It would be remiss of me to not post a reflection on the ‘Staffordshire Saxon’ statue on display at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. At 2.74m tall (9 ft), it was created by local artist Andy Edwards following a £25,000 project funded by Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Completed in 2012, it celebrates and ‘brings to life’ artefacts found as fragments of 7th-century weapons (swords, seaxes and at least one helmet, plus some ecclesiastical artefacts) found amidst the Staffordshire Hoard discovered in the county in 2009 near Lichfield.
The hoard is part-owned (with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) and displayed by PMAG. The statue creates a stylised representation of a high-status 7th-century warrior, greeting visitors to the museum and the sections of the hoard displayed there. Read more on the Visit Stoke page. Read about its unveiling on BBC news.
Furthermore, the statue was created as a preliminary stage/inspiration for (it’s not clear which) the idea of building a much larger ‘giant Staffordshire Saxon‘ for prominent public display in the Staffordshire landscape close to Stoke city. The aspiration would be to create a landmark up to 125 feet tall which would, like the Angel of the North, serve as a visitor attraction in its own right and draw visitors to the city and region. Like the extant statue in the museum, if ever built, this would simultaneously project the Staffordshire Hoard in monumental art across the West Midlands landscape, and commemorate the Mercian heritage of the region in a fashion never before envisaged.
In a previous post, I reported on my 2019 visit with students, but I only shared one group-shot of students posed in front of this striking statue between the main entrance and the toilets opposite the gift shop. Here are some more, showing the detail of the helmet, mail, shield, seax, sword, knife, bow, quiver of arrows and spear. The animal skin (wolf?) draped over the shoulders, drinking horn, satchel and purse are further notable features.
First, observation is that this hyper-realistic sculpture adapts the artist’s approach to other historic personages, but in this case creates the illusion of a single individual from fragments of dozens upon dozens of artefacts. It thus attempts to recreate an early 7th-century elite warrior inspired by a famous and recent archaeological discovery. But rather than being selective in any fashion, the sculpture attempts to pack literally every weapon type and element of armour onto a single individual, creating some kind of early medieval Rambo. This is achieved by not only drawing on items from the Staffordshire Hoard but also other finds from across lowland Britain and Scandinavia, including Sutton Hoo (Suffolk, UK) as well as the boat-grave cemeteries from Vendel and Valsgarde (Sweden) (an aesthetic conjured by the re-enactment group Wulfheodenas).
Second, the shear volume of items, many directly inspired by archaeological items, is complemented by one fantastical item. The helmet departs markedly from any single specific archaeological discovery, yet the boar-crest is rendered in ludicrous proportions without archaeological parallel. This looks needlessly ridiculous compared with those helmets we have surviving surmounted by boars: the Benty Grange helmet (Derbyshire) or the Pioneer Wollaston helmet (Northamptonshire). At one level this signals the fantastical nature of the depiction, but I fear most visitors will not have the detailed knowledge of early medieval material cultures to discern fact from fiction! There are other minor details one might query, such as the shield’s convex shape, the arrangement of appliques and the character of the shield-boss (by way of examples), but the boar stands out as the most ludicrous fabulous element, albeit inspired in broad terms by poetic and archaeological evidence for boars represented on the crests of helmets (note: on Twitter, Jamie Hall kindly pointed out that, if this was indeed intended only as a model for the yet-to-be built 90-foot high version, the exaggerated scale of helmet and upper body might be to account for perspective. Unfortunately the statue as displayed has no explanatory text to this effect or identifying this as simply a trial piece en route to the gigantic public piece).
So the distillation, vast array of weapons and exaggerated helmet make me wonder whether the idea, when combined with the 9ft stature, is to represent some kind of archetypal Saxon god or ancestor rather than merely an attempt to represent an early 7th-century Anglo-Saxon king or ealdorman. My third point is therefore that this may seem ludicrous, but it is exactly what the archaeological community has indulged for over 80 years for Sutton Hoo! There, King Raedwald and the Mound 1 burial assemblage are tied together, a single archaeological context used to conjure a living, breathing East Anglian king and trying to afford him with a name. Similarly, with the Staffordshire Saxon, we see single male adult elite martial identity – unnamed but perhaps imagined by visitors to be a representation of the pagan Mercian King Penda or a comparable early historical personage from early Mercia. In other words, it is an archetypal ‘Saxon warrior’ mashed from bits and bobs of detailed archaeological information and fantasy, and we cannot blame artists when the academic community has indulged this repeatedly and over the long term.
Such art, closely tied to archaeological discoveries, is therefore far from a neutral rendition and outside our realm of responsibility for us to offer academic comment. At one level the art is distinctive example where Anglo-Saxon archaeological discoveries have led to a vivid and detailed piece of art commissioned to promote and celebrate the discovery to promote and engage local communities and civic pride. In this regard, the Staffordshire Saxon is nothing but positive, as is the display of the Hoard itself in the PMAG gallery close by.
However, it is also a further example of the celebration of English regional identities through the valorisation of the Saxon past. For Mercia, this has actually most recently manifest itself through the popular borderland enthusiasm for King Offa, but more prominent still in the ‘cult’ of the ‘Lady of the Mercians’ – Aethelflaed and Lady Godiva – perpetuated by (among others) popular historians. Yet here the Staffordshire Saxon martial ‘superman’ joins in the story. For Mercia, hypermasculine and hyperfeminine war leaders join forces in celebration of the region’s early medieval origins.
In archaeological terms I’ve repeatedly challenged this almost neo-Victorian celebration of Saxon roots that has percolated popular culture in recent decades within English regionalism, including for Wessex, East Anglia, Kent and Mercia. It is a trend we must identify, critique and resist not only in popular art and discourse but through our own fieldwork, museum displays and both popular writings and academic work (e.g. Williams and Alexander 2019, Williams and Clark 2020).
Yet sculpture takes this into a particularly powerful and rhetorical medium of casting individuals from history as players in our popular culture and political discourses. I’ve only really addressed this for other periods and subjects on this blog-post, beyond comments on representations of King Offa. Indeed, I’ve dedicated more time to discussing the valorisation of the Welsh medieval past through statuary at heritage sites. We still live in the shadow of statues of King Alfred (at Winchester and Wantage) but Wessex and East Anglia aren’t alone in this trend: we now must contend with the legacy of the lean, mean fighting machine which is the Staffordshire Saxon too. Picking up on portrayals of English early medieval rulers – legendary or actual – from Hengist and Horsa to Cnut and Harold Godwinsson, the celebration of Anglo-Saxon royal and military prowess has been a shifting but stable ingredient of Anglo-Saxonism since the mid-19th century (see Williams 2013) linking local and nationalistic pride to visions of military might, imperial aspirations and frequently also legacies of moral, religious and racial superiority. What is particularly startling in this instance is this cannot be dismissed as a folly and whimsey of 19th-century culture, but a newly constructed art work on prominent display in an English museum.
Therefore, we cannot pretend this martial heroic representation of the early Anglo-Saxon past is without a problematic and disquieting legacy. Hence, the actual presence of the statue in Stoke, and the threat of a gigantic roadside future version, will fill most scholars and enthusiasts for the Early Middle Ages with a strong sense of ambivalence at best. But on the positive side, it is all more grist to my academic mill!
Williams, H. 2013. Saxon obsequies: the early medieval archaeology of Richard Cornwallis Neville, Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 23(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/bha.2312. http://hdl.handle.net/10034/336331
Williams, H. and Alexander, R. 2019. Dialogues with early medieval ‘warriors’, in H. Williams, C. Pudney and A. Ezzeldin (eds) Public Archaeology: Arts of Engagement, Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 66−84. https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:28879/https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:28879/