“All the gold I could eat”: Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings

Cheek piece, fittings and zoomorphic mount from the Staffordshire Hoard

Cheek piece, fittings and zoomorphic mount from the Staffordshire Hoard

As mentioned previously, fabulous things have been coming out of the English soil just lately, the 1500+ gold and silver items that is being called the Staffordshire hoard and reckoned a more important find than the Sutton Hoo boat burial, and two things have been written about them that you may not have spotted yet. First off, one of my two favourite Mercia pundits to drink with, Alex Burghart, has managed to get some wise word on the subject into the Times Literary Supplement as you can see here. I don’t entirely agree with Alex’s reading, however, and in fact as Cliopatria’s official early medievalist I had already supposed I ought to try there to piece together some more of the story behind the deposition of these marvellous objects. So I had a go in this post and it occasioned debate. In either case, you may like to go and see…

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11 responses to ““All the gold I could eat”: Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings

  1. From Burghart: The Sutton Hoo treasure was laid coherently in the ground, its symbolism almost as careful as the images inscribed on the Voyager satellites sent beyond the solar system in 1977.
    I said much the same thing myself when the hoard was first announced, and was nearly as soon corrected, by you, in fact:

    “And, yes: but we don’t really know what they are. I mean, the significance of the whole site is still under dispute, and we don’t know who was buried in the main mound, still less the lesser ones. It was however a site that continued in use for a while, and seems to have had a number of different uses (royal burial, execution site, possibly recidivist pagan sanctuary…)”

    I commented over at the HNN as well. I think people are concluding too soon that the hoarder must have been pagan. A nominal Christian, a greedy or terrified Christian, a Christian who didn’t care much for crosses, etc., all could have bent and buried the cross. Christians have done all kinds of things: why not this?

    • I think that we may have been suckered by The Dream of the Rood and standing crosses into assuming a huge veneration of the Cross which would have, actually, been a personal choice as much as anything especially at a stage of Christianization as early as that from which this stuff may come. And even if the hoarder were a devout Christian, I think that the circumstances of the deposition and lack of recovery suggest strongly that they were just in a hurry and in fear of their lives, and maybe they even thought they were keeping God’s goods safe when they crammed them into that bundle. I don’t think we can get any kind of religious praxis out of those mistreated objects with any security. This is one of the reasons I don’t fully agree with Alex, but he has other sensitivities, especially to the Mercian context, which are more developed than my take.

  2. I don’t think we can get any kind of religious praxis out of those mistreated objects with any security
    Fully in agreement. I think Brandon Hawk’s reading of the verse from Numbers/Psalms is solid, but apart from that, but I’m not convinced yet on any reading of the cross I’ve seen.

    • I agree with you about Hawk’s post. I also, as you will have seen in the comments, feel that the crosses and the inscription strip have to have an explanation as part of a military assemblage, or at least as ecclesiastical paraphernalia to a sort of `war treasury’, because of the absence of other sorts of treasure. But that doesn’t actually make explaining them much easier, the reverse if anything!

  3. “maybe they even thought they were keeping God’s goods safe when they crammed them into that bundle”
    Yes, exactly so. We have a fact: the cross was bent. That fact can have several interpretations. I would be cautious about leaping to an assumption about any of them.

    Kevin Leahy’s comment that the crosses were non-martial isn’t necessarily at odds with them being used in a military context, is it? They are non-martial in the sense that they aren’t weapons and they don’t have to be weapon fittings (which is not the same as saying that they cannot be). Even if they weren’t attached to something like a shield or helmet or battle-standard (which I am not sure we know yet), what about a military chaplain carrying holy symbols with a warband, perhaps even into or near to battle, to ask for divine help and protection? There’s the precedent of the monks at the Battle of Chester (admittedly not a very happy precedent…) and Oswald set up a wooden cross just before his victorious battle at Hefenfelth and made his army pray at it before advancing to battle. If the hoard is a collection of war trophies, either taken in a battle or battles or demanded as military tribute, could it not have included religious symbols or standards that travelled with the army(ies)? A high symbolic value placed on standards is known from other military traditions (as widely separated as Roman legionary eagles and regimental colours in the Napoleonic wars).

    • I like the idea of the religious stuff as bits of standards, yes, but one of them is apparently a pendant cross which I find harder to fit into such an interpretation. OK, so maybe there’s your chaplain, but I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘everything gold off the defeated force’ because there’s no belt-buckles or brooches and there ought to have been more of those than sword-pommels at any given fight… Everything but the crosses and the strip are actually from weapons or armour, as far as we can tell; my feeling is that these pieces must therefore also be from weapons or armour, and I’d admit the standard as a thing in that category (like a labarum especially), but the strip and the pendant cross are still problematic.

  4. Could the pendant have been attached to some item of military gear, perhaps as a sort of amulet or lucky charm? Decorating a scabbard maybe; one of the pieces is catalogued as a scabbard boss, so presumably scabbard decorations were allowed in the hoard. There may be a better idea of how unusual the pendant cross and the inscribed strip are when all the little blocks of earth are fully analysed – if some of those turn out to contain additional items that aren’t obviously weapon fittings the pendant cross might look less isolated and the question changes.
    Or how about the hypothetical chaplain’s regalia being regarded as having some especial significance that gave them an importance equal to that of weapons? That wouldn’t be inconsistent with Aethelferth at the Battle of Chester saying “if they are calling to their god against us they are fighting us even though they have no weapons” and attacking the monks first.
    Or, more prosaically, if the hoard was taken from somewhere and buried in a hurry, maybe a few extraneous bits and pieces got caught up with it in the panic.

    • As to the chaplain, well, I don’t think this was the accumulation of one battle so if they are the gear of one particular ecclesiastic, one has to wonder why there was one occasion where he was present. There could be lots of answers to that of course – not least, I suppose, he could have been a kind of curator of the hoard in its original context – but it still implies some rôle for such a person which we don’t usually envisage, doesn’t it? I agree that the other items may well rebalance the possible answers though; I may be wrong about the implications of the data without those parts of it.

  5. highlyeccentric

    :D I didn’t get a chance to chase around the blogosphere when the hoard was found (I terrified people at dinner parties and in the office instead), but I like your thinking. And, well, YAY NEW SHINY THINGS. More stuff to argue about! Whoo!

    • Chasing would have taken some time. The “possibly related posts” that WordPress threw up after I’d uploaded this post brought me four more reports I’d not spotted! The amount of interest in it is amazing. Is this going to lead to increased funding for archæology, though? Well, somehow I doubt it. I fear that simply demonstrating a popular support for the humanities and heritage industry won’t alter the government’s policies on them, in much the same way as demonstrating massive opposition to the war in Iraq didn’t in any way stop us starting it. It’s very medieval in a way; the options are either lobbying at court or violent revolution. And the former is probably better for continuity in academia…

  6. Pingback: Seminar CLIV: continuing to work out the Staffordshire Hoard | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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