Understanding the Staffordshire Hoard

A major research and conservation project which ran from 2012-2016 has revealed a wealth of new information about the objects that make up the Staffordshire Hoard and the people who made and used them.

War gear

Most of the objects in the hoard are martial – they are parts of the equipment of a male, warrior elite. In particular, fittings from swords, the apex weapon of the Anglo-Saxon warrior world, make up most of the hoard.

A small selection of hoard artefacts are Christian, such as crosses, and some are unusual objects whose function we are uncertain of. These are mainly large, ceremonial display objects: perhaps reliquaries (containers for holy relics), bibles, royal saddles and so on. All of these could easily have been carried with an army, so they fit with war gear as well. The hoard probably represents the possessions of Anglo-Saxon kings and princes and their warrior retinues.

As striking as what is present in the hoard however, is what is not.

There are only objects from the aristocratic, male world. There are no high-status female objects – many of these are known from other archaeological sites, but there are none in the hoard. And there are no everyday objects of the sort ordinary people would have used. And even more intriguingly, there are many aristocratic objects ­– the type of objects we might expect to find in a royal treasury or in a complete set of warrior dress – that are missing too.

So we know the hoard was a carefully-selected group of objects before it was buried, with powerful objects like swords being singled out for special treatment.

The singling out of special objects

Most of the gold and silver items were deliberately torn from the objects to which they were originally attached.

In fact, there is only one complete object in the Staffordshire Hoard – the pectoral cross. Everything else is either missing bits, or what we have are precious-metal decorative fittings that were removed from a ‘parent object’ at some point before they were buried. For example, we have hundreds of fittings from swords, but no complete swords. The precious-metal hilt decorations were removed from swords, and the iron blades, bone grips and other components were not buried with the hoard. We do not know what happened to them.

Some of the decorative fittings were broken up into smaller pieces during dismantling and others were damaged by their long time in the ground. As a result, the hoard contains nearly 4,600 individual items and fragments. But if we could see the collection of swords, holy objects and ceremonial gear they came from before they were dismantled, they would only number a few hundred at most. The helmet is without doubt the most fragmented object. As many as one third of the total items in the hoard derive from just this one helmet.

Craftsmanship

Many objects are decorated with the cloisonné technique. A pattern of small cells was made using thin gold strips. Some paste was put into each cell, supporting a piece of stamped gold foil and a thin slice of garnet, both cut to the shape of the cell. The foil reflected light back through the garnet, making the whole object sparkle and flash.

The most common form of decoration in the hoard is filigree. This is made from gold wire, some less than one millimetre thick. This was carefully twisted and then flattened so the twists looked like little beads. Different size wires were combined to make patterns which were soldered in place.

The research has shown that there is a ‘hierarchy’ within the hoard objects. There are not any poorly-made objects or fittings from low-status objects. But there are some objects that are better and more finely crafted, and made with higher-quality gold than the rest. These few objects are probably the possessions of royal leaders, whether kings or princes, and their senior clerics, rather than their warriors and retinues.

These objects include the large seax or knife, the helmet, the fittings that probably come from a ceremonial saddle, the Christian objects, and some of the sword fittings that are larger and more finely decorated than the rest.

Kingdom of Mercia

Although the objects that make up the hoard were all buried within the kingdom of Mercia, experts believe it’s unlikely they were made there. They were crafted in different places, at different times, and investigating the rich combination of styles and craft techniques represented is vital to understanding the hoard and the people who made and used its objects.

The silver objects in the hoard are some of the earliest and latest in date. An early group dates from the mid 6th century AD. These were probably ‘heirloom’ pieces, carefully looked after through the generations. One early pommel is the only example in the hoard which is not Anglo-Saxon, and was probably made in Sweden. A late group of very unusual silver objects dates from AD 630-660, a period when gold was scarce in Anglo-Saxon England.

The majority of the objects in the hoard are gold, and were made between AD 570-650. Experts have identified two main groups of objects based on their style and how worn they are. One of these groups, which includes many of the most impressive objects, was probably made within the East Anglian kingdom. Close similarities in style and technique to the objects from the famous royal burial site at Sutton Hoo (Suffolk) suggest some of the hoard objects may have been made in the same workshops. Other workshop groups have been identified as well, and it is likely that some hoard objects were made within the Northumbrian kingdom.

As the Mercian kingdom developed in the first half of the 7th century AD, its kings interacted with its powerful neighbours through warfare, alliances and paying tribute. Although we do not completely understand why the hoard was assembled and buried, the date and origin of the objects it contains reflects closely what we know about these kingdoms from the historical accounts of this period.