Sunday 5 November 2023

'the crux a craftsman's triumph'

 Yesterday I was in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, marvelling at the Staffordshire Hoard – or rather at the half of it that is in Stoke, the other half being in Birmingham. Everything about the Staffordshire Hoard is wildly improbable and deeply mysterious. It was found, by pure chance, in 2009, in a recently ploughed field at Hammerwich, a village near Lichfield, by a detectorist called Terry Herbert, who had no expectation of finding anything, the field having just been searched by another pair of detectorists. However, he did find something – first, a fragment of gold lying on the surface, then, as he dug down, more and more pieces, until, over the next five days, he had uncovered 244 gold objects. And that was just the beginning: excavation work by Birmingham Archaeology, funded by English Heritage and successfully kept secret, eventually unearthed the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork (and garnet-inlaid cloisonné) ever found: almost four thousand six hundred items in all, containing eleven pounds' weight of gold and three pounds of silver. 
  The hoard consists largely of decorative features from sword hilts and scabbards – 
'What is carried over? The Frankish gift, two-edged, regaled with slaughter.
The sword is in the king’s hands; the crux a craftsman’s triumph. Metal effusing its own fragrance, a variety of balm...' (Geoffrey Hill, Mercian Hymns)
And everything in the hoard, including even a very fine and elaborate helmet, appears to have been carefully selected then systematically broken into often very small fragments. Why was this done? What is this hoard and who would have put it together and hidden it? Was it simply plunder (in which case why break it up so carefully?) or some kind of religious offering? The collection can't have been intended as grave goods; were they a metalworker's store of pieces to be repurposed? Why did such a hoard, having been collected together and buried, then lie lost and forgotten until that chance discovery in 2009? 
  Looking at the cleaned and restored fragments today, as they lie in their well lit display cases, one can only marvel, not only at the mystery that surrounds them, but also at the sheer quality and beauty of the workmanship, all of it dating from well before the end of the seventh century. These fragments offer tantalising glimpses of a highly sophisticated culture of which we know almost nothing beyond the bald facts of chronological history. They are precious flotsam washed up by chance on the shore of that great ocean of the unknown that lies all around us, spreading ever wider as we go back and back in time...

'I was invested in mother-earth, the crypt of roots and endings. Child’s-play. I abode there, bided my time: where the mole
shouldered the clogged wheel, his gold solidus; where dry-dust badgers thronged the Roman flues, the long-unlooked-for mansions of our tribe...'

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