Seminary LXVIII: a namecheck to be treasured

I am conscious that I’m writing these up more slowly than I’m amassing the notes, but this will presumably ease once term does and speed up once I finally get online from home, whereas, as it is, all blogging is kind of stolen moments. However, since I came into the office an hour earlier than planned the day I wrote most of this, because of missing the UK’s winter clock change, I suppose I have stolen some. On 13th October the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar hosted a round-table about the Staffordshire Hoard, and it was jolly interesting. The speakers were Guy Halsall, Leslie Webster and David Ganz, and this had attracted such a crowd that Guy, who turned up perhaps a little bit behind the dot (not that I can talk) almost had nowhere to sit. There were plenty of others on the floor, I’ve never seen that room so full.

Stylised horse terminal from the Staffordshire Hoard

Images for this post are not going to be hard to find (and they're all Creative Commons licensed)

Alan Thacker introduced the proceedings, and the Hoard, and in doing so added several facts that I hadn’t managed to gather, and in particular hadn’t known when I wrote my Cliopatria piece about the Hoard some time ago: that the Hoard was found at Hammerwich (which as he said was an auspicious name for a metalwork deposit) and that the site is very close to Watling Street. It also emerged later that the deposition site may have once had a mound over it, which would have been quite clear from the road, and this considerably alters my thinking about it, but all that can come in a minute. Guy, who has written about this on his own blog indeed, once again presented the very strong case against the Hoard being a collection of trophies, because the identity of trophy items is important. If one had captured some really impressive swords, one would show off the swords, not their fittings, and so on. He also argued, and argues, that the size of the Hoard indicates that we should be thinking in terms of early medieval armies of hundreds or even thousands, not a 36-man warband as the Laws of Ine seem to imply. Then, most shockingly to me, he said that until a short while before he hadn’t had a better answer, but now he’d read one on the web and it was mine. Guy didn’t actually know I was there at this point, and so I was left in the corner with the usual bottom-of-stomach-missing reaction when an academic talks of my blogging—it is where my biggest dose of impostor syndrome is located, because I’m well aware that I don’t research these posts as closely as I do my academic work. Nonetheless, Guy liked the interpretation of the hoard as a ransom paid after a defeat, a humiliation by denuding the weapons of the defeated, and although, as I said cautiously in questions, that’s a very romantic interpretation, damned if I can think of a better one. And that was apparently roughly how Guy felt, although he went on to differ from me about the nature of the deposition, which is fair enough as, given the information about the mound, I think that what I then suggested about the deposition (that it was an attempt to steal the goods back gone wrong) is less plausible than Guy’s explanation of it as a symbolic deposit, neutralising the wealth of the enemy.1

Helmet cheek-piece from the Staffordshire Hoard

Helmet cheek-piece from the Staffordshire Hoard

Leslie Webster substantially agreed with Guy, but added a few very useful points. The first of these was that, since we can now say that the fragments of helmet in the Hoard don’t add up to one complete helmet, or even part of only one helmet, but bits of several, it is likely that the Hoard was only part of a larger assemblage, so that we need to keep the phases of accumulation, selection and deposition rigorously separated in our interpretation. My explanation really only covers accumulation. She also noted that (unlike Sutton Hoo!) almost all of the metalwork was of English origin. Dating of any of the individual objects is practically impossible; furthermore, the variation in the possibilities of dating them means that another possible source of variation, geographical origin, is smoothed out to invisibility. To put that another way, if two contemporary pieces of ornament differ because they were made one in Middle Anglia and one in the kingdom of the Hwicce, for example, but we don’t know that they’re contemporary, we are as likely to attribute the variation to development over time as to geographic separation. (This is why stylistic dating is so rubbish.) And when we add into that the problem that individual metalworkers at this standard were probably highly mobile… we’re just never going to know for sure. Much of the silver looks less military than the gold: there are for example quite a lot of things that seem to be cup-mounts. She agreed that the Hoard is definably male and almost entirely secular, however, and though I make her presentation sound substantially negative because of the dating impossibility, there was a wealth of snippets of observed information that possibly no-one else could have given us.

The inscribed gold strip from the Staffordshire Hoard

The inscribed gold strip from the Staffordshire Hoard

Lastly David Ganz (for it was he!) spoke carefully about the script on the metal strip that is the sole textual component of the Hoard. He also revealed one thing that I hadn’t spotted before, which is that the strip is inscribed on both sides (as witness above), but the other side appears merely to be a botched attempt at the same inscription as on the side we had already seen, so he suspects that this tells us that it was stuck fully down to something so that the mistake was invisible. He also told us (and few people could say so more authoritatively) that the text chosen, from Numbers, is not one that attracted very much interest from medieval commentators, unlike a similar one from Psalm 67 (as the Vulgate numbers it; you may, as I did, find it as Psalm 68 in your translation), so that the script as we have it is an odd choice. It does however crop up in the Life of Guthlac, which is of course almost the only Mercian text we have that isn’t a charter, and would presumably have been available to many from the liturgy. The orthography, he said, is unparalleled, suggesting that no actual text was available to copy from: someone who knew the text must have told it to the smith or the smith remembered it himself. As to its date, he would say no more than seventh-century, perhaps best paralleled by manuscripts from the latter part of that century (not least the Cathach of Columba) and Welsh inscriptions, but even that is enough to help decide between the widely-separated dates given by Michelle Brown and Elizabeth Okasha, the latter of which pushed the strip far later than we suppose anything else in the Hoard to have been, however wide its date-range may be. He lastly pointed out that the text itself is written in the body of a beast which forms the strip, which may indicate the banishment of the Devil by the incantation.

Obligatory pseudo-hoard photograph of material from the Staffordshire Hoard

Obligatory pseudo-hoard photograph of material (including the above pieces) from the Hoard

There were some lively questions, so much so that it was only at the very end that I could reveal my presence to Guy. Roy Flechner pointed out that St Patrick, on returning to Ireland, is said to have brought with him a collection of treasure with which he could buy stuff, and wondered if this too could be some migrant’s treasure trove, ‘banked’ in the ground and accessed as needed as Patrick’s would presumably have been. I don’t think that works for this, it’s just too special, but as a reminder of how such things might have worked in other cases it was very salutary. Guy wondered if it really needed to be so high-status, if armies were as large as he believes, but Leslie Webster pointed out that only at Sutton Hoo do we have any other case of sword pommels being deposited; otherwise, presumably, they were always kept back, but this Hoard has many of them. So whatever it is, and at the end of the day despite Guy (and me I suppose, indirectly) the jury was still out on that, we are pretty much agreed that it’s one of a kind. What that kind is, we may yet hope to agree at least, but maybe not when or whose alas.

1. I always struggle with this, because if one buried a lot of robbed precious metal somewhere obvious, my natural expectation is for it not to be there next day. And yet, we have Sutton Hoo, and there’s no way that the deposition of a boat full of treasure in a huge mound can have gone unnoticed by the local populace or been obscure of purpose to immediately-succeeding generations, yet it was left alone. And the same goes for every other rich and conspicuous burial, really. I recognise my twentieth-century capitalist upbringing shaping my expectations here, therefore. It’s later these things get stolen, if they do; the Hoard, if it had been deposited like that, could well have been left until no-one remembered it was there.

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9 responses to “Seminary LXVIII: a namecheck to be treasured

  1. heptarchyherald

    I just want to point out that, in fact, several of the mounds at the Sutton Hoo complex have indeed been robbed, at least one of which looked to contain a boat. That being the case, we have no idea how rich these particular mounds were. Dating the robbery is another matter altogether, but, while the big mound at Sutton Hoo remained intact, others did not.

    • Yes, I should have mentioned that in fact. One assumes it was done later or the burial would have been a fairly silly thing to do in the first place, if it were likely at the time. It does raise the question of how Mound One came to be left alone, though, doesn’t it?

  2. My understanding is that Mound 1 had been partially ploughed away on one side in the medieval period, so it was asymmetric. There was a robbers’ pit, but it had been placed in the centre of the remaining mound, which was not the same as the original centre, and so had missed the burial chamber. Similarly with Mound 17, the only other mound so far found intact, where the robbers’ pit had been placed in the centre and had come down between the horse and the young man, missing both graves. If I remember correctly, the 1990s excavation turned up a number of 16th century artefacts in the robbed mounds, consistent with a spate of mound-digging at this period. (I’d prefer a more neutral word than ‘robbery’, but can’t immediately think of one).

    • As so often I am slightly shamed by how much more you have read on the subject than me, Carla, thanks for your input. I wonder why the early modern era broke the taboos.

      • Now having read the site report, I’d just add that the dating of the robbery comes from stratigraphy and an early map of 1601 showing a track that cuts the robber pits, but otherwise you’re absolutely right.

  3. I recall reading a comment in passing somewhere in this context that suggested that the Reformation had ‘changed the relationship between god and man’. I can’t now remember the source; the phrase stuck in my mind, but not its citation. It reminded me of the Dissolution of the monasteries at about the same time; different scale and different gods, but both the Dissolution and mound-robbing could be seen as an appropriation of wealth that had originally been dedicated to god(s) and was now considered as up for grabs for private profit. A related but not identical issue may be a decline in belief in supernatural powers – superstition, if you like. The Beowulf poet, for all his Christianity, seems to have had no problem with the idea that taking treasure from a grave mound was liable to result in a disastrous visit from an angry dragon. The medieval church believed in devils/ demons/ evil spirits and so on, and if such powers were believed to live in grave mounds there might well be a taboo on disturbing grave mounds in case you unleashed some evil force. I could see that lasting right through the Middle Ages.

    • And then coming into the fantasy world via Tolkien and other writers who used barrow wights and suchlike in their works, indeed! All sounds quite plausible to me, anyway, he says with the assurance of someone who doesn’t have to teach it.

  4. Pingback: “We’re all gonna be dirt in the ground” « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: Leeds 2012 Report 3 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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