The Staffordshire Treasure Hoard: A Historical Perspective


The Staffordshire Treasure Hoard: A Historical Perspective


by Michael A. Bernzweig

Table of Contents

  • Who found the Staffordshire Hoard and how?
  • How was the Staffordshire Hoard found?
  • How Large is the Hoard?
  • Is It Really An Anglo-Saxon Treasure Trove?
  • The Hoard
  • History of The Largest Hoard of Anglo-Saxon Gold
  • Staffordshire Hoard Literature
  • Reconstruction & Display of the Staffordshire Hoard
  • The Kingdom of Mercia
  • Further Excavations and a Hoard Rehoused
  • The Staffordshire Treasure Hoard: A Mystery Solved
  • Where is the Staffordshire Hoard now?
  • Why was the Staffordshire Hoard important?
  • The Largest Hoard of Anglo-Saxon Gold Ever Found

Who found the Staffordshire Hoard and how?

On the 5th of July 2009, a member of the Bloxwich Research and Metal Detecting Club named Terry Herbert was out detecting in a field near the village of Hammerwich in Staffordshire. Mr Herbert was working in a field that had just recently been plowed, and it was possibly the plowing that had brought some objects close enough to the surface for his metal detector to pick up on them. Thus, Herbert made a find, and by the end of the day, he had uncovered several gold objects. Further investigations over the next five days uncovered over 200 gold objects. Each Terry Herbert, the finder of the hoard, and Fred Johnson, the farmer whose land the hoard was found, received half the money from Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

How was the Staffordshire Hoard found?

At this point, Herbert decided to contact the relevant authorities and got in touch with the liaison officer for the Staffordshire and West Midlands Portable Antiquities Scheme. The official cogs moved quickly, and the landowner, Fred Johnson, granted permission for a professional archaeological excavation of the site to be undertaken. This was duly carried out within weeks, such that by October 2009, just three months after Herbert had made his initial discovery, much of the site had been excavated.

How Large is the Hoard?

Over 1,400 pieces of gold, silver and other metals had been unearthed. Moreover, it had been determined by this time that this was almost certainly Anglo-Saxon treasure. Subsequent work brought nearly 3,000 further artifacts to light. By the time the work was completed, nearly 4,600 individual items were recovered, a huge proportion of them being made of gold, silver or precious stone. It is equally important for us to understand why and how these powerful objects were buried to understand how they emerged from their respective places and times in the Anglo-Saxon world and beyond.

Is It Really An Anglo-Saxon Treasure Trove?

As a result, what is now known as 'The Staffordshire Hoard' is unquestionably the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever unearthed. In fact, Anglo-Saxon gold and silver objects recovered from the Staffordshire hoard far surpass those from the Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939, where 3.3 pounds of gold and silver were found. Here we examine the nature of the Hoard, how it came to be there and what it tells us about the society of Anglo-Saxon England during the Early Medieval period.

The Hoard

The Staffordshire hoard's discovery is very peculiar for many reasons. Examination of the thousands of items uncovered allowed archaeologists and historians to date the time of burial to sometime between 650 and 675, during a time when the Kingdom of Mercia was consolidating its power in the West Midlands and central England (on which more in the next section). The King of Mercia, Penda, was defeated and killed in battle in AD 655. Following Penda's death, a series of power struggles began within Mercia and between the kingdom of Northumbria. However, the objects date from as far back as 500. We do not know why the Hoard was buried at this time. Still, it was very much a premeditated act as the many thousands of small pieces of gold and other precious materials were evidently dismantled from larger objects by a skilled craftsman. On theory is that during a turbulent time, the royal treasury may have been buried quickly, but for reasons we cannot yet comprehend, they were never brought back.

The larger objects or 'parent objects' were nearly all military objects, such as swords. These facts might suggest that the Hoard consists of gold and other decorative items taken from a fallen army's weapons and armor in the aftermath of a battle in Mercia sometime in the second half of the seventh century. For example, several hundred of the items in the Hoard are decorative pieces from swords, including the sword hilt and pommel, but there are no iron blades. In Beowulf, warriors are depicted as removing the pommel caps of their enemies' swords. Also, experts believe the poem contains lines that describe circumstances similar to the burial of the hoard. The pommel is believed to have originated in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, or India.

Of the nearly 700 items identified, more than two-thirds are fittings from weaponry, mostly swords. According to historians, what makes them special is their composition. A gold sword pommel was found at Sutton Hoo, but it is exceedingly rare. Remarkable, 50 of them are contained within the Staffordshire hoard. This suggests a craftsman had many swords to hand from which the valuable gold pieces were disassembled and added to the Hoard. Moreover, those objects which were not taken from swords and other weapons seem to have been decorative elements taken from bibles and reliquaries, objects which armies would also have taken into battle in Anglo-Saxon times.

Some of the items in the Hoard are particularly noteworthy. There is only one complete object. This is a pectoral cross. Many objects are decorated using the cloisonne technique, whereby a pattern of small cells was made using thin gold strips. The paste was then put into each cell to act as an adhesive for some garnet cloisonne items, a valuable gemstone, to be added, along with a piece of foil that would have had the effect of making the whole object sparkle. Many of the objects are also derived from a ceremonial saddle, perhaps that of a king or high-ranking nobleman. There is also a small group of gold Christian objects which might have been used to decorate a bible and reliquaries. However, the most significant object of all is surely the Staffordshire Hoard Helmet. Over a third of the items in the entire hoard were evidently component parts of this helmet. A reconstruction of the helmet was completed in 2018, indicating that this was a striking gold helmet that must have been worn either by a king or a very senior nobleman. Thus, the Staffordshire Hoard is heavily fragmented, but the objects within it would have been remarkable for their time.

History of The Largest Hoard of Anglo-Saxon Gold 

The Staffordshire Hoard is an incredibly famous metal detecting find in the United Kingdom. A metal detectorist discovered this outstanding collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver jewelry in 2009, and it is now on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The Staffordshire Hoard comprises over 4,600 pieces. It's the biggest Angelo-Saxon hoard ever found, and it was discovered by a metal detectorist, Terry Herbert. The Staffordshire Hoard is an incredible collection of Anglo Saxon gold and silver jewelry. It's the biggest warrior treasure of its kind ever found, providing a fascinating glimpse into the history of the Anglo-Saxons.

In historic England, Staffordshire is in the West Midlands, an area that was once part of the ancient kingdom of Mercia. As part of the Mercian Trail, objects from the Staffordshire Hoard will be displayed at museums and historical sites. The Staffordshire Hoard likely dates back to the 7th or 8th centuries, a time when Mercia was a powerful kingdom. King Penda of Mercia, who ruled from about 626 to 655, was a pagan who fought against the Christianization of England.

The Staffordshire Hoard was likely buried around the time of King Penda's death in 655. Historians believe that the hoard may have been buried to keep it safe from the invading armies of Wessex, which were conquering Mercia at the time. 

Similarly, Sutton Hoo, another famous Anglo-Saxon site, is located in Suffolk, an area that was once part of the kingdom of East Anglia. The Sutton Hoo ship burial likely dates to the early 7th century, and it too was buried around the time of King Penda's death.

The Staffordshire Hoard and the Sutton Hoo ship burial are two of the most important Anglo-Saxon discoveries ever made. They provide a rare glimpse into a fascinating period of English history.

Staffordshire Hoard Literature

Tania Dickinson, Chris Fern, and Leslie Webster, the author, and editors of the book The Staffordshire Hoard: An Anglo Saxon England Treasure, believe that the hoard may have been buried during the reign of King Penda of Mercia, a 7th-century pagan king. The latter fought against the Christianization of England. 

King Penda was killed in battle in 655, and key chapters dive into the theory that the hoard may have been buried around this time to keep it safe from the invading armies of Wessex, which were conquering Mercia at the time.

Chris Fern's explanatory drawings in The Staffordshire Hoard: An Anglo-Saxon Treasure provide a detailed look at the different types of Anglo-Saxon objects and archaeology found in the hoard, including swords, helmets, jewelry, and coins.

Reconstruction & Display of the Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard has been displayed at prestigious sites like Lichfield Cathedral, Tamworth Castle, Norwich Castle Museum, and the British Museum. The Art Fund sponsored the effort to obtain the treasure for Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum. 

The Hoard is the most valuable Treasure discovered on British soil, containing over 1,500 pounds of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork. The Treasure Valuation Committee put the collection at an approximate value of 3.3 million pounds.

In 2019, helmets from the Staffordshire Hoard were studied and reconstructed, the research of which was published by the Society of Antiquaries and Archaeology Data Service. 

The helmet reconstruction project team included Birmingham Archaeology Unit, Staffordshire County Council Archaeology Service, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Birmingham City Council, and the Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Project.

This is an incredible collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver jewelry. It's the biggest hoard of its kind ever found, and expert conservators say it provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of the Anglo-Saxon craftsmen and English heritage. 

The Kingdom of Mercia

The Kingdom had emerged along with over a dozen other small kingdoms throughout England and Wales in the sixth century; however, while many of these disappeared and fell apart in short order, the Kingdom consolidated its power and expanded. The kingdom's name is derived from a Latinisation of the Old English word Merce, for People of the Marches. Originally it was based around the region today consisting of Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and the West Midlands. Still, as it expanded, it absorbed the territory of the Hwicce further south into Hereford, Worcester, and Gloucestershire. At its greatest extent in the late eighth century, the Kingdom stretched from the Welsh frontier north to the River Humber and south towards the East Anglian region and the River Thames, also briefly controlling the area around London. Two long-reigning kings, Aethelbald (reigned 716-757) and Offa (757-796), came closest to uniting England than any rulers had since the Romans departed from Britain in 410.

As a consequence, the Kingdom of Mercia became a wealthy Early Medieval state, one capable of generating the kind of treasure that was found in Staffordshire. Yet its ascendancy was short-lived. In the early ninth century, under the combined pressure of an expanding Kingdom of Wessex in southern England and the incursions of the Vikings into northern and eastern England, it gradually began to lose ground. In the early tenth century, it became a vassal of the Kingdom of Wessex and was soon incorporated into the new English state established by the successors of Alfred the Great.

Further Excavations and a Hoard Rehoused

The initial excavations at Hammerwich did not bring work there to an end. The initial surveys had revealed that there were possibly more objects to find, and in the spring of 2010, a second excavation was commenced. This did reveal further items, but these are thought to date to a different burial and would seem to indicate that the site at Hammerwich was used by multiple generations of Anglo-Saxons. The Hoard itself was valued at nearly 5 Million dollars under the provisions of the 1996 Treasure Act. Once a buyer was found, the amount would be split between Herbert, the detectorist who made the initial discovery, and Mr Johnson, the landowner. The latter had given Herbert permission to detect in his fields. Typically a collection of such marquee historical artifacts might have been expected to be purchased by and displayed at a major national museum, such as the British Museum. Still, in this instance, there was a drive to keep the Staffordshire Hoard in the locality. In March 2010, the British Museum hosted a Staffordshire hoard symposium.

The Staffordshire Treasure Hoard: A Mystery Solved

Archaeologists published a book about the hoard after nearly a decade of research. In it, you will find details about the hundreds of gold and silver objects found in the hoard. The book was published by the Society of Antiquaries of London, the oldest historical society in the world. All 700 objects of the hoard are described in detail in the book. Nearly nine pounds of gold antiquities and nearly four pounds of silver items were found in the hoard.

Where is the Staffordshire Hoard now?

A body in Birmingham, just over twelve miles south of Hammerwich, seemed like the most suitable repository. Accordingly, a funding drive was launched by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to acquire the Hoard, which it duly did in the spring of 2010 with the aid of a large grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Several pieces from the Hoard were displayed at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent. The British Museum, London, cataloged the key items and began work on initial cleaning and conservation at the British Museum. The Staffordshire Hoard is displayed in its home in the West Midlands. However, such is the extent of the treasure that portions are constantly being loaned out to other institutions for temporary exhibitions. Laura Howarth is the exhibit archaeology and engagement manager for the Sutton Hoo exhibit.

Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent care for the hoard today. Together, the two museums participate in an ongoing research project to conserve and care for the hoard. The two institutions continue collaborating so the hoard can be properly cared for, understood, and displayed in the greatest number of venues.

Why was the Staffordshire Hoard important?

The Hoard is an incredible survival from the Early Medieval period. Its approximately 4,600 items, most of them made of gold, constitute the largest ever find of Anglo-Saxon gold ever uncovered in England. While these are generally very small objects, modern conservation and reconstruction methods have allowed us to develop a coherent idea of what the objects these magnificent pieces came from would have looked like in the seventh century. This reveals that even in the so-called 'Dark Ages,' the Kingdom of Mercia was populated by craftsmen who could assemble very fine swords and helmets made of huge amounts of gold, silver, and precious gemstones, inlaid with complex designs. Stylized animals and geometric patterns on the objects reveal much about the art of Anglo Saxon Craftsmen in England. Above all, the Staffordshire Hoard provides a rare glimpse into the material world of the Anglo-Saxon kings and princes, their royal households, and their warrior retinues. It adds a new depth to our understanding of modern Anglo Saxon Archaeology.

Copyright 2021 Detector Electronics Corp. - Revised September 2022