Chris Fern, Tania Dickinson, and Leslie Webster (eds)
Society of Antiquaries of London, £45
Review Kevin Leahy
Few archaeological discoveries have generated the same level of public interest as the Staffordshire Hoard. Its discovery in 2009 created a worldwide sensation and, 11 years later, it retains its appeal, giving the appearance of this report an importance beyond that of most academic publications. Now we have it: does it live up to our hopes and expectations?
This is a big book, weighing 2,836g which, oddly, is almost exactly half the weight of the hoard itself (5,636g). Most of the objects in the hoard are illustrated at full size, bringing home how small many of them are – readers should use the illustrations as an index and, to see them in detail, go to the online resource (https://archaeologydata service.ac.uk/). Usefully, the book also illustrates much of the comparative material from a wide range of sources. Chris Fern’s analytical drawings are a delight, allowing readers to appreciate the intricacies of Anglo-Saxon Style II art: incomprehensible jumbles are resolved into intertwined animals, revealing 7th-century puzzles.
Following painstaking conservation, a search was made for joining pieces among the 4,600 fragments that make up the Hoard, resulting in the recognition of around 600 ‘significant objects’. The Hoard remains strangely unbalanced, though: it consists mainly of aristocratic war-gear, mostly fittings from swords – but the most common Anglo- Saxon weapon, the spear, is not represented. There is no feminine jewellery which, elsewhere, represents the most frequently found early Anglo-Saxon gold objects. For example, the Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded 95 gold pendants but only seven pommel caps – there were at least 74 pommel caps in the Hoard. The reconstruction of the helmet has already generated much excitement (see CA 349), but the interpretation of some of the gold and garnet objects as fittings from a saddle moves us on to new ground.
Dating from the time of the Conversion, the eight Christian objects are, justifiably, considered in depth. The great gold cross (539) is now so well known as to have become an icon, but what is new is the recovery, among the many fragments, of the silver casing from what is likely to be its socketed base. The elaborate gold and garnet mount (541) was a mystery. It consists of a garnet-set cone bearing a column, which is surmounted by a millefiori glass gem. A remarkable parallel was found in the headdress worn by the Prophet Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus, which was produced at Jarrow in the early 8th century, and both probably represent the Anglo-Saxons’ idea of a Jewish priest’s headgear.
Technology and science have made it possible to investigate objects in ways previously unimagined. The analysis of the gold showed the extensive use of surface enrichment (removing silver from the surface of gold alloys to make them appear richer). Conservation also revealed the survival of organic materials, such as horn, bone, a scrap of cloth, wooden cores within pommel caps, and a bedding compound made up of beeswax and animal glue.
Art history forms an important part of the report: the Staffordshire Hoard contains 140 items decorated with Style II animals, effectively doubling the known corpus of this material. Previously, this style was seen as being a Kentish/southern style, but the Hoard, and a study of parallels recorded from elsewhere in England, has changed the pattern. The authors have done well to bring order to this mass of material and to establish a sequence of four overlapping phases, starting about AD 570 and ending around AD 660. Specialist studies look at other aspects of the Hoard: discovery, fieldwork, conservation, workshop practice, object biographies, and the historical context. The chapter on ‘Hoards and Hoarding’ reviews a complex topic, but the reason for the Hoard’s burial remains a mystery.
This is a fine book, with good illustrations, well written, and easy to read. My wife and I were lucky enough to have prepared the first catalogue of the Staffordshire Hoard, and it is good to see the find taken to publication. This is not the final word on the Staffordshire Hoard, but it is a firm foundation for decades of fascinating study and research.