The Staffordshire Hoard —the largest assemblage of Anglo-Saxon metalwork yet found in England — has been assembled in its entirety for the first time since its excavation, as part of a major research project that is still uncovering a wealth of clues about this unique collection.
When the cache was first discovered in a Hammerwich field in 2009, it was thought to contain some 3,500 fragments. This total has now been boosted to close to 4,000, thanks in part to the discovery of an additional 81 pieces in the same field in 2012 (CA 276), and to hundreds more tiny fragments emerging from clumps of soil during conservation.
Comparable to the Sutton Hoo finds in their exquisite artistry, these items have been brought together to allow Anglo-Saxon specialist Chris Fern to examine them typologically. This has allowed him painstakingly to reunite objects that were broken into many pieces, and identify pairs and sets of sword fittings from the same weapon. Around 1,000 such links have been made so far.
‘These help to inform the bigger picture: the Staffordshire hoard is much more than the sum of its glittering parts,’ said Chris. ‘Beautiful though its components may be individually, together we can use them to build stylistic groups, and start exploring possible origins for the metalwork.’
Over the last 18 months an intense programme of conservation, cataloguing, and detailed study, funded by English Heritage and the hoard’s joint owners, Birmingham Museums Trust, and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke on Trent, has revealed the presence of multiple regional styles within the hoard’s contents, and has shed vivid light on how many of the intricate items were put together. The quality of the materials used has also been thrown into sharp relief: some of the gold is of 80-90% purity, with the highest carat identified to date an impressive 22.
David Symons, Curator of Antiquities and Numismatics at Birmingham Museum, suggests that the fragments contain about 11lb of gold, a vast sum for one individual to have access to.
Chris Fern added: ‘This points to a significant personality in the region — whoever held this was a commander of pre-eminent status. Heroic poetry such as Beowulf alludes to this kind of magnificence, which is also hinted at by elite burials like Sutton Hoo, but otherwise we previously had no material evidence for the extent of the warrior economy in Anglo-Saxon England, and the gold wealth that some powerful individuals controlled.’
Watch out for our full account of these findings — and more photographs of the newly-conserved items — in Current Archaeology 290, where we will explore the latest thinking on the hoard’s pieces, provenance, and purpose.