05 July 2013

Accidental Discoveries: The Staffordshire Hoard

By Lisa J. Yarde

The Staffordshire Hoard dates from the 7th or 8th century, the time of the kingdom of Mercia, most known for its ruler Offa's construction of a dyke to keep the Welsh out of his countryside. The artifacts discovered in Lichfield, Staffordshire, which was the religious center of the Mercian kingdom, have been called the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever found. An amateur treasure hunter with metal detector in hand, Terry Herbert, started unearthing gold crosses, silver and gold sword hilts and pommels, rings, sheet metal and helmets in July 2009. What Herbert found changed how we once thought of the Dark Ages in England, which would prove to be a richer place with gold and silversmiths whose talents we could not imagine.

The Dark Ages commonly covers the 5th - 10th centuries in Europe, the period immediately after the fall of Rome as the dominant world power. During this time, Angles and Saxons from modern Germany who gave their culture and language to modern England, along with Jutes from modern Denmark, succeeded in controlling most of the areas once held by Romano-British people. Mercia emerged as a powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the Midlands, governed by pagans who later converted to Christianity in the 7th century, one of the last Anglo-Saxon territories to hold out against Christian beliefs. What's been found to date as part of the Staffordshire Hoard reflects the religion and warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons, who generally maintained power in England until the Norman invasion on 1066.            

Part of sword hilt, inlaid with garnet
Until the discovery at Lichfield, most of what we knew of early Anglo-Saxon culture, particularly the arts, came from illuminated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospel, or from another famous discovery, the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, which pertained to the East Anglian kingdom. The artifacts from  Sutton Hoo included weaponry, but also personal items like gold buckles and shoulder clasps, and some domestic objects like textiles. The difference with the Staffordshire find is that it is not associated with the burial of some important Anglo-Saxon personage. Also, unlike Sutton Hoo, the gold and silver metalwork overwhelmingly represents elements of warfare; the number of sword hilts and pommels dwarfs almost everything else recovered.

Sword fitting with garnets
The question remains; why did the Anglo-Saxons bury so much in a field? Are these relics of battles? That seems unlikely given the high quality of the metals found, which the average Anglo-Saxon infantryman or fyrdman would not have had access to, especially for military display. Were these offerings buried in tribute to the gods, which the pagan peoples of Mercia worshiped until the 7th century? If so, the offerings represent different periods in the kingdom's history, given the Christian crosses included in the hoard. Were the artifacts hidden en masse because of an invasion or some other calamity that befell this part of England? Scandinavian invaders managed to carve out significant portions of land in the 9th century, particularly in the Danelaw, which included parts of north and eastern Mercia. A strip of metal found in the hoard includes the following Biblical inscription in Latin, "Rise up, O Lord and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face."  

Learn more about the Staffordshire Hoard. All images provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written three novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana,  Sultana’s Legacy and Sultana: Two Sisters, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.