On this day in history, June 6, 1683 – The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, opens as the world’s first university museum. 

The Alfred Jewel is a piece of Anglo-Saxon goldsmithing work made of enamel and quartz enclosed in gold. 

The jewel was found in 1693, in a field at North Petherton, Somerset, just a few miles from Athelney, the stronghold of King Alfred and where he founded a monastery and is now one of the most popular exhibits at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It has been dated to the late 9th century, in the reign of Alfred the Great and is inscribed “aelfred mec heht gewyrcan”, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The jewel was once attached to a rod, probably of wood, at its base. After decades of scholarly discussion, it is now “generally accepted” that the jewel’s function was to be the handle for a pointer stick for following words when reading a book. It is an exceptional and unusual example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery. 

Focus on the Object
Over the years the Jewel has been the cause of as much speculation as admiration. Precisely what might have been its purpose was a source of much uncertainty: early theories suggested that it might have been the centrepiece of a royal headdress – literally a crown jewel – but the setting seemed inappropriate for that purpose. An alternative, that it was a pendant to be worn round the neck, seemed equally unhappy since it would have condemned the figure on the Jewel to have hung permanently upside-down. More recently opinion has moved towards its being an aestel or pointer, used to follow the text in a gospel book in much the same way that the Yad continues to be used in the Jewish synagogue for reading the Torah. The dragonesque head at the base of the Jewel holds in its mouth a cylindrical socket, within which the actual pointer – perhaps made of ivory – would have been held in place by a rivet (still in situ).
Similarly curious is the teardrop-shaped form of the piece. Current opinion suggests that the Jewel was formed around a pre-existing slab of rock-crystal, possibly a re-used Roman piece. The figure represented in delicate colours in cloisonné enamel, on a plaque protected by the rock-crystal, is also enigmatic. Originally it was interpreted as St Cuthbert, the best-known English saint of the pre-Alfredian period, but it is now thought to represent the sense of sight: a contemporary silver brooch in the British Museum, engraved with figures representing all five senses, shows sight as a man holding two prominent plant-stems or flowers, exactly as on the Alfred Jewel. Such an allusion would be entirely appropriate for an instrument dedicated to the practice of reading.
And finally the inscription: AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN – ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’. No one has ever doubted that the sponsor of the piece was King Alfred the Great. He died in 899 after turning the tide of battle against the Scandinavian warriors who threatened the continuing existence of Anglo-Saxon control over much of England. The West Saxon flavour of the prose is entirely in sympathy with such an interpretation. Alfred’s achievements were as much cultural as military, and amongst his most effective measures was his commissioning of translations of religious texts into the vernacular. With each of the copies of one of these texts – the Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory the Great, written c.890 – which he dispatched to monasteries throughout England, he is said to have sent also a precious aestel so that it might be read with all due solemnity. 

From our stacks: Frontispiece illustrations “The Jewel in four aspects with separate figure of enamel” from The Alfred Jewel: An Historical Essay By John Earle, M.A., LL.D. With Illustrations and Map. Oxford At the Clarendon Press, 1901.

Alfred Jewel, side view. The “Aelfred mec–” part of the jewel is shown
Alfred Jewel, side view. The “Aelfred mec–” part of the jewel is shown