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Pioneering research shows ancient Hoard as ‘true archaeological mirror’ to early epic poem Beowulf

Pioneering research shows ancient Hoard as ‘true archaeological mirror’ to early epic poem Beowulf

12th March 2014

Experts believe that ground-breaking research into the Staffordshire Hoard shows that the ancient artefacts are a ‘true archaeological mirror’ to great Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. 

In a unique event, every article from the sixth and seventh century treasure has been brought together in a cleaned state for the very first time. It has allowed experts to analyse the artefacts from the largest and most valuable collection of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered in a completely new way. 

The two week ‘grouping’ exercise took place in labs at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and was brought together by hoard owners Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Birmingham City Council. 

It has revealed ground-breaking discoveries that have moved the story of the hoard significantly forward: 

The number of artefacts in the collect now stands at an incredible 4,000, after around 500 objects and fragments previously hidden in the soil around other items have been revealed, including a garnet bird mount.

Many broken fragments have been joined together into their original objects, with up to 1,000 new joins discovered. This has revealed many new objects including types of sword fittings and other mounts.

Pairs and groups of sword fittings have been matched to show what original sword hilts looked like, and mystery cloisonné fittings have been matched up into suites that decorated the same original objects.

At least one helmet, composed of over 1,500 pieces, is contained in the treasure. Anglo-Saxon helmets are incredibly rare in Britain – only five previously were known.

The cleaned objects have revealed decoration of an extraordinary range and quality of art and iconography, with exquisite workmanship.

The sword and weaponry fittings show for the first time the true extent of the gold-wealth and aspirations of the ruling warrior class of early England. Previously, only glimpses of these warriors had been revealed in exceptional burials like Sutton Hoo.

The research, conservation and scientific analysis has revealed much new information about how the objects were constructed including: the composition of the alloys used to create the objects; the fact that other materials are present alongside the gold and silver, with woods such as hornbeam and ash; animal horn; and glues and resins made of animal and plant extracts. A variety of types of Saxon and re-used Roman glass has also been identified.

Anglo-Saxon specialist Chris Fern has been leading work on the treasure as part of the Staffordshire Hoard research project. For the last 18 months he has examined each item in the collection individually. The grouping event has tested his hypotheses about which items fit together physically and stylistically. He said: “The great Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, once believed to be artistic exaggeration, now has a true mirror in archaeology.”

The grouping exercise follows the culmination of painstaking and delicate cleaning of the objects using natural thorns to remove mud without damaging the soft metalwork – work that has taken six years’ worth of conservators’ time to complete.

Original artefacts included in permanent exhibitions at both The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, in Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, as well as some displays of the treasure at Mercian Trail partner venues across the region, were temporarily suspended for the unique work to take place. Artefacts will return to those venues at displays open in full again this week. 

Councillor Adrian Knapper, Stoke-on-Trent City Council cabinet member for health, wellbeing and culture, said: “This breath-taking collection of exquisite gold, silver and garnet craftsmanship continues to dazzle and aid our understanding of such a little known, yet clearly incredibly artistically advanced period in our country’s history. This is the first time every one of the thousands of detailed artefacts have been laid out in a fully cleaned state and, like the oldest and most expensive jigsaw puzzle, they are revealing a bigger picture that in this instance is helping answer questions that have remained unknown for centuries about our ancient ancestors.”

Dr Ellen McAdam, Birmingham Museums director, said: “The research and conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard are yielding significant results. We are grateful to the individuals and organizations who have supported this important project. There is more research to come, and we hope it will continue to throw light on life and death in Early Medieval England.”

The two-week grouping project is the culmination of nearly two years of painstaking expert research into separate aspects of the collection, concluding the first stage of the work to fully analyse and publish the hoard. The hoard has benefited from grant aid of £400,000 from English Heritage since its initial excavation.

Fred Johnson, on whose land the treasure was discovered, joined conservationists to see all of the collection laid out in a cleaned state for the first time.

He said: “This is the first time that I have seen the treasure like this in four years, and it is even more amazing than before. I am very privileged to own the field where this treasure was found.

“The field itself is very fertile and I have grown everything in it – it is amazing to think that potatoes and carrots had been growing in the same place as ancient buried treasure.

“The snakes are my favourite artefacts and I was spellbound when I saw them for the first time. The research is very exciting, but I was a little disappointed that no-one can yet tell me what the snakes represent! It shows that the treasure keeps springing up questions to be answered.”

Work on the hoard continues, with cataloguing and specialist analysis due to be completed in May. A second phase will then begin to publish a landmark research volume about the treasure and an interim online catalogue.

 

 

 

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