On the Staffordshire Hoard: A Rich Glowing Effect

3943716033_bf2576cc6c_bBriefly: By now we all know about the Staffordshire Hoard, and we’ve all, or nearly all, looked at the flickr set. We’ve all made our jokes (mine: “Incredible Lydgate hoard found: 50,000 lines of verse buried in Hoccleve manuscript! Lydgate scholars rejoice!”). I’m thrilled, and I can only imagine the excitement in the community of Anglo-Saxonists.

My interest here, though, isn’t in the hoard itself (insofar as we can ever think about the thing in itself) but rather in the initial stages of its twenty-first century reception. We have Leslie Webster saying:

My first reaction on seeing the scale and nature of the beast is very much as yours – this is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England in the seventh and early eighth century as radically, if not moreso, as the 1939 Sutton Hoo discoveries did; it will make historians and literary scholars review what their sources tell us, and archaeologists and art-historians rethink the chronology of metalwork and manuscripts; and it will make us all think again about rising (and failing) kingdoms and the expression of regional identities in this period, the complicated transition from paganism to Christianity, the conduct of battle and the nature of fine metalwork production – to name only a few of the many huge issues it raises. Absolutely the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.

Also see the words of Kevin Leahy, National Finds Adviser from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, who praises the quality of the objects (“The quantity of gold [is] amazing but, more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate, this was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good. Tiny garnets were cut to shape and set in a mass of cells to give a rich, glowing effect, it is stunning. Its origins are clearly the very highest-levels of Saxon aristocracy or royalty. It belonged to the elite”) and genders them: “There is absolutely nothing feminine. There are no dress fittings, brooches or pendants.” I expect the latter point will be worth some discussion here, as might the Hoard website’s choice for an illustrative Beowulf passage, which concludes: “they let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth, as useless to men now as it ever was.”

I’m more interested in the claims made for the hoard. I’m not an Anglo-Saxonist; I’m not an expert in decoration; I lack the knowledge even to know what expertises I should have to judge the hoard well; so I’m happy to be corrected, educated, even sneered at a a little, in your comments. But in what sense can this hoard, a jumble of booty, be thought to promise more knowledge (and indeed points of affective and imaginative contact) than the Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells or, especially, Sutton Hoo (and comparisons between this find and SHoo are understandably frequent, even at this early stage)?

The Sutton Hoo ship burial sites record specific cultural events. The range of objects and their arrangement speak of an intent valuing more than just the objects themselves, of an intent that valued the the objects semiotically and that arranged these signifying elements in particular object “phrases” to say something about both objects and the individual/community/culture being honored.

The Staffordshire find, on the other hand, is a jumble. If Sutton Hoo is a Henry James novel, Staffordshire is (very nearly) Tristan Tzara’s Hat. Certainly, the hoard has already started to give up some cultural meaning. Leahy observes:

This is not simply loot; swords were being singled out for special treatment. If it was just gold they were after we would have found the rich fittings from sword belts. Perhaps gold fittings were stripped from the swords to depersonalise them – to remove the identity of the previous owner. The blades then being remounted and reused.

We also have Biblical verses perhaps used as war talismans; and then there’s this comment, which wonders about the production sites of “glass millefiori rods.” Thus what follows is perhaps already said too late.

Speaking from deep in my well of ignorance, I feel as though much of the reactions have not been so particularly learned. Instead, what I’ve seen suggests that we and the ancients, at least for now, have much the same fascination with this jumble: it’s lovely; it’s golden; it’s quantitatively valuable (both in number of objects and in their material). See here for example:

Archaeologist Dr Kevin Leahy said none of the experts involved in the discovery had seen anything like it before.

He told a press conference at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: “These are the best craftsmen the Anglo Saxons have got, working with the best materials, and producing incredible results.”….

Dr Bland confirmed that copper alloy, garnets and glass objects were discovered at the undisclosed site, but the “great majority” of the treasure was gold or silver.

Experts have so far established that there are at least 650 items of gold in the haul, weighing more than 5kg (11lb), and 530 silver objects totalling more than 1kg (2.2lb) in weight….

Mr Herbert, from Burntwood, Staffordshire, has described unearthing the haul as “more fun than winning the lottery”.

“My mates at the (metal detecting) club always say that if there is a gold coin in a field, I will be the one to find it. I dread to think what they’ll say when they hear about this,” he said.

For the Mercians as for us, the objects have been stripped from their particular cultural contexts and brought together into a new cultural context, that of the ‘hoard,’ in which objects attract us in their quantity and quality, not as nodes in cultural sign systems. We have already and will continue to reconstruct the cultural field of individual objects, and that’s to be praised, although I doubt we’re going to understand more culturally from this hoard then we did from Sutton Hoo (see: well of ignorance).

But we can perhaps learn something else precisely by virtue of the hoard objects’ cultural irrecoverability. I wonder what value we can get if we can also attempt to preserve our initial fascination with the hoard as a hoard, in this moment in which our desires and those of some eighth-century Mercian coincide? Can this shared desire, that emphasizes the gold, the weight, the worry about ‘mates’ finding out, say anything to us?

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