The Art of the Staffordshire Hoard

14/04/202010:0023/04/2020 08:01Leave a Comment

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.

Some items from the Staffordshire Hoard. Copyright: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. CC licence: CC BY-SA

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?

Roman Influence

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.  

Copper-alloy late Roman strap-end from Staffordshire. PAS ID: WMID5951. The strap-end has a chip-carved spiral design that would have influenced Anglo-Saxon craftsmen. Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme
The Staffordshire Hoard helmet reconstruction. Copyright: The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. Accession No. STKMG:2018.LH.110.

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.

Early Anglo-Saxon saucer brooch from Dorset. PAS ID: SOMDOR-EB4897 The brooch has Roman style spiral decoration. Copyright: Somerset County Council
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Gold hilt-collar from the Staffordshire Hoard. The bodies of the Style II animals are formed of spirals reminiscent of the Saxon Relief Style and Roman decoration. Data copyright © Barbican Research Associates, Birmingham City Council, Trustees of the British Museum, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Birmingham Museums Trust. Accession no.: STKMG:2010.LH.10.116.

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.

A copper-alloy late Roman buckle plate in the Quoit Brooch style from Kent. PAS ID: KENT-198D8D. Copyright: Kent County Council
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Gold brooch of probably 5th century date. PAS ID: WMID-D27DCC. Copyright: Birmingham Museums Trust
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A Roman copper-ally brooch from Colchester with three-dimensional animal ornament of Bacchus riding a leopard. PAS ID: ESS-691516. Copyright: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service
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Style I

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.

An Early Medieval copper-alloy mount from Rutland with Style I decoration. The clawed feet, ribbed bodies and pear-shaped legs of several animals can be made out. PAS ID: LEIC-4199B9. Copyright: Kent County Council
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Gilded silver brooch from Staffordshire. Late fifth to early sixth century. The design shows a human face with distinctive elliptical eyes as part of the Style I decoration. PAS ID: WMID-46955C. Accession no.: STKMG 2017.LH.100 Copyright: Birmingham Museums Trust
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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.

Style II

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.

Seax hilt-plate K567 from the Staffordshire hoard showing interlocking beasts which bite each other. PAS ID: STAFFS-6459E8. Data copyright © Barbican Research Associates, Birmingham City Council, Trustees of the British Museum, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Birmingham Museums Trust
Detail of the zoomorphic decoration on seax hilt-plate K567. Copyright: Chris Fern.
Style II interlocking animals in garnet cloisonné on a seax hilt plate from the Staffordshire Hoard. Data copyright © Barbican Research Associates, Birmingham City Council, Trustees of the British Museum, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Birmingham Museums Trust. Accession no.: STKMG:2010.LH.10.168.

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.

Style II animals this time in filigree wire-work on a gold pommel cap from the Staffordshire Hoard. Data copyright © Barbican Research Associates, Birmingham City Council, Trustees of the British Museum, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Birmingham Museums Trust. Accession no.: STKMG:2010.LH.10.18.
Written by Abigail Taylor (Assistant Curator, Local History/VSA) - Modified by Glenn Roadley (Curator, Natural Sciences)

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