Over the summer, I wrote a review of the Viking exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum in York. In this, I mentioned that it was useful to see an Anglo-Saxon sword equipped with the kinds of golden and jewelled fittings that we can see in the hoard that was discovered in Staffordshire a few years ago, most of which is now in Birmingham Art Museum and Gallery. As I am currently in the West Midlands of England with my family over Christmas, maybe it’s time I turned the spotlight onto the hoard itself.
Dug up from a Staffordshire field as recently as 2009, it amounts to five kilograms of gold and nearly one and a half of silver, mostly in the form of decorative mounts for attaching to swords, but also jewellery, parts of book covers, and a few items of religious significance. They are believed to have been buried, for unknown reasons, in the seventh century. This find is still being worked on and studied, but perhaps it is because of this fact that I don’t know of any museum collection that does such a good job of telling the story of how the exhibits were found, got to the museum, and interpreted.
The exhibition opens with a few videos of local people’s reactions to the discovery, together with a bit of information about what was found – and a few questions about what is not yet known. Chief among these videos are a couple of longer interviews with Terry Herbert, the detectorist who found the hoard, and the archaeologist who first examined it. So from the very start of the exhibition, we see not just the hoard itself, but also the emotional reactions of those who were first to examine it: Herbert knew that he had found something truly astonishing when the archaeologist couldn’t stop saying ‘wow’! On a more serious note, the knowledge of the great worth of the discovery ended up becoming stressful for Herbert, and it was something of a relief for him when the hoard was finally taken away.
Some of the exhibits are interpreted in the light of the materials that were used to create them, demonstrating the links of international trade and travel that allowed the peoples of early medieval Britain to create beautiful things for decoration and warfare; some of the star items are displayed separately in a slightly darkened area, including a folded golden cross (currently on loan to another exhibition) and a band on which a verse from the Psalms is written. But most of the exhibition is to be found in the centre of the room, with most items still in their protective foam boxes.
I assume this is not intended to be the case forever, but for the time being I rather like it: the exhibition itself reminds us of the fact that it takes a lot of work to discover, clean, interpret, and display these kinds of finds. In fact, the museum has even included a lump of dirt, possibly still with some gold still in it, as an example of what the exhibits looked like when the team first started working with them. One of my favourite parts is an example of an archaeologist’s notebook, together with the materials used to clean and label the finds – including such simple items as thorns and raffle tickets – recording their initial impressions.
The gallery puts the hoard into other kinds of context also. I’m not sure that it is still playing, but I know that when I have visited on previous occasions, there has been a video of a modern craftsman demonstrating just how the delicate filigree work was made. Indeed, the damage to the hoard in itself is helpful for showing how the pieces were created in the first place: the cloisonné work shown in the picture below has a layer of fine gold leaf below the garnets which were cut into tiny, perfect pieces. Examples in which the pieces have fallen out can help us to see how this was done.
All of this is helpfully put into its historical place by means of a timeline of what was happening in England, Europe, and the world during the Anglo-Saxon era – and a sample of modern English writing showing how closely related a lot of everyday words are to Old English.
Given that the hoard contains over 4,000 objects and fragments, and that Birmingham has the largest selection of them (a few are kept at other institutions), it can only be supposed that what we are seeing here is really only a fraction of the whole, the rest presumably still being worked on. The Birmingham gallery of the Staffordshire Hoard, then, is very much a work in progress – but that is what makes it particularly special to me. It’s not often that an archaeological find of this significance is made, and so it’s usually very easy to forget just how much conservation and interpretive work must be done on such discoveries. The gallery invites us inside this process, allowing us to learn more, not just about the early Anglo-Saxons, but also about the work of the many people who are involved in bringing these finds to light.