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Beyond Stone & Bone

The Staffordshire Hoard Appeal
by Mark Rose
January 24, 2010

Come April 17, we may know the fate of the Anglo-Saxon hoard found last July. That’s the day that £3.3 million (about $5.37 million) is due–the price museums, charities, municipalities, and ordinary heritage-conscious UK taxpayers have to come up with, or risk having the hoard sold on the open market. (I don’t put much stock in the report that the Pope, backed by “the bottomless coffers of the secretive Vatican,” is eying the hoard and its gold crosses.)

A fundraising campaign has been launched. Leading off in the appeals, historian David Starkey, known for TV work and books on Elizabeth I and the wives of Henry VIII, made an impassioned plea, calling the hoard the “most important find for over half a century” and lamenting its possible fate: “break it up or move it and its meaning is lost. It must stay here, together and intact, to be studied and displayed here in the West Midlands, the foundation of whose history it will now become.” (I’m less convinced by his widely reported comparison of the hoard to “gangland bling.”)

Joining Starkey were Tony Robinson from the popular archaeological program “Time Team,” as well as a couple of rock musicians, a comedian, another prominent historian, etc. A few days later, author and former Monty Python member Michael Palin added his voice to the calls for support.

staffordhsire appealThe campaign got off the a flying start with £100,000 each from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. If the fund raising is successful, the hoard will be kept by these institutions, both in the same region as the find. The Art Fund, which identifies itself as “an independent charity dedicated to saving important artworks and artifacts for the nation” added £300,000, making a total of more than $800,000.

A microbrewery and the British Museum are pitching in as well. Brewer Austen Morgan, whose establishment is about 500 yards from the findspot, began producing a bitter named “The Hoard.” Scholars Roger Bland and Kevin Leahy have written a book about the hoard (the artifacts, not the beer), which the British Museum has published. A portion of the sales of bottles, pints, and books goes to the appeal fund.

The hoard was found in July 2009 by metal detectorist Terry Herbert in farmland near his Staffordshire home in what was part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia during the 7th century. In all, around 1,500 artifacts many gold, some inlaid with garnets, were found. Virtually all of the items, such as sword fittings, were related to males and warfare. (Hence that gangland bling comparison.) The hoard, possibly the spoils from a battle or battles, was, hands down, in our list of the top finds for 2009.

UK culture minister Margaret Hodge says “The hoard is incredibly significant to the understanding of our Saxon heritage and it is only right that it should be kept and displayed in the west Midlands for future generations to enjoy.” But under English law, the hoard belongs to the property owner and the finder. A “Treasure Valuation Committee” met in November and late in the month the value of the hoard was put at £3.3 million, which will go to Herbert and the farmer who owns the land. The Staffordshire museums have first dibs and the clock is ticking. The appeal’s webpage says “Join our campaign and help keep them on public display for everyone to enjoy. Which part will you save?”

Of course, the hoard and fund raising have raised questions about putting a price on such discoveries. The Looting Matters blog contrasts the eye-catching monetary value placed on the artifacts with the potential loss of archaeological knowledge that such discoveries entail even when the finder, like Herbert, reports them. Is “artifacts are worth big bucks” the right message, or at least a large part of what the public will learn, from the Staffordshire Hoard? Or is that worrying too much?

Back in September, Herbert was quoted on the discovery: “Imagine you’re at home and somebody keeps putting money through your letterbox. That is what it was like.” And British supermarket chain Tesco began stocking inexpensive metal detectors back in December hoping they would prove to be popular, if unusual, gift items. A Tesco spokesman sums it up: “The find really captured the public’s imagination.” Sales have been in the thousands and the company might begin stocking pricier models.

The Staffordshire Hoard has been compared with the Sutton Hoo ship burial–perhaps of Raedwald, a 7th-century king–excavated in 1939. Like the hoard, the ship burial was a game changer in terms of perceptions of the people and period:

Sutton Hoo’s remarkable finds signaled a radical change in attitude towards early Anglo-Saxon society, until then thought substantially inferior to life during the Roman period. Deeply buried beneath a large mound lay the ghost of a 27 meter (90 feet) long oak ship. At its centre was a burial chamber the size of a small room, built with a pitched roof and hung with textiles. He was buried with his weapons, his armor, wealth in the form of gold coins and gold and garnet fittings, silver vessels and silver-mounted drinking horns and cups, symbols of power and authority, and clothes, piled in heaps, ranging from fine linen overshirts to shaggy woolen cloaks and caps trimmed with fur. (The Sutton Hoo Society)

Unfortunately, many of the comparisons reduce both Staffordshire and Sutton Hoo to gross weight of metal: “There is approximately 5 kg of gold and 1.3 kg of silver (Sutton Hoo had 1.66kg of gold).” This isn’t terribly helpful because the hoard and ship burial are very different types of finds, and because it fosters the notion that artifacts are treasure. For those stuck on the gold standard, Tut’s funerary mask is 10–11 kg.

There is a more important difference between Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard than how much gold they had. Landowner Mrs. Edith Pretty gave all of the finds from the Sutton Hoo excavation to the British Museum. She was well off, so the Staffordshire case is not exactly similar—finder Terry Herbert being unemployed. But nothing says he and the farmer can’t give back some of the £3.3 million/$5.37 million. I’d like to think that’s what I’d do.

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

3 comments for "The Staffordshire Hoard Appeal"

  • Reply posted by John Broadbent (January 30, 2010, 6:11 am):

    I may be a bit out of touch with events back in England and I assume that other people must have made this comment, but surely, a primary candidate for the context of the “Staffordshire Hoard” must be the battle “near the Trent” in 679? Here we have a major clash between two kingdoms for the control of central England – Northumbria (under Ecgfrith) and Mercia (under Aethelbert) – two aggressive kings who had already engaged in military action on their respective borders (Ecgfrith against the Picts, who were to be his undoing in 685) and Aethelbert in the south. The prize was control of Lindsey and the Midlands north of the Trent (including the Peak District). In spite of the marriage alliances that bound them together, these two kings were bound to come to blows. Aelfwine, Egfrith’s younger brother was killed. Why was he there? Was he sub-regulus of the lands north of the Trent? The hoard itself is truly kingly. Could it be part of the plunder of the slain Aelfwine and his retinue, or regalia abandoned by Ecgfrith and his warband as they withdrew? Does the very Christian nature of the hoard – the inscribed gold strip, the crushed processional crosses imply that they were originally crafted for the Northumbrian King and his great men. After all, Ecgfrith was deeply involved in church affairs. He was a patron of the foundations at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, a former patron, now a foe of Wilfrid (who had prophesied this disaster) and thereby and subsequently an ally of Archbishop Theodore who patched up a peace between Mercia and Northumbria the following year – a peace out of which Ecgfrith seems to have done better than might be expected given his defeat on the Trent. Moreover, the Northumbrian monarchy already had produced one saint and martyr, Oswald, whose death was at the hands of the heathen Mercian king Penda, of whom Wulfhere certainly, and Aethelbert probably, was a son. Champion of the Church Northumbria against recently (and barely) converted Mercia. Surely Ecgfrith and his warriors must have seen their conflict as sanctioned by God (Wilfrid notwithstandin) – and hence the holy regalia. I write this largely from memory so please excuse any factual warriors. I recall Bede had a lot to say about this battle, which took place in his lifetime. Surely it has to be the prime candidate for a context for this hoard?


  • Reply posted by Mark Rose (January 30, 2010, 7:41 am):

    I’ve just read the BM book(let) by Kevin Leahy and Roger Bland. They give a likely span for the hoard of between 650 and 700. A total of 1,662 objects, 86 pommel caps and 135 sword plate fragments, 4-5 crosses. They review possible explanations: trophy hoard (from one battle or many over multi-year period) seems least problematic. They are sticking with qualified statement similar to what was one the website: “martial items could have been collected by kings Penda, Wulfhere or Aethelred during their wars with Northumbria or East Anglia, or indeed by someone whose name is lost to history.” So, although they are being cautious in linking the hoard to a specific event(s) the 679 clash you point out is certainly a possibility.


  • Reply posted by Peter Gay (March 3, 2010, 7:59 am):

    Much of the Staffordshire hoard shows similarities to Kentish work of the same date, sword fittings etc., where it could have been made.

    According to Bede when King Aethelred of Mercia invaded Kent in 676 his “wicked soldiery” profaned churches and monasteries without fear of God or respect for religion, destroying the City of Rochester and looting the cathedral church. That could be the origin of the Christian inscriptions as well as some of sword fittings.

    In 678 Aethelred defeated the Northumbrians whose close dynastic ties with Kent suggest that their warriors may also have been armed in the Kentish style. (Imma, a Northumbrian thegn wounded in the Battle on the Trent was sold as a slave by the Mercians to a Frisian trader in London and redeemed by King Hlothere of Kent.)

    The hoard should remain in Mercia – an historic reminder of the achievements of a powerful and ambitious kingdom.


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