The Staffordshire Hoard - The story so far

It's a Friday afternoon in the County Archaeologist's office. It's time to think about plans for the weekend. The telephone rings. "We've got a chap on the line who think's he's found a hoard of Saxon gold. And so the story of the greatest find of Saxon gold ever unfolded. Stephen Dean, the County Archaeologist enthralled a well attended July meeting with his gripping story of not only its discovery, but also of the complex research now being undertaken which is revealing new insights into Saxon life. As the research continues, we are learning much more about Saxon life and culture in England. Conservation will take up to seven years, research into the meaning of some of the artefacts much longer.

What are we learning about the Hoard? Stephen stressed that the Hoard was "biased". It contains a large number of duplicated objects of a military nature. Burial hoards will contain a range of single articles; votive hoards are selective. Our Hoard is a military one. In all there are 3940 pieces, of which 97 are sword pommels and 354 are sword hilt fittings. All are in gold of high quality. There are no coins, nor brooches to adorn female dresses, nor ornamental belt buckles. This Hoard appears to be based on war booty. It may have been gifted to a senior noble or housecarl of the Mercia king's entourage, in grateful thanks for support in battles won. The quality and intricacy of the workmanship involved has already led scholars to revise their views on the degree of sophistication of Saxon society.

As to dating, analysis of the Hoard suggests that most of the artefacts date from about 650AD in the reign of the last great pagan king of Mercia, Penda. The garnets are thought to have originated in India and arrived in England via the Silk Route. The gold is of such purity that the experts believe that it may well have originated in Byzantium as coinage, to be transported to England and melted down for reworking. The famous twisted Cross is, paradoxically somewhat crude, its Latin inscription roughly etched. One current theory suggests that it is not Saxon, but Northumbrian or Celtic, was carried into battle by these peoples and captured by the pagan Saxons.

As the mysteries are, at least in part, resolved, two major questions remain. Why bury the Hoard and why bury it near Hammerwich? The automatic response is that it was buried for security and whoever did that, was killed or died before being able to share the secret of its location. But that's too simple say the experts! Perhaps its owner was warned that hostile tribes were on their way to lay waste the area and decided that the best thing to do was to bury it. This is what Stephen called an "angst Hoard" - almost a panic response to a perceived threat. We know that there were small settlements nearby, strung along Watling Street. Wall may have declined as a Roman settlement, but nearby Hammerwich was probably a small working settlement that survived Wall's decline. So perhaps the owner of our Hoard lived in the locality, but served King Penda at Tamworth and the Hoard was his reward for that loyal service.

Stephen must have retold the story many times to many audiences, but his erudition and enthusiasm shine through at each telling. Our audience must have been enthralled, since the meeting overran until 9.40pm!

Roger Hockney
June 2011