Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Olympic and recessional dragons"

At the TLS, Alex Burghart (who has written a funny last paragraph and contributor's note here!) on the artefacts of the Staffordshire hoard:
I joined the thousands of others visiting the Birmingham Museum earlier this month to fog the glass of the display cases housing the choicest items. “Wow!” came the exclamation to my left. “What is it?” said a second. “I don’t know.” That exchange just about summarizes current knowledge. The artefacts are undoubtedly (as Howard Carter said on first leaving Tutankhamen's tomb) “wonderful things”, but the facts behind their wondrousness are not immediately obvious. Even speculating about the hoard before the earth is removed from all of its components is a dangerous business. Yet the early suppositions of those lucky enough to have handled and examined the material already seem to carry weight. Kevin Leahy, of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, has suggested that this is the spoil of battle – goods taken from the dead after a fight – and from what I have seen, the analysis fits. Were the hoard merely plunder we would expect to find everyday riches (coins, hairpins, ingots, etc) in amongst it. Instead we have as many as eighty-four sword and dagger pommel caps, seventy-one hilt collars, two or three gold crosses, a number of twisted-metal rings, what is probably a shield decoration, and at least one cheek-piece from a helmet. Tellingly, several of the items have bent pins still sticking out of them, which means they were ripped from their original mounts. Perhaps most wonderful of all is the resonance with a passage in Beowulf describing the gathering of sword hilts from the dead after battle. “One warrior stripped the other, / looted Ongentheow’s iron mail coat, / his hard sword-hilt, / his helmet too, / and carried the graith to King Hygelac”.

Seeing the finds with Leahy’s interpretation in mind is slightly chilling. The rows of unperished pommels become personal possessions, each one unique, as though fashioned for its owner’s particular fancy, each one a life. The seeming immortality of the gold, which the Anglo-Saxons so loved, somehow drives home the mortality of those who briefly wore it. Sutton Hoo is, above all, a testament to loyalty and love – whoever hauled that boat up that hill and filled it with precious gifts did so out of a profound sense of duty. The Staffordshire Hoard is almost the opposite.

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