Following its discovery in July 2009, the conservation and research project into the exceptional metal-detector find of late 6th/7th-century metalwork and garnets known as the Staffordshire Hoard is ongoing. Results are still being gathered and sifted towards publication and new discoveries are still being made during the conservation, cataloguing and analysis of the artefacts.
As one of only a handful of academic archaeologists employed in the UK actively working on the archaeology of early Anglo-Saxon England, I was recently given my first-ever opportunity to present a public talk relating to the Staffordshire hoard. I used the opportunity of the ‘Exploring the Staffordshire Hoard’ conference at the Royal Armouries Leeds, coinciding with their Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard exhibition, to explore some new ways of contextualising the hoard. In doing this, I drew on my previous on the mnemonic and social significance of early Anglo-Saxon mortuary deposition and elite material cultures, as well as my latest research on early Anglo-Saxon burials and artefact analysis.
My talk was a 30-35 minute exploration on the agency of art and artefacts in early Anglo-Saxon England called ‘Beyond Bling: Rethinking Treasure in Early Anglo-Saxon England’. I introduced the significance of the material culture of late sixth and seventh centuries in lowland Britain, outlining how important the hoard was not only because of its instrinic character, but also as one further strand of material evidence revealing the rapidly changing nature of lowland Britain’s societies in the context of the dual processes of kingdom formation and Christian conversion.
In approaching material culture at this time, I particularly emphasised the curse of using terms like ‘treasure’ and ‘hoard’, thus celebrating the value of caches like the Staffordshire Hoard for their monetary worth today. This simultaneously sustains a popular and scholarly attention to mindless enthusiasm and the active de-contextualisation of precious things from a wider complex material world. I have talked about this problem elsewhere here.
Next, I tried rapidly to introduce the public audience to a wider archaeological context. I sketched some key sites to ensure people were aware of them, including princely graves such as Taplow, Prittlewell and Sutton Hoo, as well as settlement projects such as Lyminge and Rendlesham. I was keen to ensure there was a wider appreciate of at least some other sites of broadly contemporary 7th-century date to the items from the hoard.
Having done this, I then attempted to pursue my three themes in approaching the material culture of this period that explicitly went beyond precious metal items. The aim was to try and think ‘beyond bling’. Thus I explored: ‘fluid things’, ‘bodily things’ and ‘halls as things’.
The first of this revolved around feasting gear, and its significance in life and death. I used glass claw beakers, drinking horns and cups among the items that defined social and ritual life in the hall and in the grave. I referred to these as ‘fluid things’, since they were about the conveyance and movement of liquids: mainly drink but also liquid food. Drinking and food culture was key mechanisms of social power for the elites and wider society of 7th-century lowland Britain. There is at least one drinking vessel or cup with such mountings, evident in the hoard itself. For the talk, I used weapon graves from Kent and East Anglia, including the Prittlewell chamber grave and Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo.
Second, I talked briefly about ‘bodily things’: items adorning bodies and fashioned to appear like multiple monstrous animals through the ornamentation of Style II animal art. I considered how many items of dress were key to fashioning the identities and relationships between early Anglo-Saxon period communities (a point taken up later by Paul Mortimer’s talk). I discussed belt buckles and their art in these contexts as not only covered with beastly art, but also operating like beasts themselves, with gaping jaws and biting, piercing tongues. I used the art from Taplow and Sutton Hoo to discuss this. They were made memorable through the artistic elaboration of their functionality and bodily association. They might have also been regarded as apotropaic, but the art was intended to articulate and embellish function as part of a moving, worn costume, thus constituting and communicating identities of itself and its wearers’ social network.
Halls as Things
Finally, I suggested we need to look beyond portable items, to consider architectures too as ‘things’ that were not only spaces for habitation and ceremony, but were instrumental in those activities with personalities of their own. I discussed my work on the great-hall complex at Yeavering, Northumberland, in this regard, building off my recent workshop presentation in Durham discussed here.
Putting Things Together
Linking these themes together, my point was that archaeologists can readily focus on how material culture affected early medieval people, and what these items wanted from those contemporaries. During their life-histories of circulation, use, display and deposition, artefacts that were made of precious metals, but also a range of other artefact types, were instrumental in fashioning and transforming elite personhood. They were made memorable through their distinctive sensory engagements and material qualities as well as through the contexts in which they were deployed in performance and practice.
Implications for the Hoard
My research has thus far avoided discussing the Staffordshire hoard. I’ve never been formerly approached to investigate it, or contribute towards its research. This has been a relief at one level, because I have commitments to many other projects. Also, I fear delving into the Staffordshire hoard since it is my view that precious metal finds without a clear context foster some of the most negative dimensions of early Anglo-Saxon archaeological research and public engagement. I speak here of a range of issues including: (i) the empiricist and myopic focus of studies of de-contextualised precious-metal finds by metal-detector users, (ii) the inherent valorisation of metal-detecting, (iii) the focus on monetary value and individual artisanal skill, (iv) the enduring ‘Who Was He?’ dimensions to popularising the finds trying to link it to known historical events; (v) immediate recourse to celebrity historians to impose their judgement upon expensive finds and (vi) the deference to the most antiquated of characterisations of seventh-century Britain accompanying discussions of the hoard.
Each of these three strands has implications for the Staffordshire Hoard, given that it appears it was items deliberately fragmented and deposited. It helps us understand the interaction of the artefacts with liquids: a key dimension of the weapons and armour of the hoard which may have become drenched in blood at various stages of their life-histories and one of the items deposited might have been a drinking horn or cup mount.
Then it helps us appreciate the importance of the human body as a medium and integral aspect of how ‘bodily artefacts’ operate in early Anglo-Saxon England. Artefacts like the cross and the swords in the hall were items of the body, worn and wielded in relation to bodily gestures and movements.
Finally, I explored the very settings in which the hoard items were found. By suggesting that dismantling halls may have been a purposeful and ritualised process, might help us understand the treatment of the hoard’s weapons and other items. These were items displayed in halls, but might need disposing of like halls.
Implications for Public Archaeology
Even at the conference, I was demoralised to learn that some still regarded a social approach to early medieval material culture as ‘theory’ and ‘speculation’ by a vocal minority. This reflects a depressing and tenacious empiricist tradition which retains a stranglehold on many areas of early Anglo-Saxon archaeology.
In terms of its public engagement, it is themes like those I presented that we can deploy to stop the hoard floating in isolation as a special find. Affording it with overlapping social contexts is key.
Furthermore, there remains a lack of popular archaeological writing on the wider context of seventh-century lowland Britain. This was exemplified in the shop linked to the exhibition, which had little to offer beyond the hoard-specific materials. Some of this cannot be justified as books on Anglo-Saxon England are available. I was particularly disappointed that Higham and Ryan’s The Anglo-Saxon World and Leslie Webster’s Anglo-Saxon Art books weren’t on sale, but James Campbell’s fabulous but utterly out-of-date The Anglo-Saxons was. We need to write more public orientated archaeological histories, rather than letting the hoard simply be appropriated for the front cover of literary and historical research.
Therefore, as the researchers and conservators strive towards publication of the Staffordshire Hoard, it is incumbent upon us in the wider research community to talk about it, write about it, and theorise the hoard in relation to broader research questions and engage with it through popular writings too. If these means contextualising the hoard in new fashions, that should be fostered by new generations of thinkers, rather than shut down by stuffy individuals with stale research questions.