A Hoard of Gold Scrap

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

Soiidus of Justinian II, 705-711 (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc; Wikipedia Commons))

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.

19 thoughts on “A Hoard of Gold Scrap

    1. Still crops up in the last paragraph! Also, when you say:

      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…

      Bede dates the adventus to 449, doesn’t he, not 549? So not quite a perfect fit…

    1. I changed it several months ago. Its a shame that layouts are not transferred to syndicated readers. We all put some effort into designing our sites and our most frequent readers probably don’t see it most of the time. The same layout is at Contagions too but I think its looks quite a bit different.

  1. More seriously, I like very much what you say here about kings needing to recycle weapon fittings for a new look. I bet this is very true just because it’s such an obvious field for competition once it’s been thought of. Also, the precious metal, though as you observe hard to get was a lot easier than iron to work, so the actual weapons would probably go on and on (as do the named ones in Beowulf, or at least as they’re intended to, older than some of the warriors at least). All the same, this is a lot of stuff. If it was being stripped for recycling, why was so much accumulated without being recycled? Especially since we don’t have in the hoard all of the articles in question – we have parts of the fittings for three different helmets, but not all of any of them, for example – it seems to me that this is a huge accumulation, which was either being made to fit out an incredibly-sized warband (Guy Halsall doesn’t agree about the oddness of the size; he has more thoughts too but he’s taken the post where he wrote them down, because of plagiarism) or else needsanother explanation

    1. Thinking about gold being easier to work than iron, it may be that the handles and frills were often repaired and remade while the blade was just refitted. Likewise, these often hollow gold fittings may have been frequently broken or damaged. This is a soft metal to actually be fighting with even as part of a hilt or helmet or worse yet a shield. As for recycling, I doubt that they melted it down until they actually needed it. If you want to preserve all the foil behind those gems, you wouldn’t want to release it from the fitting until you were going to use it. If you are going to trade it, it looks better as objects than as a bar of gold. It would also be a way for goldsmiths to learn from each other by examining the scrap.

      I can’t help thinking about Bede’s account of Oswiu having to gather all the wealth in his kingdom to pay off Penda at Caer Ideu. This hoard is older but no doubt Oswiu was humiliated by having to ask is warriors to give back their bling to pay off Penda.

      1. The idea of that as a `Restitution’ (is it in the Irish Annals? I forget) is problematic, though, isn’t it? I think it’s James Fraser who argues that this must be freshly-taken war-loot that is then disbursed from where it’s been carried. Bede probably ought to know better, but not by much…

        As for recycling, I doubt that they melted it down until they actually needed it.

        But if the date range of those artefacts is right, some of the stuff had been kept without being recycled for a century!

        1. Bede refers to Penda’s demands at Ideu in the History – but says Oswiu didn’t pay. The Historia Brittonum says he did pay and Penda redistributed it to the groups that followed him.

          On the date range of the pieces, some of them may indeed have been part of an heirloom and used for several generations before being scrapped. I don’t think they would have been part of the scrap for very long.

          So how many heavy Pictish silver chains do you think could have been recycled into Aldfrith’s first silver coins in Northumbria (685-705)?

          1. That would be a question only Michael Metcalf could answer! And then I know several other people who would disagree with him. But methods exist by which an answer could actually be made, however shaky they might be: statistical estimation of the size of Aldfrith’s coinage from die-links and then extrapolation of the silver content.

  2. There are several reasons why the hoard is not a “scrap metal” deposit. Firstly, any high-status anglo-saxon burial is on one of two places, either on a prominant piece of land, or next to a roman road. The hoard is next to both. It lies overlooking the Watling street that is the main east/west road through merica, and it lies on the only natural prominant hill within a 5 mile radius of Tamworth, the political heart of mercia. Secondly, if it’s just a gold deposit, where’ the rest of it? where’s the gold belt buckles, that prior to the hoard represented the most common article of masculine gold? It is pretty much all sword hilt fittings, or sword related fitting (scabbards etc) Clearly the very specific martial connotations of the hoard mark this as something other than mere scrap metal.

    On the hill itself is clear evidence that the site had a ditch cut around it, that was then filled in with clay at some point. The soil on site is sandy, the clay was bought in from elsewhere specifically to fill this ditch in, the clay would have changed the appearance of the greenery growing on it, it would have been a visibly defined area, and there is strong evidence to suggest a mound being put over the top of it. Not really productive if you wish something to be hidden, however the mound on a hill overlooking a main road gives all sort of beowulf-esque ideals of rememberence. Though beowulf was buried on a hill overlooking the sea, which was the main road for a sea-faring people.

    I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that the hoard spot lies on a pretty much direct line to the battle of Maserfield, and Hatfield Chase, where Penda of Mercia slew Oswald and Edwin of Northumbria respectively. Both of whom were Christian monarchs. The site is also very close to presumed burials, Offlow which was an anglo-saxon hundred meeting place, Offas’ Low. Lies about half a mile down the road, a small gold female necklace piece was found about 1/3 mile from the hoard suggesting female burial, old ordnance survery maps show the area littered with tumulus’,

    Far more likely, I think that you have a war memorial of sorts, the personalised trophies of defeated warriors given to the ground as gifts to ancestors/gods/ in what could possibly have been the “sutton hoo” of the Mercian pagan kings.

  3. I agree that the Staffordshire Hoard is nor a scrap hoard. There is no female regalia and no bar bullion. It is mainly sword furniture plus some very significant sacred Christian arefacts, namely the processional cross and pectoral crosses. I believe it could be part of the ransom Oswiu offered to Penda at Iudeu. It would account for the nature of the hoard and the condition of many of the artefacts. Looking at the pictures, it is obvious that the precious sword fittings were not carefully removed from the hilts with a view to re-use. They appear to have been prized, hacked and torn from their settings violently. In some cases the bent gold rivets are still hanging in place on the mounts and exquisitely decorated gold pommels wantonly damaged. If they were taken as booty in the aftermath of battle they could have remained on the swords or have been dismantled carefully for future use or trade. These jewelled fittings were the Faberge eggs of their day and represented the very highest level of craftsmanship. The quality is certainly appropriate to a royal entourage.

    Cornered by a huge Mercian amy at Iudeu, Oswiu and his court were invited by Penda to buy their lives with gold. It is possible to imagine the Northumbrian nobles, faced with this humiliating situation, having to strip their own swords of their precious mounts in haste and deliberately breaking and disfiguring them to make them unuseable by their enemies. They were not goldsmiths skilled in assembling and dismantling such objects but angry, desperate men faced with a shameful submission. They did not surrender their swords, only their gold fittings and the heavy gold regalia of the priests who accompanied them.

    These same nobles may have been part of the vengeful Northumbrian army that caught up with the Mercians on their way home and won victory against the odds at Winwaed. Perhaps the remnant of Penda’s defeated army made their way back to Mercia with the Northumbrians in hot pursuit and decided to bury part of the Iudeu ransom rather than be found in posession of it by it’s recent owners. Or simply to stop the victorious Northumbrians reclaiming it? Cadafael of Gwynedd, who deserted Penda on the eve of battle presumably made off with his share of the Iudeu ransom so The Staffordshire hoard may only be a fraction of that divided treasure.

      1. The problem is with the dating of these objects is that they now provide a huge percentage of materials ever recovered, they have the ability to change the perception of dating, prior to this dating has usually been done on an evolution of styles, ignoring the possibility of “retro” styles being introduced. The dating system for AS metal work is outdated and mostly based on guesswork and hopefully the Hoard will force set-in-their-ways academics to re-evaluate the dating system.
        The stuff listed as 8th Century to me seems very suspect, especially since most of it has no parallel in other AS metalwork, when the majority of it is early to mid 7th Century, I see no reason why it shouldn’t all be. Apart from the couple of very old 6th century pieces.

  4. Mr D is right. The accurate dating of AS metalwork is problematic because there is so little of it for of stylistic comparison. The highest quality gold/jewelled items and swords were kept for generations within aristocratic families or, when taken as booty or tribute, retained in royal hoards to be redistributed long after they were made. In the absence of relevant inscriptions or coinage it is well nigh impossible to give a precise date for most AS metalwork, especially the precious metals. The Staffordshire Hoard exceeds in number and weight all previous AS gold finds combined so it may offer opportunities to re-evaluate the stylistic criteria applied to AS and Frankish gold artefacts.

  5. I dont believe any of the gold and garnet pieces were made in the UK, the ability to work such fine gold items would require the skills of an extremely talented goldsmith and gem setter, the work which is identical to the pieces in the BM from the Sutton Hoo burial suggests they would have been made in a workshop, I believe these are of southern european origin and come from the black sea area, where some of the world most ancient gold has been found and worked. A logical place as there would be access to the garnets of bohemia. Also the geometric decoration of the pieces with the chequerboard gold foil beneath the garnet has no equivalent the celtic /scandinavian design elements of the other pieces.

    1. I’m sorry, what?

      “The ability to work such fine gold items would require the skills of an extremely talented goldsmith”

      Yes, because everyone knows the AS were a backward people who lived in ditches, ate mud and had no concept of how to work metal, despite the best quality steel and gold work being produced in England at the time. These are not southern European in origin, on account of very few items such of these are found in southern Europe, those that are are in Italy and are Ostrogothic in origin, who themselves are an Eastern Germanic tribe who migrated into Italy, they are mostly localised in NW Europe because they follow a late Roman tradition of sword decoration. These items are typically NW Germanic European and are unlike anything being produced in Medditterean Europe at the time. Most of the Garnets in the hoard are coming from the Asian subcontinent, and not Bohemia.

      And the chequerboard foil under the garnets does have an equivalent in Scandanavian design, because it features behind the vast maority of garnets in Anglo Saxon and north west european gold work of this style. Alot of the decoration from pieces of the hoard is what is termed “Style 2” Under Bernhard Salins catergorisation, this style of decoration is only found in NW Europe, and is indicitive of pre-christian Germanic animal art, the Christianised medditterean world is more concerned with the depiction of floral/vine and christian depictions on the metal work.

Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑