Following the beeps of his metal detector, Mr Herbert began to dig. He soon unearthed various gold objects, all buried in the plough soil. A member of the local metal-detecting club, he reported his finds to Duncan Slarke, the local officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which encourages the public to report archaeological finds. It was soon revealed that the items date to the 7th century – when England was under Anglo-Saxon rule.
Slarke recalls his reaction to seeing the find for the first time: “Nothing could have prepared me for that. I saw boxes full of gold, items exhibiting the very finest Anglo-Saxon workmanship. It was breathtaking.”
In secret, a team of experts – including archaeologists, a flying squad from the British Museum, and a special team from the Home Office who usually deal with crime forensics – arrived at the Staffordshire site. No one had seen anything like it, and some were moved to tears.
By 24 September 2009, the final pieces of what has become known as the ‘Staffordshire Hoard’ were unearthed – amounting to an awe-inspiring collection of over 1,500 items.
On 26 November, the expert valuation was confirmed at £3.3million – exceeding the initial, tentative estimate of £1million. In total, the Staffordshire Hoard is made up of 5kg of gold and 1.3kg of silver – topping the record set by the treasures unearthed in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in 1938, which included 2kg of gold.
Hoards of coins and other precious-metal objects are usually found in a way which suggests
they were buried by their owners at a time when they felt under threat.
But in this case, archaeologists cannot yet find a trace of a grave, building or anything else that suggests a calculated burial of the objects for later recovery.
Because of this, and the fact that the Hoard contains no ‘feminine’ items such as dress fittings, brooches or pendants, there is speculation that it could have been war bounty, seized from vanquished enemies by the victorious.
Various objects also appear to have been ripped from other objects, supporting the idea that they were seized in battle. However, it cannot yet be confirmed whether the Hoard was the spoils of a single battle or a long, fruitful military career.
During the Anglo-Saxon era, Staffordshire was part of the kingdom of Mercia – one of Britain’s largest and most aggressive kingdoms, stretching from Humber to London. Its belligerent Kings and chieftains waged brief but ferocious battles.
Three Christian crosses in the Hoard have been bent into folds, as had a strip of gold with a biblical inscription in Latin, “Rise up, O Lord, and may they enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face” - the kind of message which may have been favoured by an ancient warrior.
But other evidence suggests that the Hoard represents a royal treasury. The many swords and other war implements it contains implies that it formed a kind of arsenal, provided by kings to young warriors joining their service.
Dr Kevin Leahy, who has been cataloguing the find for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, said it was a “truly remarkable collection”. He added that “all the archaeologists who’ve worked with it have been awe-struck”.
According to Dr Leahy the provenance of the Hoard, and how it came to be buried in Staffordshire, “will be debated for decades”.
The Art Fund led the successful campaign to buy and keep the Hoard in the West Midlands, where it was first discovered.
The aim was for the Hoard to be acquired jointly for two key museums in the region: Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery via Birmingham City Council and The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent via Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
Both museums also worked with their partners, Staffordshire County Council, Lichfield District Council and Tamworth Borough Council. But the support of the public was needed to make the acquistion possible.
In January 2010 the Art Fund launced the appeal to raise the £3.3million needed to save the Hoard for the nation. We had a deadline of April 17 to raise the funds but such was the support for the campaign that by 23 March we were able to announce that the Hoard had been saved.
Now that the Hoard is secured, it is on display at the two museums where visitors from all over the UK – and beyond – can marvel at the treasures it contains and there are plans for it to tour Staffordshire in Summer 2011.
Experts continue to study the Hoard – a job that could take decades. It is predicted that it will bring to light many unknown details about the so-called ‘Dark Ages’.
If you would like to know more about the Staffordshire Hoard, a booklet is available for sale on this website, when you make a donation.
The Staffordshire Hoard, by Kevin Leahy and Roger Bland costs £4.99
It tells the story of the discovery, describes the hoard and what it contains, and offers initial interpretation of the treasure and its significance. Close-up photographs show intricate details and consummate craftsmanship
What’s more, £1 from the sale of every book will go to the Staffordshire Hoard appeal fund.
On Tuesday 1 June, celebrities including Dame Judi Dench, Michael Palin, David Starkey and Tristram Hunt gathered at the British Museum for an Art Fund ‘thank you’ event for major supporters of the Staffordshire Hoard campaign. MORE...