Pondering the ‘Staffordshire hoard’ of golden treasure

The headlines  screamed about a new cache of ‘Anglo Saxon’ gold artifacts that had been found in Staffordshire England by an unemployed treasure-hunter using a metal detector.    Then the pictures surfaced, showing exquisite workmanship.  Truly an impressive find, estimated to be from somewhere around the 7th and 8th centuries.

Yet something niggled at me from the first moment I saw the pictures.  There was a haunting familiarity in the sinuous interlocked animals that swirled across the surfaces of the glittering objects.

Then I realized where I had seen such images before.  The Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels both feature similar interlocked motifs of animals.

First take a look at the pictures of pieces from the Staffordshire hoard:

Lavishly decorated gold piece from the Staffordshire hoard

Lavishly decorated gold piece from the Staffordshire hoard

Helmet piece from the Staffordshire hoard

Helmet piece from the Staffordshire hoard

Some of the gold artifacts from the Staffordshire hoard

Some of the gold artifacts from the Staffordshire hoard

Notice the interlocked animals on the large piece near the center of the picture — also on the bent piece on the upper left.

Now take a look at this page from the Book of Kells, the Gospel of John.  One sees the same sinuous intertwined designs in the Book of Kells as are used in the golden artifacts found recently in Staffordshire.

Portrait of St. John from the Book of Kells

Portrait of St. John from the Book of Kells

Or how about this one, called the “Incipit to Mark”

Incipit to the Gospel of Mark, Book of Kells

Incipit to the Gospel of Mark, Book of Kells

Or perhaps this magnificent page, the picture of Christ Enthroned:

Christ enthroned, from the Book of Kells

It appears that both the Book of Kells and many items from the Staffordshire hoard share a common style.  This is significant because the Book of  Kells is a manuscript of Irish origin  consisting of the four Gospels and dating from the 8th century.  The Book of Kells is a masterpiece of calligraphy and is said to be Ireland’s greatest treasure, currently being housed in Trinity College, Dublin.

The illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells surpass that of other Insular Gospels in extravagance and complexity. The decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours, enliven the manuscript’s pages.

The Book of Kells is demonstrably of Irish origin.  The use of common themes and style of decoration suggests that some, if not all, of the artifacts that comprise the Staffordshire hoard may be from Ireland or at least Celtic dominated parts of the British Isles.  The ancient Celts were known to be skilled metalsmiths so it is not surprising to find artifacts crafted by Celtic goldsmiths bearing decorative motifs similar to those used on other items.

Therefore the attribution of these artifacts to the Anglo Saxons appears to be an error.  The history of the British Isles during this period does not show a dominance by one group such as the Angles or the Saxons or the Celts but rather an intermixing and interaction through both peaceful exchanges like trade and through warlike border raids.

Does this cache of gold represent the booty from a long-forgotten raid?  Was it buried in haste?  Or lost by accident?  Was it, perhaps, donated to a local monastery?

We will probably never know the full story.  We can surmise that the Celts (and not the Anglo-Saxons) had some role in the creation of the golden objects that comprise the Staffordshire hoard.   But the treasure may have fallen into the hands of an Anglo-Saxon warlord at some point.

However, it is a mistake to assume that just because some golden treasure was found in what is now England, it was placed there by ancient Anglo-Saxons.  Celtic artisans most likely created the items. It will be  hard to prove whether it was a  Celtic or Anglo-Saxon warrior’s hands that brought them to Staffordshire for Terry Herbert an amateur treasure hunter using a metal detector to find.

Let’s give the final word to Dr. Kevin Leahy who is cataloging the artifacts for the Portable Antiquities Scheme.    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/staffordshire/8272058.stm

“It looks like a collection of trophies, but it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle or a long and highly successful military career.

“We also cannot say who the original, or the final, owners were, who took it from them, why they buried it or when.

“It will be debated for decades.”

Further reading:   http://medievalnews.blogspot.com/2009/09/massive-anglo-saxon-hoard-discovered.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/sep/24/staffordshire-anglo-saxon-gold-find

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/staffordshire/8272058.stm

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3 Comments on “Pondering the ‘Staffordshire hoard’ of golden treasure”

  1. Gab Says:

    The first piece pictured shows unmistakable parallels with some of the pieces found in the Sutton Hoo burial, in style and pattern as well as materials and technique. It seems a bit disingenuous to ignore such obvious links.
    I haven’t seen as many of these new artefacts as the Sutton Hoo pieces, but your proposition brings up the fact that many of the Sutton Hoo pieces also showed Celtic influences (as well as Scandanavian, etc.), such as the blue and black millefiori glass detail, which seems evident in this hoard too, but I don’t think that means we can assume those pieces were actually Celtic in origin. The garnet work also has a lot in common with Merovingian pieces from mainland Europe, but that’s no reason to assume they came from there.
    Just some thoughts for you 🙂

    • bluebanshee Says:

      The ‘Staffordshire Hoard’ has consistently described as “Anglo Saxon.” I would suggest that the origin of these pieces is much more varied than that label suggests. The relationships between various groups such as the Celts, Vikings, Merovingians and Anglo-Saxons is much, much more complex than we currently know. We know that several of these peoples were seafaring, engaging in both trade and raids for booty. So to suggest a Celtic origin for at least some of these pieces is not unreasonable, given the style of decoration and the reputation of the Celts as metalsmiths. The similarity to the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels is striking and both of these manuscripts are roughly contemporaneous with the Hoard.

  2. Gab Says:

    Of course, the origins of the Sutton Hoo artefacts are always up for debate, but clearly there are links to this find – there are even some of the exact same bird-of-prey motifs in some of the pieces.


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