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Announcing Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard

Two gold and garnet collar-pieces from a sword hilt, from the Staffordshire Hoard, on display at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

Two gold and garnet collar-pieces from a sword hilt, from the Staffordshire Hoard, on display at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

Usually when I foist a post into the top of the sequence like this it’s because I’ve done something I think worthy of note that won’t or shouldn’t wait till I some day beat back my blogging backlog. On this occasion, though, it’s something many other people did and then invited me to, but it’s also the return of a thing to the blog about which I’ve written several times before here and even contributed in a tiny way to the scholarship about, to wit, the Staffordshire Hoard. The reason is, you see, that for the first time some of it is on display outside London or the West Midlands and where it is on display is in my new home of Leeds, at the Royal Armouries Museum, until 2nd October 2016 under the title of Warrior Treasures: Saxon gold from the Staffordshire Hoard.

Array of gold fittings from wargear from the Staffordshire Hoard, on display at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

Array of gold fittings from wargear from the Staffordshire Hoard, on display at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

The exhibition opened on 27th May, and on 26th May there was a private view to which, flatteringly, I was invited. So I turned up in conjunction with my old friend and sparring partner Dr Morn Capper, now of Chester, and saw what there was to see, which is quite a lot. It was my first visit to the Royal Armouries, for a start, which may be one of the few places in the world where even a real afficionado could get tired of swords. Sticking with that theme, they have only displayed items from the Hoard which definitely or close-to-definitely came off swords; there’s not even any of the Hoard’s helmet fragments that I saw, but then, they have an entirely different helmet to display that I’d never heard of.

The Wollaston helmet, with a replica for comparison, on display at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

The Wollaston helmet, with a replica for comparison, on display at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

I should have known about this, which was found along with a pattern-welded sword (which was still under conservation when I was there, sadly), a hanging-bowl and several other bits and pieces as part of a male burial in Northamptonshire discovered in 1997, but somehow it has escaped me. But now it has caught me up, or I it! And it was very interesting, as there’s enough missing from one side that you can actually see something of its interior construction and they’ve displayed it in such a way as to make that possible.

Inside of the Wollaston helmet, on display at the Royal Armouries, Leeds

Inside of the Wollaston helmet, on display at the Royal Armouries, Leeds

I have only good things to say about the display overall, in fact, which is both imaginative and sensitive to the artistic value of these objects as well as their interest as signs of a culture and set of practices of warfare. In particular, the lighting, which I know from my own experience is really tricky with gold, is spot-on (no pun intended—honest…) : everything is visible but there is almost no glare off the objects or the cases. It’s sorcery, and I want to know how they did it. But in the meantime, I had seen most of this stuff before and it was still interesting to see it afresh. And some of it, even if it wasn’t new to me, was new in this configuration, because this display is taking place after the great matching exercise so some things have been put together more than ever before in it, like these.

Ornamented sword pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard, reassembled and on display in the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

Ornamented sword pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard, reassembled

However, while the display shows great sensitivity in keeping things still and visible, there was plenty of motion at the private view, because there was also a combat display, a thing of which the Armouries makes a bit of a feature, and that was actually the first thing we were shown, before being allowed into the display.

A notional Saxon thegn fights a notional Viking settler at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

Men at arms! A notional Saxon thegn fights a notional Viking settler

This was fairly exciting. They did half the bout straight away, then paused for explanations and introductions, walked us through the moves they’d just shown us explaining each attack and defence, and then rounded off the display with a fight to the simulated finish.

Recreation Saxon and Viking warriors ready to fight at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

Introductions, and a better look at the costumes and gear

Unfortunately… the first section of the bout was sufficient energetic that they managed to snap the head off the notional Saxon’s spear. I thought the notional Viking had chopped through it, but it turns out I actually just about caught the moment and it looks a lot more as if it actually broke on the notional Viking’s armour. In which case, shows it worked…

Simulated early medieval combat going wrong at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

That’s actually got to hurt… but the Saxon’s pride was worse wounded, all the same

This led to a lot of off-colour jokes about age and inevitability, as much fromn the audience as the fighters, but they worked well with it, and in the final display you wouldn’t have known. I myself haven’t come closer to fighting than target shooting since I was a pre-teen, but I understand some of the appeal…

Jonathan Jarrett wearing a replica Saxon helmet in the replica meadhall at the exhibition Warrior Treasures: Saxon gold from the Staffordshire Hoard, at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

Photo by Morn Capper. You will notice how your esteemed blogger’s head is considerably too big for the helmet, which is supposed to sit down over the eyebrows it replicates… Oh well.

2 responses to “Announcing Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard

  1. I don’t remember you having a particularly large head! So now I’m wondering if the helmet was particularly small… Which makes me wonder if anyone has published a study of measurements (average and specific) for arms and armour of the period.

    And, wow, I am jealous of that private viewing!

    • That’s kind of you, but the experience of my life has been that my head is oversize compared to the regular population, just an inch or two out of hat sizes people usually carry. When I was in the cadet corps at school, which I did mainly to get behind the controls of an aircraft, they had to order me in a beret specially…

      More seriously, though, I think that work has been done for the high medieval era, because there’s just more kit to measure then. Several of the Leeds Ph. D. cohort are working on projects with the Royal Armouries and they or their supervisor (Alan Murray, who has the office next to mine) would probably know. If I can come up with a reference quickly I’ll let you know. But I do remember that the burials from Streethouse (I think), much closer in time and place to your work than that would be, were reckoned surprisingly tall for the Middle Ages—though how that combines with hat size I don’t know—so keep Hild’s world the same for now…

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