12 November, 2010

Staffordshire Hoard – revisited

Jonathan Jarrett has some interesting additional information on the Staffordshire Hoard on his blog, reporting from a seminar held at Oxford in October this year. Read the article here.

The Staffordshire Hoard
I’m sure you all remember the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009. If you need to refresh your memory, see my post on the Hoard and the comments thread, and Jonathan’s post on Cliopatria.

The Hoard was discovered at Hammerwich (Map here), in the heartland of the early medieval kingdom of Mercia. It is near the Mercian royal centre at Tamworth and the Mercian ecclesiastical centre at Lichfield, and very close to the Roman road of Watling Street.

At the time of the announcement of the discovery, it was thought that the hoard’s burial site was a field in the middle of nowhere, as there was no evidence of any structures in the vicinity. This, coupled with its proximity to the road, supported interpretations suggesting that the Staffordshire Hoard was buried in a hurry in adverse circumstances by someone who was unable to recover it subsequently, perhaps because the people who buried it were being pursued by an enemy and did not survive to recover the hoard or reveal its location. Whether this represented someone burying their wealth for safekeeping from enemies, an attempt to recover tribute yielded unwillingly by a defeated army, a sort of seventh-century jewel heist (theft of a royal treasury?) gone disastrously wrong, or any number of other interpretations, is open to discussion.

Was the Staffordshire Hoard originally under a mound?
Jonathan’s blog post adds the important new information that the site of the hoard might originally have been under a mound.

“It also emerged later that the deposition site may have once had a mound over it, which would have been quite clear from the road”
-- http://tenthmedieval.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/seminary-lxviii-a-namecheck-to-be-treasured/

If true, this turns the idea of a hasty burial completely on its head. Raising a mound is a non-trivial task requiring quite a lot of labour (how much depends on the size of the mound). It’s not something you can do in a hurry with an enemy in hot pursuit. If there was a mound raised over the Staffordshire Hoard, it suggests that the hoard was deposited deliberately and was meant to be marked and remembered.

Valuable objects buried under a mound are well-known from rich graves, like the ones at Sutton Hoo. However, the Staffordshire Hoard site was excavated by archaeologists and no trace of a grave was discovered in the vicinity. Furthermore, the composition of the Staffordshire Hoard was very peculiar, containing a high proportion of precious metal fittings from military equipment, such as sword pommels and helmet pieces, no actual weapons, and no belt fittings, buckles, brooches or strap-ends. This composition is nothing like any grave assemblage I have ever heard of. So it doesn’t look likely that the Staffordshire Hoard was a rich burial (or if it was, it was a very peculiar one).

A ritual deposit?
In my original post I mentioned the possibility of a ritual deposit in passing, but did not consider it in detail because it seemed too inconsistent with the idea of a hurried deposition. However, the suggestion of a mound raised over the site brings the possibility of a deliberate ritual deposit back into the frame.

Ritual deposition of the military equipment of a defeated army is recorded in Germany and southern Scandinavia in the early centuries AD. Tacitus recounts a battle between two first-century German tribes, the Hermundari and the Chatti, in which the entire defeated army and its equipment was sacrificed to the gods:

In the same summer, a great battle was waged between the Hermunduri and Chatti,
both attempting to appropriate by force a river which was at once a rich source
for salt and the frontier line between the tribes. Apart from their
passion for deciding all questions by the sword, they held an ingrained
religious belief that this district was peculiarly close to heaven
The struggle, which went in favour of the Hermunduri, was the more
disastrousº to the Chatti in that both sides
consecrated, in the event of victory, the adverse host to Mars and Mercury; a
vow implying the extermination of horses, men, and all objects whatsoever.
--Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, Book 13 ch 57, available online

Archaeological discoveries in Denmark and southern Sweden show that this was not a literary exaggeration or invention; for example, at Illerup in Denmark entire armies’ military equipment has been found systematically broken and dropped into a lake (see this English-language article on the Illerup website for information).

Extrapolating from first- or second-century Germany and Denmark to seventh- or eighth-century England is speculative at best, as should surely go without saying. That said, Tacitus’ description and the Illerup finds offer at least an intriguing parallel. The Staffordshire Hoard contained a high proportion of military items, consistent with an assemblage of war gear. The rich weapon fittings in the Staffordshire Hoard had been stripped from the weapons they had originally adorned, which could be dismantling for re-use or could also be consistent with a form of symbolic destruction. The helmet pieces in the Staffordshire Hoard are fragments of multiple helmets, not pieces of the same helmet, suggesting that the hoard was part of a larger collection and that some of the material ended up elsewhere (see Jonathan’s post), which is reminiscent of the findings from Illerup of different pieces of the same sword in different bundles on the lake bed. This may even provide an answer to the question about what happened to the business end of the weapons – perhaps the blades ended up with the other bits of the various helmets, wherever that is or was.

The Staffordshire Hoard need not necessarily represent the spoils of a single battle. The items may have been accumulated in different places over time and brought together at a later date, perhaps as a tribute payment after a military defeat as Jonathan suggested in his Cliopatria article. Jonathan has the respectable historian’s wariness of romantic ‘storybook’ explanations, and rightly so, though I rather suspect that the deposition of 5 kg of gold composed mostly of fittings from high-status weapons was far from an everyday occurrence and therefore might reasonably be taken to indicate some extraordinary event. Perhaps the Staffordshire Hoard reflects some profoundly important struggle, in which the identity or survival of a kingdom or a people was seen as being at stake. An enormous ritual deposit, made in thanks for victory/survival, as a consequence of defeat, or in fulfilment of an oath, could fit into such a context.

The concept of a ritual deposit also offers a potential explanation for why the Staffordshire Hoard was not recovered – a ritual deposit is not meant to be recovered. Everyone knows it is there, that it is supposed to stay there for all time, and that disturbing it may have appalling consequences. The cup-stealing episode in Beowulf, where theft of a cup from a burial mound brings down the dragon’s wrath and results in the destruction of Beowulf (soon to be followed, it is hinted, by the destruction of his people), offers a glimpse of the sort of beliefs that may have prevailed, even after the conversion to Christianity if the Christian glosses in the poem are anything to go by. By the time such beliefs were no longer current and digging up burial mounds for treasure was permissible, the mound marking the location of the Staffordshire Hoard could have long since eroded away and the existence of the hoard have passed from memory. In a way, this is a simpler explanation than the idea that no-one who buried the Staffordshire Hoard survived to tell the tale.

Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, Book 13 ch 57, available online


Kathryn Warner said...

Fascinating! Thanks for posting this, Carla. It's great that they've posted so many pics of the treasure online!

Rick said...

Well, you certainly don't put something under a mound in order to hide it.

Ritual deposit of a defeated enemy's war gear strikes me as a 'natural' behavior - compare the end of the old Errol Flynn Robin Hood movie, and many swashbucklers, where at the end of the battle we see the losers' arms being thrown onto piles.

The fact that only the pretty parts were deposited, not the sharp parts, could reflect a certain ceremonious practicality: keep the utilitarian steel, sacrifice the precious, non-utilitarian ornaments.

It could also be the winner's gear, deposited as a victory offering, or some such. (In modern times distinguished warships have sometimes been ceremonially sunk rather than scrapped, e.g. HMAS Australia.)

Pure speculation, but that also fits deposit only of the precious parts. Victory is no reason to disarm yourself, so deposit the ornamentation but keep the weapons!

Either way it need not be in the aftermath of a particular battle. The site might commemorate some past battle, lie at the geographical center of a kingdom, be where the victor dreamed of a flaming cross labeled IN HOC SIGNO VINCES, or whatever.

tenthmedieval said...

Thankyou for the many shout-outs, Carla. I agree that the 'ritual' explanation is more plausible than I first thought—I'm not sure that 'ritual' is the right word, but I can't think of a better right now. I would have liked to hear more about the mound: people did ask, and Guy answered that it had come up at the recent British Museum conference on the Hoard but wasn't yet published, which left me wanting rather. If I understood correctly (and that's not certain, by now), there were actually two mounds detected on site, the other being larger but probably less visible from the road. Whether that means they were pre-existent features reused (which would have many burial parallels as I'm sure you know) or that something else was buried in the other one that was subsequently removed (which could be paralleled, of course, from the robbed-out Mound 2 at Sutton Hoo) I don't know, because I don't know what the evidence was. They did geo-physics over the whole site almost immediately, so if that's where the information came from it's taken a very long to surface! On the other hand it does seem that the Leahy orthodoxy may not include such awkward information...

The only thing I'd raise in query about your summary here is the stripping of the weapons as representing their ritual destruction. That might be the case, but we're a long way from the Danish/Jutland-type practices you use as parallels here because there the weapons were actually made useless. The weapons stripped for the Staffordshire Hoard would have remained usable, however, possibly even the cores of the helmets. That raises some difficult questions. I prefer to think of a very conspicuous and individual deprivation of wealth as humiliation (and indeed crippling a rival's ability to attract followers) still. But perhaps a novelist might enjoy considering what kind of status would hang round someone who continued to use or acquired such a 'cursed' weapon :-)

(Word verification this ime is 'witingn', which is about as Old-English-looking as we can hope for I think!)

Gabriele C. said...

What I find interesting is the burial in a mound - if it was a sacrifice hoard. The Germanic examples all have the weapons buried in a river or moor. The Danish finds also show that the complete weapons were sacrifced, after having been made unusable (bend, broken). I think examples like Hagen throwing the treasure of the Nibelungs into the Rhine or Arthus' sword been cast into a lake show traces of those old cutoms preserved in literature. And if there is a connection of the Arthus example with the Germanic sacrifice customs, one may wonder if the Celts had similar beliefs and if they were the ones to influence the Germans some time prior to the event recorded in Tacitus. There was a cultural exchange going on along the Rhine.

And I really want to know where the hoard of the Chatti went. *grin*

Carla said...

Kathryn - glad you found it interesting. It really is a most intriguing find.

Rick - quite so. If it was under a mound, that alters the interpretations markedly. Yes, it strikes me as a 'natural' sort of thing to do, especially in a culture where gods (of whatever persuasion) are believed to influence the outcome of battle. (Re the swashbuckler films, I generally interpreted those as collecting spoils as loot, rather than as collecting them for ritual deposit; the first part of the process is the same, it just depends what you do with the piles afterwards).

That's a neat idea about depositing the valuables without actually disarming yourself. Which you would most definitely not want to do in early medieval Britain. Sacrificing something of no value rather misses the point ("Lo, Great God, I hereby sacrifice to you this earwig"), but sacrificing something highly valuable that your life doesn't depend on is a different matter.

It always seems rather a shame to see a warship (or a steam engine, for that matter) broken up for scrap. It seems an undignified end. I can well imagine that ceremonially sinking a distinguished warship could seem more fitting than the scrapyard - like burial at sea - and something similar may apply to war gear in earlier times. There is also the curious thought, which I think we've touched on here before, of whether a weapon taken from a slain owner is expected to acquiesce in the deal, or whether it might have some sort of duty of vengeance for its former master....

Yes, absolutely. The Hammerwich site is presumably pretty near the centre of Mercia, given that it's down the road from the royal centre at Tamworth and up the road from the ecclesiastical centre at Lichfield. I have a feeling that a major battle - the sort of thing where the fate of the kingdom is really on the line, like Hastings in 1066 - is the sort of thing that might be the occasion for a major ritual deposit, but it needn't be on the site of the battle. If the battle was fought some distance away, it makes sense to make the ritual presentation back home where all your people can see it and remember it.

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - 'ritual' has the benefit of being fairly neutral, in that it more or less means "something without obvious practical use" and doesn't necessarily make an implicit assumption about the purpose - which we can't really begin to identify.

A second mound would be interesting. Most of the mounds Martin Carver excavated at Sutton Hoo had been robbed (the exceptions being the Mound 1 ship burial and the Mound 17 young man with his horse), so it seems to be a common fate for a burial mound. Not surprising, if people had found out there was money in them and had stopped being afraid of meeting a dragon. When a previous burial has been re-used there's sometimes evidence of the original, e.g. bits of a Bronze Age urn, but I don't know whether absence of such evidence can be taken as evidence of absence. With a bit of luck the evidence about the mound(s), whatever it was, will be published sooner or later. Even a small scrap of evidence can change the picture completely.

Agreed that the Staffordshire Hoard items look like dismantling rather than destruction as at Illerup. Though with the caveat that as we haven't got the blades or the rest of the helmets we don't know what happened to them; unless they turn up, I don't think we can tell whether they were re-used as weapons with new fittings, or whether they were smashed up and put somewhere else (maybe under the other mound?!). We know the weapons were stripped of their precious metal fittings, since we have said fittings, but we don't know what else happened to the weapons. Illerup is separated by quite a long way and quite a few centuries, so I wouldn't offer it as any more than an intriguing parallel. For a start, it's at the bottom of a lake instead of under a mound, which is a big difference in itself.

Interesting point about a cursed weapon - see my reply to Rick above! It's clear from the poetry that weapons, swords especially, were given names, which presumably indicates that they were thought of as having some sort of special status. If you take a dead man's sword for your own, is the sword expected to serve its new master faithfully or is it expected to stay loyal to its previous owner? Discuss...

It may well represent a particularly humiliating form of tribute paid after military defeat(s), as you suggest. I rather like that idea. And then the victor takes the tribute (or possibly his family's collection of tribute acquired over time) and dedicates it to the gods in perpetuity in thanks for the victory or in fulfilment of a vow. Bede has several examples of seventh-century Christian kings dedicating land for a Christian monastery (and in at least one case, the king's little daughter as a nun) as a gift to the Christian god in return for a major military victory. I wonder if that continued earlier practice, with a change in outward form.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Yes, if this is a sacrifice it's distinctly different from Illerup and similar examples. That may reflect a change in practice, as the Staffordshire Hoard is a long way from Illerup in both time and place, plenty of opportunity for customs to have evolved. Or it may represent something different altogether. Maybe it was considered some sort of burial, hence the mound. Burying the defeated side's hopes, or something? (I am irresistibly reminded of the Ashes as the 'death' of English cricket, but that's excessively facetious)

Yes, I would agree that casting the treasure of the Nibelungs into the Rhine could be a distant echo of the custom seen at Illerup. Maybe not even that distant, since the poem was no doubt in circulation orally for a long time before someone wrote it down. The parallels with Arthur's sword are clear. It's not just Arthur, either. Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey had a major deposit of items from the late pre-Roman Iron Age, including some war gear (spears, swords, bits of chariot). I would guess that dropping things into water as some sort of votive deposit was a widespread custom across Iron Age north-west Europe, both sides of the Rhine and further afield. The custom of the wishing well may be a very distant echo of it still surviving today!

I guess quite a lot of people have been wanting to know that ever since the time of the Chatti :-)