Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard…an introduction

Written by Special Projects Manager Alex Woodall.

On starting my intriguingly-titled post as Special Projects Manager at the Royal Armouries in November 2015, I had little idea of what this role in the interpretation team would involve. But I could not have been more delighted to discover that my initial special project is the challenge of overseeing an exhibition of objects in Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard.

K1497 – Decorative filigree mount from a sword hilt, probably in the shape of a horse © Birmingham Museums Trust

Jointly owned by the cities of Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, and managed by Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, the Staffordshire Hoard is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever discovered.  It was unearthed in 2009 in a field near Lichfield by a local metal detectorist. The Royal Armouries is staging an exhibition of some of its objects as they are displayed outside the West Midlands in their first ever UK tour.

I initially visited the hoard some years ago at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery soon after its discovery. I can remember being dazzled not only by these tiny things – their intricate gold filigree and stunning cut garnet cloisonné work – but also by the beguiling mystery and serendipity of such a find, some of the objects then still caked in mud, and still without much research as to what they were, and how they came to be buried in this field.

Today, they are part of an ongoing conservation process, with research on the objects continually developing, for example using cutting edge technology to explore the metals, and with experts deciphering the ornate animal symbolism. New developments and discoveries are made practically every week.

K328 – Cloisonné bird with garnets, probably from a hilt grip © Birmingham Museums Trust

So far, my work on this project has included regular meetings with cross-departmental project team members, putting together exhibition planning documents and briefs for designers, alongside team visits to see the current displays in Birmingham and Stoke and learning more about the context of the objects. But the real highlight so far has been the opportunity to see the whole hoard up close while it was off display for a time in the conservation studios – it was breath-taking to be confronted with things which up until that point I had only really studied in photographs.

The objects within Warrior Treasures are mainly sword decorations: pommels and hilts, although to me (with an art gallery background), on first glance they seem more like beautiful jewels than things that might be associated with warriors. Their craftsmanship is overwhelming, with some of the filigree wires measuring just 0.2mm. Yet they are all objects that have been damaged, not recently, but prior to their burial when they were stripped from swords and seaxes (single-edged fighting knives): evidence of this damage provides another avenue for investigation.

K108 and K699 – Pair of collars from a sword hilt decorated with fine gold filigree wires © Birmingham Museums Trust

Alongside the hoard objects, the Royal Armouries will be commissioning a response from a contemporary maker and film which will explore aspects of these techniques and decorations. We will also be complementing the display with a small collection of Anglo-Saxon burial objects which are usually part of our early war display. A space within the exhibition will also allow for storytelling and live interpretation to take place, and there are exciting plans afoot to have a comprehensive events programme including a study day, partnerships with other organisations, and a packed schedule of holiday and term-time activity for families and schools.

Watch this space for guest posts from various partners and to see how the exhibition unfolds.