Destination: Washington, D.C.
by Elaine Jean
Special to the Times
It’s a good day to die. At least that’s the feeling that sweeps over visitors to Anglo-Saxon Hoard, the exhibit of medieval artifacts making its only stop in the United States at the National Geographic Museum’s Explorers Hall in Washington, D.C.
Warriors in chain mail and helmets do battle on screens that surround the entryway, setting a stage for the fantastic treasure that awaits. Quotes from the epic poem “Beowulf” adorn the walls, speaking of ancient gold and garnered jewels and the dazzling spoils of war. Suddenly it’s all very real, and it’s right there in front of you.
Two years ago, when hobbyist Terry Herbert set out to explore Fred Johnson’s Staffordshire farm in England with nothing more than a metal detector, a hunch and a prayer — “Spirits of the yesteryears, take me where the gold appears” — he surely could not have predicted the course of events that soon would follow.
The stash he found on July 5, 2009, was dubbed the Staffordshire Hoard, and is the largest uncovered to date, with over 3,500 individual pieces —the fragments of helmets and the hilt plates, pommel caps, collars and mounts of swords —valued at just under $5.3 million. Although most of it is military in nature, a few religious artifacts reveal that these guys might have been preparing to meet their maker.
Buried sometime in the late 7th century AD in what was once Mercia — the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fighting for power and land in post-Roman Britain the items are mangled, bent and torn asunder. There is much speculation as to what the hoard represents, and why it was found in this condition.
The brief film “Lost Gold of the Dark Ages” is shown every 20 minutes starting at the top of the hour, putting the discovery into historical context and explaining its significance, as well as the mystery surrounding it. Were the pieces defaced and buried as part of a pagan ritual? Were they stolen by medieval marauders and stashed in the field to pick up later? Or were they the spoils of war, akin to the treasures that Beowulf sought?
Lethal times called for lethal weapons, and that is what you’ll see in this exhibit. Elevated and lighted displays bring you about as close to the 7th century as you’ll probably ever want to get. The cache of gold, silver and garnet objects is extraordinary in detail and quality, with filigree and cloisonné made by master craftsmen of the day.
Don’t miss the folded cross — one of only three religious artifacts in the hoard. It may once have topped a processional cross or a Bible cover and contained a large garnet or other gemstone. Now it is the centerpiece of an exhibit that might best be referred to as mind-blowing.
A replica helmet is on display to show how recovered bits and pieces may have come together. Since only four authentic and intact helmets are known to exist from the Anglo-Saxon period, even these broken shards are significant.
The exhibit offers an opportunity to learn about the daily life, clothing, culture and food of the Dark Ages, and features plenty of activities for kids. Searching for hidden items in a dig pit with a metal detector illustrates that this hobby requires a good measure of patience. And lifting a sword and shield tells us it took muscle, too.
Family activity backpacks are on loan at the front desk for an enhanced educational experience. A daily drop-in project allows kids to build their own helmets at 2 p.m., and weekend workshops on topics ranging from culinary arts to calligraphy are offered at 1 p.m. (advance registration required).
Terry Herbert’s find will probably become the greatest archaeological discovery of the 21st century. It has been carefully examined and researched for the past two years in an effort to better understand the warfare, religion and craftsmanship of the Dark Ages, perhaps yielding more questions than answers.
Anglo-Saxon Hoard is on exhibit from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily until March 4, when it will be returned to its owners, the Birmingham Museum and Arts Gallery and the Pottery Museum and Arts Gallery in Stoke-on-Kent.
Elephant and Castle Pub and Restaurant
Bang on! That’s British slang for excellent. Exact. Right on.
The Elephant and Castle (http://www.elephantcastle.com/dc_eye), at the corner of 19th and “Eye” streets, within walking distance of Explorers Hall, is bang on for a bite to eat after visiting Anglo-Saxon Hoard. The restaurant offers a comfy setting, fire in the fireplace and food that’s out to prove Brits can cook.
This is comfort food from the other side of the pond. Roast beef stuffed Yorkshire pudding, chicken pot pie, fish and chips, bangers and mash and the ploughman’s platter make up the backbone of a classic pub menu, promising stick-to-your-ribs-on-a-cold-winter-day goodness.
Jameson’s chicken is pan sautéed in whisky cream sauce and served with green beans and garlic mash. Soups, salads and sandwiches round out the menu, and weekend brunch features the Great British Breakfast, as well as $4 mimosas and Bloody Marys.
If you have room, order the Bailey’s Cheesecake, Highland Bread Pudding or Big Ben Brownie. It’s a good day to … eat.
Elaine Jean is a writer with an incurable case of wanderlust. She and husband/photographer Paul are roaming the planet, starting in the mid-Atlantic region. Learn more about this and other day trips at www.roamingtheplanet.com.