An Anglo-Saxon Treasure

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever discovered. The hoard is more than just a treasure. It is a window on life in England in the 6th and 7th centuries AD and the world of its warrior elite.

The find

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found.

Discovered in a field near the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, Staffordshire (UK) on 5 July 2009, it consists of almost 4,600 items and fragments.

The artefacts in the Staffordshire Hoard combine to nearly 4 kilos of gold, 1.7 kilos of silver and thousands of garnets. There is nothing comparable in terms of content and quantity in the UK or Europe.

What was in the hoard?

The Staffordshire Hoard is mostly composed of male war gear. Specifically, 80% of the objects are decorative fittings from the hilts (handles) of weapons or from their scabbards. It is thought that more than 100 original weapons are represented by the fittings in the hoard.

There is also a small group of important Christian objects, and a selection of large and striking fittings which probably came from prestigious ceremonial objects like saddles, reliquaries (containers for holy relics) and special books like bibles. There is a single high-status helmet.

Gold objects outnumber silver, and many of the silver objects were originally gilded so would have appeared gold as well. Most of the objects are highly decorated. Filigree is the most common decorative technique, followed by cloisonné, but other techniques such as niello (silver inlay), casting and engraving are also present.

The helmet

Research has revealed that up to one third of the fragments in the Staffordshire Hoard (by fragment count) come from a very high-status helmet.

Helmets of this period are incredibly rare, there are only five other reasonably-complete Anglo-Saxon helmets known. The detail and bold, crested design means the Staffordshire Hoard helmet is likely to have had an important owner.

Two reconstructions of the helmet were completed in 2018 by a team of specialist makers bringing together ancient craft techniques and cutting edge technology.

Who buried the hoard?

We do not know who buried the hoard. It could have been one secretive individual or many people marking an important event.

However, we do know about some of the people who were involved with the hoard before it was buried. Originally, the objects were worn by elite warriors, the top ranks of Anglo-Saxon society. Some of the largest, most striking objects probably belonged to kings or princely figures and their senior Christian clerics.

The objects were made by skilled craftspeople, and it’s likely craftspeople were involved in their dismantling as well. There are signs that the objects were taken apart using the types of tools that a metalsmith would use.

These are rare objects. Most people in Anglo-Saxon society would never have had access to them. But the hoard represents a large number of these rare objects, and their style suggests they were made in different places over a long time period. So whoever the people were who gathered together and ultimately deposited the hoard, they had privileged or unusual access to these valuable items –suggesting that the burial of the hoard was an extraordinary event.

When did they bury the hoard?

The hoard was buried in the mid 7th century (AD 650-675), but we do not know which year. Some of the objects were probably very-newly crafted when they were buried, others may have been around 100 years old.

The hoard was buried in tumultuous times. King Penda of Mercia was defeated and killed in battle in AD 655. Penda is the first Mercian king we know much about, and he was responsible for forming the kingdom and increasing its power by making alliances and doing battle with his neighbours. However, his defeat marked a reverse in Mercian fortunes. Penda’s death also marked the end of pagan kingship in England. Christianity had spread rapidly in the proceeding half century and he was the only remaining pagan king when he died. A series of power struggles both within Mercia and with the kingdom of Northumbria followed Penda’s death. This ended when his son Wulfhere threw off Northumbrian overlordship and began to expand Mercian power across much of southern England. Wulfhere died in AD 675.

Where was the hoard buried?

The hoard was buried near the top of a hill next to Watling Street. One of the major thoroughfares of Roman Britain, it ran for about 250 miles from London towards Wales, and was probably still in use in the 7th century AD. Its intersection with Ryknild Street, another major Roman road, was probably not far away. When the hoard was buried, the hill was probably a distinctive landmark in an area of scrub and woodland.

The area where the hoard was buried fell within the kingdom of Mercia. The nearest ancient settlements we know of are the Roman settlement at Wall on Watling Street, and Lichfield, where there is archaeological evidence for Saxon settlement of this date. Lichfield Cathedral was founded as a major religious institution in the same decades as the hoard was buried, and nearby Tamworth would become the political centre of the kingdom over the next one hundred years.

As Anglo-Saxon culture spread west and north in the 6th and 7th centuries AD, the Mercian kingdom formed at the border with existing British communities. As Mercian power grew and spread, the hoard burial site would have lain in an interesting zone of shifting political allegiance and culture. It was probably both an empty bit of landscape, and an accessible and memorable place because of the Roman roads and the hill. The perfect spot to bury treasure for many different reasons, in fact!

Why did they bury the hoard?

We will probably never be sure why the hoard was buried. There are many possible theories. It may have been a ritual offering to the gods, or tribute or battle loot that went astray, or treasure hidden from attackers. We do not know if the people who buried it intended to return and recover it or not.

There are some clues though. The objects were systematically dismantled, suggesting a craftsperson was involved. Combined with the fact they come from a wide range of times and places, this suggests the burial may not have been the result of one episode of looting in an immediate battle aftermath.

The objects were heavily damaged when they were dismantled, so it does not appear they were intended to be reused. What went into the ground was mostly, but not entirely, gold and silver. Some effort had been made to remove other materials like iron and wood, but it is not a collection of precious scrap metal ready to be melted down.

Most importantly, the hoard objects were carefully selected. There are no female objects, and lots of the objects that made up male warrior culture, like drinking vessels and dress fittings, or objects that might be included in a royal treasury, like coins or purses, are also missing.

There is a great emphasis on swords, and on prestigious ceremonial objects. These powerful and meaningful objects originated in different times and places across the Anglo-Saxon world and beyond, and how they were gathered together is as important to understanding the hoard as why they were eventually buried.

Taking care of the hoard

The hoard is cared for by Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent. The two museums have been working together on the conservation and research project and continue to collaborate to care for, understand and display the hoard for the widest possible audience.