Thursday, 24 September 2009

First Impressions: The Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard, first discovered on private land in July 2009 and now revealed to the world, has gained widespread publicity, much to the delight of scholars of Anglo-Saxon England always keen to publicise their somewhat neglected field. The claim made at the press conference yesterday that it is a ‘treasure that will rewrite history’ appears to be considerably more than hyperbole. It is by far the largest find of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found: 5kg of gold, to be exact, as well as 1.3kg of silver. That’s five times the amount of gold found at Sutton Hoo. One strip of gold bears a Biblical inscription, from the Book of Numbers, in Latin: ‘Surge domine et dissipentur intimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua (Rise up, O Lord and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face). This particular object has already stirred up controversy, with some academics arguing that it dates from eighth or ninth centuries, others saying that the style of lettering suggests the seventh century, a period for which there is sparse material evidence.

Dr Kevin Leahy, the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s National Finds Adviser, has been responsible for cataloguing the find. ‘The two most striking features of the hoard,’ he claims, ‘are that it is unbalanced and it is of exceptionally high quality. Unbalanced because of what we don’t find. There is absolutely nothing feminine. There are no dress fittings, brooches or pendants. The vast majority of items in the hoard are martial.

‘The quantity of the 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. Its origins are clearly the highest levels of Anglo-Saxon aristocracy or royalty.

‘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 successful military career. We 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.’
Prof Helena Hamerow of the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University, also foresees decades of debate about the nature of the hoard. It’s hard to envisage the context. It appears to date from the time of the Mercian supremacy around the time of Offa, the eighth century, though the objects range across several centuries. They’ve been stripped of their nice bits, which suggest that the metals may have been collected in order to recycle or to be used as bullion. What is really important about this find is that, hitherto, the material evidence of Anglo-Saxon England has never reflected the wealth of the society that is claimed in contemporary documents. Bede, for example, often refers to the magnificence of Anglo-Saxon England, but finds of this kind from that time have been far more common in southern Scandinavia or France. Now, all that has changed. We will now have a much better picture of a very exciting period, when England became part of European culture.

‘The interest in the find is good for Anglo-Saxon studies too,’ says Hamerow. ‘It’s been a long time since Sutton Hoo, and it’s nice to see your subject talked about.’

Even so, that didn’t stop one eminent archaeologist, whose name will remain secret, claim that he would swap the entire find for one Anglo-Saxon document. There’s no pleasing some people.

1 comment:

Diomedes1962 said...

As it was neither buried nor discovered in Staffordshire why are you calling it the Staffordshire Hoard?

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