Anglo-Saxon shiny objects 1: the Staffordshire Hoard

The original CIA (the Courtauld Institute of Art) recently held its first conference for 25 years on Anglo-Saxon art, with a day on New Light in Dark Places: Recent Discoveries & New Directions in Anglo-Saxon Studies. The morning session was on the Staffordshire Hoard, the first time I’d heard any papers on that. (The afternnon session was on Anglo-Saxon art more generally, which I’ll try and blog about later).

We had two papers directly on the hoard itself, from Leslie Webster and Gareth Williams, both of the British Museum, setting out some of the details of the hoard. As Leslie Webster said at the start, although early Anglo-Saxon archaeologists have a set of tools for examining the dynamics of burials and their meanings, ‘we don’t do hoards’, and one of the key points made was just how unusual this hoard is. Gareth Williams summarised the distinctive features: there is an unprecedented quantity of gold (5.1 kg of gold, 1.5 kg of silver), the material is largely fragmented or damaged (3490 individual pieces) and the identified material is almost all military gear (though there is a lot of material that hasn’t been identified yet, so any conclusions are provisional).

Gareth started with some discussion of wealth and warfare in the early Saxon period, for example, the various levels of monetization that different societies might have, from check your own weight bullion at one end to exclusive use of local standard coin at the other. (He also pointed out the problems with distinguishing between units of account, units of weight and actual coins in texts). He next touched on the size of armies in the seventh century, seeing armies in hundreds of men and rarely low thousands. He then got onto the specific question of what the hoard was. As a dragon’s bed, it would only be big enough for a labrador-sized dragon to lie on. He thinks the hoard had to have been deposited in a military context. It doesn’t look like a bullion hoard, because you’d expect other sorts of ornament in it as well and also coins. He thinks it too big for a goldsmith’s hoard, nor does he see it as a royal treasury/armoury, because you’d expect complete weapons, not just sword hilts. His conclusion was that it was spoil from the aftermath of a battle, and specifically wondered about the battle of the River Trent in 679, when the Northumbrians invaded the Mercian heartland and then got defeated.

However, some of the points that Leslie Webster brought up don’t fit so well with that view. Firstly, though there are least 87 sword pommels and 354 hilt fittings, there’s no body armour and only parts of 1 helmet and 1 shield fitting. (There are also a lot more fittings for swords than seaxes, which is a change from the burial evidence). The pommels don’t look to be for remounting, because they’ve often been bent and twisted. A lot of the items look deliberately broken, rather than from plough damage. Leslie raised the possibility that more than one parcel of treasures had been deposited originally, but that would still probably mean that this particular selection had been deliberately made.

There’s also a wide date range of the hoard – the cross inscription has been variously dated to late C7 or early C8. (There was apparently a major debate about this between Michelle Brown and David Ganz at the recent British Museum conference – papers from this conference are supposedly going to go up on a website soon). The pommels date stylistically from early/mid sixth-century to second half of the seventh century. There’s also a range of styles in the hoard, some of which can be associated with specific regions e.g. ones like Sutton Hoo material and some that might be Mercian, Kentish or even Northumbrian. That suggests that the items might be being collected over some time, rather than from one battle. The possibility of antique weapons still being in use seems less likely given that although all the sword pommels show heavy wear (from the top being rubbed while worn, not necessarily from actual fighting), the older-style pommels don’t show heavier wear than the newer ones. Leslie ended with one other possible context for the hoard, referring to how St Wilfred donated treasure to his retinue on his death bed, and wondering whether the hoard might possibly be that of an ecclesiastical prince, not a secular ruler.

What came out of both papers was the possible symbolic role of the hoard. Gareth mentioned that weapons might have had their pommels removed and replaced, symbolically breaking ties between the weapon giver and owner. The two other more general papers in the morning sessions picked up some of these symbolic meanings. John Hines discussed ‘Anglo-Saxon society in the seventh century’, talking mainly about social structures and seeing the period as one of emerging ‘middle’ ranks, between the king and the ‘folk’ of the earliest kingdoms. He thought that the Sutton Hoo buckle for example, might symbolise this. In his view, it was too heavy actually to wear on a belt, but its weight is close to 300 solidi of gold, the wergild of a nobleman, so could be to show the status of someone claiming to rule over such noblemen. He pointed out that in those terms, the whole Staffordshire hoard contained the wergild of 12-13 noblemen or 70-80 freemen. We know from the sources of payments four times that size, so though the hoard may look huge, it’s not so in absolute terms. He also speculated that the gold pommels were associated with thegns rather than ceorls, and that if we assume 1 thegn to every 5 ceorls (as one Anglo-Saxon text apparently does), then 85 thegns’ pommels would equate to an area of around 500 hides, down at the level of some of the smallest political units within seventh century kingdoms, as seen in the Tribal Hidage.

Possible symbolic meanings were taken even further in a strange but intriguing paper by Steven Plunkett on ‘Fields of gold: values in transition in seventh-century ornament’. His focus was on the emotional and spiritual effect of seventh-century objects, and he was convincing on some of the aesthetic effects that might contribute to this. He started with hanging bowls as seen at Sutton Hoo, but also found elsewhere in the British Isles. The decoration on the Sutton Hoo bowl has cross symbolism, and Steven saw this as Christian protection for the bowl. He argued that it was used for holding holy water, which was used in the period both for exorcism and for anointing the sick, and pointed out how water would magnify and brighten the decoration inside the bowl, while the minute detail of the enamel, made only to be contemplated in detail, would sacralise the plain space beside it, drawing the viewer’s gaze in. He also linked such bowls to earlier Greek and Roman traditions of sacred water and divination in water bowls (there is also apparently a reference to hydromancy in the Historia Brittonum). Even if these specific resonances don’t apply here, I think his more general point about the numinous effect of light on water may well hold good.

Steven, as well as others at the conference, discussed how some Anglo-Saxon ornament visible on metalwork (such as spiral decoration) is also seen in early manuscripts, such as the Book of Durrow. Rather than getting into the vexed question of dating and which way the influences run, however, he was making a more general point about how ornament itself can be sacramental and ritualise an object, drawing the eye beyond the surface. He was particularly interesting on how this might combine with the other function of treasure, as display of wealth and honour. (As he pointed out, the Anglo-Saxons used the same word for an honoured person and a decorated object – though you’ll have to find an OE expert to tell you exactly what this word was, because I don’t know). Part of the jeweller’s art was to produce hypnotic effects and Steven gave the example of the Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps. The eye seeks out and follows the curved shapes and ends up oscillating between two ambiguous surfaces, the reflective foils behind the garnets and the garnets themselves, being led from the visible to the invisible.

The ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ combine here, as also on the Staffordshire cross, which may have been taken on the battlefield. Rich decoration could lead one onto God, as in the cross encased in gold and gems of the Dream of the Rood. The same numinous power of ornament and gold exalted Anglo-Saxon kings, conveying their transcendental worth.

If you combine these various symbolic meanings of treasure together, gold as a sign of personal worth, ornament as a focus for contemplation in a visually less-crowded world, then the Staffordshire hoard may reflect a conscious use of this symbolism. If Leslie Webster’s right about the dating, this wasn’t a one-off grabbing of spoils, but something more systematic. I wondered whether it might be some kind of tribute-taking, the repeated removal of specific symbolic objects from several subordinate kingdoms (given the regional differences)? If a gold pommel symbolises a man’s worth, what does taking it away it and breaking it up do to his self-image, even if he’s unhurt? What does it mean to you as a warrior if you get given even a fragmentary strip of gold and cloisonne garnet by a lord or a king? We don’t know yet all the details of the hoard, which is still being cleaned and examined, but its broader significance for exploring both the material and cultural world of the early Anglo-Saxons is already visible.

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4 thoughts on “Anglo-Saxon shiny objects 1: the Staffordshire Hoard

  1. Thankyou for blogging this Magistra, I’d managed to forget this even occurring if I knew at all. Did Gareth or Leslie say anything more about the silver? Throughout the coverage and analysis, other than that there was a kilo and a half of it, I’ve yet to find any further details of what it was…

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    • I’ve had a look on the Staffordshire hoard website and they have a catalogue of all the artefacts and also a summary. Most of the silver seems to be described as edging, fragments, strips or sheet metal, some of it decorated, some of it not. But there’s also 29 silver sword fittings, 10 silver sword pommels and 1 brooch. And given they also currently list 56 ‘earth lumps’ there might still be more stuff lurking in there.

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