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