Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Staffordshire Hoard, Archaeology and Me

Decorative Stylised Seahorse
This isn't the first blog post I've devoted to the subject of The Staffordshire Hoard (see here...and here), so you could say that I'm something of a fan. And I'm certainly not the only one to be smitten by the astonishing discovery of over 3,500 items of Anglo-Saxon gold in a Staffordshire field in 2009. Initially unearthed by one man and his metal detector (Terry Herbert), a thorough excavation was then undertaken by archaeologists. Cleaned and spruced up, the first wave of jaw-dropping artefacts went on display in Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham to an unprecedented number of visitors. The hoard (and the mystery surrounding it) has completely captured public imagination - and mine.
Zoomorphic Mount
This coming Saturday, the 22nd April, sees a series of talks about the Staffordshire Hoard kick off at its permanent home, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. This Sunday, Dr Kevin Leahy will speak about The Finding of the Hoard - The Early Days, between 2 and 3pm. Just under a month later, on the 20th May, Dr David Symons and Deborah Magnoler will give a talk on Conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard. On the 22nd July, Warfare & Violence - The Making of Mercia will be the subject of a talk given by Dr Morn Capper, and finally, on August 19th, Prof. Nicholas Brooks will be speaking on The Hoard as a Window onto England in the Age of the Conversion to Christianity.
Gold, Cloisonné and Glass Sword Pyramid
The Hoard has recently crossed the Atlantic, firstly on display in the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C, and then on a tour of the US, attracting more than 50,000 visitors. These remarkable golden items have become a global phenomenon, and while everyone has their own reasons for being so taken with the Hoard, here are mine (and a little background, too).

I studied History and Archaeology as an undergraduate at university. I loved it, and had the fantastic good fortune to study and live in North Wales; an area of the UK famous for its incomparable natural beauty, and its rich archaeology. Happily ensconced between the mountains and lakes of Snowdonia National Park and the tiny, windswept island of Anglesey, studying archaeology in context came as no difficulty. There were the Medieval castles - Conwy, Caenarfon and Beaumaris. There were Roman forts - Segontium and Caer Gybi - and there were Neolithic burial chambers like Lligwy. There was (and is) so much archaeology to experience, you could walk in any direction and trip over a historic site. Add to this the fact that Ireland is a short trip from Holyhead, Angelsey on a high-speed catamaran, and you'll hopefully see just how lucky I was. I've stood in horizontal rain and gale-force winds, on mountains, hills, cliffs and beaches; I've scraped and brushed my way around excavations, spent hours staring at aerial photographs, scratching my head over radar surveys and carefully handwriting catalogue numbers onto pot-sherds. Science, combined with solid historical research and an open mind can unlock the secrets of the past. Mysteries can, and have been solved, but it takes time and patience to put together the jumbled up jigsaw pieces archaeology presents us with.
Zoomorphic Helmet Cheek Piece
Then we come to something that completely puzzles and confounds; a Hoard. And that's one of the reasons the Staffordshire Hoard holds me captive, because, try as they might, experts cannot conclusively answer the question of why the Hoard came into being. A Hoard, as the very name tells us, is a sizeable stash of precious metal, and the possible reasons behind their existence usually centre on the Hoard being a votive or ritual offering. This is considered to be the meaning behind a deposit of Iron Age metalwork at Llyn Cerrig Bach, a small lake on the island of Anglesey. Pieces, including swords, horse harnesses and slave chains were analysed and found to have been deliberately broken before being deposited, and thus interpreted as having a religious or symbolic significance.
Gold and Garnet Pectoral Cross
Even so, the exact meaning behind the Llyn Cerrig Bach Hoard is still murky - as with the Staffordshire Hoard. A striking feature of the artefacts found in Staffordshire is that they have a strong connection to warfare. They were items made for battle - sword and helmet fittings, shield bosses and horse harnesses. In his early interpretation of the finds, Dr Kevin Leahy wrote,

"This is not simply loot – swords were being singled out for special treatment. If it was just gold they were after, there would have been the rich fittings from sword belts...It looks like a collection of trophies, but it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle, or a long and highly successful military career. We also cannot say who the original, or the final, owners were, who took it from them, why they buried it or when."
Seax (Sword) Hilt Plate
Dr Leahy also writes that "This will be debated for decades," and I agree. While expert analysis and interpretation can cause the past to give up long-dead secrets, there are some cases still remaining stubbornly enigmatic. Those jigsaw pieces don't always slot neatly into place. We might get a near fit, but we'll never know for sure. There are those who would sniff at this, but for me, this makes the Staffordshire Hoard all the more amazing - and completely enchanting.

For more information on The Staffordshire Hoard, visit the website here.
To book any of the talks listed above, click here.  

Images courtesy of The Staffordshire Hoard website. 

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