On 5th July 2009, a man named Terry Herbert was in a field in Staffordshire which had been recently ploughed. This would not be brilliant, or even newsworthy had he not had his metal detector with him. The farm had been searched previously by metal detectorists, but they hadn’t turned up anything special. But Terry began to find objects made from gold. Over the next five days he had found enough to fill 244 bags and called in the relevant authorities. A proper archaeological excavation was organised and over the summer of 2009 over 3,500 pieces were recovered. It is the largest hoard of Anglo Saxon gold and silver that has ever been found.
Unlike the previous largest discovery at Sutton Hoo, the horde is not part of a burial. All the objects have a military association, there is nothing domestic at all. There are many sword hilts and pommels but no sign of the actual blades. This suggests that the decorative parts of the weapons had been deliberately removed. We know that the Anglo Saxons sometimes did this, because it happens in Beowulf. It’s hard to imagine how such a large amount of beautiful and precious objects ever came to be lost at all. Perhaps they were buried by their owners for safe keeping, maybe they were spoils of war. Or they may just have been stolen. But something must have happened to prevent whoever buried them from returning to recover their treasure.
It was most likely buried somewhere between 650 and 700 AD but many of the pieces are probably heirloom items which are much older. In the seventh century, the site of the find was in the kingdom of Mercia. It is a period of history we don’t know a great deal about. Most people lived in wooden houses and left little evidence of their lives. The best records we have from the time are the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, written by Bede, in Northumbria and the ‘Anglo Saxon Chronicles’, which was composed in Wessex for Alfred the Great. Northumbria and Wessex were both enemies of Mercia, so neither have much useful to say. Only that they were awful and violent, but enemies would say that. We don’t even know that the horde definitely came from Mercia, as it was found right by an major Roman road known as Watling Street, so it could have come from anywhere.
Amongst the horde were three gold crosses, so at least some of the objects must have belonged to Christians. The crosses had been folded up though. Perhaps as they bent when they were torn from their mountings in some sort of looting incident, maybe were just folded so they would take up less space in a bag or box. This might imply that they were taken by an opposing army who were pagans, but it could be that they just weren’t that fussy about religious objects. There is also a strip of gold with this inscription:
SURGE DNE DISEPENTUR INIMICI TUI ET FUGENT QUI ODERUNT TE A FACIE TUA.
If it were spelled properly, this would read: ‘Surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua’ which means ‘Rise up, Lord; may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You be driven from Your face.’ It is a quote from the Bible which appears in the story of Saint Guthlac, who I mentioned back in April, when he predicted that a man named Æthelbald would become king of Mercia. He predicted that Æthelbald’s enemies would ‘flee from his face’. Æthelbald did become king, in 716. But it would appear that God, on this occasion, did not oblige.
As well as giving us thousands of truly beautifully crafted pieces of Anglo Saxon metalwork, the hoard has also revealed another secret. Anglo Saxon goldsmiths knew how to cheat. They could make twelve to eighteen carat gold look like much purer gold, between twenty-one and twenty-three carats. Tests have shown that it is only the gold on the surface of the object that is pure. They had must have found a way of removing the impurities from the surface. In order to do this, they would have needed to know how to make ferric chloride. Probably they heated water, salt and iron rich clay. When painted onto the gold it would have removed the silver content from the surface and made it look much more shiny. So, even though we don’t know much about what happened in our country in the few hundred years after the Romans left, we should stop calling them the Dark Ages, because those people were pretty bright.