Buried in the English countryside. Anglo-Saxon in origin. Who hid it and why?

This story appears in the 11/2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.

One day, or perhaps one night, in the late seventh century an unknown party traveled along an old Roman road that cut across an uninhabited heath fringed by forest in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Possibly they were soldiers, or then again maybe thieves—the remote area would remain notorious for highwaymen for centuries—but at any rate they were not casual travelers. Stepping off the road near the rise of a small ridge, they dug a pit and buried a stash of treasure in the ground.

For 1,300 years the treasure lay undisturbed, and eventually the landscape evolved from forest clearing to grazing pasture to working field. Then treasure hunters equipped with metal detectors—ubiquitous in Britain—began to call on farmer Fred Johnson, asking permission to walk the field. “I told one I’d lost a wrench and asked him to find that,” Johnson says. Instead, on July 5, 2009, Terry Herbert came to the farmhouse door and announced to Johnson that he had found Anglo-Saxon treasure.

The Staffordshire Hoard, as it was quickly dubbed, electrified the general public and Anglo-Saxon scholars alike. Spectacular discoveries, such as the royal finds at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, had been made in Anglo-Saxon burial sites. But the treasure pulled from Fred Johnson’s field was novel—a cache of gold, silver, and garnet objects from early Anglo-Saxon times and from one of the most important kingdoms of the era. Moreover, the quality and style of the intricate filigree and cloisonné decorating the objects were extraordinary, inviting heady comparisons to such legendary treasures as the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells.

Once cataloged, the hoard was found to contain some 3,500 pieces representing hundreds of complete objects. And the items that could be securely identified presented a striking pattern. There were more than 300 sword-hilt fittings, 92 sword-pommel caps, and 10 scabbard pendants. Also noteworthy: There were no coins or women’s jewelry, and out of the entire collection, the three religious objects appeared to be the only nonmartial pieces. Intriguingly, many of the items seemed to have been bent or broken. This treasure, then, was a pile of broken, elite, military hardware hidden 13 centuries ago in a politically and militarily turbulent region. The Staffordshire Hoard was thrilling and historic—but above all it was enigmatic.

Celts, Roman colonizers, Viking marauders, Norman conquerors—all came and went, leaving their mark on Britain’s landscape, language, and character. But it is the six centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule, from shortly after the departure of the Roman colonizers, around A.D. 410, to the Norman Conquest in 1066, that most define what we now call England.

Barbarian tribes had been moving westward across Europe since the mid-third century and may have made raids on Britain around this time. In the early fifth century the restless tribes menaced Rome, prompting it to withdraw garrisons from Britannia, the province it had governed for 350 years, to fight threats closer to home. As the Romans left, the Scotti and Picts, tribes to the west and north, began to raid across the borders. Lacking Roman defenders, Britons solicited Germanic troops from the continent as mercenaries. The Venerable Bede—whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in the eighth century, is the most valuable source for this era—gives the year of the fateful invitation as around 450 and characterizes the soldiers as coming from “three very powerful Germanic tribes, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes.” Modern scholars locate the homelands of these tribes in Germany, the northern Netherlands, and Denmark.

Enticed by reports of the richness of the land and the “slackness of the Britons,” the soldiers in the first three ships were followed by more, and soon, Bede noted, “hordes of these peoples eagerly crowded into the island and the number of foreigners began to increase to such an extent that they became a source of terror to the natives.” The British monk Gildas, whose sixth-century treatise On the Ruin of Britain is the earliest surviving account of this murky period, describes the ensuing islandwide bloodshed and scorched-earth tactics at the hands of the invaders: “For the fire of vengeance … spread from sea to sea … and did not cease, until, destroying the neighbouring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the island.”

According to Gildas, many in the “miserable remnant” of surviving native Britons fled or were enslaved. But archaeological evidence suggests that at least some post-Roman settlements adopted Germanic fashions in pottery and clothing and burial practices; in other words, British culture vanished at least in part through cultural assimilation. The extent of the Anglo-Saxons’ appropriation of Britain is starkly revealed in their most enduring legacy, the English language. While much of Europe emerged from the post-Roman world speaking Romance languages—Spanish, Italian, and French derived from the Latin of the bygone Romans—the language that would define England was Germanic.

The discovery of a treasure hoard in an English field was not in itself remarkable. Such finds surface everywhere in Britain. Coins, silver objects cut up for scrap metal, dumps of weapons, even a magnificent silver dinner service—all from British, Roman, or Viking times—have been found in the soil. In the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf the warrior Sigemund has killed a dragon guarding “dazzling spoils,” and the aged hero Beowulf battles a dragon guarding gold and “garnered jewels” laid in the ground.

Treasure was buried for many reasons: to keep it out of enemy hands, to “bank” a fortune, to serve as a votive offering. Given the era’s scant documentation, the motive behind the burial of the Staffordshire Hoard is best surmised from the hoard itself. The first clue is its military character, which suggests that the assemblage was not a grab bag of loot. The nature of the hoard accords with the militarism of the Germanic tribes, which was impressive even to the military-minded Romans. The historian Tacitus, writing in the late first century, noted that “they conduct no business, public or private, except under arms,” and that when a boy came of age, he was presented with a shield and spear—”the equivalent of our toga.”

Warfare formed England. The consolidation of land gained by warfare and alliances was the likely origin of the tribal kingships of early Anglo-Saxon England. The first Mercians are thought to have been Angles who moved inland along the River Trent, establishing themselves in the valley in the vicinity of the hoard. Mercia was not only one of the most important of the seven principal Anglo-Saxon kingships into which England was roughly divided but also one of the most belligerent. Between A.D. 600 and 850 Mercia waged 14 wars with its neighbor Wessex, 11 with the Welsh, and 18 campaigns with other foes—and these are only the named conflicts.

The apex of Teutonic military craft was the long cutting sword. Averaging about three feet, blades were pattern welded, a sophisticated technique by which twisted rods and strips of iron or steel were hammered together. Forged from this intricate folding, the polished blades rippled with chevron or herringbone patterns. As one appreciative recipient recorded in the early sixth century, they appear “to be grained with tiny snakes, and here such varied shadows play that you would believe the shining metal to be interwoven with many colours.”

Modern studies of wounds on skeletons found in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Kent show that these beautiful swords also worked: “Male, aged 25-35 years … has a single linear cranial injury 16 cm long,” states the clinical report. “The plane of the injury is almost vertically downwards.”

The number of sword pommels in the Staffordshire Hoard, 92, roughly corresponds with the number of men noted as making up one nobleman’s troop of retainers. The hoard, then, could represent the elite military gear that distinguished the retinue of a certain lord. Often a sword was issued by a lord to his retainers along with other equipment and even horses, together known as a heriot, repaid if the retainer died before his lord. In a will written in the tenth century a district official bequeaths “to my royal lord as a heriot four armlets of … gold, and four swords and eight horses, four with trappings and four without, and four helmets and four coats-of-mail and eight spears and eight shields.” Swords were also buried with their warrior owners or passed down as family heirlooms.

But sometimes swords were buried without warriors. In a practice in northern Europe dating from the Bronze Age through Anglo-Saxon times, swords and other objects, many conspicuously valuable, were deposited in bogs, rivers, and streams as well as in the ground. “We can no longer see hoards only as piggy banks,” says Kevin Leahy, an authority on Anglo-Saxon history who was entrusted with the task of cataloging the Staffordshire treasure. Ritual deposits, as opposed to caches buried for safekeeping, are found not only in Britain but also in Scandinavia, homeland of some of England’s Germanic tribes. Significantly, many weapons—and sometimes other objects, such as a craftsman’s tools—were, like the objects in the hoard, bent or broken before burial. Perhaps “killing” a weapon dispatched it to the land of spirits or rendered it a votive offering to the gods, its destruction representing the donor’s irrevocable surrender of the valuable weapon’s use.

gold artifacts found within the Staffordshire gold hoard
Some pieces of the treasure were twisted or broken as if they had been forced into a small

“This is a hoard for male display,” says Nicholas Brooks, an emeritus historian at the University of Birmingham, who calls the glittering objects found in Staffordshire “bling for warrior companions of the king.” Gold, weighing in at more than 11 pounds, accounts for nearly 75 percent of the metal in the hoard. According to Brooks, “the source is a mystery.” The origin of most gold in England was ultimately Rome, whose later imperial currency had been based on the solidus, a solid gold coin. Imperial gold had fallen to the Germanic tribes as plunder following the sack of Rome, and caches found in England may have been recirculated and recycled. By the date of the Staffordshire Hoard, gold supplies were dwindling, and silver and silver alloy were being used instead. Similarly, the source of garnets—like gold, a striking feature of the hoard—had shifted, from India to Bohemia and Portugal.

Historian Guy Halsall has estimated the value of the hoard’s gold in its day as equivalent to 800 solidi, about 80 horses’ worth. Modern valuation of the find has been set at £3,285,000, or just under $5.3 million. In its own time, however, the hoard’s worth was surely calibrated by other considerations. The gold dazzles, but from a practical point of view the most valuable part of the weaponry—”the long, sharp, pointy bit you killed people with,” as Halsall notes dryly—is not present in the hoard, and it is possible that the sword blades were cannily retained for reuse.

Above all, the pieces in the hoard were forged and buried in a world in which mundane events and acts could be suffused with magic; misfortune, for instance, was commonly attributed to tiny darts fired by malicious elves, and many charms against attacks survive. The magic properties an object possessed trumped its material worth. Gold was valued not only for being precious but also because, alluring and indestructible, it was infused with magic, and therefore used in amulets. Germanic myths tell of the gods’ great hall of gold, and as Christian churches and monasteries gained wealth, they acquired golden sacramental objects. In many cultures the very art of metallurgy is magical, and Nordic sagas have vivid details of the smith’s magic arts, from Odin’s spear and gold ring to Thor’s hammer.

Magic may also account for the only three obviously nonmilitary objects in the Staffordshire Hoard: two gold crosses and a slender strip of gold inscribed with a biblical quotation. Christianity first came to Britain with the Roman occupation, faded as the Romans faded, and was vigorously reintroduced to Anglo-Saxon England by missionaries, most from Ireland and the Continent. There was a “perception of the conversion event as a spiritual battle,” writes Karen Jolly, an authority on Anglo-Saxon popular religion. Conversion was a battle for the soul—effectively warfare, something the Germanic pagans understood. And the cross was a militarily useful symbol that had figured dramatically in actual battles. Bede tells the story of the Northumbrian king Oswald, who before the Battle of Heavenfield against the Welsh in 634 “set up the sign of the holy cross and, on bended knees, prayed God to send heavenly aid to His worshippers in their dire need.” He and his men then “gained the victory that their faith merited.” Remarkably, one of the hoard’s two crosses was determinedly bent and folded, like so many of the other pieces in the hoard. Was this to “kill” its military potency, as with the swords?

This possibility is made more compelling by the only other apparently nonmartial object: The slender strip of gold, inscribed on two sides with the same biblical quotation is, strikingly, also folded. “[S]urge d[omi]ne disepentur inimici tui et [f]ugent qui oderunt te a facie tua—Rise up, Lord, may your enemies be dispersed and those who hate you flee from your face.” The quotation is from the Latin Vulgate text of Numbers 10:35 and the Psalm now numbered 68:1—verses that may have been put to unexpected use. In the Life of Saint Guthlac, written around 740, Guthlac is beset by demons, whereupon he “sang the first verse of the sixty-seventh psalm as if prophetically, ‘Let God arise,’ etc.: When they had heard this, at the same moment, quicker than words, all the hosts of demons vanished like smoke from his presence.” Even the hoard’s nonmartial objects, it seems, might have had militarily useful, magical functions.

The Mercians were aggressive border raiders—Mercia takes its name from the Old English mierce, meaning “frontier people”—which may account for the apparent range of regional styles in the hoard. “The hoard was found on a frontier zone, which is always interesting,” Kevin Leahy says. “It was on the border between Mercia and Wales.” In other words, in contested territory. Around 650, in Staffordshire’s Trent Valley near Lichfield, an obscure battle was fought involving the Mercians and their Welsh neighbors. Much plunder was carried away—possibly down the old Roman road Watling Street, which leads past the site where the Staffordshire Hoard was found. Event and place are commemorated in the Welsh poem “Marwnad Cynddylan—The Death Song of Cynddylan”:

Grandeur in battle! Extensive spoilsMorial bore off from in front of Lichfield.Fifteen hundred cattle from the front of battle;four twenties of stallions and equal harness.The chief bishop wretched in his four-cornered

house, the book-keeping monks did not protect.

a gold piece inlaid with garnet
This mysterious piece, almost four inches long, uses the same principle as the brake lights of modern cars: The wafflelike texture of the gold under each garnet increases the gem’s reflectivity.

A retinue of 80 horses and spoils from a “wretched” bishop (a detail that conjures the gold inscription and crosses): The poem offers a tempting explanation for the hoard, an explanation, alas, built from slender, circumstantial evidence that has happened to survive from an era from which most evidence was lost. We can conjure other teasing theories. Our unknown travelers may have chosen the burial spot because it was obscure—or because it was conspicuous. The burial might have had a marker for rediscovery, or it might have been intended as an offering hidden forever to all but their gods. The hoard may have been ransom, or booty, or a votive thanks. It may have been a collection of Anglo-Saxon heirlooms buried at a later time.

Today the vanished Mercian landscape is evoked by surviving Anglo-Saxon place-names, such as those ending with “leah” or “ley,” meaning “open woodland,” like Wyrley, or Lichfield itself, whose name roughly means the “common pasture in or beside the gray wood.” The hoard burial site is now a grassy field where Fred Johnson grazes horses. Odds are we will never know the story behind the Staffordshire Hoard, but in a world without magic spells or dragons, would we understand it if we did?

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