What the Experts say about the Staffordshire Hoard

Here are some academic views about the Anglo-Saxon hoard discovered in Staffordshire:

Kevin Leahy, National Finds Adviser from the Portable Antiquities Scheme:

The two most striking features of the hoard are that it is unbalanced and it is of exceptionally high quality. It is unbalanced because of what we don’t find. There is absolutely nothing feminine. There are no dress fittings, brooches or pendants. These are the gold objects most commonly found from the Anglo-Saxon era. The vast majority of items in the hoard are martial – war gear, especially sword fittings.

The quantity of gold is amazing but, more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate, this was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good. Tiny garnets were cut to shape and set in a mass of cells to give a rich, glowing effect, it is stunning. Its origins are clearly the very highest-levels of Saxon aristocracy or royalty. It belonged to the elite.

Most of the gold and silver items appear to have been deliberately torn from the objects to which they were originally attached. We have over 80 gold and garnet pommel caps, and there also appear to be fittings from helmets.

This is not simply loot; swords were being singled out for special treatment. If it was just gold they were after we would have found the rich fittings from sword belts. Perhaps gold fittings were stripped from the swords to depersonalise them – to remove the identity of the previous owner. The blades then being remounted and reused.

It looks like a collection of trophies, but it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle or a long and highly successful military career. We also cannot say who the original, or the final, owners were, who took it from them, why they buried it or when. it will be debated for decades.

We don’t know how it came to be buried in that field, it may have been a tribute to the pagan gods or concealed in the face of a perceived, but all too real, threat, which led to it not being recovered. When we have done more work on the hoard we will be able to say more about it.

Despite their war-like nature the decoration on these objects is delightful; Some are decorated in what is known as ‘Anglo-Saxon Style II’ which consist of strange animals, interlaced around each other, their long jaws intertwined, there is a joy to it. Many objects are inlaid with garnets and even covered in earth the colour is still breath-taking.

There is so much material in this Hoard that we may have to rethink seventh century metalwork. Earlier finds will be looked at in the context of what we find amongst this mass of material. In the past the seventh century has always been looked at from the point of view of East Anglia and Kent. It’s going to be hard to forget the Midlands after this! There are exciting times ahead.

The discovery of this Hoard in Staffordshire should cause no surprise. It is in the heartland of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia which was militarily aggressive and expansionist during the seventh century under kings Penda, Wulfhere and Aethelred.

This material could have been collected by any of these during their wars with Northumbria and East Anglia or by someone whose name is lost to history. Here are seeing history confirmed before our eyes.

Nicholas Brooks, emeritus Professor of Medieval History from Birmingham University:

Concerning interpretation: I find useful background in the practice (which survived into the 10th and 11th centuries) whereby Anglo-Saxon nobles arranged that at death a payment would be made to their lord of ‘heriot’ (OE heregeatu, ‘war-gear’) of weapons (sometimes said to be ‘gold-adorned’) and of bullion usually reckoned in mancuses of gold (though it may have been normally paid in silver pence, on the ratio of 1 mancus = 30d). Payment of the heriot, which varied according to status, obliged the lord to oversee his man’s wishes for the disposal of his property. Some 30 years ago in the BAR volume on Ethelred the Unready, ed. David Hill (1978), I showed that this practice, found widely in Europe, only makes sense if it was balanced by a practice, evidenced in Beowulf and other early OE poetry, whereby lords gave weapons and gold to their men when taking them into their service. I suggested that the heriot was likely to have become increasingly important as the practice of burying the dead with their best war-gear declined when Christian understanding of death and the afterlife took hold in 7th-8th C. That brings us into the period of the Staffordshire hoard; and Leslie Alcock’s paper on the Anglian graves of Bernicia in the Festschrift for JNL Myres, ed V. Evison, 1981, took the subject a little further. Recycling of very ancient weapons is shown e.g. by the death-bed will of the aetheling Aethelstan, who in 1015 bequeathed a sword that had belonged to King Offa.

It follows that kings, especially those of the expanding frontier kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex are likely in the 7th and 8th Cs to have had a supply of heirloom weapons, some very ornate, from which they could select the best to equip and adorn the noblest young warriors who were entering the kings’ following. The Staffordshire hoard would suggest that the Mercian kings had such a hoard of weapons – enhanced by the spoils of their victorious warfare – but that their practice was to give to their court armourer the best adornments from captured (or Mercian heirloom) weapons and to expect him to recycle the gold and bejewelled and filigree pommels, studs, hilt-plates etc onto the latest blades, which he (or a colleague smith) was making. In other words I think that the hoard is that of the Mercian court armourer. Whether the resulting weapons were primarily for court ceremonial or were actually to be used in battle can only be conjectured; that depends on how real one thinks the world of the Beowulf poet to be.

I would interpret the virtual absence from the hoard of strap-ends, strap attachments and buckles as indicating that such items might rather have been given to (and stored in) a different office, i.e. the court leather-worker, who would have been responsible for providing those entering Mercian kings’ service with the adorned belts and harness that they needed. We begin to get a picture of specialist offices in the Mercian household, responsible for different aspects of the clothing and equipping of the royal retinue.

We will clearly have to await the cleaning of the finds and the recovery of all the items that are still within lumps of soil before we can obtain a secure terminus post quem for the hoard. Meantime my initial impression, however, is that currently (in the materials that I have seen on the website) too much weight for dating is being placed on the inscribed gold strip with its quotation either from Numbers 10.35 (or from the passage’s recycling in the Psalms). I interpret that strip as the arm of a cross which had a terminal at one end with a round cabochon jewel; the other end (with its sharp but slightly curved edge) would have fitted into the central circular (jewelled) fitting of the cross. It will be important to read the inscription on the reverse, which seems to be upside down in relation to the inscription on the face and to be either more worn (? because next to the wearer’s clothing) or not to have been nielloed. Comparisons with the dating of the handwriting of extant manuscripts is a hazardous typological dating exercise, as the learnedly different conclusions of Elizabeth Okasha and Michelle Brown show. Early medieval calligraphers constantly went back to early examples as models for their scripts. Even Brown may be giving much too late a range of dates for the strip, however. since we have no English mss before the 670s and none in majescules before c.700, even though there were books and mss being written in England long before then. The survival of mss in majescule script is an accident of survival, and is unlikely to tell us anything about when and how the script originated. There are good reasons (in the light of the development of Roman scripts on the continent and Ireland from 4th and 5th Cs) for supposing that some version of majescule script must have been known to the clergy on Lindisfarne from 635 and to have spread rapidly to other kingdoms thereafter; they are very unlikely to have been initially limited to uncials and half-uncials. So I would conclude that the inscribed strip does not need to be any later than best of the ‘Style 2’ gold and garnet pommels and other sword jewels.

My judgment of the date of the hoard’s deposit would currently be c.650×720; the majority of the objects would seem been made in the period 600-650. At present I regard a deposit in 655-8, when Mercia was under Northumbrian rule, as very possible — but the reigns of Wulfhere and of Aethelred I are also possible.

Michael Lewis, deputy head of the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum:

The view is that it was probably in some sort of container but that has not survived and it was deliberately hoarded, put into the ground. What is unclear is why, and I suppose what we find is they would have been objects that had been stripped from the enemies’ weapons. What is interesting about the hoard as a whole is all the objects are associated with war to some or a greater extent. What the hoard consists of is mainly gold objects, there are some silver ones, basically they have been stripped from whatever they were on for instance sword fittings.

Leslie Webster, formerly Keeper at the British Museum and the leading expert on artefacts of this period:

This hoard is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England in the seventh and early eighth century as radically, if not more so, as the 1939 Sutton Hoo discoveries did; it will make historians and literary scholars review what their sources tell us, and archaeologists and art-historians rethink the chronology of metalwork and mss; and it will make us all think again about rising (and failing) kingdoms and the expression of regional identities in this period, the complicated transition from paganism to Christianity, the conduct of battle and the nature of fine metalwork production – to name only a few of the many huge issues it raises. Absolutely the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.

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