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Anglo-Saxon find reveals priests’ strange headgear

01 November 2019

Birmingham Museums Trust

Artefact from the Staffordshire hoard, believed to be from a Christian priest’s headdress

Artefact from the Staffordshire hoard, believed to be from a Christian priest’s headdress

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have, for the first time, tentatively identified what may well be the world’s oldest surviving episcopal headdress.

Dating from the mid-seventh century, the item of ecclesiastical vesture has potentially important implications for understanding how Anglo-Saxon and possibly other early-medieval Christians perceived their faith and the part that it played in the world.

The headdress bears no resemblance to later medieval or modern bishops’ mitres, and is, therefore, likely to trigger debate among historians about its stylistic origins. It looks similar in basic design to those headdresses believed by early-medieval clerics to have been worn by biblical Jewish high priests, and also resembles those headdresses worn by pagan Roman priests.

The gold and other elements that constitute the headdress are part of a large treasure hoard found in Staffordshire, which archaeologists from around Britain have been studying in detail for the past decade.

They believe that the probable headdress — made of beautifully crafted gold, inlaid with garnets and black and white glass — dates from the early to mid-seventh century.

The headdress was found together with several other high status items of Christian material and ceremonial ornaments — a 30cm-long solid-gold cross, a gold and garnet pectoral cross, a smaller gold cross (probably from a garment) — and part of a cross arm, probably from a large portable shrine, bearing an inscription from from the Book of Numbers: “Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.”

The inscription suggests that the shrine was used as a war talisman in early Anglo-Saxon England.

The spectacular ecclesiastical artefacts were buried together with scores of high-status gold sword and saddle fittings and a prestigious battle helmet.

The ecclesiastical treasures and secular/military items appear to have been treated in a potentially disrespectful way before they were buried. They had been broken and/or folded, and deliberately bent out of shape.

Given the probable mid-seventh-century date of the burial of the treasure, it is, therefore, possible that it was war booty captured by the pagan Mercian king Penda from armies led by Christians, such as the East Anglians.

The Christian and secular artefacts are described in full for the first time in The Staffordshire Hoard: An Anglo-Saxon treasure, a monograph published by the Society of Antiquaries today.

The treasure is on display in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, in Stoke-on-Trent.

The research into the Staffordshire Hoard has been funded by Historic England.

David Keys is the archaeology correspondent of The Independent.

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