Understanding the Staffordshire Hoard
Ten years of research has revealed new insights into the nation’s largest Anglo-Saxon treasure.
The Staffordshire Hoard, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever discovered, was found in a field by a metal-detectorist in 2009.
Acquisition through the Treasure process by Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council began a ten-year journey to conserve and study this remarkable assemblage. The results of the research were published in 2019, and with the publication of a popular book earlier this year the research project has now drawn to a close. This article explores what we’ve learnt.
The hoard is composed of more than 4,000 fragments, which together make up around 700 individual items, making this much larger than the number of metalwork finds from Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. Only two of these are complete or near complete objects; one a gold cross pendant, known as a ‘pectoral cross’, designed to be worn around the neck, the other a significantly-damaged jewelled cross intended to be carried or to stand upon an altar.
The rest are all parts of larger objects that had been broken up and only certain parts included in the deposited hoard. The majority are precious metal fittings from the hilts of elite weapons, but the hoard does also contains decorations from other prestigious and religious objects, such as saddles, books and reliquaries (caskets for items of religious significance). Around one third of the collection, by fragment count rather than weight, derives from one gilded helmet.
There are no objects that definitely represent women or domestic life, and even as a battlefield collection, it is highly selected, missing many of the items associated with elite male dress of the period. As an example, the hoard probably contains fittings from over 100 weapons, but only three small buckles that might have decorated associated weapon harness or costume.
The hoard objects in time and place
A combination of investigative conservation, scientific analysis and archaeological and art-historical study suggests that although the hoard objects were buried together, around AD 650-675, each object’s story varies prior to that.
Lead archaeologist Chris Fern identified four phases of manufacture within the hoard:
- The oldest objects are a small number of silver weapon fittings, dating primarily from the 6th century AD: they probably came from what were considered to be ‘heirloom swords’ by the time they were buried, and many are heavily worn.
- Most of the gold objects are classed into two phases: filigree-decorated sword fittings dating about AD 570-630, and then a later group around AD 610-650 which includes the larger prestigious objects, such as the Christian objects and saddle furnshings.
- Finally, another small group of silver weapon fittings decorated with gold mounts in a distinctive ‘Early Insular’ style show little wear and date from about AD 630-660, not long before the hoard was buried.
Few people in 6th- and 7th-century England would have had the resources to commission objects like these, which were probably the preserve of kingly and princely leaders. They were vital symbols of status and tools of power, providing gifts to reward loyalty and for political exchange.
Even within this elite collection however, the style and quality varies, allowing ‘kingdom styles’ to be identified, suggesting that the objects were made in different places.
A small number of objects are made of higher-quality gold and with an exceptional level of craftsmanship. They share many similarities with the burial goods excavated at Sutton Hoo, and it is likely that some were made in the East Anglian royal court.
At the other end of the scale, some objects display a relatively poor level of technique and may originate in places with less-accomplished metalworking traditions.
The late group of ‘Early Insular’ style objects show both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic influences and may originate in Northumbria or another northern region.
The helmet reconstruction
The possibility that the hoard contained the remains of a helmet was known from the earliest discoveries, which included a pair of cheekpiece-shaped items. It also contains thousands of fragments of die-impressed silver sheet, much of which scientific analysis showed was originally gilded.
A 'research project within the research project' reassembled the sheet fragments, resulting in a rich scheme of panels showing marching and kneeling warriors and zoomorphic designs, as well as individual priestly and horsemen figures. Working from detailed scale drawings made by the research team, Birmingham Museums Trust and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent used traditional and computer-aided techniques to recreate the helmet as it might have looked before its total destruction prior to burial. The reconstruction provides a tangible reminder of just what an impressive collection of prestigious display objects the now-fragmentary hoard once represented.
With more than 100 weapons, mostly swords, represented in the hoard, part of its importance undoubtedly lies in its size. Hoards are rare for this period generally, and a cache of weapon parts of this scale has changed our ideas about the nature of Anglo-Saxon armies and their weaponry . It prompts more questions, for example about the size of armies and the proportion of elite warriors armed with swords in them. However, the character of the objects making up this large hoard is also significant. The weapon fittings include many sets of matching fittings, decorated with tiny animal motifs or repeating interlace and swirling patterns. Prior to the discovery of the hoard, there were very few examples of similar sword hilt sets: the collection has therefore changed our perception of weaponry and patronage in the period.
It is perhaps the early Christian objects that are some of the most significant.
The hoard contains a number of crosses – the pectoral cross , possibly once worn by a high status cleric, a jewelled altar cross, and what is probably the arm of another cross, inscribed with a Latin biblical inscription from Numbers 10:35 ‘Arise, O Lord, and may your enemies be torn apart and those who hate you will flee from your face’ (translated by Prof R Gameson).
There are also precious metal and garnet fittings that most likely adorned religious books and reliquaries, and one priestly headdress. Few, if any, parallels, survive for these objects; they give us new insight into the material culture of the earliest Christian Church in Anglo-Saxon England. They show a vibrant artistic tradition, drawing in the flowing, rhythmical animal designs of earlier pagan metalwork to decorate new types of sacred objects.
Why was the hoard buried?
Analysing its components has not solved the mystery of why the hoard was buried where it was, but it has enriched our understanding of the context. The burial spot was within the kingdom of Mercia, and its date – AD 650-675 – represented a key time in the history of both the kingdom and the nation. Penda, a vigorous king, had increased Mercia’s power through alliance and competition with its neighbours: many of the hoard objects probably originated in the workshops of those neighbours, perhaps carried to Mercia over many campaigns and through many political acts, such as marriage, other political alliances, fealty and over-lordship, giving and taking of tribute.
When he was slain in battle in AD 655, Penda was the last major surviving pagan Anglo-Saxon king, Christianity having swept across England in the preceding half-century during which most of the objects were made. The hoard objects thus represent, in physical form, the artistic traditions and ideas of a period of profound political and religious change across England, and their burial coincides with the turbulent time of struggle within Mercia that followed Penda’s death.