Anglo-Saxon Treasure: The Border of History and Prehistory

Randall Stephens

In late September the NYT reported on a massive Anglo-Saxon find: "LONDON — For the jobless man living on welfare who made the find in an English farmer’s field two months ago, it was the stuff of dreams: a hoard of early Anglo-Saxon treasure, probably dating from the seventh century and including more than 1,500 pieces of intricately worked gold and silver whose craftsmanship and historical significance left archaeologists awestruck."

More recently in the October 14, 2009 issue of the TLS, Alex Burghart writes about "The 1,500-piece collection unearthed from the Staffordshire mud" which is "the richest collection of gold from Anglo-Saxon England ever found." This find brings up all sorts of questions about Anglo-Saxon England. The date of the find is already being debated along with the circumstances and context. Burghart observes: "There is always a temptation to link any rich Anglo-Saxon archaeology with a king. Sutton Hoo has often been called the grave of Raedwald of East Anglia (d.616–627), and the burial chamber from Prittlewell, Essex, has been linked with early kings of Essex, though the associations are far from provable. Some authorities, no doubt, will look at the bent crosses of the Staffordshire Hoard and claim it as the booty Penda of Mercia (d.655), the last great pagan King of Anglo-Saxon England. Such guesswork is good fun, but it is also slightly disingenuous."

The whole can of worms opened by the discovery is particularly interesting to historians. Questions it brings up are fascinating: What can or can't we know about the past? What are the limits and boundaries of history? When and where does the archeology come to the aid? Burghart concludes: "At present it seems unlikely that we will ever know who buried it, why they did, when they did, or where they got it." Bummer.

See also this piece in the National Geographic.