Sunday, 5 July 2020

Staffordshire Hoard: The Book of the Treasure

Eleven years ago today on 5th July 2009 local metal-detector Terry Herbert started to unearth some gold objects in a recently ploughed field near Hammerwich, near Lichfield, Staffordshire. Over the next few days he uncovered over two hundred gold objects. The discovery of the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found had begun.

Herbert contacted the Staffordshire and West Midlands Portable Antiquities Scheme and Fred Johnson, landowner, gave permission for an excavation to search for more items. Finally 4,600 fragments were found consisting of more than 600 significant objects of mainly war gear, totalling around 4 kilos of gold, 1.7 kilos of silver and thousands of cloisonné garnets; there is nothing comparable in terms of content and quantity anywhere in the UK or Europe.

This historic find was called the Staffordshire Hoard and went on display at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The discovery captured the public imagination and many of us stood in huge queues to see exhibitions of the muddy Anglo Saxon gold, before the conservators began work cleaning the finds before the difficult task began of identifying these thousands of objects which would take several years to complete.

It was announced in December 2012 that another 91 items of gold and silver metalwork had been found in the same field at Hammerwich where the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered. 81 of these items were declared treasure by the coroner.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery jointly purchased The Staffordshire Hoard for £3.285 million, where it is permanently on display with regular loans to historic Mercian sites at Tamworth Castle and Lichfield Cathedral.

Except for three religious objects, the Staffordshire Hoard is mainly composed of male war gear; 80% of the objects are decorative fittings from the hilts of swords or from their scabbards. It is estimated that over a hundred weapons are represented by these fittings.

About a third of the fragments in the Staffordshire Hoard come from a very high-status helmet, a very rare find; only a very small number have been found from this period, only five other reasonably-complete Anglo-Saxon helmets are known. Over a thousand pieces were reconstructed from the original Anglo Saxon helmet that had been cut into strips and buried with the Hoard. The detail and bold, crested design indicate that the Staffordshire Hoard helmet probably worn by an important owner.

Two reconstructions of the helmet were completed in 2018, nearly 10 years since the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered, by a team of specialist combining ancient craft techniques and modern technology. These two replica helmets can be seen on display in the museums in Birmingham and Stoke.

The Reconstructed Staffordshire Hoard helmets

It seems we will never know who buried the hoard and why; most people in Anglo-Saxon society would never have had access to such items. However, we do know the objects were worn by elite warriors, ranked among the upper classes of society. Their style suggests that most of the objects in the Hoard were crafted in different places over a long time period, between 550 - 650 AD, yet assembled and buried together between 650-675 AD in a remote area, just south of the Watling Street Roman road, barely 2 miles from the remains of the old Roman settlement at Letocetum (Wall, Staffordshire), in the heart of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.

The Welsh poem Marwnad Cynddylan (Lament for Cynddylan), a 7th century king of Powys, describes an otherwise unknown battle near Lichfield and alludes to Cynddylan’s host taking great booty. However, although the discovery of the buried gold has generated much interest in this poem, the context of the elegy in relation to the Staffordshire Hoard is yet to be determined; yet, intriguingly it is argued the poem originates from around the time of Cynddylan's death.

Anglo Saxon Treasure
Since its discovery we have awaited publication of the full story of the Staffordshire Hoard. Obviously an immense amount of work has been done since 2009 in cleaning, conservation and analysis. For example, who would have thought on discovery of those near 5,000 fragments that a third of them would comprise a rare Anglo Saxon helmet? Until recently the only literature available on the Staffordshire Hoard was a couple of booklets serving as exhibition souvenirs.

A 48 page booklet The Staffordshire Hoard by Kevin Leahy and Roger Bland was published by the British Museum shortly after the Hoard’s discovery in 2009. Then in 2014 West Midlands History published a 40 page booklet Beasts, Birds and Gods: Interpreting the Staffordshire Hoard by Chris Fern and George Speake providing tentative interpretations of the symbolism and iconography employed in the decoration of selective objects from the Hoard. Both of these slim booklets were produced to accompany the exhibitions.

Then in 2016 local man Robert Sharp, a guide at Lichfield Cathedral where a selection of objects from The Staffordshire Hoard are on display, published The Hoard and its History: Staffordshire's Secrets Revealed (Brewin Books, 2016) which tends to focus on the religious items of the Hoard and religious artwork from the 7th century onwards.

Now a new book published by the Society of Antiquaries of London tells the complete story of the Staffordshire Hoard in detail, from its discovery in Hammerwich to the reconstruction of the helmets. The Staffordshire Hoard: An Anglo-Saxon Treasure (2019) edited by Chris Fern, Tania Dickinson and Leslie Webster, containing over 600 pages written by a team of specialists in Anglo-Saxon archaeology and history, together with expert conservators, illustrated throughout with full-colour photographs, maps and explanatory drawings. But be warned this is a big book!

From the publisher:

“The Staffordshire Hoard: An Anglo-Saxon Treasure tells the story of the Staffordshire Hoard’s discovery and acquisition, and the six-year research project that pieced its fragments back together, identified its objects and explored their manufacture. Key chapters discuss the decoration and meaning of the Hoard’s intricate ornament, the techniques of Anglo-Saxon craftsmen, the religious and historical background, and hoarding practice in Britain and Europe, to place this most exceptional find in context. Finally, the text explores the impact that the find has had locally, nationally and internationally in the twenty-first century.”

Table of Contents:


Part One: The Hoard
Chapter 1. From discovery to acquisition
Chapter 2. Characterising the objects
Chapter 3. Workshop practice
Chapter 4. The lives of objects: wear, modification, repair and damage
Chapter 5. Styles of display and revelation Style and substance
Chapter 6. Date and origin Dating the Hoard

Part Two: The Broader Context
Chapter 7. The historical context: local, regional and national
Chapter 8. The archaeological context: matters of material and social significance
Chapter 9. Hoards and hoarding
Chapter 10. What does it mean?

Part Three: Catalogue and Guide to the Digital Component

>> The Staffordshire Hoard website

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