The Staffordshire Hoard and the Distance of the Past

Samuel Collins on a dazzling trove of medieval treasure

Early medieval archaeology rarely makes news. Star power rests instead with discoveries from the ancient world, and, as this forum amply shows, with finds that can be grouped together under a broad religious umbrella – discoveries that (rightly or wrongly) are received by the wider interested public as pertaining to the early days of the three great monotheisms. But there are exceptions to this ancient and religious monopoly of attention. On occasion it is possible for the warriors and kings of the early middle ages to make a public splash through the discovery of things or places that speak about their power and place in the world. Thus the widespread coverage in the press, as well as in popular history and documentary film, that was lavished on the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, an early medieval trove of Anglo-Saxon (mostly) gold-decorated weapons and war gear, stands as a rare moment of popular attention paid to an important moment of archaeological discovery from the early middle ages. But as we shall see, popular imagination and explanation of the meaning and significance of this glittering collection tracks in very different ways than the other more openly religious discoveries considered by my colleagues in this forum.

The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered in July 2009, a chance find by an amateur treasure hunter with a metal detector working a newly ploughed field in the English Midlands. Gold and gems emerged from the grass: the stuff of dreams. The subsequent excavation by Birmingham Archaeology revealed the marvelous extent of what was buried. With over 11 pounds of gold and 3 pounds of silver, this is the largest such deposit of Anglo-Saxon precious metal yet found. Many of the pieces in the hoard are of the highest quality of workmanship, and certainly the rivals of any comparable Anglo-Saxon or continental metalwork known from the period.

The hoard consists of well over 4,000 objects, mostly damaged and fragmentary military gear representing the work of several generations of metal smiths from all over England and further afield. Sword and knife fittings predominate, with a range of helmet fragments, shield fittings, and horse tack rounding out this range of martial objects. These objects of war were decorative, prestige metalwork used to adorn weapons and armor, worn and carried to announce the high status of the warriors who brought them to battle. None of the artifacts was designed (or at least not in any demonstrable way) for female use — the hoard is the stuff of male warriors. Among this heap of war gear are fragments of three other objects: fittings for processional or worn crosses and, perhaps, a portable reliquary that identifies our warriors as Christians of the muscular variety that we expect from the period. These Christian pieces conform dramatically to the martial character of the hoard. The only writing in the hoard, a misspelled excerpt of Numbers 10:35, decorates one of these fragments. Its words urge God to sweep away the enemies of his faithful; a biblical verse for an army on the move. The hoard thus bears witness to a wealthy and well-armed slice of the top of early medieval society, just the sort of glittering warriors Beowulf or the Life of Guthlac prime us to expect. But beyond that, all the essential questions about whose decorated weapons these are, why they were collected as a group, and why they were buried remain open and unsettled.

If there is anything approaching a consensus answer for the key questions about the hoard, it concerns the date at which this assemblage was buried. Many of the objects in the hoard show telltale signs of repeated and prolonged use, and so were already old when put into the ground. The newest pieces in the hoard can be assigned with some confidence on stylistic grounds, and with a paleographical assist from the Numbers inscription, to the later seventh century. But if we can know that the hoard was buried in the waning of the seventh century, there is yet no one clear answer for why it was assembled or placed in the ground. The weapons of the hoard are not complete: there are no sword or knife blades, no spearheads, no helmet shells. The business-end ironwork was taken elsewhere before the hoard was hidden. Add to that the location of the hoard, within sight of the great Roman road of Watling Street, but in an otherwise remote location, and a range of possible scenarios for the collection and burial of the hoard come forward, though no one of them emerges as the obvious or best solution. Whether the hoard was loot taken in war, a tribute payment, a hidden private fortune, a ritual deposition, or a kind of recycling of valuable materials destined to be reworked into new designs all remain tempting and possible explanations for the find, but the ultimate solution remains a mystery.

What’s not a mystery is the delight with which a widespread public on both sides of the Atlantic greeted the hoard on its discovery. Enthusiasm for the hoard is easy to demonstrate. In the first five years after its discovery over one million people in Britain and the United States saw its objects on display, and the long lines for these exhibitions underscore both the appetite and curiosity about the objects as well as the hoard’s status as a reliable money-maker for the museums at which it has been seen. This kind of international enthusiasm also has a local echo in that there is a demonstrable regional pride in the objects, a pride best exemplified by the successful local campaign to raise money to find a permanent home for the hoard close to where it was discovered.

Treatment of the hoard in the press and popular writing has been mostly faithful to communicating the essential aspects of the developing scholarly research about it. In their coverage of the initial discovery in 2009, the New York Times gave a capable précis of the drama surrounding the find, the subsequent excavation, and the process of valuing the hoard and determining its ownership. Relevant scholarly opinion anchored the paper’s coverage in 2009 just as it did subsequent treatment of the ongoing scholarship on the hoard, the exhibit of objects from the hoard in the United States in 2011, and the campaign to find a permanent home for the hoard that culminated in its purchase by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery at Stoke-on-Trent. What the Times got right other major news outlets mostly got right too, and the Guardian deserves special praise for the fullness and quality of its writing about the hoard. National Geographic took up support for the hoard early on, and played a key role in bringing the hoard on its tour of America in 2011, a tour that coincided with a beautifully illustrated book that set the hoard in the context of earlier Anglo-Saxon history for a non-specialist audience. Responsible and well-informed documentaries by National Geographic and Time Team followed. Early medieval archaeology may not make the news very often, but as the coverage of the hoard shows, when it does that coverage can be admiring and accurate.

What is perhaps most characteristic of the treatment of the hoard in all this news media as well as in popular writing and filmmaking is a tone of wonder and the thrill of discovery, to be sure, but also of distance. In popular writing about the hoard what comes across with perfect consistency is the treatment of this discovery and the society that produced it as fully removed from the modern world. We are shown the hoard as a kind of strange and unexpected visitor from a distant and perplexing past, a past that grows no less strange and removed in the exposition of its interest and importance. Though the modern world that sets out to explain the hoard finds its medieval context remote and cut off from any meaningful connection to the present, it is worth noting that the middle ages have not always been explained in this way.

Thomas Jefferson, somewhat famously (or notoriously – it is a matter of taste) once stumped for Hengist and Horsa, those purported twin founders of Anglo-Saxon England, as deserving a place on the great seal of the new United States. Jefferson posited and wanted to celebrate a clear connection between what he identified as the Germanic liberties of the Anglo-Saxon past and the freedom the new country was to embody. In so doing Jefferson embraced a view of the past where early medieval political forms could be seen as having natural and obvious descendants in the modern world. For Jefferson, Hengist and Horsa were an appropriate choice for the great seal as they were, as he put it, “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.” On this reading, modern Americans are the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons and heirs in a fundamental way to the essence of their political identity. Jefferson’s medieval past was anything but remote.

This view of past politics, where the historian’s task is to track the development of a medieval seed into its modern fruit, has of course fallen out of fashion. The pendulum of historical explanation has swung to an opposite extreme, as the briefest of glances at the kinds of explanations and contextualization offered up in popular writing for the Staffordshire Hoard amply demonstrate. In the many different popular books and films and articles about the hoard, we never encounter a Jeffersonian kind of explanation that identifies any sort of clear connection of past and present. These works offer no demonstrable line of descent to link the makers of hoard and the political life of modern England, or, for that matter, the United States. So, while popular writing about the hoard admirably (and often successfully) sets out to explain the social and political setting that produced these objects and their burial, at the same time this kind of writing sets the hoard within a past that is distant, cut free of any impact on the modern world. The points of comparison cited in this literature to explain the Anglo-Saxon society that produced the hoard to its modern audience are more likely to be Tolkien’s Middle Earth or George R.R. Martin’s Westeros than they are modern politics or social organization. In all this writing, there is no narrative about the past as a shaper of the present, and in the absence of such a narrative we find in popular explanation of the hoard only well informed curiosity, and the vaguest notions of regional or national pride. One participant in a focus group held at the Potteries Museum put it eloquently. When participants of the group were asked what key words best described what the hoard meant to them, this participant answered, “I’ve put down ‘ancestral’ because it’s probably not my ancestors but it’s somebody’s ancestors who made that and it gives you a connection with them that you don’t always feel, the people of the dark ages.” These mysterious medieval makers of the hoard are a far cry from Jefferson’s founding fathers. What sets the hoard apart from the other sorts of texts discussed in this forum is this detachment, this persistent notion of historical distance in how the hoard and other sites like it are viewed in popular understanding and how they relate to us.

The contrast, however, between the treatment of the hoard, with all its war gear and the tools of rough early medieval politics, and the kinds of overtly religious material considered elsewhere in this forum by my colleagues could not be starker. Take, as an example of the different sort of popular explanation given over to discoveries with a core of religious content, the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” That text, a fragment of a purportedly otherwise unknown fourth-century Greek gospel, and now widely identified as a modern forgery, received enthusiastic and copious popular coverage from its introduction to the public in 2012, through the twists and turns of the subsequent controversy surrounding its authenticity. In all these cases what marked discussion about the fragment was the sense that, if authentic, the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife had something pressing to say to modern Christians, that the meaning of the fragment might have bearing on contemporary Christian identity, or that the text might call aspects of that Christian identity into question. All issues of authenticity aside, this is a lot of interpretative weight for any ancient object to be asked to carry into the modern world. Christians in the past have held many doctrines about the faith that have no modern analog, and so at best (and if authentic) the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife might perhaps be expected to tell us something about sexual politics and sexual renunciation in the fourth-century Egyptian community from which this bit of text (purportedly) originated. But that is not, of course, how the news of this discovery was greeted in the outpouring of popular coverage devoted to it. Contemporary discussion of the fragment, at least outside specialist circles, turned on what this discovery, this image of a married Jesus, might mean for modern believers. That this text did not communicate “real” biographical information about Jesus, but rather a snippet of late fourth-century imagination was never allowed to slow down discussion of how this fragmentary text might “challenge” a modern understanding of the faith. And never mind that on reflection that fourth-century date was revised forward to the twentieth. What mattered in popular discussion of the fragment, what gave the discovery its excitement and electricity, was a notion of a through-line, an assumption that a tight bond connects modern Christians across the centuries to their ancient predecessors, and that modern Christians might be forced into serious self-reflection by a chance encounter with a wayward ancient text. It is explosive stuff, how, in this kind of treatment, a sliver of very ancient text might meaningfully be expected to challenge a wide segment of modern believers. To think this way about a fourth-century fragmentary text attributes to that source an impressive power to collapse the intervening centuries, so that a text from the ancient past may have something to say to the spiritual lives or religious identities of an audience it was never intended to address.

Herein lies the difference between the popular reception of a discovery like the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife and the war-gear of the Staffordshire Hoard. Never in the coverage of the hoard and its discovery was there any serious suggestion that there is a political or ethnic community anywhere that is, in any Jeffersonian sense, the lineal descendants of the makers of the hoard. Past politics, in this reading, is just that: the stuff of the past. No one raised the idea that the understanding of modern politics or political identities might be somehow altered by the hoard, or that that those who used and buried the hoard share any important connection to the political communities of modern Britain or elsewhere. All the popular writing that was done about the hoard, still only a small fraction of the ink spilled over the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, keep the hoard firmly situated in a remote and unfamiliar past, one where it makes sense to summon up as points of comparison either unrelated but spectacular treasures (“Staffordshire’s Tutankhamen” as a the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow put it) or Middle Earth or Westeros. With this kind of writing, we are invited to delight in the hoard as a glimpse into a past so remote and removed from modern life that, perhaps correctly, fantasy fiction is a more effective point of comparison for a contemporary audience than any other. If popular writers about the Gospel of Jesus’s wife hoped to scandalize a portion of their readers with a challenge to religious identity, no one seems to have thought that the hoard held any such click-bait potential or inherent challenges to anyone’s definition of self.

Perhaps this emphasis on distance in the interpretation of the hoard is but a manifestation in popular literature of a scholarly mode of analysis, well underway since the later twentieth century, that has sought to present the middle ages as strange and unfamiliar as an analytical tool. Paul Freedman and Gabriele Spiegel identified and provided an intellectual taxonomy for this scholarly approach in a much-discussed article in the American Historical Review in 1998. There Freedman and Spiegel showed how, in contrast to earlier generations of scholarship that had sought (as Jefferson had done) to find medieval origins for modern society, medieval studies of a more recent bent worked instead to show how the salient traits of the period derive from its “marginal and unsettling character.” And so, possibly, the remote and obscure past posited for the hoard in the popular literature about it should be seen as in thrall to this taste for “alterity.” No such fetish for the obscure and strange, however, colors the popular discussion of texts of religious experience, where the past freely intrudes on how we assign meaning to present identities. And so there may yet be a more straightforward reason popular explanation of the hoard steers clear of seeing the hoard and its makers inside any kind of foundational narrative, as finding origin stories for modern political and ethnic identities in the ancient or medieval past has in fact been tried before, and the story of this sort of explanation for the peoples and borders of the modern world is one with a dark history and sinister results.

The kind of historical through-line posited by earlier generations of scholars in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, where the late ancient or medieval world might be seen as importantly shaping the modern, has a curious relationship to the barbarian kingdoms (Anglo-Saxon England emphatically included) that rose in the wake of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The histories of these kingdoms have often been told, in keeping with ideas inherited from classical ethnography, as the histories of wandering peoples. In this older interpretative model, historians are called on to trace the long and subsequent histories of those named groups of post-Roman barbarians, groups whose names have persisted as the etymological root of many modern nations, from the earliest middle ages to the present. This, as it turns out, was an intellectually bankrupt project from the start.

As has been demonstrated many times in recent years, perhaps no better than by Patrick Geary in his Myth of Nations (2002), modern nationalism as an expression of a notional and age-old ethnic continuity is a fallacy. Contemporary Germans or Croats or any other “ethnically” defined people have no claim to any kind of consequential descent from their early medieval counterparts, no matter the persistence of these ethnic names. Geary and others have exposed how notions of ethnic groups as meaningfully stable across time, such an important part of the way nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians told the story of medieval history, will not stand up to scrutiny. But this older notion of the eternal, essential nature of peoples played an important and damaging role in so many twentieth-century nationalist projects. Christopher Krebs has taught us how the fondness among nationalist historians in nineteenth-century Germany for Tacitus had more to do with a theory, advanced in his Germania, of the persistence of peoples over impossibly long historical periods than it did for his faint and inconsistent praise of this far-flung corner of the empire. And as attractive as this kind of mis-reading of Tacitus was in the nineteenth century, Krebs has shown how such readings of the ancient past and Tacitean notions of the autochthonous origins of the German people came into their own a little later in the hands of Nazi historians and theorists of “scientific” racism. Archaeology too was pressed into service in this moment of accelerating nationalism as crucial evidence for the long continuity of a pure German people right where Tacitus had said they had always lived.

In this way, a kind of bogus historiography of continuity, with all its terrible consequences, haunts the early middle ages. These racist and nationalist historiographies that sought to bind the present tightly together with the past, all in service of a most modern agenda, rightly inspire in modern writers only a desire to run the other way. Given the awful burden of this older kind of historical analysis, Nazis, militant nationalism, and all the rest, it seems hardly surprising that contemporary writers, when confronted with explaining what we are to make of something like the hoard, keep the past at healthy arm’s length and reach instead for comparative material in Middle Earth. Without an overtly religious narrative to tell about the hoard, and all the possibilities for inserting the past into the present that come with those, and with a narrative of political identity so roundly discredited elsewhere, there’s no place for the hoard to exist but in its own remote past. It is telling, then, when holding modern readings of the hoard up against the other texts under consideration in this forum, that while the hoard may be closer to us in time than most of them, in its popular reception and explanation the hoard retreats into a much more distant and isolated past. While the past might not always be a foreign country, the early middle ages seem destined ever to remain one.

Samuel Collins is an Associate Professor of History at George Mason University.