February 16, 2012 12:13:00 PM
Like many guys, Terry Herbert had a hobby of metal detecting, and one day in July 2009 he was in a farmer's field in the English Midlands, sweeping his detector over the soil. It may be supposed that he had had plenty of experience turning up a nail here, an old hinge there, but on this particular day he surpassed all the dreams of his treasure-hunting brethren. His detector beeped, he would dig up the item, and then the detector would beep again. It was gold, ancient gold sculpted into intricate decorations, and set with garnet, and there were more and more finds, five days worth, until he decided it was time to call in the archeologists. And thus begins Lost Gold of the Dark Ages: War, Treasure, and the Mystery of the Saxons (National Geographic Society) by Caroline Alexander. What Herbert had uncovered is now known as the Staffordshire Hoard, a huge find which continues to be assessed as a window of understanding Anglo-Saxon history. Alexander has written an article for National Geographic about the find, and about various historical and classical themes. Here, she has to confront repeatedly that last word in her subtitle's triad, the "mystery." There is very little that can be known for sure about the treasure, except that the priceless ornaments are fascinating and gorgeous. Alexander has filled in plenty of history, fitting the treasure into the timeline of Celts, Romans, Vikings and Normans, and giving sidebars about such vital pieces of history as the Domesday Book. The text and explanations are fine, but the book remains most striking as a handsome presentation of photographs of historic places, ancient manuscripts, and of course detailed studies of the pieces of the treasure itself.
One of the sidebars here is about the legal peculiarities of finding treasure in England (which as strange as they are, are more understandable than the medieval "Treasure Trove" law which was superseded by the current law only in 1996). You dig up the treasure and it does not belong to you, and it also does not belong to the landowner; gold and silver hoards and coins belong to Her Majesty. A representative of Her Majesty makes a valuation of the found items, and an award is made of a finder's fee which is split between the treasure hunter and the landowner. In this case (and perhaps because she is grateful to the finder and the landowner both for their participation in the making of this book), Alexander does not mention that the two of them are having a continued and bitter feud over the £3 million find.
The hoard consists of something like 3,500 pieces, some of them elaborate artworks and some just bits of fasteners. The identifiable pieces are sword pommels, helmet decorations, saddle pieces, buckles, and hilt plates. There are many pieces that are intact or nearly so, but even then they cannot be identified as to purpose. Nonetheless, there is not a single brooch for a woman or any other jewelry or any mirror, and although there are a couple of crosses, there is no domestic decoration. Even more peculiar is that the treasures have been mutilated. They were made to go into battle, perhaps because a warrior bearing fine gold decoration is more intimidating than one with ordinary weapons; "Splendid equipment," writes Alexander, "boosts a man's ego and daunts his enemies." The pieces, however, do not have the sort of breakage that one would associate with battle. One or two have been hit by a plough in the centuries since the hoard was buried, around 650 CE.
One aspect of how the pieces have been harmed is that while there are gold pommels and hilts, there are no sword blades. The fittings "... had been stripped from what must have been superb blades. In Anglo-Saxon England, a fine sword blade was itself a treasure." Not only has the working piece of the sword been taken away (one historian is quoted as calling it "the long sharp pointy bit you killed people with"), the pieces that remain often show traces of a ritual mutilation. It may be that the weapons (or their ornamental parts) were "killed" before being buried. In other ancient societies, breaking the blade and bending the sword pieces amounted to making an offering of it to whatever deities delighted in broken hardware. Maybe the hoard was a ransom. Maybe it was a war-spoil. Maybe, even, it was a scrap pile of a goldsmith that he buried and never got back to claim.
No one knows. There is an almost complete lack of context to this find. When it was buried, the area around was an uninhabited wood, and so it rested until the area became a working farm, with plows and erosion churning the hoard around and spreading it about near the surface. Not only has the physical context changed beyond recall, there are no documents that will ever report on these artifacts, nothing to say who owned them before they became mutilated, or why they came to be buried. The hoard includes a couple of crosses or pieces of crosses that have also been bent beyond recognition (although among the pictures here is a replica made based on a beat-up altar cross, showing how it must have looked before mutilation). Were pagans attempting to destroy the spiritual power of the amulets of their foes? Would not melting the gold down and using it for new decoration have worked as well? These mysteries have slight chance of ever being solved.
What is obvious, however, with no mystery about it, is that these are extremely handsome objects. The gold has been worked into strange and intricate designs, some of which are simply ornate tessellations of gold over garnet inlay, and others are intricate filigree work that resembles elaborate Celtic knots. Some show animals that are so strangely and impressionistically depicted that they don't look like animals at all until some resemblance is pointed out in the text. As an example of the bizarre depictions, one object, whose function is unknown, shows "two animals ... each trying to bite off the other's only leg." There are many pages here devoted just to pictures of items in the hoard. Some of them shown here are still awaiting cleaning; the job is not yet completed.
The text in this lovely book gives as much context as possible, and ranges outside the Staffordshire site of the find to discuss other finds, such as that at Sutton Hoo or Mildenhall. It also encompasses not just the Anglo-Saxon age, but the Romans who preceded it and the Normans who conquered four centuries after the hoard was buried. It quotes from the Venerable Bede about the Anglo-Saxons, and includes "Caedmon's Hymn" and snatches of Beowulf. Besides a good description of sword making, there is a ghastly description of the bodily damage that weapons could do, based not only on bodies found from the period, but also on "experimental axe wounds" inflicted on cadavers by modern archeologists. Alexander reminds us that this particular study, "while not for the faint of heart, should give the lie to any notion that Anglo-Saxon history is a dry subject." Her book is further evidence to the contrary.