Thursday, 8 December 2011

Want To Be a Treasure Hunter? – The Lessons of the Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard

Staffordshire Hoard – Buried Anglo-Saxon Treasure

Have you ever heard of the Staffordshire Hoard, the amazing Anglo-Saxon gold and silver treasure found by a lone man with a metal detector in an English field?  Many of us have been brought up on tales of buried treasure and maps where X marks the spot, so the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard must have seemed like a dream come true to that lucky treasure hunter.  Finding an ancient treasure or chest full of gold coins may seem like a bit of a pipe dream, but it is one that many people hope to fulfil as they scour the countryside with their metal detectors hoping to strike it rich. 

But just as many lottery winners have discovered to their cost, hitting the jackpot and finding a unique, golden treasure does not always lead to happiness ever after and can even cause the people involved to regret ever having been part of their remarkable discovery. So was finding the Staffordshire Hoard a wonderful, life-changing event for those involved or merely the precursor to arguing, bitterness and remorse?

The Finding of the Staffordshire Hoard

Back in 2009 Terry Herbert was just an amateur metal detector enthusiast, who was living on disability allowance in a council flat. He had found some small archaeological artefacts in the past, but could have had no idea of was he was about to unearth in a muddy field near Lichfield in Staffordshire. For what he pulled out of the mud that day in Fred Johnson’s field were the very first pieces of what would turn out to be a fabulous Anglo-Saxon treasure, comprising of over 1500 items in gold and silver, some studded with precious stones that dated from the 7th century AD. 

Most of the precious objects were associated with warfare, such as parts of decorated helmets, sword pommels, and hilt collars. There were also three gold crosses discovered that had had the arms folded inwards, possibly so that they would not take up so much space when they were buried. Mr Herbert reported his amazing find to the local authorities and Birmingham archaeology undertook the full archaeological excavation between July and August 2009.

So What is the Staffordshire Hoard?

 The items recovered in the Staffordshire Hoard are of the most superb craftsmanship and show what expert metal workers the Anglo Saxons were. The huge quantities of gold and silver found also shows that these were once the possessions of very high status individuals, possibly even royalty. One of the more interesting facts is that none of the objects found would have belonged to women; they were all parts of the trappings of an Anglo-Saxon warrior, which had been ripped off the original swords and helmets.  

There has been fierce debate as to how this collection of treasure was originally accumulated and why, but it has been suggested that they are trophies collected from vanquished warriors after a battle, or that the gold and silver embellishments had been removed so that the sword blades or metal helmets could then be redecorated to reflect the new owner’s identity.  Also there have been various reasons put forward as to why the Staffordshire Hoard was buried in that field, ranging from the treasure being an offering to a pagan god to the artefacts being hastily concealed due to protect them from being pillaged during a battle.

Who Were The Anglo-Saxons?

The Anglo-Saxons were a group of Germanic tribesmen that invaded the south and east of England during the early 5th century AD. This period of British history is usually known as the Dark Ages, a time from which there are very few surviving written records and it used to be thought that any culture had fled the country with the retreating Romans and that the invading Anglo-Saxons were merely blood-thirsty savages. 

However, some of the archaeological finds from this period, such as the Sutton Hoo burial and now the Staffordshire Hoard, show that the Anglo-Saxons were exceptionally skilled at working precious metals, setting them with garnet gemstones. The field where the Staffordshire Hoard was found was in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, ruled by warrior kings such as Aethelred, Penda and Wulfhere. 

During the 7th century AD Mercia was trying to expand its territory and influence and was being militarily aggressive, so the booty of the Staffordshire Hoard could easily have been stripped from bodies on the battlefield. The Staffordshire Hoard also shows that at that time, Anglo-Saxon Britain was in transition from being a pagan country to a Christian one, as some of the objects show a mix between being decorated with pagan or Christian symbols.

Valuing the Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard was valued by the Independent Treasure Valuation Committee at the British Museum at £3.28 million. This small fortune was divided equally between the farmer who owned the field, Fred Johnson, and the man who had made the discovery with his metal detector, Terry Herbert. You would have thought that becoming millionaires overnight would have been a cause for celebration, but instead it appears to have led to a souring of relations and bitter recriminations between these two men. 

The relationship has even deteriorated to the point where Mr Johnson has banned Terry Herbert from ever setting foot on his land again. It seems that both men have expressed regret that they ever had any part in discovering the Staffordshire Hoard. Fred Johnson has stated in the media that he believes that Terry Herbert is just a greedy, grasping man and that he has been incensed by Mr Johnson’s desire to search for more treasure on the farm. Mr Johnson says that he was never interested in gaining money from the find and was only ever interested in protecting the find for the country, and also that he did not welcome any of the publicity or media interest. 

Mr Herbert has riposted by saying that Fred Johnson was just unhappy that he had to share any of the payout and that he wanted to keep all the money for himself. So despite the fact that Fred Johnson has been able to build himself a new house on his farm and that Terry Herbert has moved from his council flat to a luxury bungalow, their new found wealth does not seem to have brought either man very much happiness or peace of mind.

So maybe we should all be a bit more careful of what we wish for, as even something as fabulous as discovering a buried hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure can bring stress and unhappiness with it. But perhaps the most important thing to have come out of all this is the Staffordshire Hoard itself. 

This fascinating piece of Anglo-Saxon history is now housed in several museums in the UK, including the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Potteries Museum and the British Museum, where visitors can wonder at their beauty and experts can continue to examine them and discover more about their history, how they were made and fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history.

Staffordshire Hoard Image Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

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