hoard of gold objects
Archaeology

What Does the Staffordshire Hoard Tell Us?

10 years of research has revealed new insights into the nation’s largest Anglo-Saxon treasure.

The Staffordshire Hoard, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever discovered, was found in a field by a metal detectorist in 2009.

Acquisition through the Treasure process by Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council began a 10 year journey to conserve and study this remarkable assemblage.

The research results were published in 2019, and with the publication of a popular book in 2022, the research project has drawn to a close. Here’s some of the things we have learned.

There are over 4,000 fragments and around 700 objects

Hoard of gold objects
Part of the Staffordshire Hoard. © Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent / Luke Unsworth.

The hoard is made up of more than 4,000 fragments, together making up around 700 individual items. The majority of parts are precious metal fittings from sword hilts, decorations from religious objects, saddles, books and caskets. Around 1/3 of the fragments come from one gilded helmet.

Only 2 items are complete or near complete, a gold cross pendant known as a ‘pectoral cross’ and a damaged jewelled cross.

Gold cross with loop for suspension.
The pectoral cross, decorated with gold filigree and a central garnet gem. © Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

The items tell us very little about the lives of women or of domestic life. They also tell us very little about typical male or battle dress of the period, with only three small buckles that might have decorated a harness or costume.

The hoard was buried between AD 650 and 675, although each object varies in age

The oldest objects are a small number of silver weapon fittings, dating primarily from the 6th century. They probably came from what were considered to be ‘heirloom swords’ by the time they were buried, and many are heavily worn.

A photo of gold parts of a sword hilt reassembled.
Reassembled hilt fittings displaying ‘Early Insular’ style. © Cotswold Archaeology / Barbican Research Associates.

Most of the gold objects are either filigree-decorated sword fittings from between around AD 570 and 630, or larger prestigious objects, such as Christian objects and saddle furnishings, from between around AD 610 and 650.

Finally, a small group of silver weapon fittings decorated with gold mounts in a distinctive ‘Early Insular’ style show little wear and date from between around AD 630 and 660, not long before the hoard was buried.

Silver sword pommel
Sword pommel with a staring face. This is one of the oldest objects in the hoard. © Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

The items in the hoard were most likely commissioned by wealthy people

Few people in 6th and 7th century England would have been able to afford to commission objects like these, which were probably the preserve of kingly and princely leaders. They were symbols of status and tools of power, providing gifts to reward loyalty and for political exchange.

Even within this elite collection however, the style and quality varies, suggesting that the objects were made in different places.

A small number of objects are made of higher-quality gold and with an exceptional level of craftsmanship. They share many similarities with the burial goods excavated at Sutton Hoo, and it is likely that some were made in the East Anglian royal court.

At the other end of the scale, some objects display a relatively poor level of technique and may originate in places with less accomplished metalworking traditions.

The late group of ‘Early Insular’ style objects show both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic influences and may originate in Northumbria or another northern region.

A gilded helmet was reassembled from thousands of fragments, giving us a better idea of Anglo-Saxon military dress

Gold helmet with red horsehair crest.
The Staffordshire Hoard helmet reconstruction. © Birmingham Museums Trust.

A research project reassembled the sheet fragments, resulting in a rich scheme of panels showing marching and kneeling warriors and zoomorphic designs, as well as individual priestly and horsemen figures.

Working from detailed scale drawings made by the research team, Birmingham Museums Trust and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent used traditional and computer-aided techniques to recreate the helmet as it might have looked before its total destruction prior to burial.

The burial was in the kingdom of Mercia, at a time of turbulence

The mystery of why it was buried has still not been solved, but analysing the hoard has helped enrich our understanding of the context of the burial.

Archaeologists studying objects in the laboratory.
Some of the research team studying and reconstructing the die-impressed sheet. © Birmingham Museums Trust.

The burial spot was within the kingdom of Mercia, and its date (between AD 650 and 675) was a key time in the history of both the kingdom and the nation. The then king of Mercia Penda had increased the kingdom’s power through alliance and competition with its neighbours.

Penda died in battle in AD 655 and was the last major pagan Anglo-Saxon king, as Christianity had swept across England in the preceding half-century during which most of the objects were made.

The hoard objects thus represent, in physical form, the artistic traditions and ideas of a period of profound political and religious change across England, and their burial took place during the turbulent time of struggle within Mercia that followed Penda’s death.

The hoard is important due to what it tells us about Anglo-Saxon armies and Christianity at the time

Black and white x-ray image of lots of gold objects.
The collection was x-rayed during the research project. Courtesy of Lincolnshire Archives, Lincolnshire County Council.

With more than 100 weapons, mostly swords, represented in the hoard, part of its importance lies in its size. Hoards are rare for this period generally, and the amount of weapon parts found here has changed our ideas about the nature of Anglo-Saxon armies and their weaponry.

It prompts more questions about the size of armies and the proportion of elite warriors armed with swords in them. The collection has also changed our perception of weaponry and patronage in the period. Prior to this discovery, there were very few examples of decorated sword hilt sets.

Set of sword fittings
Reassembled hilt fittings displaying ‘Early Insular’ style. Cotswold Archaeology. © Barbican Research Associates.

However, some of the most significant fragments in the collection are the early Christian objects, with few if any parallels for these objects. The hoard contains a number of crosses, as well as precious metal and garnet fittings that most likely decorated religious books and containers for relics, and one priestly headdress.

They give us new insight into the material culture of the earliest Christian Church in Anglo-Saxon England. They show a vibrant artistic tradition, drawing in the animal designs of earlier pagan metalwork to decorate new types of sacred objects.

The Staffordshire Hoard is owned by Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and cared for by Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent. The Staffordshire Hoard is on display at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

The Staffordshire Hoard research project (2010-2019) was funded by Historic England and the museums that care for the collection (Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent), and was managed by Barbican Research Associates. Find out more about the research project in this article by Jenni Butterworth.

Further reading

2 comments on “What Does the Staffordshire Hoard Tell Us?

  1. Anna Toone

    Some of the items are also on display at Tamworth Castle within their new Mead Hall and Anglo-Saxon gallery.

  2. Andrew picken

    Fascinating article. illustrating excellent work from all parties involved. Thanks to all.

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