‘Not’ the Staffordshire Hoard…my trip to the Potteries Museum
Well, I decided to go my hometown over the weekend as I had booked my place on a talk at the Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent. As you might have guessed, it was a talk on Anglo-Saxon history. My obsession with this period in history is gradually getting bigger. I have bought numerous new books, become involved with reconstructive archaeology groups, and I’ve been doing my own research too.
I was especially excited about visiting the museum because I haven’t been to Stoke in a while, and I know it has a bit of a reputation, but I’m actually really proud of where I’m from, and the museum did not disappoint me at all. In fact, it exceeded my expectations, both in the permanent gallery spaces, the new exhibitions, and the talk itself.
I remembered it from when I used to visit as a child and during my later years, strolling around the natural history section with its stuffed animals. The art gallery still has a fantastic range of works, and it is where I saw my first Lowry. I was happy to see they still have some of his works!
So, as I made my way around, I finally had a chance to see the Staffordshire Hoard ‘Dark Age Discovery’ exhibition. As you have probably read from my previous posts, I work with items from the Hoard in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Stoke has acquired some of the Hoard to showcase this new exhibition which is running till September 2013. They have some of the more well-known items such as the piece named the ‘seahorse.’
This item is very small and so detailed! Although seahorses are native to the southern and western coasts of Britain, this may probably represent an ordinary horse and was perhaps part of the decoration of a shield.
They also have my absolute favourite pieces- the sword pyramids!
They are so tiny and gorgeous. It is believed that sword pyramids (which come in pairs), may have formed the ends of a strip of cloth which tied a sword into its scabbard to stop it falling out, or to stop its owner drawing it in anger- like an early safety catch. There were a few different ones in the Hoard, and unfortunately I cannot find an image of my absolute favourite, and I’m not allowed to take photos, but I really couldn’t stop staring at it.
At 2pm I made my way to the theatre in the museum to listen to the talk given by Dr. Nigel Tringham, a lecturer at Keele University and also the editor of ‘The Victoria County History of Staffordshire’ volumes. The talk was entitled ‘No hordes in Staffordshire: natives and immigrants in a borderland’ and was an interesting discussion on migration.
I’m going to briefly go over some of the main points of the talk, this bit is quite long which is why I have put it at the end, so feel free to gloss over it! Unless you are a history nut like me.
Interesting points from the talk by Dr. Nigel Tringham:
- Obviously ‘Staffordshire’ did not exist during the period 650-700AD when the hoard is dated, so really it should be called the ‘Mercian Hoard!’
- This period was also a time of Germanic migration but there is the unresolved issue of the nature of settlement due to a lack of evidence. Also, we do not truly understand the ‘survival’ of ‘native Britons.’
- Traditional views see Britain during 400-650AD as isolated (Rome ‘abandoned’ Britain during 410AD due to having troubles back in the homeland from ‘Germanic invaders’ so the story usually goes) and so we ‘succumbed’ to the Angles and Saxons. ‘Native’ Britons were therefore either driven West into Wales or enslaved (this is what is usually conveyed through text books). HOWEVER a more modern interpretation sees the collapse of the Roman Empire beginning in 300AD rather than 400AD.
- Consequently this arrival of Germanic ‘invaders’ into Rome during the 400AD period would not have been the reason for the collapse of the Empire. These people were actually moving into the Empire to try and share in the wealth that Rome was famous for at the time but unfortunately, they were coming into Rome during a period of economic decline. These people were also moving into Britain, although when they actually came is a point I shall come back to.
- Late Roman society became fractured. Local people therefore looked towards their own local leaders rather than the Roman army. This caused the growth of a militarised society in some areas such as Britain.
- This is reflected in the growth of weapons present in male burials or ‘furnished burials.’ This type of burial is not native to the Germanic homelands- they are found in Gaul and Britannia- outside of this were cremations. This new custom of furnished burials is a custom they began outside of their homelands! So, as these Germanic people came to Britain, they created new customs and styles.
- Also, a person buried with their sword was therefore not necessarily a warrior. These swords present at the burial were highly decorative and more symbolic rather than functional. Some were far too heavy for actual use. Civilians of high status having burial swords is more a symbol of their authority rather than conveying they are a ‘warrior.’
- The decorative jewellery found in Britain during this period 400-500AD also has a distinctive style- it is not the same as the style of the Germanic homeland, therefore this new style arrived in Britannia.
- We do not know how many Germanic settlers came to Britain- whether it was a large wave of migration or small groups. Later writers such as Bede imagined large numbers but this is a very ‘biblical’ view (bad things in large numbers!) and Bede was not very fond of these settlers as he saw them as barbarians.
- So, back to WHEN the Germanic settlers arrived…some theorists such as Stephen Oppenheimer argue that in lowland England there were no ‘native’ British during the period and during Iron Age Britain, there was already a quasi-Germanic population. Genetic studies also argue this point as well as linguistic theorists and scholars such as Richard Coates who say the ‘native’ population was already speaking a Germanic language- although there are no written records for evidence so I’m not too sure what he is going by.
- Some Roman soldiers who were stationed in Britain are also said to have been of Germanic stock, for example, at Wroxeter (look at my previous post on this site!) a carved column of Jupiter found there, is similar to ones found on the edge of the Germanic Empire. So Germanic people were already in Britain and mixing with ‘natives.’
- Modern interpretations of these Germanic settlers therefore see a less hostile mixing of people rather than a sudden ‘wave of invaders.’
And now for some interesting news…recent soil analysis of the Staffordshire Hoard has found soil from another site, therefore the burial we found could actually be a secondary burial- the Hoard may have originally been buried somewhere else! So…it may not be a Staffordshire Hoard at all. This research is ongoing and may take a few years to complete, but I’ll keep people posted. Just imagine…the Hoard may not even be Mercian! Oooh controversial!! I would just like to add that this is based on what I learnt from the talk, and is not my own personal opinion.