In July, Terry Herbert, a man with a metal detector (which he bought at a car boot sale for £2.50 – a nice touch, that) discovered a cache of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver items in a field in Staffordshire. Since then, there has been increasing excitement about this amazing find, which is now on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, though only for a few weeks. The find consists of sword hilts, crosses and parts of helmets, and is apparently thought to be the spoils of war. A bigger cache than Sutton Hoo, this is a tremendously important find; one archaelogist said that “My first reaction on seeing the scale and nature of the beast is very much as yours – this is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England in the seventh and early eighth century”.
Today, I decided to brave the queues and go to see it at BMAG. The queues were already fierce at 10am, but it was worth it – and I’m delighted to see that it’s generated so much excitement and that so many people want to see it. Not much of the hoard’s 1500 artefacts were on display, but enough to give a good idea of the scale of the find. In a few unassuming cases lay what one might, at a casual glance, dismiss as bits of tarnished scrap metal; but a closer look reveals their significance. The gold may be tarnished but the garnets in many of the pieces shine through, and the craftsmanship is beautiful – staggering in its minute detail. Some pieces have engravings of animals – tiny birds, or fish; others a delicate filigree design. There is a cross which has been folded up, and another which was worn as a necklace.
It is impossible to look at these artefacts and not feel a great sense of awe for the weight of the past behind us; everyone I spoke to at the exhibition is filled with a reverence for the past and a thirst for more information. What we want, I think, is a human story, such as emerged with Sutton Hoo. Instead, we have a mystery which may never be unravelled, and people quoting Beowulf by way of context and humanity:
“They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth and as useless to men now as it ever was.”
There’s a great video on The Guardian website, here, which shows Mr Herbert telling of his discovery but, perhaps more excitingly, shows archaeologists at work digging up more pieces in the field. For more information, the Staffordshire Hoard now has its own website, which is very informative.