Time was, when you shuffled off this mortal coil, you could take your stuff with you.
That was fine by the Egyptians, who built great pyramidic receptacles for the accumulated wealth and splendour of their dead leaders; it was fine by the Vikings with their ship-burning send-offs. It was standard for your average Ancient Brit or Celt. They all had stuff buried with them, to call on once that great and glorious afterlife began.
But those Christians: they held that you can’t pack a bag and kill a wife and servant or two to keep you company.
And so, when Christianity came to Britain, from the late seventh century onwards, the dead simply didn’t pack much. The phenomenon known to archaeologists as grave goods was far rarer.
And this meant that there was one material you saw a lot less of: glass.
There are plentiful, and rather beautiful, examples of Roman glass receptacles but when you get to the seventh century the trail goes cold. Yes, the later Anglo Saxons made less glass, and did not have the ingredients, or the Romans’ ability to import it in bulk; but they were not burying glass stuff for their loved ones to take to the next world, and the only glass archaeologists could find was the glass they filled the windows with.
So that now, in the 21st century, only one complete piece of late Saxon glass is known to remain in all the world.
It is thought it was made to hold a king’s heart.
It was found at Shaftesbury Abbey in front of the high altar, and the circumstances of its finding are rather veiled. They were found in one of two excavations, in 1862 or 1904; and circumstantial evidence led its discoverers to believe that this was the glass jar which held the heart of King Canute himself, who died in Shaftsbury around 1035.
His bones were taken to the capital of the land, at Winchester; and there they remain. At this very moment, they are being reviewed by archaeologists along with those of other Saxon kings and queens.
And so, it was concluded, the heart jar should follow suit. Winchester claimed Canute’s heart-bowl, and it sits high above the hoi polloi, in the cathedral’s museum on a second floor gallery overlooking the hallowed whispering transept.
Where I found it, and spent some considerable time looking, and wondering.