“Gangland Bling”

The Guardian reports on The Battle to Save the Staffordshire Hoard – an effort to raise £3.3 million to buy, for the British public, the massive hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure discovered last year in a field near Lichfield. Historian David Starkey refers to the 1,800 gold and silver objects – buried for over a millennium – as “gangland bling … the Rolex watch and gold chains of a gang leader.”

Such a quip might seem more press magnet than historical analog, but Starkey goes on to make a rather beautiful statement about the vital ties between history and legend.

“It underscores what I always say, which is that history is not just about reason and logic, which is what you get with the school curriculum, it is about story and myth and emotion. This hoard has got all of those things.”

There have certainly been rumblings about Staffordshire’s importance – particularly the immediate claims, based solely on the treasure’s quantity, that it would be more important than Sutton Hoo. But its importance as a catalyst for furthering study of a cloudy and fascinating time in English history is undoubtable.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the ‘history’ of what happens to Staffordshire: Will the public rally around the appeal, to keep it as the national treasure it most surely ought to be? And what will it become in the popular mindset – what will this collection of martial objects mean as a discovery, rather than a historical or archaeological item? It’s a question raised at the time of the Hoard’s announcement, last September, by this excellent blog post by medievalist Karl Steel.

In it, Steel wins my (belated) analogy of the year award for 2009: “Sutton Hoo ship burial sites … speak of an intent valuing more than just the objects themselves … 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.” He goes on, more importantly, to pose the question of what this discovery says about its contemporary discoverers – one reemphasized by this new appeal’s demand that the worst thing that could happen is that the Hoard might be “split up and that can’t be allowed to happen.” As Steel puts it:

“… I doubt we’re going to understand more culturally from this hoard then we did from Sutton Hoo … 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?”


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