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Book review: ‘Lost Gold of the Dark Ages’

Metal-detecting has been a hobby for Terry Herbert for many years, but when he swung his detector over a patch of dirt in a farmer’s field in the English Midlands in 2009, his hobby opened the door on a distant age.

As Caroline Alexander relates in “Lost Gold of the Dark Ages: War, Treasure, and the Mystery of the Saxons,” Herbert had stumbled upon an Anglo-Saxon hoard: In fact, there have been many such caches of buried treasure discovered all over the country. “England’s soil is dense with history,” Alexander writes, and “today droves of treasure-seekers … tramp the fields every year.…"

Herbert’s detector wouldn’t stop beeping: He kept digging up glittering hunks of metal. When he went to show farmer Fred Johnson what he had found in the field, he was carrying “twisted gold sword fittings, pommels, and garnet-set strips, still covered in earth” in his hands.

It was just the beginning. Herbert, along with the local authorities, unearthed a staggering amount of material now known officially as the Staffordshire Hoard. By English law, all treasures older than 300 years and containing more than 10% gold or silver belong to the Crown, but Herbert and Johnson did split a nice finder’s fee amounting to about $5 million once the hoard’s total value had been assessed.

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“Consisting of some 3,500 pieces from hundreds of individual objects that filled 244 bags, the Staffordshire Hoard was remarkable not only for what was in it, but also for what was not,” writes Alexander. “There were no domestic or feminine objects; almost everything that could be identified was military in character.”

Perhaps the hoard had belonged to a cohort of warriors? Perhaps it had been used as a ransom to buy off a battle lord? Such hoards, this book shows, are hardly unusual, and in the case of the Staffordshire one, it “may have been buried for reasons of secrecy, safety, or simply storage, and then abandoned.”

In the 600s, when the hoard was presumably buried, Anglo-Saxon Britain was divided — like the continent Westeros in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy saga — into seven kingdoms constantly at war. Johnson’s field, in the heart of what was Mercia, had once been an unused wood, and the hoard rested undisturbed. Unfortunately, as Alexander writes, in the land being turned into a working farm field, plowing and erosion “churned the hoard … the archaeological context for the hoard, then, had long been destroyed…"

With the recent death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, everyone is rightly speaking about the genius of his designs (of course, the praise is deserved). When I open this book, however, the people that impress me slightly more are those anonymous artisans that created jeweled fittings to decorate a sword hilt or the intricate designs on a cheek panel that hung down from a helmet to protect a warrior’s face (the helmet’s missing from the hoard). The images presented in this book are gorgeous. And stunning.

“Lost Gold of the Dark Ages,” a companion text to a recent documentary on the National Geographic Channel, serves as a pleasing introduction for lay readers to a fascinating, murky topic. It’s also an encouraging reminder that the deep past isn’t entirely lost to us; answers are still out there; in some cases, they’re literally under our feet.

nick.owchar@latimes.com


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