The Staffordshire (Ogley Hay) Hoard: Problems of Interpretation

By Webster, Leslie; Sparey-Green, Christopher et al. | Antiquity, March 2011 | Go to article overview

The Staffordshire (Ogley Hay) Hoard: Problems of Interpretation

Webster, Leslie, Sparey-Green, Christopher, Perin, Patrick, Hills, Catherine, Antiquity

Implications of the artefacts

Leslie Webster

The hoard presents us with a startling number of unfamiliar images from the Anglo-Saxon past, not least in the new icon of treasure that it presents. As the descriptions of treasure and gift-giving in Beowulf so vividly remind us, the gaining of treasure, and its corollary, gift-giving, were major preoccupations for Anglo-Saxons and their northern European contemporaries, whether Clovis, showering the crowds in Tours with gold solidi when he was created consul in 508, Oswiu attempting to buy off Penda before the Battle of Winwaed with what Bede (HE III.24; Colgrave & Mynors 1969:288-91) described as 'an incalculable and incredible store of royal treasures; or the huge Danegelds extorted by Vikings in the tenth and early eleventh century. Bur until July 2009, the picture presented by the archaeological evidence for Anglo-Saxon treasure could hardly have been more different: the material remains of treasure with which we are familiar come overwhelmingly flora high-status burlais, or as individual gold finds without context, most of them the result of relatively recent metal-detecting activity. Only one seventh-century Anglo-Saxon gold hoard exists, flora Crondall in Hampshire, dated to c. 640; bur that is essentially a coin hoard, the only non-numismatic items two small clasps which must have fastened the purse or satchel containing the coins. We have developed a ser of tools for understanding the dynamics of burials and their contents, and to some extent, for the elegiac ideas and rituals which supported them; but because of their rarity, we lack specific experience in interpreting hoards, and the actions that shaped them.

The Staffordshire (Ogley Hay) hoard also challenges our notions about hoards in general, because it is quite unlike other hoards that we are familiar with--the big late Roman treasure-chests of jewellery, plate and coin, Middle Saxon coin hoards such as Woodham Walter or Crondall, coinless jewellers' hoards like that from Pentney, and mixed Viking-period hoards such as those from Trewhiddle or bullion-rich Cuerdale. This very male treasure, with its systematically dismembered war-gear, its crumpled Christian talismans, and its total lack of coins, is a hoard of a quite exceptional kind; not even the earlier great Scandinavian weapon deposits, with their full array of intact weapons, are really comparable. We will need to work out fresh approaches to address the nature and meaning of this extraordinary construct, and the questions to be asked are many.

First among these are two very separate questions, why was it assembled? And why was it buried? These will continue to be vigorously debated; but some preliminary observations can be made. The rough stripping, and in many cases, reduction to small fragments, of the swords and other artefacts is striking, and has led to suggestions that this is battle booty of some kind, even a ritual deposit. But it is also a curiously non-random selection. Hilt fittings from swords and seaxes abound, along with a few pyramidal sword mounts, but there are none of the other essential sword fittings that one would expect--scabbard mounts, or buckles and other fittings from sword belts, and most conspicuously of all, there are no iron blades from weapons. Only one possible shield fitting is present, and with the exception of a few helmet fragments, body armour is absent; yet prominent among the finest metalwork in the hoard are many distinctive decorated cloisonne fittings from different matching suites of as yet unknown purpose. Some may conceivably come from saddles, or even other horse accoutrements, but none of the usual horse gear, as seen for instance in Sutton Hoo Mound 17, is represented here (Carver 2005: 221-41). These are riddles waiting to be unpicked. Along with the Christian talismans--the compressed processional cross, at least one pendant cross and the inscribed fragment, with its fierce text invoking God to scatter the enemy--which possibly comes from another cross--these may suggest a more ceremonial element in the assemblage. …

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