I’ve not really mentioned the Staffordshire Hoard here on the Brownhills Blog. It’s not that I’m not interested in it – it’s a fascinating, huge discovery – it just seems to me that so much has been broadcast, written and said about this intriguing collection of ancient loot that I couldn’t possibly have anything to add. I’ve watched with some amusement the territorial chicanery and doublespeak emanating from the local, and not-so-local towns vying to host the treasure, from Lichfield’s early stake – which was based largely on the fact that anywhere else was simply too too common to exhibit such a wonderful assembly of bling – to Stoke on Trent’s frankly opportunistic but oddly influential smash and grab raid. The fundraising commenced, while wrangling and temporary displays rumbled on through the winter. The BBC obviously had a wobble and called it the Brownhills Hoard for a time, but like the Cinderella town that we are, Brownhills went largely unheralded in the affair. The fact is, the semi-buried gold found a local treasure hunter in the ancient parent parish of Ogley Hay at Warrenhouse, mere yards over the county boundary. Brownhills remains a largely bemused observer in a media circus that seems destined to rumble on inexorably for some years to come.
I mention the subject now only because there’s something going on at the periphery of all the discussion about the hoard that’s beginning to really, really annoy me. As I understand the matter, one of the things that’s most perplexing about the find is the location where it was discovered. We don’t have a huge historical record here. There have been no other finds even remotely like it locally, and there’s very little knowledge of this area during the period when the treasure would have been abandoned. Upon this matter, there have been thousands of good-natured pub debates, internet forum chats and lofty, learned exchanges. The fact is, that as of now, we know very little about these artefacts, and that’s part of their mystique. I’m sure that when the academics, historians and assorted beard strokers have pondered over them at length, so they will open up a new vista on our historical record, but right now, they are history’s mystery.
The lack of hard factual information was always going to encourage wild speculation, which generally has been good natured and entertaining. After all, amateur enthusiasts have as much right to speculate about our collective history as any stripy-jumpered corduroy-clad professor. It’s just that, well, there’s an edge developing to some of it that, to not put too fin a point on it, is doing my head in. I first started to notice this phenomena in the comment sections of The Lichfield Blog. Take the example below, from the item ‘Staffordshire Hoard site near Lichfield to be investigated again‘…
After receiving a little light ribbing from Freddy, Jean posted again next day:
I’m fully aware that there is going to be all manner of wild speculation, but there’s just something about that exchange that really troubles me. I can’t quite put my finger on it – although we can dismiss it as the work of an eccentric, there’s real conviction there and a self belief that I find quite alarming. Further, a remarkable letter recently appeared in the Walsall Chronicle, sister freesheet to the Express & Star.
I’m certainly no historian, and definitely have no knowledge of the hoard, but here we go again – there’s that blindly confident statement-of-fact that no true historian would dare tenure. There’s an absolute, utter self conviction that I find by turns surprising and slightly unsettling. In all my time, the one thing I’ve really learned about people who genuinely know their subject is that they rarely state their their beliefs as absolute fact. There’s some remarkable statements in that letter, seemingly pulled out of the air at random. But why?
I spotted a further example of a more indignant form of historical revisionism on the website of the Walsall Advertiser. In response to a letter arguing the case for the hoard to stay local, reader ‘slote’ opined the following:
The fact is, that although there are indeed historical remnants in the area – Castlefort and the like – the rest is pure conjecture. The rumours about the Royal being buried on Grove Hill were around 50 years ago, and there’s nothing more than folklore to say that anything was ever found there. Burial mounds, barrows and tumuli dot the British landscape, and at the time of the (relatively late) construction of Brownhills, they like most antiquity, wasn’t of anything other than peripheral interest. Had bones been found, they would most likely have been discarded. The only record I’m aware of of confirmed burial mounds was actually near Catshill Junction, round about where Waine House stood, and would certainly have been obliterated in the construction of the canal or town gasworks, just as Knave’s Castle and Castlefort itself were largely erased by housing development. History of that kind just wasn’t important. The earth mounds that gave Brownhills it’s name were caused by bottlepits, not burials. Further, the hoard was a long way from Shire Oak Hill; there’s the considerable mass of Springhill between the two.
I don’t have any problem at all with healthy debate about the hoard, it’s an intriguing mystery that will delight and entertain for many years to come – but there seems to be a desire to bend or even invent history to fill in the blanks we just don’t know. I fear that the history of the area – sparse as it is – may well become corrupted in the process of trying to rationalise the find and it’s placement. What does worry me is the blind statement of conjecture as fact, by people who in some cases would make better novelists than historians.
There is another type of fantasy surrounding the treasure that I find equally disturbing. I know I’m not going to be popular for saying this, but I’m afraid that some of those who believe that Brownhills – or, by extension, Walsall – can house the hoard are as deluded as those who propagate these curious histories. There have been many opinions expressed, from very worthy and community spirited people, who seem to think that we could somehow build a museum, staff it and just wait for the tourists and cash to come rolling in. An example that particularly caught my eye was a letter sent to several outlets by local community activist Doug Birch, which generated the comment above. In it, Doug opines that we should somehow display the hoard in Brownhills, and with it would come untold riches like a workable railway and restored canal. Now I’d love to share in this vision of a Saxon powered rebirth, I really would, but we have neither the money, the skill or the facilities to entertain the crowds that would surely flock to the attraction. The only way such a project could practically be funded would be to charge a huge entry fee – which could well alienate those who have already donated handsomely to the fund to keep the hoard as public commonwealth. Should we attract hordes to the hoard, they would surely have to drive, as public transport here is largely unworkable from any major route centre. The consequent increase in traffic and resultant gridlock would doubtlessly please the town residents, whose transport package involving a proposed bypass – slated to cut through the field where the discovery was made – has been abandoned by a penniless, inept council. When the intrepid treasure hunters have had their fill, where then? We have no decent shops, few decent bars and we are ill-equipped to deal with any kind of daytripper influx. In short, they’d come, visit the museum, and drive off. Just as they do for the miner – anyone with a camera about their person soon learns not to stand around in Brownhills for too long, the urge for free treasure runs deep among the yoot.
Walsall Council has neither the expertise, nor the cash, to do the Saxon gold justice. There’s a world of difference between art – as in the rightly prized Garman Ryan collection, and the kind of priceless relics we’re dealing with here. The security alone would be a major undertaking, let alone the cost of staff and materials to interpret the exhibits. I’d also feel some disquiet about trusting our financially embarrassed burghers with such valuable artefacts, perpetually worried that they may be swapped for a patch of land in Harden, or sold subject to PFI in a doomed Fujitsu deal. This placed me in the alien position of actually agreeing with Walsall Council leader Mike Bird – a state of affairs that resulted in having to take several showers, the dirty feeling still not quite having deserted me.
The only real solution is, I’m very much afraid, Birmingham. The city’s Museum and Art Gallery has vast experience with this kind of exhibition. There would be easy access for the public, and for academics with three universities in close proximity. Moreover, there is plenty for visitors to actually do in Birmingham.
Unfortunately, like those believing in spurious histories, I fear the delusions will continue for some time to come.