Putting together the jigsaw pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard

Putting together the jigsaw pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard

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Archaeologists and conservators working to piece together the thousands of items from the Staffordshire Hoard have announced they have been able to make two items: a pommel and helmet-band.

The Staffordshire Hoard, a collection of thousands of pieces of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork that was discovered in 2009, has provided a wealth of artefacts dated to the seventh and eighth centuries. However, many of the pieces are tiny and need to be put together. Currently, a team from Barbican Research Associates is working on physically joining the fragments together, just like a giant jigsaw puzzle, revealing the artefacts in their original form

Recently the team spent three days piecing together some 1,500 thin, fragile silver sheets, and strips, believed to come from a dismantled helmet. Anglo-Saxon helmets are incredibly rare, and the hoard example is the fifth to be discovered. The painstaking job saw these fragments – many less than 10mm across and making up around a third of the Hoard in size – pieced together to reveal intricate, die-stamped designs. These remarkable designs depict human warriors and male moustachioed faces, as well as birds, animals and mythical beasts, like others seen in the rest of the hoard. Some warrior figures themselves wear helmets. It’s possible these are ancestral or idealised warriors, intended to give spiritual support to the wearer.

Some fragments of a ‘helmet-band’, that it is thought ran around the circumference of the helmet (and which held one of the warrior friezes). Many of the sheet friezes were gilded with gold. In comparison, the helmet found at Sutton Hoo in 1939, in the royal ship-burial, was silver. This and the rarity of the object point to a princely or even kingly status for its owner.

Meanwhile, 26 other fragments were re-assembled to make a pommel – the part of the sword that fits at the end of a sword-grip) – revealing an exceptional and unique type. Although Anglo-Saxon in style, it also has British or Irish art influences. Its central garnet and glass inlaid disc can be seen to form an early Christian cross and on the other side is a motif formed of three serpents. So both Christian and pagan beliefs may be represented. This incredible object, was also decorated with gold filigree (fine wire ornament), and inlaid with niello (a black inlay formed from copper, silver, and lead sulphides). Most unusual is the rounded hump on the pommel’s shoulder, known as a ‘sword-ring’ – there would have been two originally, one on each shoulder. Many swords from this period in England and Europe have such rings, but the hoard pommel is the first to have had two. This, with its lavish ornament, points to it possibly belonging to an individual of significant status.

Chris Fern, project archaeologist, explains, “The Staffordshire Hoard links us with an age of warrior splendour. The gold and silver war-gear was probably made in workshops controlled by some of England’s earliest kings, to reward warriors that served those rulers, when multiple kingdoms fought for supremacy. The skill of the craftsmen is equally thrilling to behold, with many of the finds decorated with pagan and Christian art, designed to give spiritual protection in battle.”

“The newly recognised pommel is truly exciting. It combines multiple different styles of ornament, much in the same way as the earliest seventh century illuminated manuscripts do, like the Book of Durrow. It suggests the coming together of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish high cultures.”

Historic England, has given £400,000 to help reveal the secrets of the Staffordshire Hoard and increase public understanding of this unique archaeological treasure. The research will culminate in an online catalogue, launched in 2017. The following year will see a major publication exploring the Hoard in more depth, the objects’ meanings and how they relate to each other. The owners of the Hoard, Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils, and Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery who care for it on their behalf, have also contributed towards the research.

Duncan Wilson, Historic England Chief Executive, commented: “Since its discovery in 2009, the Staffordshire Hoard and the stories behind it have captured the public imagination. The research which Historic England has funded has started to uncover the secrets of this Anglo-Saxon treasure. As technology and research methods develop we are able to discover more and more, and share the results, but more money needs to be raised to capitalise fully on this rich potential.”

To continue with the research, Birmingham City and Stoke-on-Trent City councils are looking to raise £120,000. The public can donate at www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/donate

Dr Ellen McAdam, Director of Birmingham Museums Trust, said, “The research and conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard has so far yielded significant results. We are grateful to the people and organisations who have supported this project. To complete the final phase of this work we are asking the public and our supporters to donate to our fundraising campaign.”

Meanwhile, David Sidaway, Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s executive director, added, “The Staffordshire Hoard continues to dazzle and amaze as an internationally important and history-defining collection. The new research is incredibly exciting. Historic England’s funding will help partners to continue to work together to unlock its secrets and we urge the public to continue with their incredibly generous support to help with this.”

Watch the video: Wealth and Warfare: interpreting the contents of the Staffordshire Hoard Dr Gareth Williams (May 2022).