Thursday, September 24, 2009

On the Staffordshire Hoard: A Rich Glowing Effect

by KARL STEEL

Briefly: By now we all know about the Staffordshire Hoard, and we've all, or nearly all, looked at the flickr set. We've all made our jokes (mine: "Incredible Lydgate hoard found: 50,000 lines of verse buried in Hoccleve manuscript! Lydgate scholars rejoice!"). I'm thrilled, and I can only imagine the excitement in the community of Anglo-Saxonists.

My interest here, though, isn't in the hoard itself (insofar as we can ever think about the thing in itself) but rather in the initial stages of its twenty-first century reception. We have Leslie Webster saying:
My first reaction on seeing the scale and nature of the beast is very much as yours - this is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England in the seventh and early eighth century as radically, if not moreso, as the 1939 Sutton Hoo discoveries did; it will make historians and literary scholars review what their sources tell us, and archaeologists and art-historians rethink the chronology of metalwork and manuscripts; and it will make us all think again about rising (and failing) kingdoms and the expression of regional identities in this period, the complicated transition from paganism to Christianity, the conduct of battle and the nature of fine metalwork production - to name only a few of the many huge issues it raises. Absolutely the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.
Also see the words of Kevin Leahy, National Finds Adviser from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, who praises the quality of the objects ("The quantity of gold [is] amazing but, more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate, this was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good. Tiny garnets were cut to shape and set in a mass of cells to give a rich, glowing effect, it is stunning. Its origins are clearly the very highest-levels of Saxon aristocracy or royalty. It belonged to the elite") and genders them: "There is absolutely nothing feminine. There are no dress fittings, brooches or pendants." I expect the latter point will be worth some discussion here, as might the Hoard website's choice for an illustrative Beowulf passage, which concludes: "they let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth, as useless to men now as it ever was."

I'm more interested in the claims made for the hoard. I'm not an Anglo-Saxonist; I'm not an expert in decoration; I lack the knowledge even to know what expertises I should have to judge the hoard well; so I'm happy to be corrected, educated, even sneered at a a little, in your comments. But in what sense can this hoard, a jumble of booty, be thought to promise more knowledge (and indeed points of affective and imaginative contact) than the Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells or, especially, Sutton Hoo (and comparisons between this find and SHoo are understandably frequent, even at this early stage)?

The Sutton Hoo ship burial sites record specific cultural events. The range of objects and their arrangement speak of an intent valuing more than just the objects themselves, of an intent that valued the the objects semiotically and that arranged these signifying elements in particular object "phrases" to say something about both objects and the individual/community/culture being honored.

The Staffordshire find, on the other hand, is a jumble. If Sutton Hoo is a Henry James novel, Staffordshire is (very nearly) Tristan Tzara's Hat. Certainly, the hoard has already started to give up some cultural meaning. Leahy observes:
This is not simply loot; swords were being singled out for special treatment. If it was just gold they were after we would have found the rich fittings from sword belts. Perhaps gold fittings were stripped from the swords to depersonalise them – to remove the identity of the previous owner. The blades then being remounted and reused.
We also have Biblical verses perhaps used as war talismans; and then there's this comment, which wonders about the production sites of "glass millefiori rods." Thus what follows is perhaps already said too late.

Speaking from deep in my well of ignorance, I feel as though much of the reactions have not been so particularly learned. Instead, what I've seen suggests that we and the ancients, at least for now, have much the same fascination with this jumble: it's lovely; it's golden; it's quantitatively valuable (both in number of objects and in their material). See here for example:
Archaeologist Dr Kevin Leahy said none of the experts involved in the discovery had seen anything like it before.

He told a press conference at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: “These are the best craftsmen the Anglo Saxons have got, working with the best materials, and producing incredible results.”....

Dr Bland confirmed that copper alloy, garnets and glass objects were discovered at the undisclosed site, but the “great majority” of the treasure was gold or silver.

Experts have so far established that there are at least 650 items of gold in the haul, weighing more than 5kg (11lb), and 530 silver objects totalling more than 1kg (2.2lb) in weight....

Mr Herbert, from Burntwood, Staffordshire, has described unearthing the haul as “more fun than winning the lottery”.

“My mates at the (metal detecting) club always say that if there is a gold coin in a field, I will be the one to find it. I dread to think what they’ll say when they hear about this,” he said.
For the Mercians as for us, the objects have been stripped from their particular cultural contexts and brought together into a new cultural context, that of the 'hoard,' in which objects attract us in their quantity and quality, not as nodes in cultural sign systems. W
e have already and will continue to reconstruct the cultural field of individual objects, and that's to be praised, although I doubt we're going to understand more culturally from this hoard then we did from Sutton Hoo (see: well of ignorance).

But we can perhaps learn something else precisely by virtue of the hoard objects' cultural irrecoverability. I wonder what value we can get if we can also attempt to preserve our initial fascination with the hoard as a hoard, in this moment in which our desires and those of some eighth-century Mercian coincide? Can this shared desire, that emphasizes the gold, the weight, the worry about 'mates' finding out, say anything to us?

Scabbard Boss Image credit:

17 comments:

Sarah Rees Jones said...

When I first heard a news report on this this morning I had a fleeting discomfort that the interviewee was being pushed into using more popular cliches than he felt easily able to articulate - and we all engage in these acts of translation between specialist and accessible vocabulary all the time (as discussed here before). But I agree that the content need not be as cliched as the expression has to be accessible.

Even more fleetingly - though Karl - this seems to be some kind of war booty - surely it speaks (among many other things) to the unpredictability of a sometimes cruel and violent past - and quite possibly to the kinds of inter-ethnic 'engagement' - both of which are so often discussed at ITM?

Prof. de Breeze said...

But do we really know what the cultural context of the Staffordshire hoard is yet? Yes, it's a jumble at present, a more difficult "text" perhaps than Sutton Hoo was when first discovered. Nevertheless, it took scholars some years to really understand the significance of Sutton Hoo (if, in fact, we truly understand it even now). It may well turn out that this new discovery is not like Tzara's hat, but more like the displaced leaves of a larger manuscript.

Karl Steel said...

@deBreeze:

Agreed. We'll certainly come to know more (as is evident in some of the learned observations already appearing in the comments on flickr), and, who knows, I may be surprised to discover that this really surpasses Sutton Hoo not only in the weight of the gold and number of objects (does it?), but also in its capacity to speak clearly. I do think it's premature, though, to draw quantitative comparisons in significance to other early medieval British treasures.

That prematurity, however, is also of interest to me, as a sign of excitement. The comparisons may be incorrect, but in another way, they're correct, because what they 'really' mean is: "I'm thrilled by this find, and I'm just looking for words to convey that excitement."

Yes, the excitement, per SRJ's comment, comes to us 'dumbed down' by talking outside our expert coteries, but I think there's an authentic core to the excitement, a clear interest in the hoard not only as a trove of significance for us medievals (for helping us track intercultural engagement (whether through war or trade), manuscript illustrations, 'Northern warrior Xianity,' swords and selfhood, etc.), but also in the hoard as a hoard. I know this idea is a bit vague, to me and therefore even more so to you all, but I like that so much of the initial attention to the hoard focuses on it as treasure. Because, after all, this attention to it as treasure was also (presumably) a large part of the impetus of our unknown Mercian collector. I'm not sure where to take this idea, such as it is, but I'd like to hold on to it for a bit.

irina said...

"For the Mercians as for us, the objects have been stripped from their particular cultural contexts and brought together into a new cultural context, that of the 'hoard,' in which objects attract us in their quantity and quality, not as nodes in cultural sign systems."

Well, yes, but.... Karl, the idea of the "hoard" was already present in Anglo-Saxon England. Think of the dying Beowulf asking Wiglaf to bring the treasure so he can gaze upon it. Is the poem not dramatizing there exactly what you're talking about, the way we react to a treasure hoard with a desire to look but not necessarily understand, the way we tear it out of its context? And isn't part of the point that it's the very burying and passage of time that blurs the original context, the relationships which the treasure fostered and the histories it represented? (Remember Hrothgar and the hilt too...)

Sometimes I really have to think, "Plus ca change." Especially when I read that the man who found this hoard utters a charm every time he goes out with his metal detector.

Anglo-Saxon England lives on in the oddest ways.

irina said...

Oh, Karl, I just read more carefully to the end of your comment, and I see you intimate what I was saying anyway. Yes -- I think you're right. And I'm so, so thrilled at how thrilled I am, how beautiful and delightful these objects are. (And how about that gold band with the biblical citation on it?) I'm thrilled because I can show this to my students in half an hour, students who asked me last week if the Anglo-Saxons had art. I'm thrilled because I can share the links with my non-medievalist colleagues, and they can enjoy it as I do, simply, aesthetically, pleasurably.

So, who's up for a field trip/pilgrimage to Staffordshire?

Karl Steel said...

Irina, you and I must have been writing our comments at the same moment. I like to think what you wrote is what I would have written were I an Anglo-Saxonist (thanks for the Beowulf readings!) and able to write clearly: I meant, in essence, "we and the Mercians think of this jumble as a hoard," and thus that the "us" of "objects attract us in their quantity and quality" refers both to medievalists and Mercians.

Especially when I read that the man who found this hoard utters a charm every time he goes out with his metal detector.
Great observation!

Karl Steel said...

Hilarious crossing of comment wires here. Thanks ID for your generosity.

students who asked me last week if the Anglo-Saxons had art
Wonderful! If you have time, you might report back on their response.

Anonymous said...

Almost as incredible as the find itself and as interesting as its incipient reception to me is the way that its content, mysteries even, is being made available. After a relatively short wait, I now have hundreds of very fine quality images of Anglo-Saxon metalwork that I can show students, pore over myself, manipulate in some Adobe program and recreate and so on and so forth.

No waiting for...years for the exhibition catalogue that might cost a hundred pounds, for the scholarly assessments and appraisals in high-priced subscriptions and on and on. Anyone and everyone allowed to comment on flickr, engage in the discovery and give opinions. Wonderful.

Compared with the process for revealing the contents of the recently sold Encomium Emmae manuscript (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2008/12/just-sold-at-sothebys-big-chunk-of.html)(should appear in a journal who-knows-when; edition provided by person who works at Sotheby's and had near exclusive access to the work; unknown when anyone will see an image of the manuscript; details of who bought it and where it might be headed still unpublic) and a recently discovered fragment in Somerset (noticed in 2002 by prominent Anglo-Saxonist; responsibility for edition passed on to prominent Anglo-Saxonist friend and spouse then published in journal in 2005 where all three are on editorial board). What a different story those discoveries might have told had they been very expertly photographed and splattered on the web for the world to see.

Even if one adopts the position that it takes scholars years to get at the true meaning of something or something along those lines, the way in which we can all take part in devising (and seeing how people devise) a provisionally true meaning of this material is fascinating and refreshing. I just love that we can see other people's initial reactions to the Staffordshire hoard.

prehensel said...

I thought it was interesting that some of those most closely associated with the find are already assuming that it was buried to avoid its loss to marauders. It's already being enmeshed in the 7th and 8th century historical narratives that we think it might change!

But KS, I think we have to look at all A-S artifacts (texts and treasures) as incredibly fragmented. There's really nothing that has the sort of consistency you'd get from James: even Beowulf is of undetermined date and location--written about Scandinavians in Old English with swaths of pseudo-historical digressions in between the 3 fights. (And, of course, Leahy uses Beowulf to contextualize the Staffordshire Hoard, so the ravens eating each other is perhaps an apt metaphor for our knowledge of even the most solid of historical hypotheses.)

irina said...

Anonymous, thank you for the comment -- I, too, am excited by the speed and openness around this find. (I want to say "niwe enta geweorc"!) Thanks also for the Somerset fragment story -- only you left out the "birthday party" aspect of it which makes it, I think, a real winner. I for one have not a shade of doubt that the article was subject to careful, objective, and double-blind peer review.

Prehensel, I've had the same reaction to the spontaneous story telling, much of which seems to be the result of experts who have been asked for their opinion and really don't have much to go on yet. (One BM person in a youtube video talked about the hoard possibly having been buried to prevent trouble, like "changing the license plates on a stolen car." Right.) It almost makes me wonder if this, too, replicates the way oral storytelling might have worked back then too -- if you know the old stories and are asked about one, but are fuzzy on the details, maybe you pick up a realistic but exciting plot element and pop it in there.

Karl, class was a lot of fun, and I also told my students about "In the Middle." (In fact, if any come here, you're welcome to post and add your own thoughts!) We had an interesting discussion about the attraction of these material objects, especially of weapons -- and this moved to a discussion of the aesthetics of samurai swords and, by extension, of Kill Bill. We agreed that we would have kept the hoard.

Gotiska Klubben said...

A theory from the west part of Sweden says that the name “Sutton Hoo” is from west-swedish-norveigen language.

It means "17 högar" in old swedish. In todays English language: 17 mounds.

Sutton = 17 = sjutton= seventeen

And “Hoewe” is said to be a local English word for “mound”
In Swedish "hoewe" is "hög"

Does anybody know the local English word “hoewe”?

http://gotiskaklubben.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/17-hogar-i-sutton-hoo/

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks so much for posting this Karl. For me a single exclamation by Kevin Leahy (National Finds Adviser/ Portable Antiquities Scheme) says it all. Amidst the necessary taxonomic mentions of "Anglo-Saxon Style II" there is his observation of the artwork itself: There is a joy to it.

That joy is difficult to articulate, and that's why so much of the reporting consists of scholars reduced to exuberant clichés. The hoard's discovery -- the unlooked for impingement of the ancient past [our medievalist's beloved past] upon the present -- is an affective event. Scholars are being asked to describe the cultural and historical importance, to narrate some cohesive and containing story about Mercia and hoards, but the joy keeps getting in the way.

My favorite piece: the biblical charm. Is it because I am so textual, or because those words on the gold (quotidian fusion of Christian and pagan into an amulet) really shimmer?

tenthmedieval said...

Karl, I see all your points, but I'd suggest that firstly you over-rate Sutton Hoo (and indeed the Book of Kells). You say:

The Sutton Hoo ship burial sites record specific cultural events.

And, yes: but we don't really know what they are. I mean, the significance of the whole site is still under dispute, and we don't know who was buried in the main mound, still less the lesser ones. It was however a site that continued in use for a while, and seems to have had a number of different uses (royal burial, execution site, possibly recidivist pagan sanctuary...). So it makes a better comparison with this hoard than does the Book of Kells, which tells us, well... what? It tells us about artistic influences and about the investment that people would put into books, but so will this. Byzantine pieces have already been identified in it. In sixth-century East Anglia as in seventh or eighth -century Mercia that tells you something, as does the presence of sacred objects (and indeed texts) in what seems to be a collection of wargear fittings. Maybe what exactly it tells us isn't clear yet, but as people have said, neither is it with Sutton Hoo or the Book of Kells (or, perhaps better, the Lindisfarne Gospels). But we will. Honestly: we will get loads out of this. (Even though there are no coins.)

And yes, it really is more gold than was in all of Sutton Hoo. More than twice as much. They kid you not.

Karl Steel said...

Oddly much more harried today than yesterday, so dropping in to say thanks for your corrections, especially (as I really am talking outside what I know) 10th and Prehensel, thanks for that excellent point, Anon., and the implicit wish that this were the general model, and thanks, Jeffrey, for your comments on joy, which are operating in the same vein as the only really defensible part of my post.

Hope to see the discussion develop further...?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

One more thing, now that I've finally gone through the bajillion images in the Flickr stream: isn't it interesting how that "rich glowing effect" that Karl mentioned is achieved technologically? I'm speaking of course of the viral dissemination of the hoard images and videos (which has been great; I can't get enough), but also the ways in which the images have been made to glow via aesthetically pleasing lighting, dramatic use of shadow, artistic balance of light and dark for just the right color saturation.

I love that the image Karl used for his post is labeled "NLM 675 - gold and garnet scabbard boss fitting. Press photo with reflection added. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery."

Press photo with reflection added? Nothing like a little Photoshopping to bring out the beauty of the hoard... I'm not saying that to condemn, actually: I am just pointing out the collaboration that is unfolding here between ancient artifact and contemporary technology, between the A-S artist who manipulated the garnet and gold to make them shimmer, and the computer specialist who has done likewise, playing with the image to create maximum awe and covetousness.

Karl Steel said...

Nice catch, Jeffrey. Something does seem off about the reflection. Maybe it's just me?

(at any rate, the urge to make Lacanian jokes about the Imaginary and the scabbard boss's misrecognition are currently being heartily resisted)

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Now that is just awesome Karl!