When I first learned about the July 2009 discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard near Lichfield, I was amazed and delighted. When first put on public display, I queued for over 4 hours outside Birmingham Museum with fellow academics Duncan Sayer and Meggen Gondek as well as a core group of die-hard Chester students to see a selection of the nearly 4,000 items now known to have been discovered within the ‘hoard’.
Why was I so pleased with the discovery? The hoard is a small deposit of broken up war-gear – weapons and some armour – of items made in the late 6th and 7th centuries. Ok, it was precious and unique, so I was pleased by the find itself as a ‘first’.
There are further reasons why the hoard is so important. It was particularly significant and rare because it was not a grave or settlement site, therefore it represented a new contextual dimension as well as material. Also, I was pleased about the headlines and profile-raising it offered for research into early medieval Britain (and the study of the kingdom of Mercia in particular) more generally. In addition, I was excited by the new avenues of research it promised into a range of broader themes regarding the societies and material culture, weapons especially, of the mid-/late first millennium AD.
The Staffordshire Hoard is certainly an amazing find as a collection, as well as containing individual items of note. It is now on permanent display at Birmingham, Stoke, Lichfield and Tamworth. The study of the hoard is still ongoing. Following the complex and daunting process of initially cataloguing the find by the Portable Antiquities Scheme as well as the fund-raising for purchase, the largest current UK publicly funded conservation and research project was established into the hoard.
The Public Archaeology of the Staffordshire Hoard
How has the Staffordshire hoard been publicly disseminated? Big projects take many years to complete, but the Staffordshire Hoard has been aired in many venues. When it was first discovered, there was a big conference at the British Museum which I attended and learned of the initial details and the first impressions of what the gold, garnet and silver finds found in a Staffordshire field might mean from a range of international experts. There was some clear and frank disagreements aired at this event regarding possible approaches to the hoard. This is still available via the PAS website here.
Magazine articles and TV programmes followed as the project to conserve and research the hoard unfolded.
The fieldwork was rapidly published in 2010 in the Antiquaries Journal.
The project is now in its advanced stages and is due for full academic publication in 2018 through Barbican Research Associates. Results are being disseminated via the project’s blog, an interim popular booklet available and authored by Chris Fern and George Speake.
Over the last half decade, public talks about the hoard seem to have fallen largely upon two individuals with the extensive knowledge of early medieval material culture: Dr Kevin Leahy of the PAS and Dr Leslie Webster (formerly of the British Museum).
Put all this together, and this ongoing project has a high profile supported by many activities and individuals.
Exploring the Staffordshire Hoard: The Leeds Conference
Set against this background of an ongoing project’s public archaeology with many results as yet unpublished, the Royal Armouries Leeds have a temporary exhibition featuring finds from the hoard: Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard. To coincide with its opening, last Saturday there was a day conference on ‘Exploring the Staffordshire Hoard’ held at the museum. I was invited to present the keynote lecture. It was my first time at the Royal Armouries and I look forward to going back and exploring its many galleries. Following the conference introduction by the museum’s Director General, Dr Edward Impey, I was first up with my talk on ‘Bling and Beyond’, followed by an hour-long talk on the detail of the finds by Dr Kevin Leahy on ‘The Context and Content of the Staffordshire Hoard’.
Then came lunch. This included a brief chance to explore the museum, and also the temporary exhibition on ‘Warrior Treasure’. Here, I was excited to see the innovative and careful display of items from the hoard itself. I was also impressed by the cloisonne-inspired bespoke metal partitions dividing up the exhibition made by a modern smith. The poem Beowulf was widely represented throughout, another example of the link between this epic tale and early Anglo-Saxon material culture in modern popular reception.
As impressed as I was to see elements of the hoard, I was equally satisfied to finally get to see the redisplay of the 7th-century grave-finds from Northamptonshire associated with the ‘Pioneer helmet’. This rich isolated weapon burial, although poorly preserved, has produced one of only a handful of helmets from early Anglo-Saxon England, now joined by the fragments of at least one helmet from the Staffordshire Hoard itself.
I also got to see a demonstration of early medieval weapon use, as well as necessary visit to Pizza Express.
After lunch, we met with the most relevant academic research for exploring the context of the hoard: Dr Sue Brunning presented new evidence for the life-histories and personalities of early Anglo-Saxon swords: “Anglo-Saxon swords and their wielders.
Next there was a fascinating talk by Paul Binns, a modern smith, complemented by Paul Mortimer who put this in context with the latest on his research into early Anglo-Saxon swords.
Then, reenactor Paul presented on the social and martial importance of smart, striking and intimidating dress for the performance and identity of warriors in early Anglo-Saxon England. Everyone had a chance at afternoon break to explore Paul’s replica items from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo as discussed here.
Finally, we had a pair of papers from Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s conservators on the Staffordshire hoard project. First, Lizzie Miller outlined ‘The Conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard’ and then Pieta Greaves gave us the latest updates on discoveries witih ‘The Staffordshire Hoard 2016’.
For me at least, I enjoyed the conference and the range of papers on offer. The audience of c. 65 people were very knowledgeable and interested in the finds and the broader archaeological and historical context. Putting the conference and exhibition together, this is an exciting time for research on the hoard. The finds deserve this popular acclaim and widespread public engagement activities from blogs to conferences, complementing the detailed conservation and research work ongoing. I can’t wait for the final publication!