Dr Kevin Leahy: The delicate, mysterious spoils of a 7th-century war

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The scale of this hoard is stunning: there is so much material that we may have to rethink our knowledge of the 7th century.

Staffordshire was the heartland of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, which was militarily aggressive and expansionist during the 7th century under the kings Penda, Wulfhere, and Aethelred. This material could have been collected by any of these men during their wars with Northumbria and East Anglia, or by someone whose name is lost to history.

The hoard's two most striking features are that it is of exceptionally high quality and that it is unbalanced; there is absolutely nothing feminine, no dress fittings, brooches or pendants (the gold objects most commonly found from the Anglo-Saxon era). The vast majority of items in the hoard are martial – war gear, especially sword fittings.

The quality of the gold is amazing, and, more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate. This was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could forge – and they were good. Tiny garnets were cut to shape and set in a mass of cells to give a rich, glowing effect; it is dazzling. The hoard's origins are clearly the very highest levels of Saxon aristocracy or royalty. It belonged to the elite.

This is not simply loot. It looks like a collection of trophies, although at this stage it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle or a long and highly successful military career. The discovery throws up questions that will be debated for decades: who the original and final owners were, who took it from them, why they buried it and when.

How did the hoard come to be buried in that field? It may have been a tribute to the pagan gods or concealed in the face of a perceived threat which led to it not being recovered. When we have done more work on the hoard we will be able to say more.

I hope the find will stimulate interest in this magical period; in the past, the 7th century has been looked at from the point of view of East Anglia and Kent. It's going to be hard to forget the Midlands after this.

One of the final stanzas of the Old English poem Beowulf reads:

They let the ground

Keep that ancestral treasure

Gold under gravel, gone to earth

As useless to men now as it ever

was.

Well, it's not useless now. Let's see what we can do with it.

Dr Kevin Leahy is national finds adviser at the Portable Antiquities Scheme and an expert in early medieval metalwork and Saxon crafts

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