At the Royal Armouries in Leeds, visitors can see our new temporary exhibition ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’, running from the 27th May until the 2nd October 2016. In parallel with the exhibition, the museum is running a blog series providing behind the scenes details on how these fascinating items were discovered, conserved, and prepared for the exhibition. In this post, Anglo-Saxon specialist Chris Fern, lead researcher on the Staffordshire Hoard, encourages to ‘look beyond the gold’ of this Saxon treasures…
The Staffordshire hoard is an extraordinary treasure of the 7th century, found in 2009, that is providing a new window on England’s early history in a time of forming kingdoms and changing beliefs. In the period, the eastern half of the country was split into numerous Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, many in regions still recognised today, including East Anglia, Northumbria, Kent and Mercia. These kingdoms fought each other frequently, and also campaigned against British kingdoms in the west. The competition was for territory and resources, but casual raiding for livestock and in pursuit of slaves was probably also commonplace. Above all gold was the prize most desired, and at this period, when coinage was still rare in England, the metal was transformed into beautiful objects. Kings used these treasures to reward loyal warriors, creating bonds of fealty which underpinned political power.
Gold — noblest of metals, bright and incorruptible – is the instantly defining attribute of the hoard. Similarly it is woven through the fabric of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf. Not since the great kingly treasure of Sutton Hoo was discovered in 1939 has a single find so captured the imagination of Anglo-Saxon scholars and the public alike. Each of the finds of the hoard would ordinarily be a rare prize. Yet, the find from a field in Staffordshire makes clear as never before that the warrior ranks of early England were bedecked with golden weapons, transformed by expert artisans into beautiful works of art. The glittering blood-red garnets inlaid on many of the objects were also well suited to the business of the battlefield (Fig. 1).
Quite literally the ‘devil’ is in the detail. To see this one must look beyond the gold of the objects. By closely examining them, deeper messages are revealed, wrought in the metal. The art of the hoard was not simply decoration, but conceals in many cases creatures and other symbols that relate to the traditional pre-Christian ‘pagan’ and new Christian beliefs of the warriors. In many periods in the past, soldiers have worn or carried symbols of belief, to give divine protection on the battlefield. The objects of the hoard served the armies of kingdoms in a time of great change, with the coming of Christianity to pagan England, that challenged long-held beliefs. In some cases, sword pommels and other objects bear motifs from both traditions, depictions of battling beasts that relate to paganism, as well as crosses. Pommel no. 52 is one example (Fig. 2). In these cases the individuals who owned the weapons may have been seeking protection from the gods of both faiths. Paganism was not an exclusive doctrinal faith like Christianity and there is one famous account of an Anglo-Saxon ruler setting up altars to pagan ‘devils’ and Christ (Bede HE II.15).
The manufacture of the objects is also incredible to behold, though a magnifying glass is often a necessary aid to appreciating this. The gold wires used in the filigree decoration were handmade to as little as 0.2mm, and each garnet stone was individually shaped. Some of the garnets may have come from as far away as India. We know little of the craftsmen who made the objects. The famous legend of Weland, tells of a smith hamstrung and forced to work on an island by a king. It is possible the smiths who made the hoard objects were also bondsmen in royal service, tasked with creating kingdom styles.
Figure 2. Pommel no. 52 (K284, K327) showing the combining of religious beliefs. One side has a geometric pattern of rounded and triangular arches, evoking classical architecture, and at the ends are Christian crosses; the other side shows a motif of a pair of embattled beasts, with disembodied bird beaks at the ends, and probably had pagan meaning. © Drawing Chris Fern/Barbican Research Associates.
As the lead specialist working on the collection, it has been my privilege to work on unlocking the secrets of the hundreds of objects, a process that will long continue.
Remember to look beyond the gold!
To find out more about the Royal Armouries exhibition ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’ please visit our exhibition microsite http://warrior-treasures.uk/
Join our Warrior Treasures exhibition conference Saturday 11th June to hear from leading experts in the field, who will explore the many aspects of this remarkable Anglo-Saxon find and explain how it is adding to our understanding of the people that made, used and buried this magnificent hoard. Please see full details and purchase tickets via the Royal Armouries website.