Staffordshire Hoard: The Most Exquisite Anglo-Saxon Gold Collection
Many people enjoy searching with a metal detector in hopes of finding treasures that have either a financial value or some historical significance. While most people may be lucky to find a few odds and ends, once in a great while someone finds something truly extraordinary. That is what happened to Terry Herbert on July 5, 2009 and it is where the story of the Staffordshire Hoard begins.
One of the exquisite gold pieces of the Staffordhsire Hoard. (Birmingham Museums)
Discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard
Herbert was using a metal detector to search farmland in the village of Hammerwich, in Staffordshire, England, that had recently been plowed, when his metal detector signaled that he had found a metal object. He would soon discover that he, literally and figuratively, had struck gold. Herbert’s find is the largest known hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and metal, containing over 3,500 pieces.
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Herbert was stunned when he discovered the gold and silver pieces located by his metal detector. He began to collect the pieces he found, which had been scattered over a wide area due to the plowing. Over the next five days, Herbert filled 244 bags with gold objects that had been removed from the soil.
At this point, he realized the site must be of great historical significance, and that there was likely more gold than he could ever recover on his own. Herbert contacted Duncan Slarke, the Finds Liaison Officer for the Staffordshire and West Midlands Portable Antiquities Scheme, and the owner of the land granted permission for an excavation of the area.
A selection of highlight pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard, uncleaned by conservators, still showing traces of soil. (CC BY 2.0)
Soon, Birmingham Archaeology was on site to conduct an excavation, covering an area of 30 feet by 43 feet (9.14 by 13.11 meters), in hopes of recovering all objects that may have been tossed and scattered by the plowing operations. Other than Herbert, the landowner, and the excavation team, none were told the exact location of the operation. It was kept secret to protect the historically significant site. During this excavation, over 3,500 pieces were discovered.
An announcement of the find was made on September 24, 2009, and a website showcasing the pieces received more than ten million views within a week. The pieces from the hoard were put on display at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, until they were declared to be a “treasure,” and therefore property of the Crown, valued at 3.285 million pounds (approximately 5.4 million dollars).
Gold artifact from the hoard. (The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery)
Another excavation took place in 2010, not to find additional pieces, but to look for other dating and environmental evidence. In 2012, additional pieces were found during another excavation of the site, and were again declared to be treasure and property of the Crown.
With more than 3,500 pieces discovered, the hoard now contains 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of gold and 1.3 kilograms (2.9 pounds) of silver, making it the largest discovery of Anglo-Saxon gold to date. And now, after 10 years of research and analysis, experts are ready to publish a full account of the artifacts of the Staffordshire Hoard.
What is in the Hoard?
An analysis of the items shows that most of them are military in nature. And that’s not surprising, given a recent study of the artifacts. As The Independent reports, archaeologists have decided that ‘It is likely that the treasures […] were seized (in perhaps between three and six substantial military encounters) by the English midlands kingdom of Mercia from the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and possibly Wessex.’
Many of the Staffordshire Hoard artifacts are military in nature. (Birmingham Museums) These are a hilt collar, pommel cap, and replica sword.
The hoard did not include common Anglo-Saxon gold finds such as feminine pieces, eating utensils, or other domestic items. Most researchers agree that the pieces tend to date to the 7th century, although it is not yet known when they were actually buried or deposited at their final location, or for what purpose (although there is no evidence that the pieces were included as part of a human burial).
Some pieces in the hoard include parts which were removed from weaponry, crosses, pins, rings, rivets, strips, sword pommels, sword hilt plates, and fragments. One item of particular interest is a gold strip engraved with a quote in Latin from the Old Testament: "Surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua.” (Translation: "Rise up, Lord; may your enemies be scattered and those who hate you be driven from your face.”)
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Gold inscribed strip from the Staffordshire Hoard. (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery)
Another odd artifact in the Staffordshire Hoard is a probable bishop’s headdress, which researchers believe may indicate the presence of one of the clergy playing a supporting role on one of the battlefields the relics were taken from. This is an interesting find as The Independent explains, ‘The headdress – made of beautifully crafted gold, inlaid with garnets and white and dark red glass – dates from the period when Christianity was being re-established across many of the local kingdoms that would eventually become England. It represents the status and prestige of the Church – but, significantly, it is decorated with typical pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon semi-abstract animal designs as well as seven Christian crosses.’
This probable seventh century bishop’s headdress was buried as part of the Staffordshire Hoard. (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery)
The Staffordshire hoard is a find that has provided insight into the ancient Anglo-Saxon civilization, while also generating some questions. The find shows that those who created these pieces had utilized a “secret” technique, through which lower-grade gold with a high silver content could have the appearance of pure gold. This was accomplished through a process in which gold containing up to 25 percent silver was placed in an acid solution, allowing the silver to leach out and to be burnished off. This gave the surface an appearance of pure gold, while the metal beneath was of an inferior quality.
The craftsmen had utilized a “secret” technique, through which lower-grade gold with a high silver content could have the appearance of pure gold. (The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery)
This was a fairly sophisticated method of deception in ancient times, leaving outsiders to believe the pieces were pure gold, when they were not. Researchers have concluded that the pieces were of the highest-quality that the Anglo-Saxons could have manufactured, and that the finds must be from the culture’s elite. Additionally, some pieces appear to have been intentionally removed from swords, belts, etc., and that they do not match the appearance of what would be considered “loot.” What’s more, it seems that many of the artifacts were deliberately bent out of shape, folded, and/or broken.
Reconstructed Staffordshire Hoard helmet. (Birmingham Museums)
The Staffordshire cache has also raised questions as to why the hoard was originally placed where it was. Deputy Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the British Museum, Michael Lewis has offered two possible reasons for the burial of the hoard. In his expert opinion, the hoard was either buried as an offering to the gods, perhaps as a means of showing the Mercian pagan deities were stronger than the Christian one; or it was a buried treasure that got lost or somehow could not be retrieved.
While he puts forth both suggestions as potential motives, he concedes that it seems unlikely that such a large, valuable burial would be intended as an offering to the gods, stating that that “seems like overkill.” Lewis has also stated that it is very unlikely that all of the pieces could be linked to a particular individual.
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A deliberately bent cross. (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery)
As the hoard was discovered relatively recently, much speculation continues as to the source of this buried treasure. Was the treasure left intentionally, or was it lost? Was it deposited by soldiers or thieves?
With such a high value, and such an impressive inventory of items, it is clear that the Staffordshire Hoard is a find that represents a very important piece of ancient human history. Perhaps with further investigation we can come to a stronger conclusion as to the source and purpose of the hoard. For now, the pieces remain an amazing example of the lost treasure that was found in a field by a man with a metal detector.
Top Image: A deliberately bent Anglo Saxon gold cross found in the Staffordshire Hoard. Source: The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery
By M R Reese
Star Items – Staffordshire Hoard. Available from: http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/staritems
Staffordshire hoard research reveals secret of Anglo-Saxon ‘gold’ – The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/oct/17/staffordshire-hoard-anglo-saxon-gold-secret-technique-treasure
Staffordshire Gold Hoard – National Geographic. Available from: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/11/gold-hoard/alexander-text