Following the Staffordshire hoard

The next British Archaeology is now with the printer (and will be out on December 11), so here’s a chance to catch up on the past month – though that was mostly of course devoted to the magazine.

The Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire hoard continues to fascinate me, with its mix of gorgeous art and craft, sensational discovery story, politics, gossip and, rather in the background at the moment, the disputed possibilities of how much it will eventually tell us about the times in which it was buried – whenever they were. I’m convinced that with hindsight this will be seen as one of the great archaeological discoveries (even if it takes years of research to untangle its messages), but for now there is a little scepticism in some quarters.

Some people just don’t like the sort of media attention it’s been getting, with the focus on how much it’s worth (which we now know to be £3.285m, the largest treasure award ever made in the UK), the way it was found (with a metal detector, and not by a professional archaeologist) and silly comparisons made with Sutton Hoo (as Martin Carver, excavator of Sutton Hoo, rightly said to me, there is a world of power, ceremony and context in Suffolk – and a ship – but just a hole in the ground in Staffordshire). I even had a discussion with one senior Anglo-Saxon archaeologist who was minded to believe a story that the hoard was a fake – illegally excavated objects cobbled together, reburied and “found” in the hope of a legitimate award.

Roger Bland and Kevin Leahy spoke about the hoard to an overflowing room at the Society of Antiquaries on November 12. Talking about his experience of excavating an Anglo-Saxon settlement at Catholme (his first dig), Kevin noted “we hit rock-bottom when the Elsan’s froze”. Another memorable phrase was his comment on placename studies, as “a private grief I don’t want to intrude on”. Perhaps his sense of humour helped him put in the hours cataloguing so much stuff.

When I was preparing another short piece about the hoard for a Night Waves programme on Radio 3 (broadcast Nov 22) I interviewed Roger, Kevin, Della Hooke and David Saunders, and was able to see a few pieces of metalwork that have not yet been displayed. There are many extraordinary things still to be seen by the public, let alone analysed by academics (I photographed a few for the new British Archaeology); I was particularly struck by a tiny jewelled gold eagle head (in the photo), with exquisite crafting, that reminded me in its beauty and terror of the much bigger heads on the New York Chrysler building.

In the event, only David Saunders (keeper of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum) made it into the slot I had at the end of the programme. He commented on the exciting discovery of organic matter in some of the sword parts with the possible promise of radiocarbon dates in future.

In Oxford, the Ashmolean Museum is now open again, and quite wonderful it is. I went there with my family on the first public weekend. The place was overrun with visitors, reminding me of our first weekend at Stones Restaurant many years ago, when we had little idea of how the spaces around us worked as we confronted an avalanche of customers. There’s something in the way that the museum’s central shaft allows you to see across galleries – across cultures – that is profoundly comforting. When you walk through the bright spaces that architect Rick Mather has created, the astonishing artefacts and the beauty of their arrangement shine through. And what’s more, there’s a good rooftop restaurant.

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