10 October 2016

Treasure: The Staffordshire Hoard and the Anglo Saxons by Michelle Styles

Sometimes something comes along that totally changes how people consider think about an era. Think King Tut’s tomb or even Pompeii. One of the big discoveries of recent years has been the Staffordshire Hoard..
Mis-spelled Biblical inscription from Staffordshire hoard
This was discovered by two metal dectorists in 2009 and is the largest collection  of Anglo Saxon gold ever uncovered — over 3,500 individual pieces.  It was uncovered in a field near Hammerwich in south Staffordshire.  No one is sure who put it there. Given its location, it is probably from the Mercian court as it is. Most of the objects are broken, leading some to speculate that it might have belonged to a metal worker connected to the court. Because some such as a cross were folded, it may be that they were destined for a melting pot.
 The proximity of the field to two major royal centres (Tamworth and Lichfield) seems to indicate this. However because there was a distinct lack of other identifying material (such as coins) , no one can know for certain what happened except that sometime, probably in the 8th century, the horde was buried in woodland scrub near Watling Street (one of the great Roman roads which remains in use today). One would assume whoever buried it had the intention of retrieving it but never did.

Gold and garnet sword pyramid
The pieces are intricate and do give another glimpse of this forgotten world. Some of the techniques used to make the pieces. The quality of the pieces and the artwork is astonishing. They are intricate and vibrant. They are very similar in style to the Sutton Hoo treasure. Leading some to speculate that those pieces might have come from the same goldsmith  who worked on the Sutton Hoo treasure.  This could indicate that goldsmiths were highly mobile  during that time. Or it could indicate that there were close links with East Anglia. It also could be that this was part of the treasure Penda and Mercia seized when they defeated Oswald  and Northumbria. Or it could go back even further to when Oswald’s uncle
Stylised sea horse from Staffordshire Hoard
Edwin lost his crown to Cadwallon and Penda of Mercia in 632. Edwin was a great ally of Redwald. In fact Redwald had defeated Oswald’s father Aethelfirth at the River Idle and set in motion the events that led to Edwin becoming king of Northumbria and the eventual Bretwalda of all Britain.  In this scenario, it would make sense  for treasure seized from Edwin to have some links back to Sutton Hoo.  It could also explain why the silver gilt cross which was folded had mis-spelt words.
Given the different motif iconography  in the horde – mainly birds of prey, snakes, boars and fish — it is impossible to say if it comes one area or represents a jumbling together of booty from different lands. The horde may also represent when Anglo Saxon Britain was changing from a pagan society to Christian one. Some of the iconography is pagan, some is Christian. However we know from Bede that certain parts of the British Isles were Christian before St Augustine reached Kent so the treasure could be related to these shadowy kingdoms as well.

Currently researchers are still in the piecing together phase and it may be many years before these questions can be answered.  But the Staffordshire hoard allows an important new light to be shone on the Dark Ages.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance for Harlequin Historical. Her next book, Sold to the Viking Warrior will be published in February 2017. You can learn more about Michelle on her website at www.michellestyles.co.uk