What can the glittering weapon fittings from the Staffordshire Hoard tell us about the Anglo-Saxon warrior elite? Lucia Marchini went along to the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery’s latest exhibition to find out.

A gold-and-garnet decorative mount, shaped like a bird of prey. (Photo: Birmingham Museums Trust)

It is a story familiar to many, and a find that has often graced the pages of this magazine (see CA 236, 276, 290, 297). In July 2009, a metal-detectorist discovered what turned out to be the largest cache of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver yet found. It was in a Staffordshire field near Lichfield, ecclesiastical centre of the kingdom of Mercia. The hoard consists of around 4,000 fragments of fittings stripped from swords, seaxes, and other arms in the first half of the 7th century. Decorated mainly with gold (some of which may have come from Byzantine coins), some silver, and also garnets from south-east Asia and eastern Europe, these weapons were the ultimate status symbols, signifying wealth, family, and religious beliefs.

Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard presents 100 of these extraordinary fittings from some 40 weapons, focusing on key themes such as warfare, kingship, magic, and gift-giving and loyalty. The exhibition also addresses the intriguing uncertainties surrounding the objects, such as who originally owned the weapons, why the fittings were ripped from them, and when exactly they were buried, why, and by whom. What is made clear is that despite the precious materials used, these were functional weapons. The top of one pommel cap is smooth, showing it had become heavily worn over what may have been up to 100 years of use before its burial.

A gold seax hilt fitting with a zoomorphic interlace worked in garnets. (Photo: Birmingham Museums Trust)

Animal magic

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Staffordshire Hoard, and a feature that the exhibition fully extols, is the meticulous craftsmanship that went into decorating the weapons. The small fittings have been set so they seem to float in a large, dark space in a way that draws you in to examine closely every detail of the fine ornamentation, using the magnifying glasses thoughtfully provided. This highlights the fact that, though the weapons may have dazzled from a distance, the richness of the decoration could only be fully appreciated by the weapon’s owner and any intimates. Some designs were made of hidden patterns and puzzles, requiring a keen eye to decipher them.

As well as flaunting wealth, the ornamentation had symbolic importance. Each of the weapons has been decorated differently, reflecting that these were personal objects and often family heirlooms. Animal imagery abounds in the fittings, and has inspired the graphics on the gallery walls. Snakes (which were associated with swords in Anglo-Saxon texts), boar, and fish were popular protective and empowering symbols; birds feature prominently in Anglo-Saxon mythology, and duly appear on many of the objects, with eagles representing victory and royal power, and ravens symbolising the god Woden.

A decorative mount in the shape of a stylised seahorse, adorned with filigree curls. (Photo: Birmingham Museums Trust)

It is not just animal forms that make up the decorative schemes: cross shapes appear too. This symbol, sometimes mixed with pagan animal imagery, attests to a momentous change in Saxon society as Christianity took hold. Indeed, Penda, the King of Mercia when many of the Staffordshire Hoard weapons were made and used, was the kingdom’s last pagan ruler. While the world that produced these remarkable objects was changing, the fittings themselves – safely buried in the countryside – endured, offering a snapshot of these enigmatic and turbulent times.

Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard runs until 23 April 2017 at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. Tickets cost £5 (concessions and group packages are also available). Visit www.bristolmuseums.org.uk for more information.

This review was published in CA 323.

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