25 March 2017

spectacular Anglo Saxon warrior art treasures

The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered in 2009 near the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, Staffordshire by a local farmer and his metal detectorist mate. At the time of the hoard's deposition, the location was in the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. So now the hoard is of considerable importance in Anglo-Saxon archaeology, in both historical content and in quality.

A research and conservation programme was launched and continued for years, conducted by Barbican Research Associates on behalf of the owners and of Historic England, who fund the project. In 2010, the Art Fund led the campaign to acquire the treasure for Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, raising £3.3m.

The archaeologists concluded that the Staffordshire Hoard is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found any­where in the world. The 3,500+ items, that are nearly all warlike in character, total 5.1 kilos of gold, 1.4 kilos of silver and 3,500 cloisonné garnets.

So the Hoard almost certainly represents the spoils of C7th or C8th war, fought in the Kingdom of Mercia. But that begs the question - what were these beautiful objects doing, at a time when warfare between England’s many competing regional kingdoms was frequent?
sword pommel

Historians have theorised about why the hoard was deposited where it was, and whether it was Christians or pagans who left the treasure. They know only that the hoard was dis­covered near Watling St. One of the major thoroughfares of Roman Britain, it ran for 400k from Dover past Wroxeter, and was probably still in use when the hoard was buried.

The quality of the workmanship is very high, especially remarkable in view of the large number of individual objects, such as swords or helmets, from which the elements in the hoard came. The hoard contains mainly military items, including sword pommel caps i.e. the tip of the hilt of a sword that anchors the hilt fittings to the sword blade. Single pommel caps from this period are rare archaeological finds, and to find this many together is unprecedented.

The experts also noted the extra­ord­inary quantity of weapon hilt fittings. These decorative items from the handles of swords and knives feature beautiful garnet inlays or animals in elaborate filigree. Some of the gold in the pieces from the original Staffordshire Hoard could be traced to Istanbul in modern-day Turkey, and the beautiful red garnets were imported from India and Eastern Europe, showing the Anglo-Saxons to be accomplished traders.

There are hundreds of pieces of silver foil in the hoard, which are thought to come from one or more helmets. A biblical inscription from an item in the hoard is written in Latin and is misspelled in two places, and reads ‘Rise up, O Lord, and may they enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face.’

The most similar archaeological finds are the artefacts from Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, discovered in 1939. A large mound was found to contain a 90’ long wooden ship complete with a central burial chamber. This chamber was once furnished with text­iles and contained the dead ruler’s possessions, including magnifi­cent gold and garnet weapon fittings and a striking panelled helmet.

One comparison between the Staffordshire Hoard and the East Anglian Sutton Hoo collection is fascinating. Sutton Hoo gold objects were made for Anglo-Saxon royals; thus they used high karat material (21-23 karats) which did not need to be subjected to any surface enrichment trick. Gold objects made for the nobility or important military figures, as in Staffordshire, were mostly made from 12-18 karat gold.

pectoral cross

The Tour
The treasure is owned by Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and cared for on their behalf by Birmingham Museums Trust and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. Permanent displays of the Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork will still continue in Bir­m­ingham and Stoke-on-Trent and at other venues in the West Midlands. And now (2016-17) there is the opportunity for the hoard to reach new audiences across the UK.

Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Stafford­shire Hoard travelled first to the Royal Armouries, Leeds in 2016, and then to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until late April 2017. The touring exhibition has 100 items of gold, silver and semi-precious gems from Anglo-Saxon weaponry i.e the fittings from weapons. These fittings were stripped from swords and single-edged fighting knives, and probably represent the equipment of defeated armies from unknown battles during the C7th. The fittings are decorated with gold, silver and blood red garnets, and represent the finest quality Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship.

They shed light on a turbulent time in history and give an insight into the possessions of an elite warrior class. Of course the sword was more than just a weapon – it signified a war­r­ior’s status, wealth, family and even religious beliefs.

In Nov 2012 more artefacts were found in the same Hammerwich area, following a ploughing of the field. Archaeolog­ists working on behalf of Staffordshire County Council and English Heritage used metal detectors to find the items buried just below the surface! The extra artefacts includes a possible helmet cheek guard, a cross-shaped mount and an eagle-shaped figure.

I, Helen, a passionate collector of gold and silver art, live in the wrong country!

The research on the Hoard has shed light on the Dark Ages and brings to life the famous Saxon poem Beowulf, in which great kings with hoards of gold bestow precious gifts upon loyal heroes. Beowulf contains lines that may describe circums­tan­ces similar to the burial of the hoard: ‘One warrior stripped the other, looted Ongen­theow’s iron mail-coat, his hard sword-hilt, his helmet too, and carried graith to King Hygelac; he accepted the prize, promised fairly that reward would come, and kept his word. They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth, as useless to men now as it ever was.’


Leon Sims said...

Fascinating Hels, I even checked out the links. Your posts always expand my knowledge.

Pat said...

Good on Bristol Museum for having the exhibition.I have one month to see it.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I would like to plan a special trip to England just to visit Saxon and other early sites, and to see museum exhibits like the one you describe. I first became interested when I took a course in Anglo-Saxon in college. Oddly, the most accessible Anglo-Saxon artifacts are those made of silver--i.e., hammered coins. They comprise the only realistic way to obtain a sample of Anglo-Saxon script, produced during the period.

Student of History said...

I remember the Sutton Hoo gold buckles and shoulder clasps from lectures but it was way too early for the Staffordshire Hoard. Maybe a third collection will be dug up!!!

bazza said...

What a sensational find that was; how exciting it seemed. As a keen collector of gold and silver artworks you must be very high-maintenance!
Your Beowulf quote looks like it might have come from the celebrated Seamus Heaney translation.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


sometimes I even surprise myself :) Once a month I read the exhibition notes from all the galleries in the countries I am most likely to visit. "Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Stafford­shire Hoard" was a delightful surprise.

After all these years, blogging is still the best way of acquiring and sharing knowledge and experience.

Hels said...


the treasures belong to the Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils, so it was important that they agreed to send the exhibition around the country. Excellent that Leeds and Bristol are central to widening that audience.. I wish Melbourne and Canberra were as well.

Hels said...


I had no idea you did any Anglo-Saxon studies at uni and I wonder how popular any history/literature/art courses before the 17th century are these days. Many decades ago the professor of Art History at Melbourne was a medieval specialist... and I fell in love with her lectures. But once I became a tutor and then a lecturer, it was made clear that subjects were selected on the basis of Bums On Seats. 19th and 20th century history and art history were definitely given preference!

Hels said...


I remember the Sutton Hoo treasures very well, both at the British Museum and in lectures back in Melbourne. Back in 1939 people probably assumed that once Sutton Hoo was completely located and identified, that would be that. But the Staffordshire Hoard has shown us that with modern technology, more and more treasures may be located.

Hels said...


I love silver and gold art but the market left me far behind by 1990. I still go to auction houses and read auction catalogues, but the days of dreaming about owning more Huguenot silver art (1685-1720) are long gone.

Beowulf appeared in the exhibition notes because of the clear overlap between art objects and literary presentations of historical events. That doesn't happen often enough.

CherryPie said...

As I live not far from Birmingham I have had the privilege of seeing the hoard in the museum there. Some of the pieces are really tiny and intricate. It is quite fascinating to see.

Hels said...


agreed. I didn't think I would enjoy examining anything to do with killing, but as objects of art, those designers and craftsmen were amazingly skilled.

We tend to think that the C7th and C8th were Dark Ages and that everything of world importance was created in the last generation or two. Not true!