Dan Snow travels across the old Kingdom of Mercia to unravel the secrets of one of Britian's most significant discoveries - the Staffordshire Hoard.
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'In July 2009, one lucky find lifted the lid on a long-lost world...'
We all love buried treasure.
It's like a fairy story,
these glorious things emerging from clods of earth.
There's a sort of magic of it.
'..an astonishing treasure trove of gold and silver
'hidden in a field in Staffordshire, in the Midlands.'
You never really ever get involved in finds with precious metals.
This is real sort of Indiana Jones-type stuff.
'I'm going to take you on a journey
'to unlock some of the mysteries of this new-found Anglo-Saxon hoard.'
Were they looted as a result of battles?
Were they given to the Mercian king as tribute by his sub-peoples?
We found them dismembered and bent.
Were they crammed into a box to be taken away?
'And I'll discover just how it could help transform
'our understanding of one of the most fascinating periods in our history.'
Finds like the Staffordshire hoard show that this was a vibrant
and colourful and bright society, as much as anything else,
and it helps us to think about this time in a completely different way.
This is the story of the greatest find in generations.
'I want to take you back about 1,400 years, to seventh-century England,
'to around the time when the Staffordshire Hoard was hidden.
'The days of Roman Britain had long passed. We'd entered a new era.
'As the Romans withdrew, bands of adventurers arrived on our shores
'from northern Germany and Scandinavia.'
The Dark Ages, the name traditionally given
to the time between the Romans leaving and William the Conqueror arriving,
is a time when we have only a very dim knowledge of. You can see why.
This is Catholme in Staffordshire. It doesn't look like much,
but it's the site of one of the finest Dark Age finds
ever made in the Midlands.
This was an Anglo-Saxon settlement of the seventh century,
a thriving community with more than 60 buildings.
'Anglo-Saxon Catholme would have looked like this,
'villages where people raised livestock and grew crops.
'We know from archaeological evidence that average life expectancy was just 30,
'with people facing the hazards of war and feuds
'and at risk from famine and epidemics.
'As people abandoned Roman cities,
'the lifestyle of this largely pagan, illiterate people
'has left historians with a challenge.'
When the Romans left, they took their stone-building techniques with them,
so when the Anglo-Saxons built, they used wood,
and their buildings have long since rotted back into the soil.
What they have left are a few bits of fired ceramic.
This is a weight from a weaving loom and this is a delicate handmade urn.
Basically, they didn't leave too many clues behind them.
'This has left historians with a major problem.
'How do you tell the story of this era
'with just a few occasional teasing glimpses
'into life in these long-forgotten kingdoms?'
It's taking pieces of a puzzle,
a thousand-piece puzzle, and you've only got eight piece.
That's the sense in which we've been working up until this point.
'The discovery of astonishing weaponry in the Staffordshire Hoard
'shone a new light on our Anglo-Saxon past.'
The traditional view is that
life in the Dark Ages was nasty, brutish and short,
and it's this idea that everyone lived in huts and hovels
and really didn't have much quality of life.
That's why we get this term "Dark Age" associated with it.
But that's so far from the truth.
'So can this find tell us more
'about an England divided among warring kingdoms?
'In the centre was Mercia, a kingdom that stretched across the Midlands
'and a land with a reputation for aggressive warriors.
'But archaeological evidence has been very thin on the ground,
'with few finds of any significance.'
We just had tantalising glimpses.
The artefacts we had covered the whole date range,
from the fifth to the eleventh century, but just one or two items.
But just a few pieces didn't really give us
a full idea of how things were at that time.
You could use documentary material, and you could use the fact
that you've got Saxon carved crosses and so on
to put some flesh onto it,
but the human element was somewhat lacking.
'In the summer of 2009, all that changed
'when a reluctant farmer from Staffordshire
'was finally persuaded to allow metal detectorists onto his land.'
We'd had several requests in the past for people to come metal-detecting,
and until the motorway was announced, we never allowed anyone on.
And then a chap running a club
approached me, and he said,
"You may as well let someone on now, because if there's anything there
"and the motorway takes it, it'll be lost forever."
And he'd got a good point.
Anyway, I think eight of them came at the weekend
and went all over the whole farm.
And they only found buttons and buckles, what I thought was rubbish.
And then Terry approached me.
And I'd told him no several times...
..basically because I didn't particularly like him!
Anyway, he come and asked me to come on this field specifically,
and I thought, "He can't come to any harm down there,
"and he won't find anything."
'Fred couldn't have been more wrong.
'Metal detectorist Terry Herbert not only struck gold,
'he made the find of a lifetime.'
I was working in the yard, and he came up mid-morning...
and he said, "Sit down." I said, "What's the matter with you?"
I said, "What's the matter?" He said, "I've found a Saxon hoard."
Well, I didn't believe him.
It wasn't until the archaeologists came on and I had a look meself...
that I realised what he'd found.
'When the experts arrived, the extent of the hoard
'started to become clear.
'This was a find unlike anything they'd seen before.'
I was not really believing it,
because you'd seen the odd piece like this in some of the books,
but to have row upon row of these things was just quite incredible.
I think my first thought was very much
how lucky the detector must have been to have found all this
and there couldn't possibly be anything left to find.
So we got to the site, and within seconds
there was this large oval gold piece with garnets,
just sat there on the surface, and we thought, "Gosh, this IS real."
And almost with seconds of breaking the ground,
piece after piece was coming up.
We got quite hectic just right from the dot.
You never really ever get involved in finds with precious metals.
This is real sort of Indiana Jones-type stuff.
The largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever discovered in Britain
has officially been declared as treasure.
'It may have seemed like a movie,
'but this treasure trove of gold and silver was very real.
'It was a fabulous find that would make Terry a wealthy man,
'as he revealed in a rare interview at the time.'
It came quite as a shock, actually,
but when the archaeologist was on the field, he came up to me
and he said, "At the end of this, you'll end up being a millionaire."
-And that happened, didn't it?
-How much did you get altogether?
'Fred also got his share of the find.
'But despite his sudden wealth,
'he's carried on farming his land near Lichfield.
'He may have brought the treasure near the surface when he had problems with his plough.
'But he's still not claiming any of the credit.'
I feel very lucky.
I think it's more luck than judgment
that I actually ended up owning it, you know?
People have asked me if I feel proud,
but I don't think pride is the right thing.
You're proud of something you've done or something you've made,
something you've achieved.
But I think this is pure luck.
'It is a multimillion-pound discovery.
'But for historians, the hoard's real worth
'lies in what it can possibly tell us about our distant past.
'We now have thousands more clues into Anglo-Saxon times -
'pommels from the top of swords, pieces of warrior helmet,
'strange serpents and mangled crosses,
'a Boys' Own collection of warrior bling.
'And it captured the imagination of the world.'
So, you think that old metal detector is no good use any more?
SHE SPEAKS JAPANESE
It's the biggest haul of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever found.
I never, ever in my career thought I would be holding
this kind of treasure. It's the sort of thing you dream of.
I think the fact we made the lead item on the six o'clock news
was an epic hint that maybe things were going to be big.
It is the earth yielding up its treasure.
It literally came from the soil of Staffordshire.
It was deliberately put there. It was removed from it 1,500 years later.
But it needs to keep those roots.
It's very big.
It's 1,500 objects, and it's 11lb of gold
and God knows how much more silver, so it's a huge find.
And I think, if one were to do simple arithmetic,
this is a multiple of several times
everything else that we've got from Anglo-Saxon England.
It wasn't just the press whose appetite was insatiable.
The public were also desperate to find out all they could
about this incredible hoard.
It's outstanding, the quality of the work and the quantity as well.
This is, I guess, only a small amount of it, but very impressed.
It's absolutely fantastic. It hasn't disappointed one little bit.
It's been brilliant.
I'm a jeweller, so it's quite a thrill to have a look at it.
At its peak, people were waiting four hours to and see the hoard.
To get 42,000 people through one gallery in a 19-day period
is unequalled here.
Astonishing. It was our experience of the blockbuster.
And it was wonderful!
'The hoard was huge, packed with beautifully crafted artefacts.
'But what does it actually tell us?
'Can one lucky find really change our thinking about Anglo-Saxon England?
'Well, before the hoard was found,
'we already had some idea about what life was like in this period.'
There really haven't been that many large Anglo-Saxon finds in Britain,
and perhaps the best-known before the hoard
was at this incredible set of burial mounds
at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.
In the 1930s, an archaeologist from the museum excavated this mound,
and in it he made a series of incredible finds,
finds that gave us a stunning insight
into a world that had previously only existed in legend.
The last remotely comparable find...
Normally, you find a couple of brooches and this kind of thing,
if you're lucky a ring.
We discovered the royal ring of an Anglo-Saxon king,
which is pretty amazing.
But this is the only thing that's comparable to it,
the great discovery in the 1930s called the Sutton Hoo ship,
which is in East Anglia.
The Sutton Hoo ship is a deliberate burial.
It's a wonderful ceremonial burial, and what they did, it must be a king.
We think it's Raedwald, the king of the East Anglians.
They dragged this great longboat up from the river.
They lay the king's body there, and they surround it
with these incomparable treasures,
and they dress it, so he's got his great helmet on,
he's got his massive sword by his side.
Sutton Hoo is a deliberate creation. It's a grand ceremonial funeral.
It's like something out of one of the sagas, except in the sagas,
for example the death of Beowulf,
they deliberately destroy it.
It's a funeral pyre. The thing is consumed with fire.
This was a burial, so it's preserved,
so that really is the English tomb of Tutankhamun.
In Sutton Hoo, we really have an idealised sense
of the hall in miniature for the afterlife.
So the king, if we can say it's a king, the deceased,
has been buried with everything they would need for the afterlife.
And what we get is a real glimpse of the life of the hall
in Anglo-Saxon times.
We have drinking horns, cauldrons, everything they would need.
A lyre to play music on.
It's like opening a window onto the time
in terms of looking at it as this vibrant hall life,
this kingly or noble life of the hall.
Sutton Hoo may have been a significant find
but such windows into the past have been few and far between.
For much of their understanding of this era
scholars have had to rely on historical texts.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,
originally compiled under the orders of King Alfred The Great of Wessex,
gives us one account of this time.
A further picture is painted by a man who may have been
this country's earliest historian.
Bede's writing in the late 720s,
the early 730s,
was the first to give shape to English history.
One has to imagine that he is writing in a vacuum.
He, in effect, is the first person who determines
the narrative of English history in this very early period.
And so his contribution was absolutely staggering.
And he articulates
the whole of that period.
He characterises and identifies the different kingdoms,
we see how they interacted with each other,
we see what made them tick. We see all of these things
for the first time in any kind of detail
from Bede's Ecclesiastical History,
so it's THE most extraordinary source.
But it has... It sees everything from a Northumbrian perspective
and we would dearly like
to have other views of that period
written from other parts of the country.
Though there's debate about the balance and accuracy of these texts,
they are two of the most valuable sources we have for the Anglo-Saxon period.
But we also have one of England's most important poems,
written in old English somewhere between the ninth and 11th century.
Beowulf tells of a warrior hero
who sets out to destroy a man-eating monster called Grendel
in a story which captures many of the beliefs and attitudes of the time.
"Glittering gold spread on the ground,
"the old dawn-scorching serpent's den packed with goblins."
So, rich literary sources like Beowulf, Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,
along with wonderful, if rare, finds like Sutton Hoo
have given us an intriguing insight into life during the Dark Ages.
But there is one particular gap in our knowledge of these times.
A lack of literary finds from the biggest Anglo-Saxon kingdom of all.
because we don't have much in the way
of documentary references to Mercia,
because what we have, we have The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,
which is really bigging up Wessex.
It's all about how wonderful Alfred was and how wonderful Wessex was.
And we have Bede, the Venerable Bede,
who has an agenda to say how wonderful Northumbria was.
We don't have an equivalent for Mercia.
What everybody said was, the Mercians were a violent,
rapacious lot who went around hunting, shooting, killing people.
They didn't get a chance to tell their side of the story.
But that's where the hoard could help.
It was discovered at the centre of what used to be this huge kingdom
and it could give us more clues
about how these mysterious Mercians used to live.
'So what can it tell us?
'I've come to Tamworth, north-east of Birmingham,
'a few miles from where the hoard was found.'
And we know that in the middle of the seventh century, which is about when the hoard was buried,
Tamworth was at the very heart of Mercian royal power.
The mighty Mercian kings would fight their enemies,
beating off invasion or trying to expand their empire,
and then they'd return here to Tamworth to sign treaties and charters,
and, of course, reward their loyal followers and warriors with gold.
And today, Tamworth Castle stares down at what was heart
of this royal estate.
WARRIOR BATTLE CRIES RING OUT
'Even before the hoard was found, historians thought they had a pretty good idea
'of the importance of Tamworth and the people who used to live there.'
The Royal Court wasn't a group of delicate people all wearing silk
and satin and posing.
It was a warrior band.
The warrior elite surrounding the king, lived and died with him.
If he succeeded, they got pots of gold, pots of land,
pots of women, lots and lots of nice horses and life was great.
If the king failed, they died horribly.
Well, actually, if we come out onto the Tower,
you get a fantastic sense...
..of the setting of Tamworth and why it was such a special place,
why it was so important.
-It is stunning, yeah.
You can see the castle's a very strategic spot for looking out,
to dominate all this ground here and of course, the river crossing there.
'Marion Blockley is an archaeologist and an expert in Anglo-Saxon history.
'For her, the hoard is further proof of the wealth and power of Tamworth.'
-So this is a major British royal settlement?
It's as important as anywhere else in the whole of the modern UK?
I've worked in Canterbury, York and many other places
and I have this feeling...
Poor Tamworth, it feels neglected, but it was exceptionally significant.
More charters were signed here, at important times of the year,
at Christmas, Easter. The Royal Court travelled around
and Tamworth was the place they wanted to be.
'The hoard was discovered not far from where we are standing.
'Marion likes to imagine it could be proof of a battle with Welsh warriors
'in the 7th-Century Midlands, recorded in a later poem.'
Any ideas how it might have got there?
Nearby, two miles away, was a famous battle,
where two kings, Morfael and Cynddylan, were involved
in the Battle of the Britons and it's possible,
as they fled, that took the hoard with them
and buried it, hoping to come back.
Sadly, they were killed.
The story goes that Cynddylan of Powys allied himself
to a ruler called Morfael
and together they launched a terrifying raid against settlements called Caer Lwydgoed,
which some people think is today's Lichfield.
'The allies were ruthless. The fighting was fierce and bloody.
'Many were killed.
'As was practice at the time, they ransacked the town and they left'
with the spoils of war and the booty they'd captured at Caer Lwydgoed.
'The battle was recorded in around the 9th century
'in a lament for one of the Welsh leaders.'
"Before Lwydgoed they triumphed.
"There was blood beneath the ravens and fierce attack.
"Glory in battle, great plunder,
"before Caer Lwydgoed, Morfael took it."
That's really rather wonderful, isn't it?
To think it might have something to do with the hoard is exciting.
It is. I'm not saying it's true, but, you know, it may well be.
'This could be a rare teasing moment of clarity in a very murky history.
'The trouble is that this poem was written around 200 years later
'than we can date anything in the hoard.
'And battles like this weren't exactly unusual.
'Turf wars were an everyday feature of Anglo-Saxon life.'
We can understand it now, I think, better than it's ever been
possible since, because we have gangland culture back in Britain.
It's gang warfare and what happens is,
when you take over the territory of a rival gang, the lot get bumped off,
usually in extraordinarily unpleasant ways.
A close examination of the hoard throws up more questions than answers.
'There are bits of weaponry, which belong to high-status warriors.
'But there are also an extraordinary number of them,
'especially the ornate pommels.'
-So these are pommels for the top of a sword, are they?
They're highly decorative.
The stunning thing is that there are more than 90 of these in this hoard.
I mean, I couldn't believe it.
I've spent 30 years digging Anglo-Saxon sites, finding one or two of these objects.
And to see so many, literally, my jaw dropped.
This quantity of swords is quite remarkable.
'One possible explanation is that the hoard was part of a king's collection.
'It may have been on its way to the palace here at Tamworth,
'when it was somehow intercepted.'
Tamworth was a Royal Treasury. At that time, kings used to
receive gifts of heriots,
something known as a heriot. Warriors, elder men, the important
sort of middle-class people of the society at that stage, would actually
bequeath their most significant items of weaponry,
their best swords, their best helmet, to the king.
And often the king would then distribute high-quality swords
back to their favoured warrior,
so it sort of gives us a context for this group of objects.
It's possible, there are so many interpretations,
but it is possible that this group of objects, which are mainly weapons,
with the exception of a few crosses, were actually acquired by a king,
they were given to the king over a long period of time,
and that king then redistributed them to his most favoured warriors.
Or someone pulled a heist against the king and ran off with it!
That's the intriguing thing, because it's bent -
there's all sorts of ways we can interpret the fact it's been bent.
To some, the way the hoard is broken and twisted
suggested it could record the very moment when it was taken,
perhaps as spoils from a bloody battle.
You look at it, you look at that cross,
you can see exactly what it once was,
you can see the moment it was crumpled,
you can practically see how the hands tore it off.
Again, I think it's a pommel, where you can actually see how it had been jemmied off.
There's that moment of action, it's frozen for ever.
The hoard also offers proof of the wealth of sections of this society.
This piece isn't actually from a sword,
it's a sort of guard where you'd have a single-sided stabbing knife,
called a seax.
I see, it's almost this piece here?
Exactly, it's the equivalent to this piece here,
but it would have been from a single-sided.
-But that's solid gold.
-It's solid gold.
The owner of that must have been...
amongst the most rich and powerful men in the kingdom.
And if you look, it's exquisite detail,
the light catching it, these gripping birds, it is unbelievably beautiful.
The guys who wore and carried these items of decorative jewellery
were described as the strutting peacocks,
they were - this was their show armour.
Very little of this stuff shows any evidence of being, you know,
hacked about in battle.
This was the stuff you wore on the parade ground.
In examining the hoard, we come across another mystery.
We have a really interesting problem, I think, with the Staffordshire hoard,
in that you have all the attachments to weapons,
but there aren't these sword blades,
and we read in the literature about how finely wrought these things were,
from examples at Sutton Hoo,
you can see that these things were incredibly complicated to make,
the actual blades of swords,
and were very prized, so why weren't they deposited in this hoard?
What we may have here is that these elements of decoration
are the personalisation of a sword, the blade will be passed from one warrior to the other.
Their sword was their battle friend.
They gave names to their sword, we all know about Excalibur.
"My favourite sword, Excalibur."
These swords were symbolic of the power of a great warrior.
Absolutely exquisite, it's a work of art
-on a weapon for killing people. Quite incredible, really.
One of the country's leading Anglo-Saxon experts from the University of Cambridge
believes that looking at where the hoard was found, beside an ancient road close to Tamworth,
may help us to understand what it actually is.
To my mind as a historian, the most remarkable thing about the Staffordshire hoard
is the location of the find.
The hoard was found on the side of the Roman Road known as Watling Street,
now known as the A5,
and that is very close to some of the other known recorded centres
of Mercian power - Tamworth is very close by,
Lichfield, where the bishopric of the Mercians was established,
that also is very close.
So it's found in the heartland of the Kingdom of the Mercians,
but equally, it's found on the side of Watling Street,
which is the major road leading from the heart of the Kingdom of the Mercians
down into London, and onwards.
The fact that the hoard is sitting there on Watling Street
means, in effect, that it could have come from the south,
it could have come from East Anglia,
it could have come from almost any other part of Britain.
So one has then to look at the material itself,
and to see whether archaeologists,
and experts in seventh century metalwork and art history
are able to say more about the associations of the material
once it has all been properly cleaned, studied,
related to other surviving objects, and so on.
What it would be nice to know is more about the circumstances
by which the hoard got there -
is it some kind of ritual deposition,
somebody in a panic hiding it who never comes back for it?
If you knew that,
you would then have a better sense of the significance of the road in that.
The landscape where the hoard was found could explain why it was buried here.
For decades, modern traffic has passed by the site on what's now known as the A5.
But which then was an important route between London and the Midlands.
In the Anglo-Saxon times, this area would have been totally remote,
and almost silent,
quite unlike today, with Watling Street blasting past.
The Watling Street was there in Anglo-Saxon times,
but the rest of the area was wood pasture, it was woodland
and heathland, open woodland,
because it was used probably on the summer pasture by estates way to the west and east.
This area, too, was on a boundary, not an exact boundary,
but over to the West was the Pecsaetan tribe,
and to the east, the Tomsaete, two folk regions in Mercia.
Dr Della Hooke is a landscape specialist,
and she's come up with three major theories as to how and why the Staffordshire hoard
came to be buried in this Midlands field, close to Watling Street.
There are various suggestions that one could make about the hoard.
Firstly, the village over there is Hammerwich,
and the name means the hammer place, the hammer settlement,
which suggests metalworking, but on the other hand,
there's nothing else been found in Hammerwich parish to suggest metalworking on a great scale,
just one little pendant.
But the hoard was strange, because it was mostly gold,
so the second suggestion is that it was deliberately placed,
even below a barrow, but there was no body,
as a sort of votive offering in a way, when somebody died.
You had to get rid, in Anglo-Saxon times, when gold was imbued with magic,
because ill-gotten gains had to be buried,
and it's just possible that it was buried there on this sort of frontier location
between the two folk groups, as a magical ritual,
like the one in Beowulf,
where the gold that Beowulf had taken was buried on his death.
The final scenario, which may be nearer to the truth,
isn't quite so exciting, but it could just have been pushed into a hole
near a hillock which could be recognised again, by someone fleeing along the Watling Street.
Remember, it was all a very small collection in one bag.
It would have been a heavy bag, too,
and if someone was chasing them, or they had stolen it from somewhere,
somebody's trophy collection,
they could have put it down there and just never been in a position to retrieve it.
Because it's very close, on this hill, to the Watling Street.
Some of these items have come from Northumbria, some of them have come from Kent,
some have probably come from Scandinavia, so that's an interesting element.
Were they looted as a result of battles by the Mercians?
Were they given to the Mercian king as tribute by his sub-peoples?
And we found them dismembered and bent.
Now, were they crammed into a box to be taken away?
And where they were located, right beside Watling Street,
the location is very prominent, but also hidden.
Was somebody trying to escape from a battle?
Were they trying to come away from the royal treasury at Tamworth
or coming from the settlement at Wall?
It looks most like some kind of treasure that has been recovered
from a battlefield,
I think the most telling thing to my mind about it
is not so much the sheer quantity, as the folded cross,
those other gold objects which speak volumes, I think,
for the context from which it came.
The Staffordshire hoard may also have something to teach us about trade,
those sparkling garnets which were discovered in their thousands in a muddy field
were the jewel of choice for Anglo-Saxon warriors,
but where did they originally come from?
Access to the sea allowed them to trade
and bring in luxury goods from far afield.
Bronze bowls from Egypt, lapis lazuli from a single mine in Afghanistan,
and amethyst pendants from India all found their way to these shores.
The Lindisfarne Gospels,
these richly decorated Christian manuscripts drawn on the island of Lindisfarne
further up the east coast in the late 7th or early 8th centuries,
use a colour red that can only be extracted from certain insects
living in trees next to the Mediterranean.
These garnets probably came from India or Sri Lanka,
and we can do research,
it's very likely that very early on in the period,
large garnets came from India and Sri Lanka.
Later, when the trade routes broke down,
they had smaller garnets coming from Portugal and Bohemia.
So you're looking at a remarkable international trade in this stuff.
Until the end of the mid to late-7th century,
you don't have any formal trading sites,
but they do start to emerge in this period.
The sites at London, Southampton and Ipswich,
they're engaged in very, very extensive trade networks
with Northern Europe and down into the Frankish kingdoms as well.
Throughout the 5th and 6th centuries, western Britain was engaged in trade
down the Atlantic coast routes as well.
So people conceptualise this period as the Dark Ages,
but actually, that's really not fair.
You know, it's a society that is thoroughly engaged
in all kinds of networks and contacts.
Life keeps going, and it keeps going at a fairly good level.
Desire for wealth and riches led to battles.
And around the time when the hoard may have been hidden,
Mercia had its sights set on expansion.
It had become one of the most feared kingdoms of all.
Mercian kings, at this moment, were the winners.
And so you see little kingdoms to the west,
bigger kingdoms to the east, are sucked in and absorbed.
First of all, you roll Northumbria back,
then you take over lands towards Wales and the Welsh Marches.
Then, of course, the Mercians absorb Kent, absorb London,
they swing over into East Anglia.
So you're creating this huge middle kingdom.
It's a period of unbelievable turmoil, political and religious.
It's when England, remember, that isn't England at all,
England is yet to be invented, the word barely exists.
Instead, there are these rival warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms,
that behave like the first, the worst kind of takeover bidders in the city.
They sort of decapitate each other, literally, it has to be said,
They aggregate, they come together, they take over, they destroy.
And kingdom after kingdom is swallowed up.
By the 8th, 9th century,
Mercia is certainly the largest kingdom geographically.
It covers the largest portion of the British Isles in that respect.
So what can the hoard tell us about the people who carved out
the kingdom of Mercia?
We have very few records,
and those we do have are written by outsiders.
We know precious little about the kingdom of the Mercians.
We know the major figures, we know that there was a figure
in the first half of the 7th century called Penda,
who emerges quite clearly
in the pages of Bede's Ecclesiastical History,
mainly as a fairly aggressive figure.
Someone who was active against the Northumbrians,
who was also active in the East,
and in particular against the East Angles.
And so we get the sense of Mercia as, effectively, a predatory power.
They're out to expand, perhaps,
but most of all, probably,
to raid, to acquire treasure,
to acquire resources that they don't have
in their own part of the country.
What many would like to believe
is that the hoard could have belonged to
one of the last great pagan kings, Penda.
A man with a formidable reputation,
who went on to father a line of famous Mercian leaders.
He held onto the old religion at the time when many around him
were turning to Christianity.
The timing might well be right.
Penda was a mighty overlord,
who ruled Mercia during its early rise to power.
Even by the standards of the time he was ruthless.
He deposed one king, he killed two others.
He dealt with one in a particularly grisly way.
Legend has it that after he defeated Oswald, King of Northumbria,
at the Battle of Maserfield,
he had his disembodied arms and head stuck on stakes in the ground.
THEY ALL ROAR AGGRESSIVELY
We all want it to be Penda, who was the famous King of Mercia.
Penda is the king in the early 7th century of Mercia,
and he's fighting a huge programme of expansion against Northumbria,
which had adopted Christianity quite early,
and to begin with, he's immensely successful.
He defeats and peculiarly unpleasantly disposes of,
presumably in ritual sacrifice, two Northumbrian kings.
And it would be lovely
if this really is the monument of one of those battles.
Penda really doesn't get the recognition that he deserves in the texts.
Because most of the history at this point is written down
by the Venerable Bede, he's a Northumbrian and a Christian.
And therefore an enemy of this pagan Mercian king,
the last of the pagan Mercian kings.
Bede hates Penda,
because he defeats and does horrible things to Northumbrian kings.
And also, of course, he's the wrong side, he's a pagan.
And Bede is a very great historian,
but great historians are not impartial.
Bede is writing for a purpose.
The hoard has yet to give us any direct evidence of Penda.
But that's not to say the two aren't linked.
Penda was the one king who held out while everyone around him
was converting to Christianity.
In 655 when he died, fighting against his enemies,
Christianity consumed this final kingdom.
The conversion of Mercia, England's last great pagan kingdom,
marked the beginning of a new era in English history.
And the Staffordshire hoard has helped us shine a light
on exactly how and when this transformation occurred.
One of the most intriguing finds in the hoard was a piece of gold
with an inscription from the Bible that may help us date
a crucial turning point in our history.
CHOIR: # Lord have mercy on our souls... #
The conversion to Christianity changed the whole fabric of our society,
bringing with it the written word and the rule of law.
But despite its importance to British history,
no-one knows exactly how or when it came about.
Litchfield has been an important religious centre
since the early Christian days of Mercia.
And this book is the earliest documentary evidence
of the religion in the Midlands.
This is the Cathedral's greatest treasure,
and we call it the St Chad Gospels.
We think it was almost certainly created to adorn Chad's shrine.
So Chad died in 672.
So this book has been associated with this building for 1,300 years?
Something like 1,300 years.
The gospel and the hoard date from around the same time.
A crucial turning point in the religious history of Britain.
And in the hoard are a mixture of pagan and Christian symbols.
So were the Mercians who owned the hoard Christian converts,
or the last of the pagans? Or could the crumpled crosses
and Latin inscriptions be the looted possessions
of another defeated Christian enemy?
My hunch is that the hoard items
give us the last glimpse of pagan Mercia,
and a gospel book like this, the first glimpse of Christian Mercia.
Looking at some of the symmetrical and floral patterns,
some of the inlay on the hoard goods is not totally dissimilar...
Absolutely part of the same cultural family,
the interlacing, and also the zoomorphic creatures in the decoration,
very reminiscent of some of the hoard items.
There's lots of animals depicted in the hoard,
and on here as well, just beautiful.
We know that it was not uncommon for monks and bishops
to be on the battlefield, not necessarily as combatants,
more likely mostly as non-combatants,
but bringing with them, as it were,
the power in which their army believed.
This is interesting, cos this is a quote on here,
which actually refers to military activity.
Yes, it's a Latin text from the Bible, from the Book of Numbers,
chapter 10, verse 35.
And the translation of the text is, "Arise, O God,
"and let your enemies be scattered,
"let those who hate you flee before you."
And you can quite see why a kingdom, a Christian kingdom
going into battle, particularly against a pagan neighbour,
might want to inscribe exactly that text onto a cross
that was being perhaps led...to lead the Christian warriors into battle.
It's a very personal piece, you can imagine someone clutching it...
-Yes, you can.
-..as they go into battle.
The fact that it ends up in a hole in the middle of Mercia
means that perhaps the owner didn't have God on his side that day.
Absolutely. You've got to feel that the owner of that was on the losing side that day.
Here, the hoard throws up more questions than it answers.
This was a religious turning point, but whose?
And rather than being the last pagans in a largely Christian world,
were the Mercians a bit of both,
subscribing to two religions at the same time, just to make sure?
I think definitely, we find in a number of Anglo-Saxon objects,
this idea of hedging your bets.
That we are talking about a transitional moment.
A spiritual transitional moment, but also a cultural one.
So, you have the protective talisman of the processional cross.
That idea of carrying Christ into battle, being protected by him.
And then you have these talismans, these serpents,
these traditional Anglo-Saxon battle beasts.
It's no peace-loving text, this isn't love thy neighbour,
turn the other cheek, thou shalt not kill, it's none of that.
It's surge domine, rise up, oh, Lord,
and let thine enemies be scattered.
Let those who hate thee be driven from thy face.
This is the church militant and warlike.
Of course Christianity adapting itself to context,
if you try and plant Christianity in a warrior culture,
it's got to assume the elements of a warrior culture.
So here you have warlike pagans fighting warlike Christians.
We shouldn't underestimate just how important the hoard is when it comes
to telling the story of Britain's conversion to Christianity.
It's a story that was also sketched out in the Peak District
by an amateur enthusiast in the 1800s.
Before the hoard was dug up,
probably the most important Anglo-Saxon find ever made within
the old Kingdom of Mercia, were made by this man here, Thomas Bateman,
whose tomb today sits surrounded by his beloved Peak District landscape.
Now, in the Victorian period, this man was known as the Barrow Knight.
He dug up around 200, some say even more, barrows or burial mounds,
and the site of his most important discovery is a few miles that way.
The Anglo-Saxons often reused prehistoric barrows
to bury their most important dead.
And it was in a grave that probably belonged to an earl or prince
that Bateman uncovered one of the few helmets ever to be discovered,
opening a new chapter in the military history of a warlike people.
This replica of the helmet is in a Sheffield Museum,
along with the original finds, which archaeologists now believe
come from the same period as the Staffordshire hoard,
and show a country on the cusp of moving from paganism to Christianity.
Well, this is it, this is where it was found.
You can see the round ditch and arrangement in the middle.
He found the remains of a helmet which had a boar on the crest
and a silver cross set into the nose piece.
The remains of a leather cup that had two silver crosses on that.
Also, some iron chain and some disks that were from a large,
bronze hanging bowl which would have been used for some ritual purpose,
whether for drinking or hand washing, we're not sure.
And do you think that all signifies this is a man of some stature?
Oh, yes, we call this a princely burial.
This is someone of really high status in this region.
How important is what was found here?
When it was found in the middle of the 19th century,
it was incredibly important because it gave us,
really, our first insight into the Anglo-Saxons
and Germanic culture in the Peak District.
It showed us the ways in which the Mercian Kingdom
expanded into this region.
I don't think at the time,
the find was as widely publicised as it might have been.
It sort of disappeared into a provincial museum where it perhaps
hasn't attracted the attention that it should have had.
But it's retained incredible importance even in the light of the discovery of the hoard.
It's interesting little clues, the boar and the cross,
what do you think they signify?
Primarily, the boar signals strength, courage, aggression.
These are the kind of images that a warrior would want to portray
themselves as possessing in the seventh century.
The cross is obviously self-evidently a Christian symbol.
I don't think it is a case of hedging your bets between paganism and
Christianity, I think it is a perfectly appropriate way for a Christian,
seventh century Anglo-Saxon Prince to project his image.
And besides, conversion wasn't necessarily a permanent thing in Anglo-Saxon England.
It's almost like an ebbing tide, it comes into an area
and then it might go away again.
In the seventh century, conversion was very much a political act.
So, if you are trying to convert an area,
you went straight to the top, you went to the king, you try to get
the king to convert, so that's what you see in Kent and East Anglia.
And sometimes, it would suit those kings to convert
and so they would, but then 20 years down the line,
it didn't suit them any more, and so they would revert.
So, you do see some of these areas
flip-flopping between Christianity and paganism.
It's not really until the end of the seventh century
that most areas of the country are consistently Christian.
So, whoever buried the hoard has left us
with a snapshot of a moment in time when England changed for ever.
But what other secrets might it still hold?
The painstaking process of cleaning, examining
and testing the hoard will continue for decades.
As archaeologists and scientists try to turn speculation into facts.
There's still an awful lot of analysis to do.
You can do lots and lots of technical analysis,
you can analyse the composition of the gold and the garnets
and you might be able to get some dating out of that.
You can do much more with the inscriptions,
looking for parallels for those.
And just analysing the composition of the hoard itself.
We don't quite know what that hoard represents.
We don't know whether it's the aftermath of a battle.
We don't know whether it's the Kings Treasury that's been
taken captive on the road and buried in secret.
So we don't know why it got there. We don't know when it got there.
It might tell us something very different if we know it was
buried in 650, compared to if we knew it was buried in 750.
So, that dating of it is really going to be quite key
in terms of understanding its significance.
Kevin Leahy, the National Finds Adviser from the
Portable Antiquities Scheme has been responsible for cataloguing the hoard.
What an extraordinary collection, but the other thing is,
they're very diverse. There are so many different objects, some
-I don't know what they are.
-I must admit, neither do we in some cases.
This is part of the great, great fun.
We've moved into new ground in this material.
Things we've not seen before.
We almost find that it is not the objects you identify straight away
that are going to give us the story.
It's the things that we don't know what they are.
There's this piece over here. It's truly remarkable.
Beautifully decorated with garnets on three faces.
And that's a groove there.
-Perhaps something would have gone in there.
I have speculated that it's the edging from a book.
So that's why this could be all bent and shattered, somebody
ripped apart this jewelled book cover and it became someone's swag?
Yes, it's torn off the cover, but while a lot of the material is
bent and broken, there's been no systematic attempts to trash it.
Row upon row of amazing artefacts give us
a new understanding of the ways in which our ancestors lived.
I particularly like this material
because of the strange scenes shown on it.
They're made out of silver foil.
It's a technique that we call "pressblech" -
a German word - for want of a better name in English.
Um, they show scenes of processions of warriors.
-You can see the round shield...
-Yeah, I can see.
-..and the spears.
Um, these probably came from a helmet.
They were used in panels along the sides of a helmet.
We get that at Sutton Hoo.
Amazing going into battle with these extraordinary images
on your helmet. It's incredible.
'And then, there's this.'
A lovely thing.
This hung at the side of an Anglo-Saxon warrior
who must have habitually rested his left hand on his sword.
And look at the polish on the top of that,
where the man's hand was resting on his most treasured possession -
the hilt of his sword.
This all meant something to someone. It's not art for art's sake.
There are stories and things in here.
'What the hoard has laid bare here
'is the existence of a rich ruling class.
These weren't ignorant savages, they were people
with incredible wealth and skill, who pride great beauty.
They would spend a lot of time in the company of their weaponry
and so meditating and ruminating on the imagery,
and how the piece works and how one beast begins
and another ends,
that's part of the beauty of them for their original audience as well.
The thing that strikes you as you look at them
I think is twofold, apart from the engineering.
It's first of all
the amazing linear sense. It's like Art Deco.
Either Art Deco or perhaps Art Nouveau.
These wonderful, sinuous, curling animal, tree, plant -
Fighting lions, fish entwined, they love serpents,
warlike serpents chewing each other,
winding themselves round each other's tails.
So there's this immensely powerful linear sense.
And you also have the craftsmanship in terms of
the matching of gold and jewels,
which, I think, you've got to get to Faberge
before you've anything as good.
I suppose the plain truth is - isn't it, really? -
that the Anglo-Saxons are German.
So this is the origin. It's a kind of BMW style of engineering
which we, unfortunately, have grown out of but they still have.
It's amazing. Under the microscope you see even more detail, don't you?
It's absolutely incredible.
We're now seeing this in greater detail
than the person who owned it ever saw it.
It's phenomenal. You've got carefully cut garnets,
laid into intricate cells,
each stone carefully shaped.
And garnet's a tricky material to work,
it's not a particularly rare stone
but it can't be just sheared off like a slate.
If you want thin garnets, you've got to cut them thin. And then...
Millimetre perfect, aren't they?
They've all got to be cut into these special shapes
and they've all got to be absolutely perfect.
'Modern-day jewellers say we would need four times magnification
'to do the detailed work seen on the hoard.'
There's the animal's head, the two little ring-like eyes.
You have to pinch yourself to remind yourself
how small it is. I mean, how did they cut these shapes
to fit so perfectly within the gold?
-It's incredibly intricate, this piece here.
The more you look at it, the more incredible it becomes.
That pattern of cells fitted together.
Even more startling -
under each garnet you've got a small piece of waffle patterned gold foil.
It's to scatter the light back so that it glitters.
Just like the reflectors on a motorcar.
-That's what we're seeing here?
When you get the measurements up on the screen, it shows just how small that is.
Each one of those is 0.03 of a millimetre across.
It's absolutely incredible.
Something like this could have been worn by royalty itself. I mean,
Penda, the great Mercian king,
it could easily have been attached to him or his family, I guess.
Yes, or one of the people that he sent into the next world.
This is material that belonged to the losers,
not the winners and this could have been taken from
Oswald of Northumbria or Edwin of Northumbria, or Sigabert of Kent.
We don't know.
It's dangerous to try and attach names to material like this
but it's great fun.
'The discovery of warrior treasure has put a splash of colour
'into our black-and-white view of 1,400 years ago.'
The traditional view is that life in the Dark Ages was nasty,
brutish and short.
And it's this idea that everyone lived in huts and hovels,
and really didn't have much quality of life.
And that's why we get this term "Dark Age" associated with it.
But that's so far from the truth.
'As I've travelled across the old kingdom of Mercia,
'it's become clear to me
'just how important the discovery of the hoard really has been.
'It's shone a light into the Midlands of the Dark Ages,
'revealing a powerful, wealthy
'and sophisticated people who were a force to be reckoned with in the Anglo-Saxon world.'
England, remember, isn't England at all.
England is yet to be invented.
Instead, there are these rival warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
They decapitate each other, literally it has to be said,
They aggregate, they come together, they take over, they destroy.
And kingdom after kingdom is swallowed up.
'In an amazing stroke of luck, it's also captured a moment,
'a turning point in our history,
'when Britain became a Christian land.'
My hunch is that the hoard items give us
the last glimpse of pagan Mercia. And a gospel book like this,
the first glimpse of Christian Mercia.
'As we've found, the discovery also raises as many fresh questions,
'questions that scientists and historians
'will spend years trying to answer.'
The hoard will have many more surprises for us
and it may yet force us to re-evaluate
everything we think we know.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
TV historian Dan Snow travels across the old Kingdom of Mercia unravelling the secrets of one of Britian's most significant discoveries - the Staffordshire Hoard. The Hoard offers 1500 new clues into the Dark Ages and Dan pieces together the lives of the people living in these long-forgotten kingdoms.