The reaction to the news of the recent discovery of an immense hoard, rich in gold and silver, has been predictably varied, both from the academic and museum communities and the general public. The Staffordshire hoard was announced on 24 September 2009. The story of its discovery by metal detectorist Terry Herbert and its subsequent reporting to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and recovery archaeology at the understandably secret site is well covered in the press and can be read in the press statement on the hoard’s website. Here is a brief reflection I recently left on the Early Medieval Forum mailing list and the full thread with reactions from other medievalists can be accessed in September’s archives and October’s archives.
I read Alex Burghart’s review with great interest. As demonstrated in the article, the questions such exceptional finds raise are as important for the understanding of the past (whether ‘history’ or ‘archaeology’) as any answers that might be yet be put forward. Rather than the rather tired debate about whether such things inform history, or whether history informs them, I found the last sentence of most interest:
Not much certainty is likely to come of this, but when faced with this collection of strange, undiminished beauty, certainty is hardly the point.
What makes this find so intriguing, to me, above all the detail and analysis, whether of the inscription or the workmanship or the materials, is the effect it has already had upon a the popular consciousness of the early Middle Ages. If any of you followed the story on twitter, or indeed take a look at some of the comments left on its flickr pages, you would see what I mean (even overlooking the odd and downright bizarre).
I wish I had had the chance to go up to Birmingham and hear what others were saying, what they were expecting and what indeed it made them think about. The hoard will now be studied by (hopefully) a large cohort of scholars of all persuasions and will enter into lectures and seminar discussions, even if it might start on the legendary ‘booty of Penda’ question. This is only to be encouraged, even before any consensus might be reached about why and how.
We have to give a voice to our texts to get answers, and so do we to our objects. I hope that discussion on the hoard doesn’t get stuck on this issue, nor, I hope does its study become too fragmented between specialist scholars who will all find their own areas of interest in it but not readily come together or share. These finds could be used to create a museum in their own right, in the landscape in which it was found, and with the myriad other finds, texts and images from here. Perhaps if they were all put together, we might feel more certain about its role in the past, and its role today.
Since then, I have discussed the hoard with other people and kept half an eye on the hoard’s website, still trying to digest it all. What went into that work on the millefiori stud? How long would it have taken? And so on. Of particular interest is Emeritus Professor Nicholas Brook’s first impressions which raise the important issue of such objects having been heirlooms in their own time. I look forward to hearing more from Dr Kevin Leahy in his lecture to be given at the British Museum on 26 November (Tickets £5 and £3 concessions). His outwardly facing agenda for the hoard and its interpretation, in other words, working to put as much ‘raw’ information out to tender as it were, is something to be commended as I have alluded to above. I know of at least one undergraduate student who has already chosen this as his dissertation subject. British Archaeology Magazine’s recent coverage (issue 109 November/December 2009) of the hoard and its discovery is to be similarly commended. Its pure and simple descriptive analysis just states things as they are and doesn’t seek to make comment in order to appropriate some position on it or another or to make pointlessly bold statements about the how the hoard will irrevocably change our understanding of the ‘Dark Ages’… (of course it will only do so through a completely new mode of collaboration, debate, assimilation and dissemination of information).
I now come to a point where I feel that I want to understand better the relationship of one object to another in the haul, more than say, workmanship, techniques, dating, kingdoms and associated historic events. Something about this feels deeply personal. Can’t quite put my finger on it. In the meantime I can only look forward to its imminent arrive in London.