The media spotlight swung on to the Staffordshire Hoard of Anglo-Saxon metalwork when this remarkable treasure was revealed to the world's press in Birmingham on September 24th. Then, just as quickly, it moved on, leaving anyone with an interest in the period wondering what exactly it all means.
In the first place no one could complain about Anglo-Saxon England taking a brief moment in the spotlight. It is a period that rarely gets a mention in the media, perhaps because it is still perceived as a 'Dark Age', perhaps because, when Bede, Sutton Hoo and Alfred the Great have all been mentioned, no one is quite sure what else remains. It is certainly true that at the date of the hoard, which contains items putatively put at between the late sixth and the early eighth centuries, finds are rare enough for anything and everything to have the potential to change our understanding of the period. So the announcement of the discovery of 1,344 items in one hoard in the heartland of the old kingdom of Mercia marked something of a red-letter day.
But anyone who has an interest in the Anglo-Saxon world might have been left somewhat bemused at how the news was broken. The newspaper headlines (and even the BBC) chose to cast the find not in terms of the exceptional quality of the metalwork, the unusual selection of items in the hoard or the historical background against which the finds were made. Instead this extraordinary collection was referred to as little more than a lump of bullion--'Hoard contains 5kg of gold and 2.5kg of silver'--both of which figures are, for the record, rather exaggerated.
Having studied and written about Anglo-Saxon England for many years, it is sad to see a subject I love reduced to a weight in metal. Certainly there were expert sound bites telling us that this was 'like finding another Book of Kells', although no attempt was made to explain what this might actually mean. Instead, the papers and the following morning's breakfast news programmes were full of pieces from reporters searching around in fields with metal detectors, talking about 'finding their own treasure'. Barely a mention of Anglo-Saxon history was made.
The emphasis on metal-detecting brings its own problems. There is nothing wrong in itself with the pastime and most hobbyists go to great lengths to search in suitable places (ploughed fields, not undisturbed archaeological contexts) and report their finds through the excellent Portable Antiquities Scheme. But this does not completely stop the flood of poorly conserved artefacts washing up on the Internet everyday, stripped of any context and meaning and now perhaps really no more than a weight of metal. And substantial finds, particularly when expressed by weight of gold, further encourage the 'nighthawks'--gangs that ruthlessly raid archaeological sites and protected monuments with metal detectors hoping to find 'treasure'. …