Seminar CCIV: continuing to work out the Staffordshire Hoard

There seems to be little question that being in Birmingham has put me in a place where I can reach a much wider range of medievalist activity than my previous employments allowed, and by way of proof of this, on 13th May of this same year I was at the University of Leicester hearing Chris Fern give us the latest news on a certain famous find under the title of “The Staffordshire Hoard: the current state of knowledge”. Not many people would be better placed to, since Dr Fern (of whom we have heard here before) was then producing the object catalogue, meaning that he had perhaps a better view than anyone else of what the whole assemblage was like (at least, until they had got it all onto one table two months previously). For me, there were three particular areas where this lecture told me something new, and those were the silver items, the links between items, and the problem of parallelling any of the stuff, so that’s how I’ll divide the post.

Fragments of silver foil from the Staffordshire Hoard during conservation at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Fragments of silver foil during conservation at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

When the Hoard first came to light, one of the questions I quickly developed was “what is the silver stuff?” The news was always clear that that there was about three kilos of gold and one and a half of silver but it seemed that the gold was all we saw. This turned out to be not least because the silver was in much smaller parts than the gold, and thus harder to separate from the mud, but also because both those factors made it much harder to identify. In fact, it turns out very largely to be bits of 12 friezes that might all be from a single helmet, and the difficulty in working that out will be clearer if I say that amounts to more than 700 fragments. This is not actually a job I would want, I have to admit…

A silver strip from the Staffordshire Hoard in the process of reassembly by Rachel Altpeter at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

A silver strip in the process of reassembly by Rachel Altpeter at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

However, the Hoard team had been doing this, and not just with the silver. Of the total of circa 3,800 fragments they could at this point join up more than 600, not a lot but enough to show patterns. For example, they had 41 pairs of hilt collars to go at the top and bottom of sword grips, but a total of 85 pommels for those swords, as well as enough hilt-plates to allow for 4 each per sword, and much of this groups into two basic styles albeit with great and ingenious variations, one being gold, garnets and cloisonée glass and the other, later, involving much more filigree work and fewer gems or glass bits. On the other hand there are also some odd things that won’t group, the crosses and the wire serpents for example but also the three sword-rings that seem to have been casts, meant to look like really old Scandinavian swords but not actually being made the same way.

A close-up of a hilt collar with fine filigree work from the Staffordshire Hoard

A close-up of a hilt collar with fine filigree work, and when I say fine, I mean, the wires are less than a millemetre thick each!

This, along with the fact that we don’t know and probably can’t know who it was that stripped all this stuff violently off the objects it had once adorned, who it was who gathered it together and then who it was who buried it, and whether any of these people were the same or around at the same time, makes dating the Hoard qua hoard very difficult still. (One interesting point that only makes that more complex is that apparently though many of the fragments show signs of wear, this is typically at the extremities, not the parts that were handled, suggesting that these splendid weapons were perhaps worn more than drawn. This opens up the possibility that they might have been kept for a long time, and be heirlooms whose antique look was important in an age where normal weapons would have looked different.) We have a lot of stuff here that Dr Fern thought was best paralleled from East Anglia, which is something that happens a lot because basically our biggest single source of early Anglo-Saxon art parallels is the assemblage from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and that was so varied and so is this that parallels are to be expected, but there are a lot; on the other hand some of the material, especially the older-looking stuff and the silver, is more Scandinavian and at the other end of the period range Dr Fern suggested that some of the material, which is best paralleled from the Scottish site of Mote of Mark, might indicate British workmanship under Northumbrian influence and by that point, really, anything is possible except that there will be an easy explanation. So there is still a lot to do, but in some ways it seems that the range of things we can actually hope to resolve is closing down, and the parts of the Hoard that are destined to remain enigmas are, paradoxically, becoming more clearly obscure as our knowledge of it increases.

Presumably a full publication of the Hoard is now relatively close but until that time, apart from the project website from which I have linked almost all my pictures in this post, the basic starting point is Kevin Leahy & Roger Bland, The Staffordshire Hoard (London 2009), which was quite limited in what it could then say. For the other two sites I’ve mentioned there’s a wealth of material on the Sutton Hoo ship burial but the easiest way in is perhaps now Gareth Williams, Treasures from Sutton Hoo (London 2011), in the same series. Then lastly there’s Lloyd Laing & David Longley, The Mote of Mark: a Dark Age hillfort in South-West Scotland (Oxford 2006).

10 responses to “Seminar CCIV: continuing to work out the Staffordshire Hoard

  1. It’s interesting that the hoard is in Staffordshire. What would have made Anglo-Saxons bury treasured items in a hurry there? So far as I’m aware the biggest medieval event in that county was the “exceptionally bloody” 1069 Battle of Stafford, which Edric the Wild incited but didn’t engage in.

    • Well, it is relatively close to the two Mercian ‘capitals’ of Tamworth and Lichfield, but really, beyond that your guess is as good as mine (and mine was first offered here).

    • Allan McKinley

      Well Lichfield and Tamworth, two of the principal Mercian centres lie in Staffordshire, and Hammerwich is not that far from these. If you need an event Northumbrians and Welsh both seem to have raided the area in the seventh century, but we don’t know why hoards were buried so that might be reading a bit much into it.

  2. The Leahy and Bland book is now in a second edition, published in 2014, which provides some more up-to-date ideas and images than the 2009 edition.

    • Ah., excellent! I hadn’t seen it. Thankyou.

      • I forgot to mention that there’s also another recent publication out about the Hoard by Chris Fern & George Speake, titled ‘Beasts, Birds and Gods: Interpreting the Staffordshire Hoard’. It covers the use of animal imagery within the collection, and places this in a wider English and European context. Not sure if it’s available online yet or in bookshops- I had mine from the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent, and I suspect Birmingham Museum will also be selling it.

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