The Staffordshire Hoard

October 14, 2009

The discovery of a hoard of gold and silver in a field near Lichfield in September 2009 made headlines all around the world. Some reportage took the view that the find would re-write English history by showing that the country was rather wealthy in the Early Anglo-Saxon period (circa 400-650 AD). Other journalists expressed the finder’s surprise and joy at making a metal-detecting find which would surpass all others in monetary value.
One point which was generally overlooked in all the media interest in the finder’s personal circumstances (middle-aged and unemployed, using his detecting as a form of exercise and a hobby) and the likely sum he will receive as a reward (‘seven figures’ as Dr. Kevin Leahy, the PAS officer, put it) is that the hoard represents military fittings – not whole swords and shields as might be expected from a battle site, but just the gold and silver fittings from them. This must suggest that the pieces were removed deliberately – and often with some force – from weapons and collected for disposal.
The decorated objects all bear Style II decoration which puts them in the date-range 550-650 AD in England. Lichfield was a major centre of Mercian power in the 7th century and a menace to its neighbours and rivals – East Anglia, Northumbria, Wessex and the tiny Welsh kingdoms to the west. The hoard does not tell us much about weapons and warfare in the 7th century – but it does shed some light on the relationships among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their neighbours on the Continent and in Scandinavia.
Until the discoveries at Sutton Hoo in 1939, the general view was that the Anglo-Saxons were an impoverished and unimpressive people. That view could no longer be maintained with the unearthing of the royal treasure ship, but it was still possible to argue that the king’s barrow was exceptional and his wealth was derived from family links with Sweden. The new hoard demonstrates clearly that the material recovered from Sutton Hoo was not exceptional in 7th century England, and may not have been the finest workmanship around at that time. A re-evaluation of the wealth and craftsmanship of the Anglo-Saxons generally – not just the Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell finds – will have to be undertaken once the hoard is published.


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