When a stash of gold and silver was discovered in 2009 by metal detector enthusiast Terry Herbert, the small village of Hammerwich, just outside Lichfield in Staffordshire, was thrust into the media spotlight. As the dig progressed, historians, archaeologists and the public alike looked on in excitement as what would turn out to be the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found, anywhere in the world, was carefully extracted from its muddy hiding place.
Nearly 4,000 pieces were finally excavated – almost exclusively martial or warlike in character – and a team of expert researchers and conservators got to work, cleaning, preserving, examining and re-examining every piece, hoping to unearth the secrets of the hoard…
On 11 March 2014, more than four years after the hoard’s discovery, I found myself on a train bound for Birmingham Museum, one of a lucky few invited to view the Staffordshire Hoard in its entirety before it returned to various museums and exhibitions around the UK.
As I was led through the museum’s maze of corridors and stairwells, I eventually found myself in a basement room, standing in front of a long black table holding the neatly arranged, c£3.3 million hoard of gold and silver (you can see a timelapse video above of the team laying out the hoard).
Away from the bright lights of exhibition displays, the hoard is no less impressive. Pieces range from exquisitely decorated pommel caps (one of which boasts a rather grumpy looking carved face – named ‘Dave’ by the Staffordshire Hoard team), and a beautiful stylised seahorse decorated using filigree (a technique which creates patterns by soldering lengths of twisted wire to a base plate), to a folded gold cross once decorated with garnets – one of the few non-warfare related items found in the hoard.
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One item of particular interest is a silver gilt strip bearing a Biblical inscription in Latin – the only inscribed item in the haul. It reads: ‘Surge domine et disepentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua’ – (‘rise up, o Lord, and may thy enemies be scattered and those who hate thee be driven from thy face’). My own Latin is more than a little rusty but I was reliably informed that there are actually two spelling mistakes on the strip!
The hoard throws up as many questions as it answers. Why was it buried? Who buried it? And what can it tell us about the Anglo-Saxon world? The experts I spoke to had their own theories, the most popular being that these were items seized in battle and buried for later recovery, or perhaps even a royal treasury. But the reality is that we will probably never know.
Whatever the hoard’s purpose, as I walked around the long table, peering at tiny, yet beautifully crafted pieces of gold (and feeling more than a little worried about breaking something!), I couldn’t help but think of the men who once marched into battle wearing the pieces set before me. A shining, golden army of Anglo-Saxon warriors appearing on the horizon, their armour and swords glinting in the sun, must surely have proved an intimidating, and terrifying, sight indeed.
Find out more about Anglo-Saxon history
This article was first published by History Extra in March 2014.