector has, on balance, been a great power for good in archaeology and, today, some 90 per cent of all artefacts which go to the National Museums have been discovered that way.”
Among Mr Burns’ notable contributions to the Edinburgh institution emanating from the Borders include a pre-Roman Iron Age slater, a miniature bronze bust of the Roman emperor Vespasian and an eighth-century strap end for a Saxon’s belt. He has also amassed a large personal collection of hammered and milled coins.
“I reckon you make a find of some significance every 100 hours of detecting, so the buzz when you find something important is massive,” he told us.
“And when what looks like an old doorknob turns out to be part of a Crusader’s sword, it makes it all worthwhile.”