Saturday, October 6, 2012

More Light on the Dark Ages: the Staffordshire Hoard

After much eager anticipation I finally got to see the Staffordshire Hoard Exhibition this week.  Better still I didn’t have far to go.  Although the exhibition will travel to different parts of the country its permanent home will be in the Midlands where it was found.  Currently it’s on display at the Staffordshire Potteries Museum in Stoke.  For a writer with a keen interest in the Dark Ages it was too good an opportunity to miss.

Dark Age Warrior
In fact the story of the find might have come from a fantasy novel.  On the 5th July 2009 Terry Herbert went out with a metal detector on to farmland near Lichfield in Staffordshire.  He had, of course, obtained written permission from the landowner beforehand.   There Terry unearthed several gold objects.  Over the next five days he unearthed even more: 244 bags in all.  That’s about 11 kilos of gold. He reported his discovery to the Finds Liaison Officer for Staffordshire and the West Midlands.  What followed created huge excitement across the country, especially among archaeologists and Dark Age historians.
Millifiori stud
The hoard dates from between 650-700AD and it contains approximately 3000 artefacts.  At present 250 of these are on display.  The find is unusual in that almost all the objects in it are military in nature: sword pommels, seax handles, buckles, shield bosses, harness mountings and helmet fragments.  There is also a magnificent gold cross and a gold belt bearing a Latin inscription.  What stands out is the beauty and quality of the craftsmanship involved in making these things.  Their original owner or owners were people of high status: kings, princes or noblemen.  These items were designed to display rank and wealth and only the richest could have afforded them.  In today’s values they’re worth about £2 ½ million.  In many ways they are reminiscent of the artefacts found at Sutton Hoo, about which I wrote in a previous blog.

Sword pommel
The gold is exquisitely crafted and inlaid with garnets in geometric patterns.  Each component cell is lined with gold foil so that light is reflected back through the stone.  Sometimes the garnet inlay is contrasted with pieces of Roman tile, cunningly cut down and re-used in an early example of recycling. Neither the metal nor the gems in the hoard originated in England.  The gold came from Byzantium, the garnets from India.  Once again they point to an extensive and sophisticated trading network stretching across Europe and the Middle East to the Far East.

Belt with inscription
It is thought that the hoard may have been battle loot.  Staffordshire was once part of the ancient and powerful kingdom of Mercia which, back then, was undergoing great political upheaval.  Armed conflicts were frequent.  We don’t know who amassed and buried the hoard or why, but it seems likely it was done at a time of crisis.  Nevertheless, whoever it was never came back for it.  In consequence it lay undiscovered for 1300 years.

The sheer size of the find makes it unlikely that it will all be shown together, although I imagine we will eventually see an exhibition on a larger scale than the present one.  Nevertheless, this one is pretty amazing and I wouldn’t have missed it.  The experience reinforces my opinion that, although the Dark Ages saw plenty of conflict, it was not peopled by ignorant and primitive barbarians.  I also think that, before too long, similar discoveries will be made which will add to our understanding of the period.


  1. These are so beautiful! Lovely, lovely pieces.

  2. Blythe, you're so right. The work is stunning and technically advanced. The more I discover about the period the more intrigued I become.

  3. Amazing find. Really makes us reconsider our view about the abilities of these people. Thanks for doing this :)