Blogs > Cliopatria > "All the gold I could eat": Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings

Sep 27, 2009 12:39 pm

"All the gold I could eat": Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings

Cheek piece, fittings and zoomorphic mount from the Staffordshire Hoard

As Ralph has noted, fabulous things have been coming out of the English soil just lately, and as Cliopatria's official early medievalist I suppose I ought to try and piece together some more of the story behind the deposition of these marvellous objects, the 1500+ gold and silver items that is being called the Staffordshire hoard and reckoned a more important find than the Sutton Hoo boat burial. So here goes.

Gold plaque with entwined zoomorphic ornament, from the Staffordshire hoard

The discovery was the work of a metal detectorist, Terry Herbert, and it's been reported so widely that you probably already know the background if you're interested. If not, however, I can point you to the web coverage. The official management of the PR has been excellent: despite the discovery being made in July, it was news even to us 'on the inside' until press day, meaning that the site has been safely cleared without nighthawks descending. The official site, for it has one and a stylish one, is here, and there you can get the press releases and a PDF catalogue of the objects as well as some other material, but it is working quite hard just now and if you want to try somewhere else, the press release was posted here at Past Horizons almost before anywhere else, Archaeology in Europe had a special page up before day end, and then the press got wind of it. Richard Scott Nokes gathers a lot of the coverage at his Unlocked Wordhoard, and Peter Konieczny has many posts up at News for Medievalists including this array of video reports. The other side of the official effort, however, has been that even as it went to press 615 different photos of the objects were up on Flickr as a special set in the Portable Antiquities Service's photostream, and that's robust enough to stand almost any number of fascinated browsers.

Helmet cheek piece from the Staffordshire Hoard

So, what on earth have we actually got here? Well, in the basest terms there's 5 kilograms of gold metalwork, half that again of silver and overall more than 1500 items; the actual number is unknown as yet because about 50 cubes of soil that gave a metal detector return were lifted out bodily for disaggregation in a laboratory, and we don't know how many things are in them yet. However, this is so much more than a bullion hoard, or rather less: if it were just an accumulation of precious metal, as the head of the investigation, Kevin Leahy, has emphasised, there would then have been belt buckles, strap-ends, brooches, dress fittings and so on (and, I might add, coins), but what we have is almost exclusively fittings from war-gear: sword pommels, hilt collars, helmet cheek pieces and crests. Even those bits that seem not to be war-gear, three crumpled ornamental crosses that have been removed from something to which they had been riveted and a fascinating strip bearing an inscription from Numbers forecasting the overthrow of God's enemies, seem to me as if they could have been ornaments for shields or helmets, which seems to fit better with the martial nature of everything else. (Note this analysis by Brandon Hawk at Point of Know Return, who concludes provisionally that:"this verse evokes a supplication for bodily and spiritual aid from a warrior in need of the grace of God".) Furthermore, all of this stuff is of the top grade: as Leahy again said,"this was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good". So it is not just a marvel but a decided oddity; a top-quality and very selective accumulation of unparalleled size. Given the which, interpretations have been running slightly wild.

Folded worked gold cross from the Staffordshire Hoard

The wildest of these have focussed on the folded crosses. It's been suggested that the fact that these items were so bent and mistreated suggests that the hoarders were pagan. This suggestion, along with the seventh- to eighth-century date that the styles and the script on the inscribed strip seem to suggest (note that one of the two palæographers consulted places the strip's script much later, in the ninth century), and the location in the middle of what in Anglo-Saxon times was rural Mercia, have allowed people to link the hoard with King Penda of Mercia, a repeated regicide and obdurate pagan made infamous by St Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, whose warlike career and many tributes and victories certainly could accommodate such a trove were he not at the early end of the date-range. Other Mercian kings followed him who managed to control most of England south of the Humber, however, and it does seem that the deposition of this hoard must belong to one of their reigns, and the quality of it does suggest a royal connection. So even those not going"ZOMG the pagan warlord king's treasury!!!1!" have been talking in terms of loot from a battle of royal armies.

Map of England during the Mercian supremacy, c. 725-800, by Reginald Piggott

I have to admit that I think that is over-simple. Various circumstances stick out at me. Firstly, though this is inference, this was buried in the middle of nowhere. The PAS and the county archæologists have had plenty of time to examine the find site; if they're not digging it, and they're not, it seems to me that that means that ground-penetrating radar has revealed nothing that might be, for example, a royal hall where something like this might be put for safe-keeping. And we know of no settlements very nearby in this period. I think that this means that the hoard was buried in a hurry, perhaps on the run, after something had gone very wrong for its carriers. And, of course, the fact that it remained to be discovered in 2009 means that whatever was going wrong for them presumably continued to do so; this was not a treasure that anyone living who knew the location could have afforded to ignore.

Folded gold strip with Biblical inscription from the Staffordshire Hoard, Birmingham Museum NLM 550

Secondly, and here I have to acknowledge that I am not the only person thinking along these lines as this post and the comments at Carla Nayland Historical Fiction makes clear (don't be misled by her blog's name: Carla's analysis and data collection is as sharp as any 'real' historian's), there is the selection. Yes, it is war-gear stuff, so whatever was motivating this accumulation is based in some sense on these items' martial context. But the metal has been stripped off the weapons, so this can't easily be a king's treasury. If one had eighty-odd really really richly ornamented swords (and they have got bits of eighty-four sword pommels so far) the swords themselves would be the gifts to one's followers, not their fittings. These have been robbed. As one of Carla's commentators suggests, this may mean that whoever was forced to give them up made sure to keep the swords themselves against their come-back attempt, but even in less story-book cases it needs explanation. The same fact militates against it being war-loot; if the swords and helmets from which these came had been looted, why on earth would one strip the gold off them rather than retain the whole, war-worthy, object? And in any case, though it has been argued that there was an awful lot more precious metal in circulation in Anglo-Saxon England than its preservation suggests because it tends to get reused, this is an awful lot for one army.1 Eighty swords one might expect; but eighty so very rich ones? This is more than a single kingdom's élite housetroop, this is many battles' worth I think.

Gold stud with millefiori centre from the Staffordshire Hoard, Birmingham Museum NLM 545

So okay, my first thought when the news reached my department was that this was a craftsman's hoard, that, in other words, this metal had been gathered for the making of some truly fantastic altar frontal or a set of chalices or something like that. That fits with its being robbed off things but it doesn't fit with the location and the fact that it's all war-gear means that that object or objects would have had to have been meant to have a very particular significance, swords-into-ploughshares and so on. That's not impossible, but it makes things more tricky to explain. And if that was genuinely what was going on, why was it here and never recovered? I think this gets a bit easier when we separate out accumulation and deposition. We have to imagine a scenario where a treasure that had been accumulated over time was being moved and had to be hidden quickly. The accumulators and the depositors don't therefore have to be the same people.

Gold plate ornamented with fish and eagles from the Staffordshire Hoard

The best interpretation I can therefore come up with is this. What we are looking at here may be a tribute payment, demanded in silver and gold by weight (which might explain the apparently roughly proportional allotment of each metal). Whoever had to pay this had to strip a load of the richest gear, perhaps generations of treasure (which might explain the long date-range that appears to be possible in the age of the objects) of its precious metal fittings; and, apparently, it had to be war-gear. At this point one can't avoid symbolism and I have to admit that I see a defeated king being forced to deface his family's hoard of weapons by his vanquisher. If all this is correct, the vanquisher or the defeated would seem to have been Mercian, but I don't see that we can guess which with any solidity. However, what I think we do have to envisage is that the defeated party did not accept this willingly, and some attempt was presumably made to recover this treasure, on its way into or out of Mercia or else by raid once it had arrived. But the recovery or raid was caught, and apparently defeated. Some of those who were carrying the treasure buried it, quickly, without preserving its shape or form, just piling it into a hole in the ground somewhere off the route of their retreat. Perhaps they hoped to insure themselves against death by blackmailing their captors with the location of the hoard. If so, their plan failed, and they died without being able to let anyone know where the fabulous hoard had been hidden.

Staffordshire hoard excavation from Dan Pett on Vimeo.

(This video shows the Staffordshire hoard being excavated by the Birmingham archaeology team.)

This, of course, sounds a lot like a story-book narrative itself. Not for nothing have several people, including Leahy, quoted the achingly apposite words of the Beowulf poet:

They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth, as useless to men now as it ever was.

But, romantic though it may sound, I haven't yet thought of a set of circumstances that explains the hoard's situation and contents so well. (I think 'sacrifice to the gods' is actually more romantic.) Now of course, or at least once it comes off display at the Birmingham Museum, it will be intensively studied and analysed and we'll find out more about where the metal came from, what kingdoms or places might have supplied the artefacts and if we're lucky (though it will needs must be subjective) what era they date from, and then things may become clear that make my interpretation quite impossible. I'd actually quite welcome that because the unresolvable aspects of my hypothesis there will always nag at me unless we can somehow nail them down. But for now, that's my guess, and I'd be very interested in hearing yours...

1. Mark Blackburn,"Gold in England during the 'Age of Silver' (eighth-eleventh centuries)" in James Graham-Campbell & Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economy in the Viking Age (Walnut Creek 2007), pp. 55-98.

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More Comments:

Gold A Baker - 11/11/2009

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Karl Steel - 10/24/2009

Whoever desecrated a cross to fit it into the hoard was no God fearing Christian
Perhaps. But desecration--if that's indeed what happened to the bent cross--is certainly something a nominal Christian could do, depending on the circumstances, form of piety, and no doubt other variables. It's even possible to bend a cross if it's significant to the bender. I think it's best at this point not to get hung up on our hoarder as pagan.

Jonathan Jarrett - 10/12/2009

I think we actually agree on almost all of that last comment. Certainly I think the hoard shows that gold treasure was not as uncommon as we might suppose, but I said that in the actual post already. I also agree, albeit largely <em>because</em> of the number of swords involved, that this must have been assembled over time, perhaps generations.

I don't think it can be a scrap hoard, for the reasons I gave in my last comment: jewels still in place, selective choice of items (this following Leahy). I think however that we can have your (2) and (3) together. I think this must have been a collection and I think someone else demanded its fittings as tribute. This also lets us separate the motives of those who collected the crosses and those who 'desecrated' them (does bending really 'desecrate'? I doubt it! but I agree that it suggests a lack of significance of the Cross to the benders).

Whether it was a Mercian collection demanded as tribute by someone else or whether it was taken into Mercia from one of Mercia's defeated enemies, though, I wouldn't like to guess; your point about the lack of British work (though I question whether we know enough about British weaponry--we have all of two fragmentary British sword blades of this period, unless I'm behind the times, and no identified fittings) might make the latter more likely. I have never claimed these were battle trophies, in fact I think the sheer number of top-quality swords makes that unlikely but your point about likely circulation of such items makes that weaker, perhaps.

And lastly I would remind you that while Okasha dates the strip C8th/9th, apparently from the press report Michelle Brown favours a seventh-century date, and I wouldn't like to contradict Michelle Brown myself. I don't think this does very much to our picture except perhaps increase the likelihood of pagans handling the deposition, hence perhaps insignificance of the Cross. It's tempting to lamp the name Penda all over it, of course, but there are plenty of other possibilities whenever we like for the deposition date. This was, as you rightly say, a country full of swords.

Steve Sholl - 10/12/2009

There can be no doubt that the military gear represents a collection that may have been assembled over a considerable period, possibly over genrations. We can only speculate about why it was collected but at least four hypotheses have been advanced.

1. Battle trophies – such as has been discussed at length.
2. Specific tribute – my suggestion above.
3. A compulsive collection – the archetype of today’s coin/stamp/antique collections.
4. An artisan collection – scrap fittings waiting to be reworked by weapon-smiths.

Was this originally a collection of weapons or was it from the outset a collection of fittings? If it was a collection of weapons then, unless the collector deliberately stripped the fittings (to banish the spirits of the original owners, or the like), we must conclude that they were probably stripped by someone other than the original collector. The most obvious reason for stripping the fittings would be for their bullion or scrap value and this may have taken place many years, or even centuries, after the collection was assembled.

Finally the weapon fittings were buried along with other material which there is no reason to associate more closely with the original collection. It may be that the hoard was hidden by whoever stripped the weapons, but the date range of the items indicates that the concealment is most unlikely to have taken place during the lifetime of the original collector(s). Whoever buried an 8th/9th century inscription (see Okasha’s assessment on the official website) can hardly have been contemporary with a collector of 6th and 7th century swords. Unless of course, and it is a possibility, the collector was interested only in antique weapons and had no place in his collection for more modern items.

How the collection fell into the hands of whoever buried it can only be guessed at, but one thing is certain – it was an individual or group who had little regard for any symbolic value the items may have had for their previous owners. Whoever desecrated a cross to fit it into the hoard was no God fearing Christian. The items were buried either by pagans, who were unlikely to have been English given the probable date of burial, or by desperados of the kind who would not blench at casual sacrilege.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this find is the sheer number of richly appointed swords: at least 84, of which 67 were gold fitted and the rest silver/gilt. Moreover it can be seen that the work is of very high quality and the best of the Staffordshire Hoard can certainly stand comparison with the Sutton Hoo finds. From the mere handful of previous finds we gained the impression that gold mounted swords were the rarest examples of an exclusive weapon that, even in its basest form, was the preserve of the ruling classes. But this discovery tells us that richly firnish swords must have been numbered in their hundreds during the 7th century; which implies that more prosaic examples of the sword-smith’s art probably existed in their thousands.

Whatever the actual numbers, swords must have been a good deal more common than has been supposed hitherto. This will influence our view of the nature of warfare in the period and result in an upward revision of the perceived size of war-bands and the number of combatants believed to have been involved in major battles.

Steve Sholl - 10/9/2009

P.S. There are some interesting conclusions that can be drawn from this find but I'm running out of time now. I'll say more about this in my next post.

Steve Sholl - 10/9/2009

I get the feeling that the religious items are only co-incidentally linked to the rest of the hoard. Clearly both the military and religious items came into the possession of whoever concealed this hoard and but that needn’t have been from the same source.

We should keep an open mind about the nature of these finds but already the media and blogs like this one have become fixated on the notion of a trophy hoard, an idea which has some serious difficulties associated with it.

It is notable that every item in the hoard, with the possible exception of one small millefiori sword fitting, is English work. Have we asked why there are no British/Celtic sword items in the find?

Some possibilities spring to mind:

1. Whoever collected the “trophies” had no British enemies.
2. The British did not use swords in battle.
3. A/S metalwork was so prized that English swords were ubiquitous among the British ruling classes.

Of these 1. must be discounted if we are to accept a Mercian context and 2. is almost unthinkable, which leaves 3 as the most likely possibility. But perhaps there are other explanations.

What if the Mercian kings established a tradition of demanding a richly furnished sword from each of their sub-kings as a tribute and mark of fealty? Given the number of sub-kingdoms and territories known from the Tribal Hidage a collection of eighty swords would result in just a few generations. I’m not saying this is the answer, but it seems to fit better than the battle trophy hypothesis.

Jonathan Jarrett - 10/8/2009

I still like the inscribed strip for a helmet fitting, in fact; I imagine the ornamented end fixed to the rim and the strip bent back over the head. But let me concede the pendant cross; I grant that that is a powerful argument. In that case, however, why is there no <em>other</em> non-military metalwork? This cannot be a bullion hoard pure and simple; if it were, not only would there be belt fittings, strap-ends, anything made of precious metal, but the jewels and so forth still on these items would have been prised out. Somehow, these pieces belong together, or the selection would be less distinct. We also have to explain why they're no longer on the weapons, as I'm sure that they would be if they were battle trophies, something that I didn't say. So, if you don't like my scenario, what do you think links these items?

Steve Sholl - 10/8/2009

OK, lets’s consider the three items that according to Leahy are “clearly non-martial”.

First the inscribed strip. Your initial inclination was that this was a helmet attachment. Now that has been discounted (see my post above) you seem to suggest that this might have been fixed to a sword or scabbard, but simple inspection reveals this to have been impossible. Plainly visible in the photographs is one of the rivets that once fixed the strip to its parent item. Judging from the width of the strip (15.8mm) the fixing is at least 12mm in depth, far too deep to have been fixed to a scabbard. Nor could the strip, which is about 180mm in length, have ever been fixed to any part of a sword. The shape of the strip suggests that its parent item was linear in form and it must have been at least an inch in width and around half inch in depth – the handle of a processional cross, perhaps.

The small cross is described by Leahy as a “pendant cross” and this is clearly verified from the photographs. It is, without doubt, a dress item and not a weapon fixing.

The large cross is too big to have been fitted to any weapon and most likely is an altar or processional cross as suggested by Leahy.

There can be no doubt that none of these are military items, in the sense that could ever have been part of, or attached to, any weapon or item of military equipment. However it is entirely probably that religious items, such as processional crosses, were carried into battle.

No doubt religious items could have been collected as battle trophies, but do those in this hoard represent battle trophies? I think not, and this is my reason.

If the sword fittings are indeed battle trophies they can hardly result from a single battle and must represent the collection of a long military career or even of a dynasty. So we are considering perhaps dozens of battles over an extended period against various foes. It is very probably that many of these foes were Christian and yet the number of obviously Christian objects collected as trophies is just three. This seems a derisory collection from dozens of battles and suggests that these are not battle trophies at all.

Jonathan Jarrett - 10/6/2009

Yes, I can, and I already did: because these four items, all of them bent and robbed from some other object, have been found with nearly four hundred times as many items of obviously military nature. I think that means that we have to conclude that these items had a rôle in that context. It should be no surprise to anyone that a medieval war-party or war-chest could contain sacred items and I think the strip with the Numbers quote illustrates exactly how Scripture could serve to protect the sword like this. Constantine marched behind the Chi-Ro as his standard; I really don't see a problem with considering these pieces war-gear in the same way. Why do you?

Steve Sholl - 10/5/2009

I don’t understand how you can conclude that the crosses must have a military context when this is entirely contrary to the view of Kevin Leahy, an expert in the field of early medieval metalwork who has the advantage of having inspected the items first hand. Leahy states that the crosses are “clearly non-martial” and describes one as a pendant cross and the other as an altar or processional cross. It may be that this assessment will be revised or challenged in due course, but for the time being our only information is Leahy’s own report. Can explain what basis you have for rejecting his view?

Jonathan Jarrett - 10/2/2009

I agree that these items were not deposited because of their sacral nature, but I think that they were selected with a symbolism in mind, otherwise we would see other sorts of precious metalwork here: belt fittings, buckles, book covers and clasps, liturgical paraphernalia, altar furniture, etc. The overwhelmingly military nature of most of the items suggests to me that the ecclesiastical ones must also be found a r&ocirc;le in that same context.

As for the gold sword, well, of course, one wouldn't make a sword out of gold, it would be tempered iron, and these gold bits, hilt collars, pommels and so on, only ornament. Strip these off and you would have rather more than a heap of metal; you'd have some intricate metalwork, and an entirely functional sword, albeit a rough-looking one. That retention of military use for the original objects is something else that needs factoring in.

Steve Sholl - 10/1/2009

Hi Jonathan,

It seems to me whoever concealed these items wasn't seeking to preserve their symbolic value, but their bullion value: no self respecting churchman would bend an altar cross in two so that it would better fit into a hole. A collection of bullion doesn't have to be in any way, except in that it has value.

A trophy is kept because of what it represents, not because of its monetary value. Break up a gold sword and what have you got? Just a heap of metal. If you killed King Edwin in battle and took his sword, wouldn't you want to show it off to your mates? A pile of old gold isn't nearly as impressive.

The inscribed strip is over 7 inches long and was clearly once rivetted to something straight. It might have been a shield, but could hardly have been a helmet. More likely an ecclesiatical item of some kind.

Jonathan Jarrett - 9/30/2009

I have to admit that I don't see why the notional Danish warlord should be any readier to strip the precious metal off the weapons rather than hand them out as were than their previous owner, but I take your point that deposition date could be a long time after manufacture date.

I don't agree about the disparity of the 'ecclesiastical' items however. If they have to be ecclesiastical items, then they stand out like sore thumbs and there should be book covers, croziers, censers and so on, other Church metalwork. But there are't; there's a wealth of military items and these four other pieces. I think they therefore have to be seen as military items too. I didn't realise the Psalms quote was part of the consecration rite, and that's interesting, but it also makes good sense as a charm or incantation for a warrior, and I see this otherwise-odd strip of metal as being a helmet fitting engraved with a prophylactic piece of Scripture. I imagine the crosses as being shield embellishments or even ornamentation of body armour, in a similar way. You may yet be right of course, but for now I still like my interpretation better :-)

Steve Sholl - 9/29/2009

The point that the collectors and depositors may be different people is well made. However, the incongruity of military hoard and ecclesiastical items is startling and suggests to me that the two elements are not associated. Also the disparity of dates is intriguing, with some of the militaria dating from the early 7th or even 6th century and at least one expert dating the inscription, which was part of the consecration right for churches, to the 9th century. How about this for an off the wall explanation:
An early Mercian king, Penda perhaps, or Wulfhere, established a custom of collecting swords as battle trophies. Later kings discontinued this practice but the collection was given to the keeping of the church in Lichfield where it lay, for up to 200 years, as part of the treasure of the Mercian state. In 874 the entire region was overrun by the Danes and churches looted. It is certainly possible that a mouldering collection of ancient swords fell into the hands of some Danish chieftain who stripped the weapons of their gold and silver fittings and stashed this away together with other booty (gold crosses perhaps). These were all buried together but never retrieved.

Jonathan Jarrett - 9/28/2009

Well, we can probably detect hearth-smoke on them even now :-)

judith weingarten - 9/28/2009

Speculation run rife, perhaps, but it looks to me like a collection of 'scalps'. Deliberately yanked from the defeated weapons and meant to be hung, dangling and glittering, in the winner's (or, more likely, since collected over time, the dynasty's) hall.