17 December 2009

Treasures of Mercia

It had been eight months since I’d visited the British Museum, and the skies of London produced an impressive treat as I walked from the Tottenham Court Road tube – a heavy sprinkling of snow.  The temperature was hovering around zero but I had plenty of thermals on to protect me from the elements.  There was time to snap a couple of photos before I entered:

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Once inside, I found the display I’d wanted to track down ever since I read about it in September.  In that month, metal detector enthusiast Terry Herbert was searching a farm field somewhere in Staffordshire and discovered what archaeologists are calling ‘one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of our time’:

The Staffordshire hoard contains about 5kg of gold and 2.5kg of silver, making it far bigger than the Sutton Hoo discovery in 1939 when 1.5kg of Anglo-Saxon gold was found near Woodbridge in Suffolk.

Leslie Webster, former keeper at the British Museum's Department of Prehistory and Europe, said: "This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries.

"(It is) absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells."

More than 40,000 visited an exhibition of items from the Staffordshire Hoard in Birmingham, and now the artefacts are in the care of the British Museum while they are individually valued and a permanent home for them is discussed.  As the hoard has been afforded the legal status of Treasure under the Treasure Act 1996, Herbert and the landowner will each get a half share of the final sale price; the initial valuation has been set at £3.285 million

Two small cases display a small sample of the hoard, but the few items on display are remarkable for their beauty.  (There’s a link to the image galleries of the collection at the bottom of this article).  The high-status craftwork represents the pinnacle of portable wealth in the pre-English kingdom of Mercia

Current estimates for the date at which the hoard was buried range from the seventh century to the early eighth century.  These were troubles times: a patchwork of fractious kingdoms ruled England, slowly succumbing to Christian conversion.  In the seventh century Mercia suffered years of chaos stemming from the death of its King, Penda, in the Battle of Winwaed (655), Glastonbury Abbey was re-founded in the south (688) and the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels (now in the British Library) started in Northumbria (c. 698).

At some point in these years the hoard was deposited in a field and forgotten about for 13 centuries.  It appears to be a warlord’s trove, because many of the pieces are military in nature: highly decorated sword hilts and pommels abound, and ornately engraved helmet cheek-pieces tantalise the imagination. 

But there are a few non-military items in the collection.  A thin strip of gold bears a biblical inscription from the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers: ‘Surge domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua’ (‘Rise up, o Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face’).  And the largest of two or possibly three gold crosses, perhaps for a church altar or procession, still retains its beauty despite some rough handling when it was buried.  In order to fit it in the hole dug for the hoard, the thin gold arms of the cross were crudely bent over, causing the glass fittings to dislodge (see photos below). 

Was the hoard buried in haste, to avoid its (re-) capture by enemy forces?  We might never be certain.  But once the British Museum has completed its painstaking cataloguing of the more than 1500 items that were discovered by Mr Herbert, and once a final home for the items has been decided upon, the Staffordshire Hoard will take up its place as one of the most important historical discoveries of the past several centuries.

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Further reading

Staffordshire Hoard: images, catalogue and summary

Timeline: Wikipedia, 7th century in England

The Venerable Bede: History of England Book III (633-65), Book IV (664-98)

Sutton Hoo: Discoveries (5 pages)

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