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.
The 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.