Since the summer of 2009, the Anglo-Saxonist community has been abuzz over what its keepers are calling “the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard ever found,” the so-called Staffordshire hoard. Comprised of over 3,500 items of gold, silver, and gems, the hoard is one of the most exciting discoveries of the past century. Here’s what you need to know.
(I should preface this by saying that everything in the following article is a synthesis of things that are freely available online, especially on the Staffordshire Hoard website – so please do Google this yourselves.)
When, and by whom, was it found and excavated?
The hoard was found in July 2009 by metal detectorist Terry Herbert, and reported to Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, a program set up for amateur archaeological finds to be reported to the government. The dig was conducted July-September 2009 by archaeologists from the Staffordshire County Council and the University of Birmingham.
When does it date from?
Archaeologists working on the hoard have yet to confirm when the objects themselves date to, although they estimate that they were made from the sixth to the eighth centuries. When the hoard itself was collected and buried is therefore even harder to determine.
Why was it buried?
This is unclear. There are no graves surrounding it, making it unlikely that it was part of a burial. Other suggestions are that it was a royal treasury, some kind of tribute, or perhaps a treasure hidden in the face of a threat.
What was found?
3,940 mostly gold and silver items, which seem to be of mostly martial character (sword buckles, etc.), according to the website.
Researchers working on the hoard note that there are no objects in the hoard that can be associated with women. The hoard is also remarkable because
the craftsmanship is consummate. This was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good. Tiny garnets were cut to shape and set in a mass of cells to give a rich, glowing effect, that is stunning. Its origins are clearly the very highest levels of Anglo-Saxon aristocracy or royalty. It belonged to the elite.
They note that many of the pieces seem to have been torn off of larger items they were part of (like pommels being torn/broken off from their blades), suggesting that they might be the spoils of war. Whether that was one spectacular battle, or the result of years’ worth of collecting, has yet to be determined.
How much is it worth?
It was valued at £3.285 million.
What is the historical context?
This find is located in what would have been the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, one of the most powerful kingdoms in England until the ninth century (so this hoard was probably gathered near its zenith). It managed to subdue some of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of its day – Northumbria in the North and Wessex in the south of England, and waged somewhat succesful campaigns, both military and political, against and at times with the surrounding British (i.e. pre-Anglo-Saxon Celtic) peoples.
Why is this exciting?
More than almost any other field in history, Medievalists have to deal with a dearth of information. Sources of information are few and far between, and we usually have to contend with single copies of manuscripts, and spotty archaeological finds in poor condition. This means that every single find, however insignificant, can add to our knowledge of the period – which means that a hoard of this size can vastly change our understanding of the period, its history and its aesthetic. Only time will tell how much of an impact the Staffordshire Hoard will actually have. The last comparable hoard to be found, the Sutton Hoo burial, redefined the way a hundred years of students, researchers, and the interested public understood this period with artefacts like this helmet, that has graced the cover of almost every edition of Beowulf:
More specifically, material culture can tells us about the kinds of cultural contacts that a region had, whether through trade or physical contact with foreigners, since we can often tell where a piece was manufactured, based on the materials used and style of decoration. This, in turn, can tell us about the place England held in the Europe of the day. Many foreign-made objects implies close ties with the continent, and comparing the artistic styles of the objects can show how closely related English fashions were to continental ones.
As the hoard researchers suggest, the sheer abundance of incredibly well executed artwork can also help shed new light on the art of the period, and, potentially, force us to “rethink seventh century metalwork”.
The physical evidence of the objects, such as their wear-and-tear or remnants of other materials on them, organic or not, can tell us about how they were used and, in turn, can help us better understand Anglo-Saxon practices.
Most exciting are the sheer numbers. The larger the number of objects historians, art historians, and archaeologists have to work with, the more accurate their findings.