The Staffordshire Hoard is easily the biggest Anglo-Saxon news of the last two years, if not decade. Not only spectacular bling, but also intriguing mystery. National Geographic recently aired two documentaries on the hoard of which “Secrets of the Lost Gold” (Nat. Geo., Nov. 2011) was the most interesting because they reveal some of the analysis of the hoard to date.
It is a hoard of scrap. Everything in the hoard is broken, bent or otherwise damaged. Surprising to the analysts many of the 3500 pieces of precious metal and gems to emerge from the dirt so far show signs of recycling. Gold is not mined in England so it must have come from elsewhere. All of the gold is the equivalent of 18 caret with a variety of impurities from the recycling process. Analysts believe that the bulk of gold came from Byzantium, probably coming to England as Byzantine coins. These coins were the universal currency of Late Antiquity because of their gold content. Britain did not have a coin based economy so that these coins were valued only for their gold content. They estimate that the gold in the hoard represents about 3000 Byzantine solidus. Chemical composition of the garnets indicate that some garnets came from Bohemia in the Czech republic (small garnets) and India (large cabochons from the crosses and pendants). They suggest that the large cabochons had been obtained from India by Rome and recycled by the Saxons. All of the garnets were specifically hand cut and polished for each piece. Some of the inlay, especially brilliant blues in the garnet cloisonné are made of Roman glass and some were repaired with amber instead of garnet. The style and design suggest that weapons date from 550 AD to early 8th century, a span of about 150 years. Interestingly this is about the amount of time that Bede claimed had passed from the Saxon arrival in Britain to his time in the early 8th century; then again, perhaps this influenced the analysts’ dates.
A few random thoughts on the hoard
First, I don’t think it should be so surprising that it is a hoard of scrap. Every hoard I can think of found in Britain, like silver hoards in Pictland, was made up of objects to be recycled. They were not all military objects, but most were broken, bent or obviously intended for recycling. I think it must also depend on what types of objects that were primarily given precious metals. For the Romans it may have been dinnerware and religious objects, but for the Saxons it may have mostly been weapons.
Is it so surprising that this hoard is scrap considering the amount of recycling evidenced in the hoard itself? Could there have been a scrap market where smiths got their materials? If so then why no women’s ware or church material? It makes me wonder if war gear was not more likely to be recycled as an insult to the enemy. New young warriors would want designs especially for them and so recycling is necessary. Indeed, kings who commission weapons for their warriors would need to recycle captured goods to meet their gifting needs.There might be specific instances where the gifting of an enemy weapon would be symbolically significant but most of the time, it may have been more important to give newly fashioned weapons with the king’s symbols (rather than the enemies symbols). The onus of obtaining the precious metal and gems for new creations may have fallen on the patron rather than the creator, so the need for raw materials would have driven a recycling mania.
Heirlooms are only heirlooms if they are from your family. The age rage reflected in the hoard does suggest that many of the weapons were old when they were stripped, so may have been heirlooms until lost, eventually broken beyond repair, or the family died out. Destruction of a processional cross carried before an army could have been common as a way of showing power over the conquered. An object like a processional cross may have been irreparably attached to the people whom it was made for. The Dream of the Rood, Ruthwell Cross, and indeed the Heavenfield cross, suggest that crosses in particular could continue to do God’s work for their intended purpose or people. Perhaps this personification of objects, as seen in the Dream of the Rood, would make the use of an enemies weapons potentially dangerous to the bearer, as if the weapon could betray its new owner. This would make it far easier to strip a beautiful weapon or shield.
I have to say of the reconstructed weapons I’ve seen I think the sæx was the most impressive. It looks a little like a short machete or Bowie knife. In archaeological contexts, usually only the blade survives but not the handle. Luckily conservationists have been able to put together a complete sæx handle among the metal scrap and it was no simple cleaver handle. One of the few clips of the “Secrets of the Lost Gold” I’ve found online is this one on the construction of a sæx pattern-welded blade.
Sourcing the Materials
The materials came from far-flung sites. Given that this hoard must represent a tiny amount of the gold, silver and gems that once existed, it begs the question of where they got it from since Britain does not have gold or gem mines. This one hoard is believed to represent the equivalent of about 3000 Byzantine solidus. What were they trading for Byzantine coins? Granted Byzantine gold coins were the universal currency because of their gold content so they need not have been trading directly with Byzantium. Still, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have a coin based economy so barter would have been the usual type of trade. The only thing I can think of off-hand is slaves. What else could they have been exporting that would be exchanged for gold?
Most of the garnets came from Bohemia and there are a lot of garnets in all Anglo-Saxon metalwork. It’s hard to imagine what they would have been trading for them either. This is trade by royalty only because without a coin based economy smaller merchants would not have been trading in gold and gems. Or, would smaller merchants have traded in scrap like this hoard? Not exactly raw materials, but sources of gold and gems nevertheless. There must have been some trade in small found objects missed on the battlefield or found in Roman ruins. The larger stones from India would likewise have come to Britain probably in objects to be recycled.
The Roman colored glass is more easy to understand. There must have been a lot of glass and mosaic tiles left in Britain that could have been recycled. It is surprising that more of it is not found in objects and graves. It is possible that a lot of it was recycled into stained glass windows for churches once the technology was reintroduced into Britain in the seventh century.
The conservation of the hoard is still not nearly done so there will be more revelations yet to come. The story of the Staffordshire hoard is still far from complete. There are many questions yet to be answered. Why so many garnets? Why isn’t there more amber or other stones? No jet even as an accent? No pearls or mother-of-pearl, though these may be more common in jewelry. Are we sure this is all Anglo-Saxon metalwork, not British, Pictish or Frankish? And then there will the effect of the hoard on dating metalwork in Britain. It is so much larger than all the other finds that it will force reassessment of all of the smaller finds.