In the first half of the 7th century, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia was ascending towards the zenith of its power, hard-won through decades of conflict with neighbouring peoples.
It was at this time, perhaps in the aftermath of another victory, that an influential war leader may have returned to a spot beside the old Roman road running between London and Dover, to commit his glittering spoils to the ground.
Reopening a small pit, he could have heaped his trophies, gold and silver fittings stripped from enemy weapons, on top of hundreds of other fragments deposited during previous visits over many years.
His lucky streak was not to last, however: when metal-detectorist Terry Herbert visited the site, now underlying farmland outside the village of Hammerwich, some 1,400 years later in 2009 (CA 236), the cache was still unclaimed, although scattered from its original hiding place by modern ploughing.
This scenario is one narrative proposed by the latest findings of a major research project focusing on the extraordinary assemblage now known as the Staffordshire Hoard. Since its discovery, experts have debated whether the hoard represents a magnificent votive offering, a chieftain’s war chest, or even the wares of a virtuosic but ill-fated goldsmith who stashed his items for safekeeping, never to return.
Do they represent the flowering of a Golden Age of Mercian artistry, or plundered masterpieces made outside the kingdom? Over the last two years an intense programme of conservation, cataloguing, and detailed study, funded by English Heritage, National Geographic, and the hoard’s joint owners, Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, has begun to shed light on these questions.
A unique assemblage
At the time of its discovery the cache was thought to contain some 3,500 fragments, but this total is now close to 4,000, thanks in part to the discovery of an additional 81 pieces in the same field in 2012 (CA 276; their acquisition was funded by family jewellers Wartski), and in part to hundreds more tiny fragments that emerged from clumps of soil during conservation.
But while the numbers have expanded, so too has our understanding of the hoard’s burial, including the first signs of a possible container — two tiny scraps of flax cloth, preserved by corrosion on the back of a piece of foil and inside a sword fitting, which could point to the items being wrapped in fabric or placed in a bag — and how some of the items were constructed.
Slivers of horn have been identified, sandwiched between gold sheets, in some of the weapon guards, while traces of glues and resins, as well as various kinds of glass — including some reworked Roman glass — have been detected. Taken as a whole, the hoard represents a breathtaking Early Medieval jigsaw puzzle that is still being pieced together by specialist researchers.
The unusual assemblage also posed unique challenges for the conservation team, who devised innovative methods to tackle the delicate metalwork without damaging it, including using natural thorns to remove soil. Now that each item has been carefully cleaned, their exquisite artistry can be fully appreciated for the first time since they were buried. They include some of the finest filigree and cloisonnÃ© — where an object is decorated with cut gems or glass inlaid into tiny, specially made compartments — work yet discovered, comparable to the Sutton Hoo finds in their beauty.
‘There is amazing craftsmanship going on here; these goldsmiths were incredibly good at what they did,’ said David Symons, Curator of Antiquities and Numismatics at Birmingham Museum. ‘Look at the corner garnets on the sword pyramids, for example: they are taking 3mm stones and creating beautiful curves, working at an angle on two planes. Every surface is bevelled — it is such delicate work.’
Showing their working
The versatility of these craftsmen is also reflected in a series of gold strips decorated with garnet patterns that intersperse mushroom shapes and equal-armed crosses. These were once secured to the object they decorated — whether this was a reliquary, book, or saddle is still a matter for debate — with silver rivets, but these are only visible from the back of the gold strips; on top, they are concealed behind artfully arranged garnets.
Evidently the strips were only completed after they had been mounted, says Deb Klemperer, Principal Collections Officer at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. Could this indicate that the goldsmiths were also versed in leatherworking, or might they point to a group of collaborating specialists?
While the standard of the work that went into crafting these items is undeniably high, so too is the quality of the materials used. Some of the gold is of 80%-90% purity, with the highest carat identified to date an impressive 22.
Their ultimate fate provides a stark contrast to the care with which they were made, however: the fragments have been chopped up with little regard for their decoration.
Some garnet strips are snapped in half, while many pieces preserve cutmarks where a knife has been run underneath to sever their rivets. A silver bracket has been cleft in two with a sword or an axe, while many of the hilt plates, now twisted and distorted, have evidently been torn from their weapons. The sword pommels too show signs of having been levered off, with flattened patches of decoration testifying to the use of tongs to wrench them free.
This violence casts doubt on long-standing theories that the items had been gently dismantled for recycling by a skilled craftsman. Moreover, the fact that numerous regional styles can now be identified within the hoard’s contents contradicts suggestions that they were made in a single workshop, or even within Mercia.
The price of defeat
Instead, the team suggest, the hoard probably represents booty captured during multiple battles with different peoples, probably over several decades — something supported by the fact that its contents are overwhelmingly martial and masculine in character. Aside from a small number of religious items, the vast majority of pieces come from weapons or armour, which could explain the brutal treatment of its components, Anglo-Saxon specialist Chris Fern suggests.
‘If you had been up against the army that carried these objects, you might well feel a certain antipathy towards their possessions,’ he said.
It is now thought that the items may have been chopped up to create easily distributable bullion that a war leader could use to pay his retinue. Unlike its neighbours, 7th-century Mercia was not producing coins, but this assemblage would have had obvious value. David Symons suggests that the fragments contain about 11lbs of gold, the equivalent of more than 3,000 contemporary gold coins, and a vast sum for one individual to have access to.
As the hoard is normally split between four permanent display homes (the Mercian Trail), and its contents had already been divided when the new pieces were found in 2012, this project is the first time that the entire assemblage has been reunited since its initial excavation.
This has given Chris a unique opportunity to examine the pieces typologically, and to match fragments together. This has allowed him painstakingly to reunite objects that were broken into many pieces, and to identify pairs and sets of sword fittings from the same weapon. Around 1,000 such links have been made so far.
The identification of multiple suites of sword fittings, for example, opens a new window on the number and types of weapons included. Previously the number of swords was roughly estimated by counting pommels — 85 in all — but analysis of other pieces such as hilt plates and collars reveals that knives and swords ‘running into the low hundreds’ are present, Chris says.
The slots in hilt plates also help to reconstruct the appearance of their blades, revealing widths and whether they were single or double-edged. Meanwhile, the pommels provide clues to the chronological span of the hoard, and the origins of its contents.
Elaborately decorated with fine filigree, beaded wire, and zoomorphic designs, these ornate items were nevertheless part of working weapons, regularly worn by their owners and passed down from generation to generation.
The majority can be stylistically dated to the first half of the 7th century, but some are likely to represent heirloom weapons made in the late 6th century. Most are thought to have been made in England, albeit in a number of regions including possibly East Anglia, but one 6th-century silver example boasts a rather more exotic origin.
Decorated with a startled male face on one side, and two boars — ferocious animals associated with protective powers in both Old English and Old Norse literature — it is thought to have been made in Scandinavia or Germany.
Of all the martial items in the hoard, however, perhaps the most striking are the remains of at least one helmet — a rare find, with only five other Anglo-Saxon examples known in England.
Now broken into over 1,000 fragments, these include a pair of ornate cheekpieces, and large quantities of silver foil decorated with zoomorphic designs and parades of warriors — or ancestor figures, Chris suggests — marching in single file with spear and shield, as well as a man on horseback skirmishing with a footsoldier.
Yet while the military items have yielded a host of clues, the hoard’s few religious items Numbers 10:35 (‘Rise up, o Lord, and may thy enemies be scattered and those who hate thee flee from thy face’) written on both sides. But the team are still puzzling over why the writing on the inner surface is apparently unfinished, when the outer had been carefully completed and inlaid with niello.
Elsewhere, CT scans of a small pectoral cross have revealed a small hollow behind its central garnet — perhaps hinting that it housed a relic, although nothing has yet been identified inside.
Most enigmatic of all, however, is the item that the team have simply dubbed the ‘Mystery Object’. This emerged when a gold and garnet piece initially interpreted as a sword fitting, and a millifiori stud, were found to fit together, creating an ornate but oddly shaped artefact with no obvious function. Current thinking favours a liturgical purpose, perhaps as an elaborate cover for the Host, while Professor Leslie Webster, formerly of the British Museum, has suggested it could be a kind of priestly head-ornament, perhaps an attempt to create the headdress of Jewish high priests, as described in Josephus’ 1st-century Jewish Antiquities — a text that was certainly known in 7th and early 8th century England, and used by the Venerable Bede in his writings. The latter may sound like a stretch, but an illustration in the 8th-century Northumbrian Codex Amiatinus depicts the Prophet Ezra wearing something on his forehead that is tantalisingly similar. For now this must remain speculative, but, the team believe, it is a tempting possibility.
What next for the Staffordshire Hoard? With the first phase of cleaning and conservation complete, the second stage of research will see Chris finishing his catalogue, and the production of specialist reports as well as a publicly accessible online database. Work on the fragments will also continue. ‘The next job for the conservation team will be
to physically rejoin all the objects that we have matched — the silver pommels are a good example, as many are in multiple fragments — it is only then that Chris will be able to fully examine their form,’ said Pieta Greaves, Conservation Co-ordinator at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. ‘We will also do a lot more work on the silver foils.’
As for future research, the team are most excited by the hoard’s possibilities for informing understanding of Anglo-Saxon art, particularly the meeting of Christian and pagan motifs.
‘The hoard provides an artistic bridge between Sutton Hoo and later Anglo-Saxon artwork such as in the Book of Durrow [Irish or Northumbrian, dated to c.650-700],’ said Chris. ‘Some of the garnetwork is similar to “carpet page” designs which could help with the dating of Early Medieval manuscripts.
Now we can join the pieces physically, we can start to piece together their meaning too — right now, we are only at the end of the beginning.’
All photos: Birmingham Museums Trust, unless otherwise stated.
Find out more about the Staffordshire Hoard, including conservation and research blogs, photos, and videos of the team in action, at www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk.
A newly refurbished gallery showcasing more than 300 pieces from the hoard is due to open at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in October, and the exhibition ‘Anglo- Saxon Kingdom of Mercia’ — featuring a recreation of a 7th-century mead hall, as well as over 150 hoard artefacts (including 53 of the new finds discovered in 2012) and other Saxon items — opened at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in 2012, and will run until October 2015. See www.stokemuseums.org.uk for further details.
More information on hoard displays at Tamworth Castle Museum and Lichfield Cathedral chapter house can be found at www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/developing-the-mercian-trail