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The Living People in Charge of Dark Age Treasure

The Dark Ages are a little bit brighter now that viewers can see for themselves the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found. Visitors to the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. have the chance to view pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard for one more month, before the treasure is packed up and shipped back to Britain after March 4, 2012.

Found two years ago, the Anglo-Saxon hoard has now been intensively studied and is the subject of many pieces from National Geographic including a 2009 news photo gallery, a cover story in the magazine, a richly illustrated book,  and a National Geographic Channel special, “Lost Gold of the Dark Ages.”

(Explore the objects in the treasure yourself with a 3D interactive gallery)

When the treasure first arrived at NG headquarters in Washington, D. C. there was an energetic and packed house as we celebrated an “extraordinary exhibition” as NG’s Susan Norton put it.

 

Your Hosts for the Evening

While the museum exhibit next door held pieces of the treasure, the National Geographic Live! event brought the audience up close with the living people now entrusted with the objects’ conservation and research.  They were:

Deb Klemperer, one of the lead researchers and Principal Collections Officer at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

David Simmons, of the Birmingham museum, the “coin man without a coin to study”

Caroline Alexander, who boldly called her editor to tell him she wanted to work on the story as soon as she read the New York times story announcing the find, and went on to write both the magazine article and book about the hoard for NG

Michael Welsh, Executive Producer of the National Geographic Channel special

And Kevin Leahy on the phone, an Anglo-Saxon history expert given the task of cataloging the treasure.

What follows are notes from the event, with quotes and paraphrasing, aimed to give you sense of what it was like to be a part of this conversation among the hoard’s greatest experts.

 

Who Buried This and Why?

Caroline Alexander brings Anglo-Saxon England to life in "Lost Gold of the Dark Ages" from National Geographic Books.

Kevin and Deb first spoke of the UK laws on treasure finding and the “law of treasure” that covers a wide range of artifacts. Under an old law from the 1100s, undertakers (or “coroners,” those acting on behalf of the Crown) were in charge of “sudden death and treasure.” If treasure is found and declared, the state museums have 4 months to come up with the money to compensate the finder. There could also be a search to find heirs of the original owner.

Caroline was excited about how trying to find out what the find is has involved a diverse group of people, including religious, military, and forensic experts. Her question for the group present though was “who buried this and why?”

Kevin: It had to be ritual, since the people were so careful about what they chose to include.

Deb: Would go along with that, but thinks it may be more than one ritual deposit. Cognitive archaeology [an informed approach to reconstructing how members of ancient societies may have thought] could be a really fruitful area for future research.

Mike: Thinks it’s “just loot,” but with no great basis of knowledge to say that.

David: If it were coins [instead of broken bits of armor and jewelry] it’d be a stash that people intended to return to and no one would be wondering what it was for. And just because it was all found underground together, doesn’t mean the objects were associated above ground.

Caroline: Agrees it would be a ritual, maybe a dedication of thanks or of bribery to a god for future service. There is a great history of such things from Germany and Britain. There’s also the perplexing business of the hoard containing both killing weapons and craftsmen’s tools.

 

Why Was Everything Destroyed?

Deb: Thinks an interesting possibility is that perhaps each sword of the period had a design for a particular warrior, and then that owner’s history could have been destroyed ritually by destroying the sword itself. A very exciting area of research. Follow the official blogs for more.

Kevin: Adds that another recent find of a similarly disfigured pommel handle backs this up.

David: This is part of the fun of the hoard, that we disagree so whole-heartedly.

Deb: Points out that the owner of the land, Fred Johnson (see photo), is an old fashioned farmer. We should be thankful of that since it brought the artifacts to the surface without destroying them.

David: Points out that the damage was by far mostly from the Saxons themselves, not from plowing.

Click the image above to view a 3D interactive gallery of objects from the Staffordshire Hoard from the National Geographic Channel.

 

Question From the Audience: What’s Going on in the Field There Today?

David: There are horses grazing.

Deb: [In the wider area there is excitement that there could be more to find since] Saxons respected ancient and Roman sacred sites. And part of the new research will be to look at older finds.

Kevin: The nearby Roman town could yield a story. The Historia Brittonum shows it was important to the Welsh by the ninth century.

 

Q: How Do You Decide What’s the Next Piece to Study Closely?

David: So far it’s been what’s needed for the next exhibition. By next spring there will be more research funding.

Mike: And next year there will be another National Geographic Channel show looking into the people who made it and buried it and how they lived.

Deb: And you can continue to follow the research and ask questions at the official Staffordshire site.

 

Almost Like Being There

With so much being written, shown, and said about the Anglo-Saxon gold hoard, it was exciting to be present for a live event based around conversation between the experts and to realize how much information and character is lost in the cracks of the end products we usually see.

Getting to hear the asides and the banter, to see the faces and hear the unedited voices and thoughts of the people involved brought the topic to life in a very immediate way, and helped spark reflections about the real everyday people of the 600s who buried, battled, used, wore, coveted, designed, constructed, smelted, mined, and gazed at these objects and the gold and jewels that were used to make them. Hopefully this chronicle of the evening’s conversation helped do the same for you in some small way.

“Anglo-Saxon Hoard: Gold From England’s Dark Ages” is on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. through March 4, 2012.