What is the Staffordshire Hoard made from?

Researching the materials that make up the Staffordshire Hoard allows us to understand how the objects were made and gain insight into the skills of the 6th and 7th century craftspeople who made them. Investigating where the materials were sourced from also helps us to build a better picture of Anglo-Saxon people, their society and the world that they lived in.

Gold

The majority of the objects are made of gold. Gold survives well when it is buried because it is very stable and does not corrode like other metals such as iron. This means that the hoard objects have remained remarkably unchanged and we can see all the intricate details and designs created in the 6th and 7th century.

The gold used in the hoard is mixed with small amounts of copper, silver and other metals and it was probably recycled from older objects or coins. Overall, the quality of the gold used in the hoard is good, but some of the most striking objects are made with exceptionally pure gold. This suggests that the goldsmiths had access to stashes of better-quality metal for particularly prestigious objects.

Scientific analysis tells us that the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths managed to change the surface of the objects to remove some of the silver. This has the effect of making the object look even more golden. This technique is not understood fully but it seems that the goldsmiths used it to enhance their designs or to ‘colour match’ components when making repairs or replacements to an object. This shows that the goldsmiths had a very sophisticated understanding of materials and technology.

Garnet

Garnet is a semi-precious stone that comes in different colours but the hoard only contains examples in red, pink or orange tones. There are a small number of stones used as individual jewels, called cabochons. They are polished and smooth, not facetted like many modern jewels, so they do not sparkle. Cabochons can be large, like those on the great cross, or small, like those used to decorate some of the weapon fittings.

The cabochons are outnumbered by the garnets used in cloisonné decoration. The hoard contains thousands of tiny garnets, cut and ground into flat slices which were shaped to fit into gold cellwork. This style of decoration is found all over Europe from the 5th century AD. On some of the best cloisonné objects in the hoard, the craftsperson has carefully selected garnets of different colour to emphasise the design.

There are two sources of garnet in the hoard. The majority come from the Czech Republic and the larger cut garnets are from the Indian subcontinent.

Silver

Approximately one third of items in the hoard (by weight) are made from silver. The majority of these objects were originally gilded to give them a gold appearance. Unlike gold, silver is unstable, and the objects have become brittle while they were buried in the ground, and this is why they are much more fragmented than the gold.

The source of the silver is unknown, but there were silver mines in Britain and Europe during this period. The craftspeople could also have been recycling older silver objects.

Glass and other inlays

Small pieces of glass – red, white, yellow-green, blue and colourless – are used to decorate some hoard objects, and in some cases glass has been used to repair missing garnets.

Analysis shows that the glass is soda-lime-silica glass, with some other minerals added, like cobalt to make blue colouring. Anglo-Saxon glassmakers were reworking supplies of Roman or imported glass and adding to it to make new glass. The Romans were capable of making very stable glass which was still sought after in the Anglo-Saxon period.

One object contains an amber repair to replace lost garnets, and one is decorated with a clear rock crystal gem. A single creamy-coloured stone bead fits one of the scabbard buttons. Fourteen objects contain a mysterious inlay in their cloisonné cells, which, despite intensive scientific analysis, is so decayed that it cannot confidently be identified.

Other materials

Scientific analysis has shown traces of many other materials in the hoard. These substances give us a more complete picture of how the objects were made, what they were attached to, and help us understand the different people and skills needed to create them.

Pastes and cements, composed of animal glue, beeswax, plant gums and calcium carbonate, were used to hold the complex objects together. One sword pommel retains a tiny fragment of the iron tang, other objects have parts of the copper alloy and wooden or bone liners used to give the soft gold or silver their shape. Remnants of what was probably a fine bone inlay survives on one of the large garnet fittings.

Most tantalisingly, a tiny scrap of linen textile may represent all that is left of the bag that was used to bury the hoard in.