Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


The so-called Staffordshire (or Hammerwich) hoard continues to baffle all that see it, even after lengthy seminars, and it is my earnest hope that Antiquity will soon be in a position to present our readers with a sober account of what we know so far. Meanwhile here is a brief synopsis. The hoard was first discovered on 5 July 2009 near Hammerwich on the Staffordshire border in England by a metal-detectorist, Terry Herbert, who reported it after a further five days rootling. The site was then subjected to archaeological investigation by Birmingham Archaeology, in which speed and secrecy were the order of the day, apparently to avoid the attention of 'nighthawks'. The site was then declared 'sterile', i.e. it had no more gold, but a context for its burial remained elusive. The hoard is eccentrically composed of least 165 sword parts, including 84 pommels, a cheek piece and crest from helmets, three gold crosses, a strip carrying a Latin quote from Moses ('Rise up O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those that hate you flee from your face') and other pieces amounting to more than 1500 items, comprising 5kg of gold and 1.3kg of silver. There were no coins, no blades, no spears and no dress-fittings or brooches. From its familiar Style II ornament the hoard dates broadly to the seventh or eighth century and its best parallels are from the south-east, where most of Britain's cloisonne goldwork has been found to date.

What this heap of metal was doing in a ploughed field is anyone's guess, and there has been some ingenious speculations: it was a cache of broken weapons gathered after a somewhat upmarket battle; it was the tropheum of a warrior's life-time achievement; it was a votive deposit from pagans to their warlike gods; it was the scrap of a metalsmith, who was no doubt expecting a big order for pommels; it was a gift from the obsequious East Angles to Penda of Mercia; and (my favourite) it was a bunch of weapons and military crosses laid on the altar at Lichfield, subsequently pillaged by the Vikings who hurried north discarding unwanted loot until they were obliged to stop and bury the rest in the topsoil, because they could see Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, bearing down on them from over the hill. For others, and they have my sympathy, the collection resembles a job-lot from a Treasure Hunter's car boot sale.

Metal-detecting in Britain is legal if you have the permission of the landowner who generally likes to share the proceeds (1). The British metal-detecting fraternity is not a clandestine gang like your tombaruoli, but a community of slightly teccy devotees, with an addictive hobby and its own monthly magazine, like angling. It gets you out of the house at weekends into the wide open country, for long searches broken up by the occasional meeting by the hedge to share a tin of sandwiches with other pundits. And like anglers, these hunters admire their quarries and generally know what they talking about.

After the curtain of secrecy was swept aside, caution was thrown to the winds and the whole event subjected to months of hyperbole. Readers may be puzzled to know that while other countries throw their Treasure Hunters into gaol or shoot them, in Britain we hand them a million pounds and make them into celebrities. Although this certainly has the desired effect of getting discoveries declared, the publicity has now romanced Treasure Hunting into something a lot more interesting than archaeology--and by implication more democratic. The scientific study of the site so far was represented by a few unflattering clips on YouTube, and the assertion that there was nothing there: no box, no bag, no textile, no leather, no ditch, no hole in the ground. The objects took all the limelight. It's as though archaeology has gone by the board and we're gearing up for the next reality TV series: Britain's got Bullion. The press hailed the discovery as 'magical', 'fabulous,' 'phenomenal', and gleefully cited Terry Herbert's own--clearly effective--spell: 'spirits of yesteryear, take me where the coins appear'. …

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