The Staffordshire Hoard: a treasure saved for the nation


Published on

Talk at the Fitzwilliam Museum, 27th July 2011

Published in: Technology, Spiritual
  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

The Staffordshire Hoard: a treasure saved for the nation

  1. 1. Talk on the Staffs Hoard for Fitzwilliam Museum, 27th July 2011. 30mins.INTRODUCTIONSLIDE 1Hello, I’m going to talk about the Staffordshire Hoard, which is I thinkpretty much the most exciting archaeological find in my lifetime. The pressfound it exciting too [SLIDE 2] – here’s the Daily Mail on the day the newswas released in September 2009. Shortly afterwards there were queuesround the block to see the hoard [SLIDE 3] as an appeal was launched tosave the hoard for the nation. I’ll explain why this appeal was needed later.The hoard has changed academic and public views of the Anglo-Saxons,and in this it can be compared with the very famous finds at Sutton Hoo[SLIDE 4]. Before Sutton Hoo was found, the general view was that theAnglo-Saxons were illiterate farmers who did a bit of bloodthirsty warfarein their spare time. The finds at Sutton Hoo opened our eyes to theircraftsmanship; their international contacts; and really just the sheeravailable wealth, and sophistication, of artefacts available at the top rank ofsociety at the time.The Staffordshire Hoard is very much the same date as Sutton Hoo. I’ll geton to a precise date later on when you’ve seen the kinds of objects itcontained. For now, let’s call it seventh century AD.[SLIDE 5] England in the 7th century AD; it was made up of a series ofkingdoms, and this map represents our best guess as to where the peoplemaking up these kingdoms lived. It’s best not to draw precise boundaries,as the kingdoms weren’t territories, but people. Our source for this isBede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which he finishedwriting in 731 – this is by far the best source for our historical knowledgeof the seventh century.I’ve approximately marked the place where the Staffordshire Hoard wasfound. It looks to us as if it’s right in the centre of Mercia, and indeed it is,but in other ways it is on the edge of Anglo-Saxon England in the seventhcentury. 1
  2. 2. The name ‘Mercians’ means people of the border. It’s the same OldEnglish word as ‘march’, as in the Welsh Marches. And very fewarchaeological sites and finds of early Anglo-Saxon date come from thispart of the country.Here’s a map of early Anglo-Saxon burial sites [SLIDE 6 ] and as you cansee, where the hoard was found is not outside where you would expect tofind the early Anglo-Saxons, but it is right on the edge.I’m using a map of burial sites because until now this has been where wefind rich deposits of early Anglo-Saxon metalwork – we’ve never had ahoard like this before. We also don’t know much about this area of Merciafrom historical sources either. Bede was a Christian monk fromNorthumbria and he really doesn’t seem to like the Mercians. [SLIDE 7]Their most remarkable seventh-century king was a famous pagan calledPenda, who ruled from some time in the 620s or 630s until 655, and spentmost of this time killing other kings – at least five of them. All but one ofthese were great heroes of Bede. So Bede doesn’t bother to tell us muchabout Penda, or his people, the Mercians.So you could say that the Staffordshire Hoard fills a gap in our knowledge– but more accurately it turns all our hitherto accepted ideas on their heads.We weren’t expecting anything Anglo-Saxon here on the edge of England.And we most particularly were not expecting what we got, because this isthe first hoard from early Anglo-Saxon England. It’s like nothing we’veever seen before.WHAT’S IN THE HOARDNow let’s see what it actually contained.Gold[SLIDE 8] The easiest way to sum up the materials involved is that there’slots of gold. In terms of weight – I’m afraid still with lots of mud adhering,as you will see – it’s about three-quarters gold. Gold, of course, doesn’tdecay or corrode in the ground and so it is all still in fantastic shinycondition. 2
  3. 3. In terms of the kinds of objects, [SLIDE 9] we have a very restricted range.Most of it is military equipment, 60% as you can see here, but oddly wedon’t have a full range.Military items[SLIDE 10] Here are some seventh-century warriors in their kit and youcan see the range of weapons that an Anglo-Saxon man might carry. In theStaffordshire Hoard, we only seem to have the gold and silver bits and theoccasional piece of copper alloy, so we can only identify those items whichhad gold and silver parts. These seem to be parts of at least two helmets,possibly a shield mount or two, and masses and masses of swords andseaxes.[SLIDE 11] This shows you the various parts of a sword, a complete onefound at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk (Sutton Hoo exploded diagram), and a seaxwill be the same, except that the blade has only one cutting edge.[SLIDE 12] Here are the numbers of the different sword fittings within theStaffordshire Hoard. There are c. 90 pommels, 4 pommel rings, andsomewhere over 350 hilt fittings. With these ones you can see that one isfrom a sword and one from a seax, but often you don’t know which you aredealing with.Bear in mind that from the evidence of the Sutton Hoo sword there areusually at least 7 elements from a single hilt. But there is only one pommelper sword or seax, so that gives us a minimum number of 90 swords orseaxes in total.[SLIDE 13] Scabbard fittings include at least 13 pyramids and 2 buttons –these are a bit mysterious, but probably used to tie the sword or seax intothe scabbard. They generally have the most fabulous garnet work on them,amazing detail in a tiny space.[SLIDE 14 Sutton Hoo helmet] Helmets – early Anglo-Saxon helmets areincredibly rare. Apart from this fantastic example from Benty Grange inDerbyshire, there is also [SLIDE 15] the famous Sutton Hoo one andanother from Wollaston in Northamptonshire. Note these hingedcheekpieces on these two. And now, in the Staffordshire Hoard, we have afourth and a fifth early Anglo-Saxon helmet, at least, if not more! The 3
  4. 4. most obvious of the helmet components is this cheekpiece [SLIDE 16]made from a gold and silver alloy – you can see here how the little hingesattaching it to the cap of the helmet have been torn away.This is the only piece of a gold helmet in the hoard. What a ludicrousmaterial to make it out of, although it should be remembered that the BentyGrange helmet was even more peculiar – it was made from horn panelswithin an iron frame. Of course we are obviously missing the othercheekpiece, but it might be assumed that the rest of the helmet would bemade of the same material and in the same style.The only other helmet element made from gold is this little object [SLIDE17] which seems almost certainly to be part of the crest of a helmet, thereinforcing and deflecting bar which runs across the top of the head. Youcan see the curve.Both the cheekpiece and the crest might be from one single helmet, butthen there are a series of amazing stamped silver foils which should comefrom a different helmet. Again they can be paralleled on the Sutton Hoohelmet, [SLIDE 18] where they are made from tinned bronze which isimitating silver. [SLIDE 19] The ones from the Staffordshire hoard arerather superior, as they are actually made of real silver, but with the sameamazing weird scenes which appear to show heroes and gods in action.(Guided tour to which ones you have).There are a range of other bits and pieces from helmets which we might beable to combine with the foils to make up this second helmet [SLIDE 20].So, the swords and seaxes and helmets are the major pieces of weaponrythat have been identified so far.Christian objectsAnother category which is very prominent within the hoard, and one thatmight be thought of as battle equipment too, are the Christian crosses.There are several within the hoard. [SLIDE 21] Two small crosses thatmight have been fixed to something; a medium-sized cross which probablyhung round someone’s neck; and a really huge one [SLIDE 22] that mighthave been fixed on a staff and used in processions, or been carried intobattle like a kind of standard. It’s difficult to get an idea of what it looked 4
  5. 5. like originally, as it’s been folded up, but here it is [SLIDE 23]reconstructed by an artist from Birmingham City Museum. These garnetshave all come away – here’s [SLIDE 24] another go at a photo, with thedetached settings, and a close-up of some of the big garnets. This oneseems to have come from a gem-cutting workshop in Constantinople, nowIstanbul, that’s where most of them have been found.The final object that is probably part of a cross is this one [SLIDE 25] –this is definitely one of the most interesting items in the whole hoard. It isprobably, by analogy with the big cross, one arm from another big cross,but of course the fascinating thing is the inscription.It’s hard to read now from a screen because the object has been folded inhalf, but here are both sides [SLIDE 26] with some help in reading it. Thisis a copy of the inscription, then a transliteration of the Latin. A text verylike this inscription, but not identical to it, occurs twice in the Bible. So atthe bottom are the two sources translated.I hope you will agree that it is one of the more warlike bits of the Biblethat’s been chosen. And arguably all of these Christian objects are alsoobjects of power – in the ancient world, decisions about which god toworship were taken at least partly on the basis of which god would helpyou to win in battle.So that’s a brief canter round some of the objects. There are of course agreat number of mystery objects [SLIDE 27], but to do these justice wouldtake all afternoon!So I’m going to go on now to have a look at the materials andcraftsmanship in a bit more detail, and then think about the date and whythe hoard might have been buried.MATERIALSGarnets and glassAll of these objects are inlaid with garnets. Most are set in this cell-workwith flat tops; this is called cloisonné garnet work. Others have a domedsurface, known as cabochon-cut. [SLIDE 28] Here’s some close-ups of thedifferent types, the cabochon garnets are on a silver backplate here. 5
  6. 6. Cloisonné is the main technique of garnet work in the seventh century ADand it’s very common in the hoard. The garnets were probably split alongplanes of natural fracture to make thin slivers, which were then cut to shapeusing an abrasive wheel. The shapes can be very complicated [SLIDE 29].This little bird is 2½ cm long but look at the amazing work that has goneinto it. Underneath each of the specially shaped stones you can seestamped gold foil – can you imagine how difficult it would have been tocreate the dies that were used to stamp this? The foil reflects the lightthrough the garnet, and it is found beneath nearly every garnet in the hoardthat’s been looked at so far.Cloisonné garnets would usually have been ground flat after setting, to givea perfectly flat polished surface, but occasionally you can see moresophisticated ways of shaping them [SLIDE 30]. This slide shows a seriesof tiny garnets cut at an angle, above, and below are these ribbed garnets.This kind of relief cutting of garnets is a revived Late Roman technique andis extremely rare – I only know of two Anglo-Saxon parallels to theseribbed garnets, and those are the two sword buttons from Sutton Hoo.Apart from garnets, there is also quite a bit of interesting glass work[SLIDE 31] – you can see blue glass insets here on the left, and what’sknown as millefiori on the right. This is a series of glass rods fusedtogether by heating and cut across into slices. This is a relatively crudeexample. Here’s another on a much finer scale [SLIDE 32] – those littlecrosses are truly amazing.FiligreeThe most common form of decoration in the hoard, though, is known asfiligree. [SLIDE 33] Filigree is decoration made up of beaded or twistedwires and pellets. You can see from this slide [SLIDE 34] that about two-thirds of the pommels have filigree decoration, but no two designs areidentical.ARTThe decoration on almost all of the objects in the Hoard consists ofanimals. [SLIDE 35] Here on the cross the animals are in relief and arevery clear, very easy to see; heads, legs, feet – or paws, I should sayperhaps. [SLIDE 36] Here are similar animals, though not so interlaced, in 6
  7. 7. the repoussé technique, where a thin foil is placed over a relief die andbashed hard; and also in cloisonné [SLIDE 37], animals and birds again.On the helmet cheekpiece we have excellent easy-to-see animals [SLIDE38], then on this, [SLIDE 39] which is still a mystery object – we don’tknow what it is from – the animal body parts are much harder to see (feethere, and heads here). There is more concentration on the ribbon-likeinterlacing bodies.[SLIDE 40] Then on the filigree pommels you can sometimes see theanimal elements, but in other places they are disappearing, and eventuallythey are gone altogether and you have pure interlace patterns.WHAT’S THE HOARD FOR?Now the next thing to look at is what the hoard actually was for, and why itwas buried where it was. There have been a number of suggestions[SLIDE 41] – I think it’s most likely to be a goldsmith’s hoard, buteveryone has their own ideas.Firstly, we don’t yet know – and we may never know now – whether it wasburied for safekeeping, or lost accidentally, or deliberately abandoned as akind of sacrifice. You may think it’s not possible for this kind of thing tobe just lost, but most of the objects were small; larger items like the crosswere folded up; and the whole thing would have fitted, it’s been estimated,into a large shoebox. It only takes someone to carefully hide it in abramble bush while they had supper and a couple of drinks, then a couplemore, then get into a fight, etc etc, for it to be lost for hundreds of years.FINDSPOTNow this leads me on briefly to why it was buried where it was. [SLIDE42] You can see that the findspot was just north of Birmingham, just overthe boundary into Staffordshire, and that it was just south of the RomanWatling Street. [SLIDE 43] Zooming in, here is Watling Street, runningeast-west. The site is very easy to see from Watling Street, especially as allthe lorries thunder down from the west – you can’t see it from the east, andI wonder if that is significant. 7
  8. 8. There’s been a huge lot of work on the landscape of the findspot already,and what this has come up with is that (as far back as we can go) it wasalways very marginal ground. The place-names suggest that it waswooded, and then later it was part of the royal forest of Cannock, then acommon, with rabbit warrens. It’s always been a bit wild, apparently notoften visited.[SLIDE 44] The excavation that was carried out after the hoard had beendiscovered did not, unfortunately, reveal anything useful about the context.It seems that the hoard had never been deeply buried, because no pit oranything else was discovered. That is, if it had been buried at all, ratherthan left in a hollow tree or a tangle of scrub.The geophysics was a bit more revealing [SLIDE 45]. You can see here acurvilinear feature, and although this turned out to be geological – it was anatural patch of clay –I think it is significant. It’s near the top of the hill(contours) and the clay would have held moisture well, better than the restof the field, so the vegetation would have been different. It would havebeen a distinctive place, where you might reckon you could find somethingagain if you buried it. Or it might have been a tangled mass of bramblesinto which you could shove a sack to hide it at short notice.HISTORICAL CONTEXTLastly I’d like to think a bit about the historical context of the hoard. As todate, there’s nothing obviously later than seventh century in the hoard.How early in the century it could be depends on your view of thedevelopment of Christianity. There are a lot of similarities between theanimal art and that found on very early Christian manuscripts such as theBook of Durrow, [SLIDE 46] but this unfortunately doesn’t have a precisedate either. How early might the crosses be, and the inscribed strip with itsBiblical inscription, bearing in mind that the first Christian king of Mercia beganruling in 658? There is still a lot to think about in terms of date.The most tempting historical event to link the hoard with is in fact the fallof our famous pagan king Penda. Penda is incredibly successful in hisbattles right up to his death in 655, and could easily have amassed a greattreasure of spare gold-hilted swords. These could have been taken apart forrecycling; they could have been transported along Watling Street en route 8
  9. 9. to a royal treasury, a gift-giving, or a craftsman; and they could have beenstolen.Or they may have been deliberately buried, and if we are looking for anemergency to prompt the burial of the hoard, Penda is killed at the battle ofWinwaed in 655 and Mercia comes under Northumbrian rule for threeyears. This is the biggest ever national disaster for the Mercians.If this hoard speaks of anything it must be wealth, and the political powerthat comes with wealth. It is remarkable that we have the spectacular riseand fall of Mercia in the seventh century, so perfectly symbolised by theobjects in the hoard and their eventual fate.[SLIDE 47] So that is the story so far of the Staffordshire Hoard. You canfind out more by going to this website – it’s got articles on the fieldwork,the landscape and place-names, the inscription, all sorts of articles on thefinds, and some on what it may all mean.I’ve also got some leaflets here which explain the system by which findssuch as this can be claimed by museums. Certain archaeological finds –mainly gold and silver objects and coin hoards, but also prehistoric hoardsand some other categories – come under the legal provisions of theTreasure Act 1996, and can legally be claimed by museums. The museumthen pays a reward to the finder and the landowner which is equal to themarket value of the objects – and this value is set by an independent panelof experts.The experts valued the Staffordshire Hoard at £3,285,000, so this figurehad to be raised by Birmingham Museum through a public appeal. The ArtFund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the local councils also putsubstantial sums towards the acquisition, and now you can go and see it ondisplay – parts of it anyway - while the rest is being cleaned andresearched. 9