Yes, I was one of those nutters who queued for almost 5 hours outside of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery around 10 years ago to see the Staffordshire Hoard soon after its discovery, and since then I’ve seen the display of elements of the hoard at Lichfield Cathedral. However, I haven’t visited Birmingham Museum since, nor had I ever visited the other location where the hoard has come to reside: the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent.
While it is yet another example of the deeply problematic media celebration of ‘treasure’ and the monetary gains of the finder and farmer, and its overall monetary value equated with its archaeological and historical significance, the Hoard has certainly become important academically and culturally. It has transplanted Sutton Hoo on the covers of books by literary scholars whose publishers have always had little imagination, but it has become significant globally, nationally and regionally for the story it tells about the 7th-century Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, their conversion to Christianity, and the Midlands kingdom of Mercia in particular.
The hoard has been the focus of a long-running research project funding by the public purse and charities, integrating a multi-strand public engagement strategy that has sought to promote an appreciation of the early medieval past and the kingdom of Mercia in particular. As well as the museum displays, there have been popular publications, a detailed website, social media activities, public talks as the research as unfolded. Publishing this find in a decade is a colossal and impressive achievement to all the conservators and researchers involved, but so has been the digital public archaeology. I can’t wait to see the final monograph, but I also await to see whether the Hoard can achieve what the Prittlewell Prince’s news stories deftly avoided: the ongoing celebration of ‘treasure’ and its monetary value.
Yesterday, I partly remedied my lack of visiting the exhibitions of the hoard in recent years by simultaneously visiting Stoke’s Potteries Museum for the first time and seeing the newly updated display of the Staffordshire Hoard. The hoard elements on display are fabulous in themselves and worthy of multiple blog-posts. One can see fragments of ecclesiastical items, but mainly the fragments of sword and seax hilts that were broken up for reuse, but deposited and ‘lost’ in unknown circumstances before this could happen. These gold and garnet items, as well as examples of gold filigree work, but also silver and copper finds, are on display, including also fragments of at least one helmet.
The kingdom of Mercia gallery includes mead-hall area, some effective interactives that allowed you to explore photographs of the items and videos of them close-up.
There was a mannequin of an early medieval warrior which I forgot to investigate there was so much else going on.
Yet the attention remains on the four cabinets containing the items from the hoard itself were well laid out and with magnifying glasses to allow you to look at the incredible detail of items up-close.
Equally interesting was the incorporation in the Staffordshire Hoard gallery of reconstructions of items from the hoard, including a sword, seax and the helmet itself. The helmet was situated as the centrepiece. I retain reservations about its appearance, but they are instinctual and probably unfair, and I await the final publication of the results before I comment further.
There was also a video that was simply impossible to hear or engage with, and there was simply many other things to do: it had something to do with dragons and legends and was largely superfluous.
Likewise, the modern art ‘inspired’ by the hoard, with various monsters, was matched by further examples displayed upstairs. I really didn’t know what to say about these to the kids: they looked alien, incongruous and inexplicable and so I tried to simply ignore them.
The Staffordshire Hoard struggles to find a context in relation to existing collections at this museum or anywhere else. Still, a further interesting dimension of the display which I hadn’t anticipated was the inclusion in the gallery of two displays of 19th-century furnished inhumation graves from the Peak District (specifically from Stapenhaill on the Derbyshire/Staffordshire border. These provide some (but not much) semblance of context for the Hoard. I was especially excited to see that one was a female-gendered mock-up grave in a grassy mound, while the display case contained not only male-gendered items, set against a photograph of the grave from whence it came, but also three cremation burials in undecorated urns from the same site.
Offering further context, there was also a cabinet displaying both a mixture of items indicative of ‘daily life’ against the backdrop of a photograph of West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, but also containing a range of metal-detected early medieval finds from the region. There was also a reconstructed early medieval vertical loom.
In addition, for that day only, there were re-enactors from Angelcynn Re-enactment Society there to demonstrate games, spinning, costume, weaponry and armour as well as to deliver talks on gold and garnet, and on helmets.
This was all great and within the Mercian kingdom gallery. However, there were other elements I must mention. The striking larger-than-life 9-foot-tall statue of ‘Staffordshire Hoard Man’, guarded the toilets in the museum foyer opposite the shop. I find this statue most disconcerting. This hyper-masculine superman just beggars belief, and it threatens to grow, because there has been a proposal (hopefully only to remain just an idea) that this sculpture should provide the inspiration for a massive 114ft statue looming over the M6 near Stoke. If built this would be a Staffs equivalent to the Angel of the North (maybe the ‘Warrior of the Mercians’)? It’s all a tad odd: the implied hyper-realism and with that ludicrous boar stuck on top of the helmet and the unprecedented shield: what were they thinking?
Outside the Mercian gallery, there were more positive elements than the statue. The wonderful Portable Antiquities Scheme were present with a display of artefacts to be handled. I got a signed copy of Teresa Gilmore’s 50 Finds from Staffordshire.
Despite spending a lot of time looking at the Staffordshire Hoard and the activities associated with it, we had some time to enjoy the other galleries including a temporary exhibition on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, Local History, Ceramics, Fine Art, Design, but ran out of time and didn’t see all of the Archaeology and none of the Natural Science galleries. The Spitfire Gallery was closed for maintenance. Hence, I’ll have to go back again!
If this wasn’t enough, me and the kids got the rare opportunity to hear a talk in the museum’s theatre by early medieval archaeologist Chris Fern who has been leading up the soon-to-be-published research on the Hoard. I learned a lot about new details about the hoard and the options still on the table for the experts involved regarding the overall interpretation of the hoard’s contents and their deposition. I recalled my talk on a Staffordshire Hoard conference at Leeds Royal Armouries in 2016.
I was very proud of the kids: they sat through an hour-long talk quietly and patiently, bribed with the promise of lollypops afterwards.
In summary, a great family day out and much to see: congratulations to the staff and volunteers of the museum for putting together a fabulous revitalised exhibition and for the PAS and Angelcynn Re-enactment Society for their help and support. A great talk by Chris Fern too.
Stepping back, it gave me much to think about the hoard, its significance in the early medieval past, its stark lack of satisfactory academic and public-facing context both in the galleries and in publications, and how the Mercian past is being told for contemporary audiences in one of the most prominently Brexit-voting districts of the UK (69.4% of voters in Stoke expressed their desire to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum).