Friday, October 23, 2009

Anglo-Saxon Treasure: The Border of History and Prehistory

Randall Stephens

In late September the NYT reported on a massive Anglo-Saxon find: "LONDON — For the jobless man living on welfare who made the find in an English farmer’s field two months ago, it was the stuff of dreams: a hoard of early Anglo-Saxon treasure, probably dating from the seventh century and including more than 1,500 pieces of intricately worked gold and silver whose craftsmanship and historical significance left archaeologists awestruck."

More recently in the October 14, 2009 issue of the TLS, Alex Burghart writes about "The 1,500-piece collection unearthed from the Staffordshire mud" which is "the richest collection of gold from Anglo-Saxon England ever found." This find brings up all sorts of questions about Anglo-Saxon England. The date of the find is already being debated along with the circumstances and context. Burghart observes: "There is always a temptation to link any rich Anglo-Saxon archaeology with a king. Sutton Hoo has often been called the grave of Raedwald of East Anglia (d.616–627), and the burial chamber from Prittlewell, Essex, has been linked with early kings of Essex, though the associations are far from provable. Some authorities, no doubt, will look at the bent crosses of the Staffordshire Hoard and claim it as the booty Penda of Mercia (d.655), the last great pagan King of Anglo-Saxon England. Such guesswork is good fun, but it is also slightly disingenuous."

The whole can of worms opened by the discovery is particularly interesting to historians. Questions it brings up are fascinating: What can or can't we know about the past? What are the limits and boundaries of history? When and where does the archeology come to the aid? Burghart concludes: "At present it seems unlikely that we will ever know who buried it, why they did, when they did, or where they got it." Bummer.

See also this piece in the National Geographic.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

This seems to be part of the heart of the difference between history and archaeology--the possibility of discovering treasure. No one ever became an historian to find loot. But archaeology.... now that's another thing.

The observation that we like royal finds and want to attach such treasure to monarchs of various kinds is also a reminder that we aren't too far from the days when the significance of history was tied to people at the "top." For all our lip service to the importance of ordinary people and lives, we really still think discoveries are more important when they tell us about the elites. The romance and excitement for non-specialists is captured by those whose lives were spent in castles or temples, and who gave their names to law codes.

In any case, such discoveries allow me to assure my students that we're always learning more about history and that scholars are working on things that will change the textbooks we use in the future. And the students are more likely to believe me if there are pictures of newly-uncovered gold artifacts to accompany my claims.

Randall said...

Lisa: I like your point about elites. This is still what much of the history-reading public likes most about history. Great men and great women.

Chris Beneke said...

Really interesting stuff. Thanks Randall and Lisa. There was an excellent review by Peter Miller in the May issue of The New Republic that touches on some of the same interdisciplinary territory: