Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Staffordshire Hoard

A couple of weeks ago I saw an exhibition which totally took my breath away. Mr Tulip and I went to Stoke on Trent to see the Staffordshire Hoard.

A selection of finds from the hoard

Discovered in 2009 in an unremarkable field near the M6 Toll motorway, it is the largest hoard of Anglo Saxon treasure ever discovered. It mostly consists of decorative pieces from swords and helmets, although there are three Christian crosses as well. No blades for the weapons were found, and it is not a burial site. How the hoard was collected, and why it was buried there, remain a mystery.

Most pieces were buried, but this one had come to the surface

Having been encased in soil for well over 1,000 years, many of the pieces can’t have looked very impressive when they were first unearthed. The sheer size of the hoard, over 1,600 items, means that almost four years later not all of them have been cleaned. Some pieces are displayed as they were found, so that visitors can get an idea of the work needed to restore them. This post on the hoard website explains the cleaning process.

The object above, cleaned

Many of the pieces are decorated with intricate garnet inlays in gold, creating a beautifully rich effect. Some are purely geometric patterns. The variety is stunning; I don't think I saw two pieces of the same design.

Pommel cap. This motif wouldn't look out of place in an Art Deco setting!

Garnet and gold strip

Other pieces feature animals, frequently interlaced.

Lidded cloisonne pommel piece with interlaced animals

The depth of colour was increased by setting the garnet pieces over textured gold foils.

The bottom right centre piece shows the effect of the textured foil

Other pieces are gold only. Some are decorated with ornate filigree work, while others are three dimensional.

Seahorse or stylised horse in filigree work
Horse head terminal

Most of the above pictures give you no idea of just how mind-bogglingly small these pieces are. The seahorse above is only 4.1cm (less than 1¾") from top to bottom.

Each display case has several magnifying glass to hand, so that visitors can properly appreciate the fine details, while i-pads mounted on the walls of the gallery allow you to look at close-up pictures of many of the items.

Magnifying glasses are needed to see the full detail

Given that these pieces were made by people working with no magnification or strong artificial light, the workmanship is truly astounding. I was talking to one of the museum staff about this, and she told me that they had consulted an eye specialist at the local hospital. His view was that the work must have been done by young people with a natural aptitude for it, working with the piece inches away from their noses. He also thought that their eyesight would eventually have been totally ruined by the work; a sobering thought, as I don’t imagine that Dark Ages social care was very good.

Another tiny piece, as yet uncleaned

It was hard to drag myself away; the items on show were just so stunning. Clearly I’m not the only person to feel this way; the hoard seems to have struck a chord with a huge number of people, especially around the area where it was found. Almost £1m of the £3.3m needed to save it for the nation was raised in record time through public donations, and when the first items were put on display, people queued for up to five hours to see it.

If you would like to see the Staffordshire Hoard for yourself, the good news is that you won’t need to queue for five hours. The exhibition at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke on Trent runs until 1 September, and admission is free. More details can be found here. There is also a permanent display of items from the hoard at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, also free.

If you live too far away to visit either of these, then the hoard website contains lots more information and images, and the Conservation & Research blog lets you follow all the latest developments in the ongoing story of the hoard.

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