Saturday, October 22, 2011

New pictures of the Staffordshire Hoard

I've posted about the Staffordshire Hoard before. But now National Geographic has done a spread, complete with new photos, a map, and some text by Caroline Alexander:

One day, or perhaps one night, in the late seventh century an unknown party traveled along an old Roman road that cut across an uninhabited heath fringed by forest in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Possibly they were soldiers, or then again maybe thieves—the remote area would remain notorious for highwaymen for centuries—but at any rate they were not casual travelers. Stepping off the road near the rise of a small ridge, they dug a pit and buried a stash of treasure in the ground.

For 1,300 years the treasure lay undisturbed, and eventually the landscape evolved from forest clearing to grazing pasture to working field. Then treasure hunters equipped with metal detectors—ubiquitous in Britain—began to call on farmer Fred Johnson, asking permission to walk the field.

The rest, as they say, is history. But history itself is just a story that people tell to explain the facts. And the story Alexander tells is at odds with itself:

The British monk Gildas, whose sixth-century treatise On the Ruin of Britain is the earliest surviving account of this murky period, describes the ensuing islandwide bloodshed and scorched-earth tactics at the hands of the invaders: "For the fire of vengeance … spread from sea to sea … and did not cease, until, destroying the neighbouring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the island."

According to Gildas, many in the "miserable remnant" of surviving native Britons fled or were enslaved. But archaeological evidence suggests that at least some post-Roman settlements adopted Germanic fashions in pottery and clothing and burial practices; in other words, British culture vanished at least in part through cultural assimilation. The extent of the Anglo-Saxons' appropriation of Britain is starkly revealed in their most enduring legacy, the English language. While much of Europe emerged from the post-Roman world speaking Romance languages—Spanish, Italian, and French derived from the Latin of the bygone Romans—the language that would define England was Germanic.

Historians used to believe Gildas and Bede, used to accept their marauders-ravage-the-earth perspective, but nowadays most scholars put more stock in material culture--archaeology--than in text. All text, after all, is just a story. And sometimes the narrators are very unreliable indeed.

I posted a while ago about Robin Fleming's book, Britain After Rome. (And I'll have more to say about it one of these fine days. Really.) But she shows how the burn-and-steal version of Anglo-Saxon settlement has been thoroughly debunked. So why is Alexander even mentioning this disgraced theory? I can only imagine that it's because it adds a bit of spice to an article about pretty war gear.

She confuses periods, too. I doubt very much that 'heriot' was a custom in the mid- to late-seventh century. It would have been a later development. The members of the king's warband at the time of the hoard would, I think (bear in mind I'm not a professional so could be horribly, miserably wrong about all this--but, hey, I won't let that get in the way), have been more like independent contractors, at least until they gave their binding oath to some king or other.

But don't let my nit-picking get in the way of your enjoyment. It's a fun piece. With pretty pictures. Though, again, I want to shake my head over the main illustration (a painting by Daniel Dociu) of a mounted warrior. That horse and its accoutrements would have glittered, too: jewelled headstall, fancy saddle, tooled leather, and so on. The Anglo-Saxons were gaudy people. Display and status went hand in hand. The better the warrior, the more loot he would have scored in his career. And he would have worn it all. It was his portable wealth. Now that's a painting I'd love to see!

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