Dan Hitchens

Our love affair with the Anglo-Saxons

In the 12 years since the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered the Anglo-Saxons have well and truly escaped their ‘Dark Ages’ pigeonhole

The Dig tells the story of one of the greatest archaeological finds in British history, the Sutton Hoo ship burial, which changed how historians saw the Dark Ages. Credit: Larry Horricks/Netflix © 2021

On 5 July 2009, an unemployed 54-year-old metal detectorist called Terry Herbert was walking through a Staffordshire field when his detector started to beep and didn’t stop. Herbert guessed almost immediately that he’d found gold. What he didn’t realise was that he had made Britain’s greatest archaeological discovery since the second world war. Three hundred sword-hilt fittings, many of them spectacular examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork; a mysterious gold-and-garnet headdress, apparently for a priest; miniature sculptures of horses, fish, snakes, eagles and boars. The Staffordshire Hoard, as it became known, led to a sold-out exhibition, an Early Day Motion in parliament saluting ‘the UK’s largest haul of gold Anglo-Saxon treasure’, and, for Herbert himself, a share of the £3.28 million reward. It also helped to prompt a minor cultural revival.

You couldn’t quite call it a craze, but in the 12 years since Herbert’s discovery the Anglo-Saxons have escaped from their ‘Dark Ages’ pigeonhole. Sales of metal detectors soared as a new wave of hobbyists went looking for precious artefacts. Anglo-Saxon historians such as Janina Ramirez became increasingly familiar names on bookshelves and TV schedules; Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, set in the 9th century, were adapted for the screen as The Last Kingdom. And last month, Netflix’s The Dig told the story of an earlier archaeological find, the Sutton Hoo ship burial. ‘These people were not savage warriors,’ one character enthuses after the discovery. ‘These were sophisticated people, with incredible artistry.’ And for the viewer who likes to have things spelt out: ‘The Dark Ages are no longer dark!’

That message was also implicit in the British Library’s remarkable 2019 exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, which gathered some of the period’s most significant manuscripts and artworks. It felt like a celebration: here was the massive Codex Amiatinus, the oldest surviving Bible in Latin, and a symbol of the Anglo-Saxons’ importance within European civilisation.

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