Sutton Hoo Day: 6 things about the Anglo-Saxons that may or may not surprise you

On this day in 1939, a landowner on the East Coast asked a bloke to have a look at some mounds. The rest is not (as they say) history, it’s archaeology.

Until the Staffordshire Hoard, the Sutton Hoo ship burial was by far the richest find from Anglo-Saxon England in terms of weight of gold and jewels. Archaeologically, it is probably still the richest: although the Staffordshire Hoard, on display in Birmingham Museum and elsewhere in the Midlands, contains more objects, equivalent to the melting down of about 5,000 gold tremisses, the vastly greater context of Sutton Hoo makes it more interpretable—for now at least.

In honour of Sutton Hoo day, here are six things about the Anglo-Saxons that may surprise you. Or they may not.


1 They did/didn’t have horns on their helmets

At the back end of the 19th century, horned helmets were used for a production of Wagner’s ring cycle, and the notion that Anglo-Saxons and/or Vikings had horned on their heads stuck in popular culture. Equally popularly, the intelligentsia have been telling each other for years that they didn’t.

What’s the truth? Well, we certainly don’t have any Anglo-Saxon helmets with horns on them, though there are some pre-Roman helmets which you can look at in the British Museum which have things a bit like horns, very like the helmets you see in Asterix comics. However, before the intelligentsia back themselves on the back in a QI sort of way, we actually only have three to five Anglo-Saxon helmets to go on. There’s a reason why you see the Sutton Hoo helmet again and again and again on pictures of things: it’s prettier than the Coppergate helmet, from York. For others, we have bits of helmets. The Staffordshire Hoard may (and probably does) include bits of one, or perhaps even more.

What we do have is pictures of a man in a helmet with horns. These are easiest to see on the British Museum reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet, but they are genuinely there on the helmet pieces itself, and elsewhere. We could easily argue that these are pictures of Woden, and the horns are for him only. However, in the absence of much in the way of helmet finds, that’s one conclusion too far

Verdict: it is entirely incorrect to say ‘they did have horns’ or ‘they didn’t have horns’. The evidence is ambiguous.

2 They drove the British out of England/they didn’t

DNA studies indicate that there is still plenty of Britishness left in the English populations. As interestingly, what you call ‘truce’ when playing as children (‘pax’, ‘arley-barley’, etc), when mapped, as the Opies did across the whole of Britain, comes out with patterns remarkably similar to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which come out with patterns remarkably similar to the earlier, British, kingdoms. What’s certainly true is that by the Battle of the Winwaed in 655, when Northumbrian Oswiu defeated the Mercian/Welsh alliance under Penda and Cadafael, British sovereign power was confined to what is now north and west Scotland, Wales, Devon, and Cornwall.

There is plenty of evidence of intermarriage at the top-table. Oswiu’s first (or second) wife was the daughter of the king of Rheged, in a late (and possibly non-factual) source it is suggested that Anglian Penda’s sister married the Welsh king Cadwaladr. A subsequent king of the West Saxons had a British name so similar to Cadwaladr’s that it appears at least one writer mixed the two up, and cross-attributed the stories. Oswiu’s nephew is described as ‘Talorcan, king of the Picts’.

Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies are a nightmare, and it’s not always clear whether similarly named persons are the same individual. In some cases, there are early documentary genealogies which entirely conflict with each other. Complex tables can be constructed positing large numbers of step-relationships, but it’s also possible that some of the genealogies are simply wrong.

Nonetheless, the best evidence suggests that there was a significant degree of intermarriage between the Germanic tribes and the British. Whether the ‘conquest’ was only by an elite that essentially supplanted the previous nobility, or was a much larger migration, is something which is still being discussed.

Verdict: DNA mapping and genealogies say they intermarried, but how much it was a conquest, how much a peaceful migration, and how much a mixture of the two is unclear.

3 The Anglo-Saxons worshipped one-eyed Odin (Woden), with his eight-legged steed and the same pantheon as the Vikings/no they didn’t

You probably know the answer to this one, but the internet is awash with people who don’t. If you were to check your copy of Hilde Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, you would note repeated caveats that it isn’t possible to read back from our extensive knowledge of Norse religion into what the Anglo-Saxons believed before they became Christian.

Essentially, we have a magnificent collection of Norse mythology and Norse-religious sagas and stories. However, although they certainly reach back to times before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes came to Britain (from around  CE 415, give or take a pinch of salt), even the oldest poems appear to have been steadily improved and altered along the way. Hamðismál, one of the poems in what is known as the Poetic Edda, begins with the claim that ‘few things are so ancient that this is not twice as ancient’, and then relates the tag-end of a story which can be reliably linked to a historic event which took place around CE 438. However, the checkable details of this event occupy about two lines in the poem. The rest—and the rest of the cycle—grew up over the 800 or so years between then and when the poem was recorded in the Codex Regius.

By contrast, our collection of reliably pre-Christian elements in Anglo-Saxon poetry comes down to a few lines scattered here and there. We have no Angl0-Saxon manuscripts from the pagan period, and the vast bulk of what we do have, even if its origins was in pagan times, was at the very least retranscribed into Late West Saxon in the time of Alfred or afterwards. To what extent were pagan practices removed from Beowulf? We don’t know. It is a poem about the pre-Christian era—in fact, what is datable puts it around the same time as Hamðismál—but the extant recension is quite clearly from a Christian hand: Grendel is described as a monster of the race of Cain, a Christian (or, at least, non-pagan) scop sings of how the world came to be.

We do have some parallels for some Norse myths, most especially Weland, but the literary references are confined to such back-handers as ‘Woden made idols, but Christ made the world’.

It’s therefore very tempting to simply “say ‘Woden’ is the same as ‘Oðin’, ‘Thunor’ is the same as ‘Thor’, the stories are the same, and so are the myths.”

Even if we were going to be very careful about such things on evidential grounds, the depictions of Woden should tell us that the dissimilarities go down to a fairly fundamental level.

Oðin is always described as the one-eyed god: he gave his other eye for acquiring wisdom. It’s probably a reasonable assumption that stories which are ‘early’ in Oðin’s career are also, by and large, earlier stories. That particular story comes right at the start. However, our Anglo-Saxon depictions—if the horned figure is, in fact, Woden—have him always with both eyes. More pertinently, we don’t have Anglo-Saxon depictions of a one-eyed god at all.

Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited is probably about the best contemporary work on Anglo-Saxon paganism. Unfortunately for those looking for the cut-and-dried, it is a book which poses more questions than it answers. There is much scope for work to be done.

Verdict: Although we can be pretty certain that ‘Oðin’ and ‘Woden’ were originally the same mythological figure, almost everything we ‘know’ about Oðin actually comes from after the Anglo-Saxon pagan period.

4 The Anglo-Saxons spoke Anglo-Saxon/Old English/neither/both

This one’s a bit of a trick. As anyone who faced the joys of first year Old English during the 1980s or before will remember, Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer and Anglo-Saxon Reader were the blessed introductions to the language. Mercifully they’ve now been replaced by Bruce Mitchell’s Guide to Old English, or even newer tomes. Aside from the fact that Henry Sweet was working with a 19th century view of language (the primer was published in 1882), he also ‘translated’ his Late West Saxon sources into Early West Saxon, for no readily apparent reason (though it always used to make a good Finals question). The Germanic philologists used to like to break everything into threes, and English philology followed suit, giving us Old English, Middle English and Modern English. For some reason, we’ve stuck with that, so pretty much everyone since Sweet has talked about ‘Old English’ rather than ‘Anglo-Saxon’. This is itself not devoid of difficulties, because there are many people who think that ‘Old English’ is the language of Shakespeare, which it absolutely is not.

Verdict: it’s a matter of terminology, but ‘Old English’ is now the accepted term.

5 The Anglo-Saxon world was male dominated

Almost every written source we have to do with the Anglo-Saxons made its way through monasteries at one time or another. Monasteries were the places where books were kept and copied. We tend to see this as a male-dominated world. Equally, the heroic fights of Beowulf and our other extant poems, such as the Battle of Maldon, would suggest that it was a man’s world.

However, a deeper look suggests that things were not quite thus. Anglo-Saxon England had a number of double abbeys, comprising men and women, presided over by an abbess. The powers of abbesses were not quite settled at that point. Later canon rulings suggest that some, at least, had ‘usurped’ some of the powers normally available only to male priests. We might want to treat some of the stories of abbesses with a pinch of dried-brine: several were said to have preserved their virginity through one, or even two, marriages, before becoming abbesses afterwards. This would seem to be a bit of ret-conning: some, at least, were queens who gave birth to royal children, before eventually settling into abbeys either as a second career or, possibly, a safe retirement. Evidently previous marriage was not regarded as a barrier.

Hild of Whitby (or, more exactly, Streoneshalh) presided over the synod of Whitby (or Streoneshalh—you got it) which determined the all-important question of the date of Easter, and, more importantly, brought Anglo-Saxon Christianity into the Roman fold.

It’s generally been assumed that poets were male, but this is a rather naive assumption. Poems such as the Wanderer and the Seafarer are written from a male, warrior, perspective, but there is no particular reason to believe that they were written by the person who is speaking them in the poem. The Wife’s Lament has a female protagonist.

Once we uncouple ‘gender of narrator’ from ‘gender of author’, there are very few entirely gender-specific poems in the Old English canon. Bede relates that Caedmon wrote the hymn by his name, but, aside from that, most early poetry is anonymous.

Both Maxims I and Maxims II (as they are known) give an impression of a strong understanding of what it was to be female.

In Maxims I, we have:

Scipscealgenægled, scieldge-bundan,
léoht linda bord, léof will-cuma,
Frísan wífe, þonne flota standeþ;
biþ his ?éol cumen and hire ?eorl to hám,
ágen ?t-giefa, and héo hine inn laðaþ,
wæsceþ his wárig hrægl and him seleþ wæde níewe,
lihþ him on lande þæs his lufu b?deþ.

It comes towards the end of a longish section of gnomic poetry (i.e., made up of obvious or proverb-type maxims).

…a ship must be nailed, a shield bound
with light linden wood; her love is welcome
to the Frisian wife, when the fleet lands;
His ship is come and her man is home,
Her own breadwinner, and she calls him in,
Washes his weary clothes and wraps him in new ones,
Lies him on the land as his love bids.

In Maxims II, we have another series of fairly obvious remarks, each two half lines long, and then, unexpectedly:

………… Ides sceal dyrne cræfte,
fæmne hire freond gesecean,      gif heo nelle on folce geþeon
þæt hi man beagum gebicge.


A girl must use secret crafts, the bride to seek her beloved, if she does not want a man to buy her with rings given to her people.

This might not seem like anything surprising, but it comes after a long series of “A king shall rule a realm, a city is seen from a distance…winter is coldest…” which then goes on afterwards in a similar rhythm. The ‘advice for girls’ section is twice as long as any of the others, four times as long as some of them, and different in kind and quality from the rest. Taken as a whole, it comes across as if it were the main point of the poem.

Verdict: The records, the poetry, as well as grave-goods and other finds, suggest that Anglo-Saxon society may well have been substantially more egalitarian, both in the church and in the secular world, than the later medieval period. Like all things, everything is open to interpretation.

6 Raedwald is buried at Sutton Hoo/he isn’t

Sutton Hoo is in East Anglia, and the artefacts found at the site tend to give a date of CE 610 to CE 635. Raedwald, king of the East Angles, died in CE 625. Of all the Anglo-Saxon burials that we have, Sutton Hoo is by far the most royal. What is more, it contains both pagan elements (such as the emboss of the horned god) and Christian elements, including what appear to be a pair of baptismal spoons, marked ‘Saulos’ and ‘Paulos’. Raedwald was known to have been a pagan king who converted to Christianity.

So it’s Raedwald’s tomb, right? Well, of all the kings that we know of, Raedwald is the best fit. However, we have absolutely no reason to suppose that we know of all the kings of that period, nor is there anything in the find which we can say is definitively royal. Concepts of ‘royal’ were much more fluid then. Not long afterwards, both Mercia and Wales had kings who were ‘self-made men’, or, at least, had no royal ancestors that we know of. There are also, in the same period, two kings among the Northumbrians who were stricken from the records (though, bizarrely, we are told this) because their short reigns were considered to be abominable. East Anglians, as well as other Anglian kingdoms, had more than one king reigning together sometimes. It is not always clear whether these were full partnerships or a senior king and a junior king.

What’s more, the dating of the burial is largely based on the gold content of the 37 coins and 3 gold blanks which were found with it. Virtually all Anglo-Saxon gold was melted down Roman coins, and it would appear that the three blanks had been re-coined to make the number up to an even forty, though why this should be is unknown (but not unconjectured). The one gold mine in Britain, at Luentium in Wales, was by this time no longer active, so gold coming into England was coming from the continental mints. The Romans had their own problems with gold, and the gold content of minted coins declined steadily throughout the period. Some very clever numismatics enabled archaeologists in the 1980s to establish the latest date for the coins, which comes out at CE 610 to CE 635. This gives us a latest date for the coins, and, plausibly, a latest date for when the coin collection was assembled. We assume that the three gold blanks were there because they didn’t have any more coins, and had no time to acquire them. This would tend to imply that the hoard had to be quickly finished off. But how quickly is ‘quickly’?

One of the things about gold is that—aside from working out the purity of the metal—it does not carry many traces of its history. Because gold jewellery is, by definition, precious, it can be kept unused except on special occasions for long periods. Therefore, even if the hoard was completed by 635, there’s no guarantee that it was buried then. 635 would be an entirely reasonable guess, but 636 would be entirely possible, which would bring Aethelric and Sigebryht into the frame. There’s also Eorpwald—and these are just East Anglian kings we know about.

Verdict: Raedwald is a best guess—but if you’re doing a quiz and the answer is ‘Raedwald’, then the quiz is wrong. 

Why The Box of Delights is almost the greatest children’s novel in English, and what insights that offers

I read thousands of books as a child. After a shaky start, wherein I was rescued by Sheila McCullagh’s Griffin Pirate readers, I could never get enough of them. Our house was already full of books, but I worked my way through the children’s section of Glebe Farm public library, Birmingham Central library, the school library and numerous birthday and Christmas books. Over six years I was in half a dozen book clubs, including the Puffin Club, and relished our weekly trips to Hudsons bookshop, now Waterstones, in Birmingham. Some of the books I grew out of even as I was reading them. The Famous Five may be all very well, but once I had discovered Sherlock Holmes, there was no going back.

However, if I had only read four books in childhood, or if I now had to pick which four I would have taken with me if forced as a child into exile, they would have been A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K LeGuin, The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien, The Horse and His Boy, one of the later Narnia books by CS Lewis, and The Box of Delights by John Masefield.

By far the richest of these, but also the most infuriating, is The Box of Delights, which, like the book which Mephistopheles offers Doctor Faustus, contains almost everything. However, unlike the other three, which are flawless gems, The Box of Delights contains one catastrophic failing.

First, what is it about the Box of Delights which makes it so rich? Each of the other three are daring forays into other worlds — Earthsea, Narnia and Middle Earth. In their own ways they are towering works of major creation. However, unless you are a young wizard living in an archipelago, or a short furry-toed creature in the Shire, or a kidnapped prince living in a magical world, they tell you about their worlds, but not really about your world. They are vividly imaginative, but do not stimulate a child’s observation of the world around them. Let me say now that I deeply prefer works of pure imagination over works of pure observation. Jennings, Just William and the Railway Children are all very well, and I enjoyed them while I read them, but it was the works of imagination which had the greatest impact on me.

However, the Box of Delights is something quite different, because it encompasses imagination, observation, and encapsulation of everything you ever read. 

John Masefield’s imagination was always vivid. His first Santa Barbara novel, Sard Harker, 1924, which connects in some unfathomable and unspecified way with The Midnight Folk, is an amazing odyssey of experiences and sensations. The plot itself is quite linear, but the journey is spectacular. The Box of Delights, though, is not just full of imagination, but is also about imagination. The exact properties of the titular box are not well delimited — it allows one to travel in time, to become tiny, to travel fast, and to enter magical worlds. As importantly, it is an object people are willing to steal, kill or even die for. In searching for a symbol to describe the imagination, it is hard to find a better one than the box of delights itself. One could not possibly say that this is a greater work of imagination than Earthsea, Narnia or Middle Earth, but it is fair to say that it is just as great.

However, Masefield excels in the area of observation. From the curious waddle of country folk to the ways of life on board ship, and from the songs of country folk to the way land responds to a sudden fall of snow, we have an extraordinarily vivid appreciation of things which we had not perhaps otherwise noticed. This is not to say that my other favourite books were not vivid — CS Lewis, in particular, manages to conjure scenes of extraordinary vitality in a very few words. However, Masefield made me look at the world around me in a new way. The dialogue, too, is much richer and more varied, and captures many different kinds of voices. Country folk, clergy, talking animals of different kinds, criminals, children, the police, newspapers and magical people all have their own distinct ways of self-expression.

One of the most startling features of the Box of Delights is how it encapsulates lots of other books. It is not merely a genre-bender, comprising as it does gang-crime, fairy-story, beast-fable, children’s adventures, exploration and time-travel, but rather more than that. In it we have the echoes of Puck of Pook’s Hill (Kay does not merely meet the Romans, but travels with them), Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Mrs Tiggywinkle, The Snow Queen, the Greek myths, the Bastables, the Wind in the Willows, Alice, and most of the rest of the canon of children’s books written up to that point. True, there are talking mice in Narnia, but one never gets the imaginary mouse’s world view that we get in the Box of Delights. Masefield’s deft writing means that we easily move from detailed boys’ adventure fiction in one scene to the shores of Troy a few pages later, and from a desert island in the Caribbean to a magical journey on dolphins over the waves, to deep snow drifts, underground passages and a fight with aeroplanes.

The premise of the Box of Delights is an old and well worn one — the pursuit of a treasure. However, we rarely see the treasure itself taking such a hand in its own preservation, and also in causing the near fatal danger in which the protagonist finds himself. Plot-wise, Masefield has also overcome his previous problems with linearity. Its direct precursor, The Midnight Folk, is  made up of a problem, an investigation, and finally a discovery which concludes it. This is very serviceable, but, in plot terms, does not distinguish it particularly from the Famous Five or Poirot. There is no particular reason why the discovery should not have been made in chapter two, rather than at the end. By contrast, the plot conclusion of the Box of Delights brings together the numerous repercussions of the premise in a way that could only have taken place once the other elements of the plot had happened. The actions of Kay’s enemy Abner Brown become progressively more desperate and the ramifications greater as he is thwarted. There is a very real danger, which persists on the umpteenth reading, that the only result of all of Kay’s activities will be the unnecessary deaths of choir and clergy, of his guardian and friends, and with Brown gaining not only the Box, but also the Elixir of Life.

Characterisation, too, is strong. Masefield had, by this time, perfected his ability to make a character memorable in just a sentence. The ‘foxy faced man’ and the ‘ha ha what?’ man are unforgettable, and yet occupy very little of the story. We could never confuse the rat with his nephew, or the tree mouse with the house mouse, or Jemima with Maria. The only character left blank is Kay himself, who is the Everyman figure who allows the reader to enter the story world, much as Harry Potter does three generations later.

In terms of its strengths, the Box of Delights outweighs really any other book I read in my childhood.

However, unlike A Wizard of Earthsea, the Hobbit and The Horse and His Boy, which are all, in their own terms, more or less perfect, The Box of Delights has an unnecessary flaw which makes it, ultimately, a disappointing experience.

This flaw has to do with the frame, and, like many flaws, it gives us far more insights into what makes a great story than do the book’s strengths.

If you have not read the book, you really should. If you have read it, but have forgotten, the story can be summarised as follows: Kay Harker, a schoolboy, is on the train home for the Christmas holidays, when he meets two suspicious looking clergymen, who trick him into gambling with them. He also meets an old Punch and Judy man. Subsequently, he discovers that the clergymen are actually gangsters, intent on ‘scrobbling’ the Punch and Judy man to obtain a magical box. The man entrusts the box to Kay, and is subsequently kidnapped. The adventure plays out as Kay is first pursued by the gangsters and then sees all others who came into contact with the Punch and Judy man kidnapped by the gang. Kay travels back in time, using the box, to find its creator, and finally penetrates the gangsters’ lair with the aim of retrieving the kidnap victims and returning the box. However, by the time he is in a position to do this, he is powerless in magically miniature form, and has lost the box. He goes through a terrifying underground adventure, rescues the prisoners, retrieves the box, and sees his enemy, Abner Brown, sent hurtling into the depths by a well aimed bag of flour dropped from a hovering plane by disgruntled gang members. With help from magical friends, he then returns with the kidnap victims in time to save the 1,000 year anniversary Christmas service of the county’s cathedral.

If the story had finished at that point, it would probably have been the best children’s story ever written. But it does not. Just as victory is achieved, Kay begins to wake up. He finds himself back in the railway carriage, and it has all been a dream.

It should not take much imagination to understand why this is such a disappointment. The entire book we have just read — by contrast with its predecessor, The Midnight Folk — is now seen to be a nothing, a dream. In the world of the book, nothing which we have read is ‘real’.

I can only speculate on why Masefield wrote this in. We do know that, a few years later, CS Lewis was pressured against publishing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because fantasy for children was seen as frivolous, and children ought to be reading realistic, true-t0-life books. However, anyone who has got to the end of The Box of Delights has clearly enjoyed fantasy enough to read that far, and the damage, if damage there is, is already done.

What is happening, though, is that Masefield is imposing an additional frame narrative as a last minute afterthought on a book which needs none. This should give us some insight into framing in general.


It was JRR Tolkien, in Tree and Leaf, who first introduced me to the idea of stories having a frame. The frame may be no more than ‘once upon a time’, or it may be as elaborate as the multi-narrator frame of Wuthering Heights. Great Expectations is framed as a first person narrative told many years later, as is Heart of Darkness. Nostromo shares the narrator of Heart of Darkness, but it is now told second hand, as tale of sea-faring folk well worth telling (which it is).

By its very nature, a story must have a frame, if only because it cannot be about everything, cannot begin with the beginning of the world and end with its ending, unless it is so diffuse that it is really not about anything. Even the Bible has to put the beginning of the world and its end into two separate narratives, Genesis and Revelation, an arrangement wisely followed by CS Lewis when he separated The Magician’s Nephew from The Last Battle.

In Aristotelian terms, the beginning is the place where we lay out the premise which depends on nothing else in the story, and from which everything in the story logically follows. The end is the place where the story finishes, and beyond which nothing in the story continues to be narrated (though we assume that it continues to happen). The middle is where the things caused by the beginning and which cause the end take place.

As well as the start and finish framing, a story also has a world in which it operates. Few worlds are as enormous as the multi-universes of Narnia, the expanse of Middle-Earth or the archipelago of Earthsea, but even these major creations have limits. We know that there are uncounted worlds from the Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew, but in all of the Narnia books, we only visit England, the Narnian world, and Charn, as well as the Wood itself and Aslan’s country. There are no quick trips to France from England, which is itself made up only of a country house, a boarding school, a few London streets, a railway platform and a house in Cambridge.

The world must also be framed in terms of its own rules. For example, a few machine-guns would have made a big difference in Prince Caspian, but would have totally changed the world of the story. In Harry Potter, the train is a perfectly legitimate way to get to Hogwarts, whereas if Bilbo had managed to get a train to the Lonely Mountain, almost all of the story would have been avoided.

One thing the frame doesn’t need to do is to connect the world of the book back to the ‘real’ world. The cover of the book and the publisher’s imprint is enough for that. Nobody needs to be told that the words in the book are fictional. If there really is a need for more, then the publisher’s disclaimer about any resemblance to persons living or dead should be enough.

However, this creates its own problems. What happens if the book overflows its frame and starts trying to interfere in the real world? I enjoyed Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, but I had deep misgivings about how it portrayed the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not a Catholic myself, and I would have felt the same way if it had been Islam, or Hinduism, or the Labour Party. Of course, The Da Vinci Code does the same thing, but everyone knows that The Da Vinci Code is a conspiracy theory book. More importantly, Northern Lights is a formative book for children, whereas adults reading The Da Vinci Code will already have made their minds up.

Some books, of course, are designed to impact on the real world, and all books surely do this. To Kill a Mockingbird had a significant impact on many people’s understanding of inter-racial justice in the USA. However, To Kill a Mockingbird is strongly grounded in fact, and the story does not introduce us to fictional ideas to make its point — rather, it fictionalises real world things.

I struggle in the same way with the small-print sections in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. As my English teacher at school told me, they were no more than political tracts, and if he wanted to read political tracts, he would have gone out and done so, rather than reading them as inserts in a novel.

This is the same separation which we require in television. It’s alright for Vanish or Toyota to advertise in the commercial breaks, but we would start complaining pretty quickly if it turned out that an entire episode of Broadchurch had been scripted so as to promote them — or, even more so, if an episode had been scripted to show how dangerous non-Toyota vehicles were, or other brands of soap.

Returning to the beginning, it’s not possible to read The Box of Delights without either reading the ending, or deliberately ignoring it, and knowing that one is ignoring it. This is a flaw, and a catastrophic one. In some part of me, I know that Bilbo Baggins is pottering round the Shire, Ged is sailing the seas of Earthsea, Shasta and Aravis are living happily in Archenland, but Kay Harker is just waking up from a dream on a train to a Christmas holiday which, no matter how good it is, can’t possibly be as good as the dream which never happened.

If you are an author, please, please think twice before ever perpetrating such a thing on children.

The Dress — or why colour workflow matters

So, you’ve seen the coverage covering the internet about a dress which is reputed to be white and gold, or blue and black. People have extremely strong opinions about it. A lot of ‘science’ has been talked about it, or, rather, journalists have approached some scientists and written down some of their remarks. The reality is a lot simpler, and is something that anyone who is serious about taking photographs has had to work with a long time ago.

Essentially, the human eye is a combination of a bio-optical lens and retina, and some highly developed brain functions which interpret it, which works very strongly with short and long-term memory to interpret images correctly. If you look at eye motion studies, you see the way the eye’s (very shallow) focus point darts around something, building up a picture in memory which becomes what you ‘see’.

A camera, by contrast, merely captures whatever falls onto the sensor, be it exposed film or RGB photo-diodes. If you have a digital SLR and you work with RAW files, then the RAW files contain the exact information captured by the sensor.


Even a RAW image isn’t quite as raw as you might imagine. Naturally, no computer image can be ‘seen’ by the naked eye without interpretation — it exists, after all, only as electronic impulses which would normally be interpreted into 1s and 0s. When you ‘see’ a JPEG file, or a TIFF, or a RAW, you are seeing the results of a very sophisticated process of interpretation.

A JPEG or a TIFF has the interpretation ‘baked-in’ — the Red-Green-Blue values translate straight to the screen, which means if the screens colour-space is different from the file’s colour space (more on that in a moment), you will see a colour shift. A RAW image, though, also contains information about white balance, which includes colour temperature and tint.

What is colour temperature?

If you take a black body and heat it to a particular value, you get a particular colour. These values are quite high. Ordinary daylight, the kind emulated by electronic flash, is 5600 K — a temperature you would never normally encounter on Earth. However, because it gives an objective definition, colour temperature (in K) is used to define how reddish or blueish the illuminating light is. In addition to colour temperature, you also get tint shifts — early fluorescent lights, for example, always turned everything green.

Using its automatic settings, your camera should correctly record the right white balance, which is then transferred with the RAW file, and baked into the JPEG. If you’re using a smartphone camera, you will never touch the RAW — the only file you will get is the JPEG.

It should, but, quite often, it doesn’t.

Your eye (bio-optical + brain + memory) is highly adept at adapting to the illuminating light and thus correctly seeing the ‘true’ colour of something. Even so, the golden light of the hour before sunset and after dawn is golden because your eye does not entirely adapt. This is partly because your eye is taking more than a thousand samples a minute as it roves around, building up not only a picture of what you are looking at, but also the other things around it.

The camera only gets one go, and it has to guess, using its memory, what parts are ‘white’ and what parts aren’t. A sophisticated dSLR will have a substantial amount of pre-programmed scenes to help it in this task. A smartphone, no matter how sophisticated, has fewer. Even the best dSLR — I’m thinking of a Nikon D800 — doesn’t get it right all the time, which is why many photographers prefer to shoot in RAW and fix the images in post-processing if the white balance isn’t right.

What kinds of things cause poor white balance?

Essentially, a combination of mixed lighting and difficult to identify surfaces. If you are in a room, and the light is on, and there is also sunlight streaming through the window, you won’t notice anything odd. On the other hand, if you are driving home and the windows are lit, you will see the cheery glow of yellow-orange light. In the room, your eye has correctly assessed all the different kinds of shadows, and used memory to identify the ‘true’ colours of things. Driving home, you see the much bluer than normal light coming from the sky, and the window in a cheerily contrasting yellow-orange, because the colour temperature of incandescent lights is much lower than evening light, and even the modern LEDs are balanced to replicate that.

If you take a picture in a room with mixed lighting, you will see that areas illuminated by sunlight will appear blueish, and areas illuminated by electric light appear yellowish. This is most obvious in the multi-coloured shadows that you get, which can be yellow, blue or even green, depending on what kinds of lights you have, and how strong they are.

The camera has to make a guess at what the ‘correct’ colour temperature is. What it can’t do is assess the entire situation and see the colours ‘correctly’ notwithstanding the predominant light falling on them. The eye gets that right, the camera doesn’t.

You can fix this, if you have the patience, in Lightroom (for shadows), Capture One, or, best of all DxO, which has a mixed lighting feature. You can even mask out layers in Photoshop.

The other problem the camera faces is that it has to guess what white is. Unlike your eye, which knows what colour the curtains are, the camera tries to make an assessment based on predominance. If the entire image appears to the camera to be yellowish, then it will lower its reference colour temperature, in the belief that the room is yellowish because of a yellowish light. In my living room, with its butter coloured wall paper, yellow Flemish sofa and gold Flemish curtains, it’s not likely to get it right. More sophisticated software can guess based on more information — skin tone and sky tone, for example, but it’s never perfect.

What about The Dress?

Some people see The Dress as gold and white, others as black and blue. What’s the truth? The truth is that you can’t possibly tell from that picture which it is. If you load it into Photoshop, you will see very clearly that the colours which appear ‘white’ to some people are blue, and the colours which appear ‘black’ to other people are brown, mud, or gold. The dress is blue and gold, at least, according to the picture.

But — the eye doesn’t like that. Your memory has many dresses stored within it, and also many objects seen in different lights. In direct sunlight, all shadows are blue, but the eye corrects them to the right colour. Why? Because sunlight has a much lower colour temperature than blue sky, but is much stronger. Things appear to be in shadow when the sun’s light does not fall on them directly, but only as reflected through the sky. Your eye is well-used to correcting this, which is why things don’t appear to change colour as they move in and out of shadow, only luminosity.

Lacking reference cues, some people’s eyes light on the ‘white’ of the dress and interpret this in the same way as white in shadow. This causes the eye to interpret the brown part as a rich gold. From that perspective, the dress is then white and gold.

However, the eye is not satisfied with that. It continues to look at the picture, and notes that the colour cues of the other lights in the picture don’t suggest that the dress is in shadow out of doors, but rather is indoors, in low-colour temperature lighting. This means (to your eye) that the ‘white’ area is not white at all, but a much stronger blue than it would appear. In that case, the ‘brown’ must be much bluer as well, which moves it into black.

If you stare at it long enough, you may well see the dress shift from gold and white to black and blue, and back again, as the eye struggles to get the information it wants from the rest of the image.

This is made worse by the fact that the colour in the image is fairly obviously degraded. Fifty years ago your eye wouldn’t have known what to do with that, but in the internet-age we’ve seen enough bad JPEGs for our visual memory to be busy making sense of them.

Solving it with colour workflow

Assuming you actually wanted to represent the colours correctly, for example because you were doing a fashion advertisement, how would you go about this?

With some difficulty. Every step of the way is fraught with colour danger.

However, this is how it’s done.

First, before you shoot the picture, you shoot a Grey Card — not just any grey card, but a specially printed and frequently replaced card which is a known value of grey. If you have the time, you actually then set the camera’s white balance to that. If the lighting changes, you shoot the grey card again.

Actually, there’s a step before that, which is to get rid of all mixed lighting, or, if that’s not possible, to put gels on your lights so that all the lights balance. On a photo-shoot, you’ll quite often see blue gels over lights to match blue sky, or blue gels over incandescent lamps to match the colour of the studio lights. Additionally, studio lights are usually sufficiently powerful to overpower indoor lighting, and are colour balanced to match outdoor light.

Second, you shoot in RAW, and when you come to process the images, you first set the white balance using your image of the grey card, and then apply that same balance to all images, irrespective of what the camera recorded.

You are still not out of the woods. When you come to view the images, you need to view them on a colour calibrated monitor capable of displaying the colour space they are saved in. Colour space? That’s an electronic description of what the screen and other devices are to interpret the values, because each different kind of device has different kinds of colour its good at displaying. Photographers might prefer to shoot in ProPhoto, but the screen likes to show things in sRGB. You just have to bear this in mind, and have the profiles set up correctly. Calibrating the monitor, though, is something you need a measuring device for. X-Rite makes the one I use, and I calibrate my monitor and my printer fairly regularly. Not only do you have to calibrate the monitor, but you have to calibrate it for the light in the room you are in. Again, your measuring device will do this if you specify it, but, if you turn the light on (unless it’s daylight balanced) you’ll need to recalibrate, or use a different, saved, calibration.

You are still not out of the woods. If you want to send the image to a friend, just give up on the idea of colour fidelity. Unless their monitor is also colour calibrated, they will see whatever their combination of monitor and viewing conditions think they should see, which definitely won’t be what you’re seeing. Worse, if they view it on a mobile phone, the colour gamut which the phone can display may be very small, or the colours over saturated, or too bright, or too dark.

If you want to print it to your laser or inkjet printer, you need to calibrate them first. The same device should do this. I you’re sending out to be printed for a leaflet or magazine, or (even worse) a billboard, then you are unlikely to get an opportunity to do a proper calibration of their output (though, if you’re clever, you might calibrate from a previous document you did with them). If you also want to use your photo on TV, then that’s a different calibration again.

Print is particularly difficult because it’s done in Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black dots, rather than in Red, Green, Blue luminous pixels. The computer will handle the conversion, but it’s never exact, and CMYK print will always look duller than on your screen. Acclimatising yourself by looking at a previous piece of print and the photos used in it on screen is still the best way to get over this — let your eye, with its vastly superior processing power, do the work.

Even then, the viewing conditions may still skew the colour for you.

All this is what is known as Colour Workflow, and it’s bread and butter for anyone involved in photography, graphic design or print.

Back to the The Dress

Needless to say, absolutely none of that work was done for The Dress. For a start, it’s mixed lighting. Then, the exposure is fairly well off, but you can’t tell if the image is over or under-exposed. The camera’s software has worked hard to interpret the RAW RGB and put it into a JPEG, but this just makes things worse, as a JPEG file compresses the image using its own guesses about the image. Finally, the image has been viewed on millions of smartphones and other devices, of which only a handful will be calibrated. Turn the brightness up, it’s going to look more like gold and white, turn the brightness down, it’s more blue and black. If you’ve spent a lot of time looking at images, you’ll see two things: first, the real colour of the image is blue and brown, and, second, the real colour of the dress could be pretty much anything, since the possibility of a tint shift means it could actually be yellow and orange, or green and mauve.

And finally

For reasons which I generally only understand for the five minutes after I’ve just read the technical articles explaining it, digital cameras just don’t capture mauve or purple at all well, usually shifting them across to blue.

One thing only is certain: the makers of that dress are going to be getting a lot more sales.

Ofcom is a regulator. It should not act like it owns the airwaves

BBC NEWS | Technology | Spectrum plan threatens radio mic

If you go to any kind of large public event, music-theatre production, even a well done school play or a big church service, chances are that it depends at least in part on radio microphones. For the non-technically minded, radio mics, as a general rule, just work, and everything is fine. For the technical, it’s a bit more complex. Every microphone has to be on its own frequency. There are four frequencies which can be used free of charge by anyone. Rather more frequencies are available for anyone paying an annual license fee, and, for major events, coordinated frequencies are available which guarantee that no-one else is using your frequency at the same time in the same place.

All this is set to change, though, becaus Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator, is planning to sell off these frequencies to the highest bidder, as part of the digital switchover. More

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