Warrior Treasures: An introduction to the Staffordshire Hoard by Pieta Greaves

Pieta Greaves is Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Coordinator at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The items of the Staffordshire Hoard will be shown in Leeds as part of the Royal Armouries ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’ temporary exhibition, running from the 27th May until the 2nd October 2016. Discover more details via our micro-site, including our conference day Saturday 11th June http://warrior-treasures.uk/. Here, Pieta introduces the Staffordshire Hoard and discuss the importance of its discovery. 

Pieta Greaves in Conservation 14The Staffordshire Hoard is the most spectacular Anglo-Saxon find since the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Suffolk) in 1939. It was discovered in July 2009 by a metal detectorist, a mix of gold, silver and garnet items weighing over 6kg. Detailed conservation and research of its around 4000 fragments  is not yet complete, but most of the collection consists of fittings from weaponry. These were stripped from swords and seaxes (single-edged fighting knives), at least one helmet and other items, and probably represent the equipment of defeated armies from unknown battles, of the first half of the 7th century. The decorative styles within the hoard fall into a few major types: the gold filigree work, cloisonné garnet decoration, niello (a black silver or copper sulphide compound) and the silver gilt foils.

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The hoard laid on one table

Although fragmented, damaged and distorted, the hoard’s remarkable objects represent the possessions of an elite warrior class, stunning in their craftsmanship and ornament. Why it was buried, perhaps before c675 AD, we’ll never know.  Significantly it was discovered close to a then major routeway (Roman Watling Street), in what was the emerging Kingdom of Mercia. Warfare between England’s many competing regional kingdoms was frequent. The Staffordshire Hoard bears witness to this turbulent time in our history.

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A selection of objects from the Staffordshire Hoard

The large-scale conservation and research project into the treasure was launched in 2010, funded by the owners and Historic England. The ground-breaking work has uncovered internationally-significant objects that link us to an age of warrior splendour and are enabling experts to increase knowledge of 7th century Anglo-Saxon England.

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Sword pommels and hilt plates

The conservation team at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, with Curatorial and Registrar expertise at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, have been  working together to enable experts and specialists from across the UK and Europe to carry out specialist scientific analysis, investigative cleaning and X-ray photography of these amazing finds.

Blogs of the conservation and research work can be found on the Staffordshire Hoard website. We have also produced short films and podcasts with History West Midlands which can be seen and heard here and podcasts here.

The Anglo-Saxon specialist Chris Fern has been leading typological and stylistic analysis on the assemblage for the last 4 years, during which he has examined each item in the collection individually. He said: “The great Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, once believed to be artistic exaggeration, now has a true mirror in archaeology… The Staffordshire Hoard links us with an age of warrior splendour. The gold and silver war-gear was probably made in workshops controlled by some of England’s earliest kings, to reward warriors that served those rulers, when multiple kingdoms fought for supremacy. The skill of the craftsmen is equally thrilling to behold, with many of the finds decorated with pagan and Christian art, designed to give spiritual protection in battle.”

Chris Fern (top right) and the conservation team, Lizzie Miller (top left) and Kayleigh Fuller (bottom).

Anglo-Saxon society would have valued the weapon blades themselves at least as much as the precious metal they contained, as evidenced by the poem Beowulf. The will of Prince Æthelstan in 1014 bequeaths to his brother, Edmund Ironside, what he described as Offa’s sword, which would have been already have been well over a century old by that date, the hoard itself contains some pommel caps that could have come from these heirloom swords. This raises many question of how and why the hoard came to be buried in a Staffordshire field: was it spoils of war, a royal treasure chest or a payment for services rendered? Further work by the research team will attempt to answer these questions.

Sam Richardson and Deb Klemperer from The Potteries Museum and project coordinator Jenni Butterworth.

The Staffordshire Hoard is owned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils, and cared for on their behalf by Birmingham Museums Trust and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. It was acquired in 2010 with the generous support of the Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, as well as public donations. It is currently undergoing one of the UK’s largest archaeological research projects, conducted by Barbican Research Associates on behalf of the owners and Historic England, who fund the project.

All images © Birmingham Museums Trust.