In a temporary display in the upstairs mezzanine of the British Museum are two cases of jewelled gold pieces, some still caked in the mud from the field where they were excavated last summer. They are part of the largest Anglo-Saxon (early medieval) hoard known, and are really worth a visit if you’re in the museum.
The story of the find captivated England. In the middle of summer, 2009, an amateur metal detectorist living on disability, found a hoard of metal objects in a neighbour’s field, spent a week digging them out with his hands and a shovel, and then reported nearly 1,500 pieces of Anglo-Saxon jewellery and metalwork to the local official. On the 25th November of that year, the value of the hoard was set at £3.285 million pounds, and this amount was to be split equally between the finder, Terry Herbert, and the landowner, Fred Johnson, as per their agreement. Local museums in Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham, near where the object was found set about raising that sum to acquire the objects, so that they might stay in Staffordshire, where they were deposited some 1400 years ago.
The hoard of gold and (a few) silver objects, dated to seventh or eighth century, is the largest hoard ever found in the UK, and the only hoard of gold objects from the Anglo-Saxon period (ca. 500-1066). These objects were once a bag, or bags, of gold buried to avoid discovery and then never recovered. There are over 1,500 objects in the hoard, mostly small pieces of gold that were pried off of shields, sword hilts, and leather bags, and pieces of gold inlaid with garnets from belts, sashes, and scabbards. In itself this is very interesting: there are no coins and no specifically female jewellery, but rather an enormous range of male military adornments. This speaks to the violence of Anglo-Saxon society, men from different clans and different kingdoms battled one another across England. The findspot, in Staffordshire, was at the centre of the Kingdom of Mercia which was aggressively expanding in the seventh and especially eighth century. Anglo-Saxon politics were based on military strength and a warrior’s splendid weapons were the expression of his power. This collection of gold and garnet trophies ripped off of weapons, is an eloquent testament to fleeting wealth and supremacy.
Exhibition: The display cases, which make available a fraction (about 40 pieces) of the hoard, the rest of which is undergoing conservation, are located at the top of the South Stairs of the British Museum.
For more information: http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/
The Museum’s guide to the Hoard: Kevin Leahy and Roger Bland, The Staffordshire Hoard. London, 2009.
James Campbell (ed.) The Anglo-Saxons. Aldershot, 1991.
This post is by Dr Caroline J Goodson- Course Director, BA in History and Archaeology
Director of Doctoral Students and docent for Context London