Heritage and Landscape, History

The Staffordshire Hoard in ten objects: a selection by Chris Fern and Jenni Butterworth

Warrior Treasure: The Staffordshire Hoard in Anglo-Saxon England is an accessible account of the Staffordshire Hoard research project and its findings. It tells of the discovery of the Hoard, the fundraising campaign to save it for the nation, and the scientific methods used to study it. To celebrate the publication of this book, authors Chris Fern and Jenni Butterworth have selected ten favourite objects, which illustrate the remarkable story of the Staffordshire Hoard.

1.         Pommel cap with a staring face (68)

Courtesy of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

All of the objects in the Staffordshire Hoard were probably buried around the same time – between AD 650 and 675 – but they were made over a long time span, in the century or so prior to the burial. One of the oldest items in the collection is this silver pommel cap from the top of a sword. It was made in Scandinavia around AD 550, and it and the sword it fitted might therefore have represented a treasured ‘heirloom’ by the time of burial. It is also one of the few objects in the Hoard to show a human face, probably representing a god or mythical figure with a staring, ecstatic expression.

2.         The Staffordshire Hoard collection

Courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust

In its entirety, the Staffordshire contains around 600 objects, originally found in over 4,500 fragments. These range from a complete (but damaged) pectoral cross, to the partial and broken gold and silver fittings that once decorated around 100–150 swords. However, no iron weapon-blades were included in the treasure, and there are few fittings from belts and scabbards. The entire collection has only been laid out together twice – once when it was valued during the Treasure process, and once to enable the research and conservation team to physically investigate and confirm hundreds of joins and stylistic connections between its objects.

3.         Modern key ring (K890)

It is unlikely to ever star in any exhibitions, but this key ring is technically part of the Staffordshire Hoard. It was recovered, covered in mud, from the field with the rest of the collection by the metal-detectorist. Expert Kevin Leahy thus carefully documented it in the initial catalogue which was prepared for the coroner as part of the Treasure process. Cross Street, Walsall, is only a few miles from where the Hoard was found, and this key ring was presumably lost at some point during the 20th century, now with an unexpected afterlife in the museum collection.

4.         Pair of hilt plates in gold (243–4)

Courtesy of the author Chris Fern

Swords in the 7th century AD were generally of ‘tripartite form’, with a grip for the hand and a guard at either end to protect it, usually made of horn, bone or wood. The Hoard contains hundreds of the gold plates that were used to decorate the guards – for the most part, these are plain gold, with a boss or stud of gold or garnet at each end. Hilt plates 243 and 244 are the best preserved, with the two pairs of plates still attached together, sandwiching some of the horn of the original guard. The shaped slots where they slid onto the iron tang and blade can still be seen, along with the faint oval ‘shadow’ where the grip rested against the lower hilt plate.

5.         Photomicrograph of a hilt collar with gold filigree (110)

Courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust. Drawing by author Chris Fern

The majority of the objects in the Staffordshire Hoard are decorated with gold filigree – tiny twisted and beaded wires soldered to a backplate in a bewildering variety of loops, spirals, herringbone and other interlace patterns. This hilt collar, one of a matching pair (109) that would have decorated the sword grip, displays some of the finest filigree in the collection, depicting head-to-tail intertwined creatures with long limbs and biting jaws. Key features of the design suggest it is a similar date to objects from the famous Mound 1 burial at Sutton Hoo, and indeed it may have been made in an East Anglian workshop.

6.         Early Christian headdress (541)

Courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust

A unique find, this object was initially dubbed ‘the mystery object’ by museum staff. The top features a cabochon (gem) of millefiori glass, mounted on a base featuring cloisonné garnet and animal-art decoration. Research now suggests it was part of an early Christian headdress – there is one near-contemporary manuscript illustration showing St Ezra in his library wearing something similar. The headdress is one of a suite of very important objects in the Hoard which provide a hitherto unknown insight into the material culture of the early Anglo-Saxon Church.

7.         Mount with cloisonné decoration (558)

Courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust

The Staffordshire Hoard contains a number of large, impressive matching sets of gold mounts decorated with high-quality cloisonné garnet work. It is likely they adorned prestigious items, such as saddles, books and reliquaries. Many small fixing holes and torn edges can be observed on the reverse and flanges of these objects (as top left on this image), providing clues to their original manufacture and arrangement. The main part of each mount was probably fixed to the leather or wood of its parent object, before the filigree panels were inserted, and held in place with paste, to cover the fixings.

8.         Sword fittings with cloisonné (516–7)

Courtesy of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

The Staffordshire Hoard contains over one hundred small fittings in gold, filigree and cloisonné, which formed decorations on the sword hilt. Many of them survive in triples or pairs, and the discovery of so many matching sets has changed our understanding of how common these types of sword decoration were. This very beautiful pair exhibit symmetrical bird motifs executed in high-quality cloisonné. Different coloured stones were carefully placed to emphasise the design.

9.         Pommel with ring-knobs (77)

Courtesy of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

This unusual sword pommel is one of three in the collection of a distinctive form and style. They represent some of the latest objects, which were made only shortly before the Hoard was buried. By this period (AD 630–60), gold was in short supply, reflected in their predominantly silver construction, with applied gold filigree panels and gems (in this case, a rock crystal quartz). The decoration is termed ‘Early Insular’, that is to say it combines elements of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic art, a form of ornament that reached its peak in later manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. The double ‘ring-knobs’ on the shoulders of the pommel are found only in the Staffordshire Hoard – they are the final expression of a ‘sword ring’ custom in the period, which symbolically expressed loyalty and allegiance between a warrior and his lord.

10.       The Staffordshire Hoard helmet reconstruction

Courtesy of Howard Maryon Davis

A reconstruction of the Staffordshire Hoard helmet was undertaken to test some of the research conclusions, and to assist the museum owners in telling the story of the collection – the original helmet was found in around 1,500 fragments, many too damaged for reassembly, so it was a challenging object to understand. Working from detailed scale drawings made by the research team, a combination of traditional and computer-aided techniques was used to recreate the helmet as it might have originally looked, before its total destruction prior to burial.

Find out more about Chris Fern and Jenni Butterworth’s new book Warrior Treasure on the LUP website.


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