The Typochronology of Sword Pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard

Svante Fischer and Jean Soulat (Musée d'Archéologie Nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye)

This paper consists of two parts. First, Svante Fischer will discuss the question of correlating typology and chronology into typochronology. Second, Jean Soulat will discuss the typology of the Staffordshire pommels and offer a preliminary date for the hoard. The authors are of the opinion that the sword pommels of the Staffordshire date from the early 6th century to the early 8th century.

The paper has been financed by the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities (KVHAA).


Typology and Chronology do not equate or coalesce into typochronology. Why is this? Human agency in time and space prevents material culture from manifesting itself in a linear progression within different archaeological contexts. A case in point is a stray find of a Late Roman solidus struck in Trier for emperor Valentinian II (388-392), fitted into a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon garnet pendant which was found at Forsbrook, Staffordshire, now in the British Museum. There were at least 200 years from the minting of the coin to its final deposition. There is a similar parallel with a 5th-century solidus in the cremation grave of Ottarshögen, Uppland (Fischer 2008). To further illustrate this problem, we have chosen seven types of Swedish pommel contexts (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Seven types of Swedish pommel contexts

The chronology of these seven types of contexts is always different, regardless of the typological parallels between or the hierarchical structures behind them. As has been shown recently by Herschend and Possnert (forthcoming), the most accurate chronology for inhumations is not that of typochronology but rather of organic remains, especially animals slaughtered just before the burial. This argument can be illustrated easily with a reconstruction of the Ultuna boat-grave. The best chronological precision is to be found in the skeletal remains of the animals at the prow of the boat; the core of the boat, by contrast, is a typological construction, consisting of an assembly of objects that together create an ambience in time and space for the buried individual. This may prove to be very misleading.

Fig. 2: Carbon-dating of cattle bones from Valsgärde, SwedenThe new C14 study by Herschend and Possnert (forthcoming) changes everything regarding the earliest boat-grave phase at Valsgärde. In this study, four different samples were taken from cows deposited at the prows of Valsgärde 5 and 7, with six samples from the equivalent bone of a cow next to the prow in Valsgärde 8 (Fig. 2). The C14 dates have been calibrated with two Σ intervals. The results show that the past concept of a typochronological sequence of 'reference graves' from the Vendel Period, based on the similarity of Style II ornamentation etc, is completely misleading. Needless to say, this also throws serious doubt on the typochronology in the boat-grave cemeteries of Vendel and Tuna i Alsike. This fact should cause adherents of traditional typochronology to reconsider the tenets of their archaeological theory and method. 'Reference graves' are deceptive typochronological constructions.

Nevertheless, the relative wear of sword pommels, as they are found in sword-part combinations, can tell us something about the circulation of objects. Sword parts are interpreted in a hierarchical order. Certain subordinate parts (e.g. pommels) are subject to change to accomodate more important parts (e.g. rings). But this does not have to be a linear progression in terms of typochronology. This enables an initial dichotomy of pommel contexts into two categories, types and A and B sword-part compositions.

As sword parts are interchangeable, two categories fall into place:

A) those which are intentionally kept as showcases of a given typochronology that may be reactivated later. An example is the Ultuna sword (Fig. 3). All main parts are intact, and the symmetric composition in Style II C has never been disassembled.

B) those which develop, even if it may be in a retroactive typology. An example is the sword from the Snösbäck ritual deposit (Fig. 4, above), where the pommel has been cut down to fit a ring that was then removed again. Similarly, the sword from the Vallstenarum inhumation has garnet-work which has been removed to accomodate ring type 3 (Fig. 4, below).

Fig. 3: Category A pommelsFig. 4: Category B pommels

Runic inscriptions on sword pommels

The IRF-project has shown that it is rarely possible to distinguish between the continental Germanic Futhark and the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. Runic inscriptions on sword pommels are so far not indicative of any particular Germanic ethnicity, with the possible exception of Fréthun, grave 65 (Fischer et al. 2008). The runes are clearly of mid-level rank in the pommel hierarchy and thus differ greatly in chronology (Fig. 5):

A) Carved early on, only to become effaced and replaced with niello ornaments (e.g. Saint Dizier, grave 11).
B) Carved very recently before deposit on very old pommel (e.g. Faversham, pommel 4).
C) Re-carving of runes for a period of time before deposit (e.g. Gilton, Ash, pommel 4).

Fig. 5: runic sword pommels


After the introduction to various Swedish pommel contexts and their implications for chronology and typology, the focus will shift to the sword pommels of the Staffordshire hoard. There are three major recent studies on Early Anglo-Saxon sword pommels. First, there is V. I. Evison's 1967 English study on ring-swords. Then there is the larger German study by W. Menghin (1983) with some 151 swords from the entire Continent. Finally, Fischer et al. (2008) is a French update of Evison (1967), listing some 42 sword pommels, with a focus on the Bifrons-Gilton type and runic inscriptions. Its is abundantly clear that the sword pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard will cause all three works to undergo serious revision both in terms of typology and chronology.

Some 86 sword pommels have so far been identified in the Staffordshire Hoard. These fall into four main groups:

A) 5 copper-alloy pommels
B) 13 silver pommels
C) 17 gold pommels with garnet cloisonné
D) 47 gold pommels with interlace ornament

Note: a list of pommels and selected photos were kindly supplied to us by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The observations below are necessarily provisional and subject to change upon further study of the pommels.

Group A

Group A are of copper alloy (Fig. 6). Two of the five copper-alloy pommels could be identified among the pictures available to us.

Fig. 6: two copper-alloy sword pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard

The first (StH 294) is of a previously unknown elongated type with a zoomorphic garnet decoration. There is interlace ornament on the sides. At first glance the pommel appears to be of a late date, having been manufactured in the second half of the 7th century. The second (StH 711) is also exceptional, but in a traditional shape. Its ornamentation is of considerable interest, with two boars on one side and a bearded man on the other. The top has interlace ornament, akin to that on the pommel from Schretzheim, grave 366. The boar is a current motif in Anglo-Saxon art, as is the male mask, seen on brooches and the Sutton Hoo sceptre. This pommel probably dates to the late second half of the 6th century.

Group B

Group B pommels are of silver (Fig. 7). Here we have identified more examples, including a relatively high number of fragments.

Fig. 7: Silver sword pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard

It would appear that the silver pommels are of a very early date. This is especially evident in the cases of pommels StH 559 and StH 286 (Fig. 8). Fig. 8: Silver pommels StH 286 and StH 559

StH 559 is of the Bifrons-Gilton type in its simpler shape. It is likely to have had a sword ring, and is arguably the oldest piece in the entire Staffordshire Hoard; it may date as early as 520/530 AD. The second pommel to be discussed, StH 286, is gilded with a more detailed ornamentation on the borders. There is a triangular garnet in the centre of one side. Pommel StH 294 (above) also has one side ornamented with a garnet, but there the garnet is circular and more reminiscent of the sword pommel from Sarre, grave 104. It appears most likely that the garnet triangle is a late addition to the pommel StH 286, which dates to the second third of the 6th century.

Group C

Group C is that of gold pommels with garnet cloisonné (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9: Gold and garnet sword pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard

There are 17 pommels of this type, with is a variety of forms associated with different types of ornamentation. Some pommels are of previously unknown types, such as pommels StH 376, StH 680 and StH 1228. Pommel StH 680 is a mixed-type pommel with one side in cloisonné and the other with filigree interlace ornament. StH 376 is approximately 3 cm long with a tube at its centre (Fig. 10), and zig-zag divisions reminiscent of Sarre, grave 104 and Skrävsta, grave 53 (Fig. 11).

Fig. 10: pommel StH 376

The majority of the cloisonné-decorated pommels display a garnet type in the shape of a mushroom (Fig.12).

Fig. 12: mushroom cells on sword pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard

Pommel StH 352 is interesting (despite a poor photo) as it sports a cloisonné frieze around a field of interlace ornament; it resembles the sword pommel from Valsgärde, grave 5. For more on the cloisonné garnet patterns and techniques, see Noel Adams's paper.

Fig. 13: sword pommel StH 352Fig. 14: sword pommel from Valsgärde, grave 5

Fig. 15: comparable garnet-inlaid sword pommels

The closest parallels to the Group C pommels are located in Sweden, notably Skrävsta, Sturkö and Hög Edsten (Fig. 15), but also Krefeld-Gellep 1782 in Merovingian Gaul and Sutton Hoo Mound 1. The approximate date for these pommels is from the mid- 6th century to the mid- 7th century.

Group D

The fourth type, group D, consists of gold sword pommels with filigree interlace ornament. These are by far the most frequent pommels in the hoard, with a total of 47 examples (Fig. 16). There is a wide variety of interlace ornament types. One may note the beaded type (e.g. StH 558), sometimes adorned with small circles (StH 686 and StH 1278). Some have a more elaborate interlace (more or less dense), while others have a central field (StH 554 and StH 666). Others, like StH 669, display sides separated by ornaments or fields in relief, linear or circular (StH 1278). The forms are equally variable; there are pommels with a long flat profile, and those with short but tall profiles.For more on the filigree patterns and techniques, see Niamh Whitfield's paper.

Fig. 16: gold sword pommels with interlace

In particular, there is important wear on the beaded interlace. This suggests that the pommels have been transferred between different sword compositions, as is the case with Bifrons-Gilton type pommels, evident in the stratigraphy of runic inscriptions, niello decoration, etc.

The D group has a long chronology and maybe dated anywhere from the second half of the 6th century to the early 8th century. The best parallels are found in east-central England (Fig. 17), notably Lincolnshire, with the Wellingore and Market Rasen pommels, and in East Yorkshire with the Aldbrough pommel. Finally, let us note the Ardleigh pommel from Essex was found in a fragmented state, very much like the pommels in Staffordshire. On the continent, there is one pommel of this type in gold on distant Åland amidst the East Scandinavian archipelago, whereas Schretzheim graves 79 and 187 and Beckum grave 103 are silver pommels.

Fig. 17: sword pommels with interlace decoration comparable to those from the Staffordshire Hoard


This paper argues that the 86 pommels of the Staffordshire hoard completely reify the study of sword pommels as a scientific discourse. So many sword pommels have never before been found in one single context; in Sweden, Uppåkra has delievered 29 pommels over a huge surface, and the Snösbäck ritual deposit has so far yielded five pommels. Most of the known pommel types are associated with sword rings, notably Bifrons-Gilton type pommels, or the Swedish examples from Valsgärde and Snösbäck. One single sword ring in silver with a side decoration has been found in the Staffordshire Hoard (StH 543; Fig. 18). This suggests that sword rings have been recast. The previous distribution pattern of sword pommels has produced two zones, one centered on the English Channel, the other in Scandinavia. However, this new discovery will change this pattern.

Fig. 18: sword-ring with side decoration, StH 543

The chronology of the pommels in the Staffordshire hoard starts at approximately 520/530 with pommel StH 559 of Bifrons-Gilton type, and ends at the onset of the early 8th century with the type D pommel StH 358 (Fig. 19), which appears to be a of a very late date.

Fig. 19: sword pommel StH 358

We can thus confirm that the sword pommels found in the hoard display a multifaceted horizon in terms of typology and chronology. Moreover, many of the older pommels are likely to have found re-employment within eclectic sword compositions of a later date. From the Swedish examples discussed in part 1 of this paper, we have seen the limits of typochronology. The future study of the Staffordshire Hoard sword pommels will be a difficult task, as many pommel types are unprecedented. Still, as a ballpark idea on the hoard's impressive longevity, we would like to offer a date of manufacture of its sword pommels from the second third of the 6th century to the early 8th century.

  • Evison, V., 1967. 'The Dover ring-sword and other sword-rings and beads' Archaeologia 101, 63-118.
  • Fischer, S., 2008. 'The Udovice solidus pendants - late 5th century evidence of south Scandinavian mercenaries in the Balkans' Fornvännen 103, 81-88.
  • Fischer, S., Soulat, J., Fischer, L.,Truc, M.-C., Lémant, J.-P., and Victor, H., Les Seigneurs des Anneaux (Bulletin de liaison de l'Association française d'Archéologie mérovingienne, hors série no 2, inscriptions runiques de France, Tome I; deuxième édition corrigée et revue, Condé-sur-Noireau).
  • Herschend and Possnert (forthcoming)
  • Menghin, W., 1983.Das Schwert im frühen Mittelalter (Theiss, Stuttgart)

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