The Art of the Staffordshire Hoard
Since its discovery in 2009, the decoration of the Staffordshire Hoard has attracted much attention. The remarkable craftsmanship of the Anglo-Saxons produced stunning and intricate designs through casting, filigree (delicate wire work) and garnet cloisonné (cut gemstones separated by strips of gold). The designs in the hoard are typical of Germanic (a diverse group of non-Roman tribes) decoration. They are frequently zoomorphic, that is composed of animal designs. These designs may have had a symbolic function as well as being purely decorative.
The art of the Staffordshire Hoard is predominantly what is known as Anglo-Saxon Style II. This involves animals in fluent, ribbon-like structures, often interlaced. It was rapidly adopted in the late sixth century by powerful elites to display their wealth and identity. The Staffordshire Hoard is possibly one of the best examples of elite Style II metalwork decoration. Spears were the most common weapon in Anglo-Saxon England and so a collection of sword, seax and other weapons fittings such as the Staffordshire Hoard would have belonged to a collection of extremely elite warriors. But how did this style develop and what were its influences?
In many ways, the Anglo-Saxon art of the Staffordshire Hoard takes its ultimate inspiration from Roman art. The earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers in fifth century Britain would have come across Roman culture and objects. There was also contact between the two cultures prior to this. Germanic soldiers fought in the Roman army and Stilicho, the son of a Germanic officer was at one time the most influential man in the Western Roman Empire. So-called ‘barbarian’ tribes would have come across Roman objects and decoration. Roman trade across Europe often included feasting equipment, glassware, weapons and armour. Friezes on many of these types of items included hunting scenes, foliage and human faces. These may have influenced Germanic craftsmen. Late Roman military belt buckles were influential in Anglo-Saxon decorative styles as well as Roman coinage. Visitors to the Staffordshire Hoard gallery at the museum often comment that the helmet reconstruction looks Roman. We do not know for sure that the helmet had a red horse hair crest but it remains a best guess based on the colours that dominate the hoard and other ancient helmets. All other known Anglo-Saxon helmets were inspired by Roman ones. It may be that the Anglo-Saxons deliberately invoked Roman design to portray themselves as the rightful inheritors of Roman Britain. They also made pendants from old Roman coins and the choice of red garnets may have been inspired by Roman military colours.
Saxon Relief Style
The first Germanic art style found in Anglo-Saxon England is the fifth century Saxon Relief Style. This style is heavily influenced by Roman decoration and uses geometrical patterns, classical borders, scrolls and animal elements. The Saxon Relief style came from northern Germany and is typically found in southern England, meaning we have none in the museum collection.
The Quoit Brooch Style
Like the Saxon Relief Style, the Quoit Brooch Style derives from the decoration of late Roman military metalwork. Quoit Brooch Style artefacts are predominantly found in Kent and the wider southern and eastern area of England. This has been linked by some archaeologists to immigrants from Jutland in Denmark, however, this is not necessarily accurate. The decoration uses similar scroll and animal motifs to the Saxon Relief Style.
Style I art was named by the Swedish scholar Bernhard Salin and is sometimes thought of as the first purely Germanic style in England. Style I uses a range of animal and human motifs including elliptical eyes and pear-shaped thighs that are still clearly visible in the Style II art of the Staffordshire Hoard. Style I developed from earlier Germanic artwork and, ultimately the Roman and Quoit Brooch Style decoration seen in England. It began in Scandinavia in the early fifth century and had developed in England by the late fifth century. The style is sometimes called Tiersalat or animal salad because of its fragmented images! In England, Style I art developed a distinctive, anthropomorphic, look. This can be seen in the human mask which is visible in the fragment of a brooch or mount from the museum collection.
Style I art developed some regional variations. Whereas examples from Kent often began to use garnet inlay and in East Anglia spiral ornament dominates, in the Midlands designs are often more crowded and have swirling elements showing their Roman origins. By the late sixth century, the immediate descendant of Style I art had begun to appear in southern England.
As the Style II decoration we see in the hoard developed, the ‘animal salad’ of Style I became a much more flowing, sinuous style of animal decoration. The ribbed bodies of animals became thinner and elongated with beasts interlocking, biting one another with their long jaws. As with Style I, regional styles developed. In East Anglia filigree is rare and elaborate garnet cloisonné is seen. This style influenced the decoration of manuscripts. In Kent, Style II art was more often twisting filigree animals.
Style II animals have the same ribbon-like bodies and pear-shaped legs as in Style I – compare the animals on the seax hilt-plate from the Staffordshire Hoard to the Style I mount from Rutland – but have become more flowing. The decoration on the hilt-plate is similar to later examples on Christian manuscripts like The Book of Durrow.
In other example of Style II art in the hoard, the animals have become even more flowing and abstract to the point they are often difficult to recognise. On the pommel cap below the zoomorphs eyes can be seen at the end of their sinuous bodies in shapes similar to those seen in Style I.