The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest ever find of gold (c. 5kg) and silver (c. 1.5kg) metalwork from the early Anglo-Saxon period. It was discovered in 2009, near Hammerwich, north of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. NiC has been following the progress of this project (NiC Issue 38 October 2013) and this is an update from the team working on the collection.
The collection comprises many hundreds of objects, mostly relating to war gear, and is composed of approximately 3900 fragments. The objects date from the 6th to 7th centuries A.D. and the majority are fittings which have been stripped from the hilts (i.e. handles) of swords or large fighting knives, but there are also fragments from at least one helmet, and a small but significant collection of Christian objects, including a pectoral cross and a large gold cross possibly from a processional standard.
There is clear evidence that the items were broken or damaged before burial and many of the fragments appear to have been forcedly removed from their original mount. This act of destruction is challenging for conservation since the 3900 fragments are estimated to come from only 500–700 objects. After cleaning, the conservation team are now concentrating on physically re-joining the fragments together, just like a giant jigsaw puzzle, revealing the artefacts in their original form.
Historic England, has given £400,000 to help reveal the secrets of the Hoard and increase public understanding of this unique archaeological treasure. The owners of the Hoard, Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils, and Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery who care for it on their behalf, have also contributed towards the research. The research is being managed by Barbican Research Associates and builds on previous research by teams around the country, also funded by Historic England. While work continues apace, there is more that needs to be done.
A large majority of the objects are on permanent display across four different sites in Birmingham and Staffordshire (Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke on Trent, Lichfield Cathedral, Tamworth Castle and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery). These exhibitions display the conservation and research work as an integral part of the interpretation of the Hoard.
Working in collaboration with the conservation team is Chris Fern, the project’s Lead Archaeologist. He is producing the catalogue of the material and undertaking its typological and art-historical study. As part of this he aids the team in the identification of the material, by identifying sets of fragments and by matching join edges.
Grouped fragments are being re-joined where possible in order to better understand the collection. Given the extent of deterioration for some fragments, the break edges are typically assessed under magnification to ensure that joins are true to the original construction. Some of the objects now recognised in the assemblage, are types previously unseen from the period.
The conservators are working through each of the object types systematically. The weapon fittings include pommels from the ends of weapon hilts (swords and fighting knives), as well as hilt-plates from the weapon guards, and other collars and mounts from the grips. The conservation work has been integrated from the beginning of the research programme, with an on-going dialogue between the Lead Archaeologist and Scientists investigating the metal alloys and organics. This collaboration has enabled the work to progress very efficiently and accurately.
For example, the use of X-Ray Fluorescence has assisted in identifying associations between some silver fragments with similar black niello inlay (black silver/copper sulfide), and has also proved helpful to the grouping of the many hundreds of fragments from at least one helmet.
Re-joining fragments is obviously crucial for a fuller understanding of the collection. The pommel illustrated in Figures 1 and 2 is a good example of this. It was rebuilt from 15 fragments and was initially unrecognized due to its fragmented form. Its condition may in part be due to its crude removal prior to its burial in the hoard, though further breakage may have occurred due to the embrittlement of the silver casting whilst in the ground. The archaeological line drawing serves as a further aid to understanding the object’s original form.
The pommel is of a form not previously seen in the period. Its two distinctive humps on each shoulder are known as ‘sword-rings’ (they are in fact skeuomorphs of actual rings seen on earlier pommels). The act of adding rings to sword hilts symbolised the bond of fealty between a warrior and his lord, but the placing of two rings on a pommel has no parallel outside the hoard, and it is unclear currently what it meant. The pommel is important also for its unusual decoration. One side has cast and gilded interlace. The other has three panels in gold with tiny scrolls added in filigree (fine gold wire). The two smaller side panels are eye-shaped and the central larger panel also suggests an eye, especially with its ‘pupil’ in the form of a quartz stone. It dates to around the mid -7th century.
Using the grouping lists and illustrations, associated fragments were located and brought together to be re-joined in the conservation studio. An important part of the process involved a final examination of the fragments under the microscope in order to confirm joining sections. The fragments were re-joined using 20-40% Paraloid B-72 w/v in Acetone applied with a fine paintbrush. The distorted nature of many of the objects has meant that bespoke supports were required to hold the pieces in position whilst the adhesive cured. Many of the fragments were extremely thin, with the metal sometimes less than 1mm in thickness. In these cases the use of Paraloid B-72 alone was insufficient, and further support was required using small pieces of polyester webbing material as backing support (Figure 3). These were adhered to the reverse using 20-30% Paraloid B-72 w/v in Acetone.
The newly joined fragments were then re-boxed together in storage boxes with carved Plastazote inserts to provide support and cushioning. All of the contextual information from the original storage boxes was transferred onto the new box, as well as into the treatment report, to ensure there was no loss of information at this stage. Many sets of objects are represented in the collection, and these have been re-housed together to ensure they are kept together for future study.
Display and final considerations
Another reason for joining fragments is to prepare them for display. Some of the objects could be re-joined as described above and then be displayed without further support on Perspex blocks or padded brass mounts. Other objects, however, were not structurally stable enough after reconstruction to be securely displayed this way. An example of this is a silver mount with gilded edges and black niello decoration. It is incomplete but may represent part of a stylised fish or perhaps a dragon-like creature. The silver of the mount is thin, especially where the incised channels for the niello inlay have been cut deep into the metal. Even with backing tissue these repaired joins were not strong enough to support the object’s combined weight. It has also been considerably distorted, making it impossible to entirely re-join. To allow the shape and original function of the object to be visible to the visitor, a solution had to be found.
The object was therefore re-joined, into several individual sections and then displayed on a mount cut from Plastazote, which fully supports each portion, following the curve and distortion of the sections.
As demonstrated, much progress has been made towards unravelling the secrets of the hoard objects. This has been made possible largely due to the close collaboration between conservators, archaeologists and scientists on this project. . We have had incredible support from all those who have already donated, but we still need to raise £100,000 to complete the original aims of the project.
So if you are feeling generous and would like to donate please visit us at:
Regular updates from the conservation and research team can be found via our Facebook page and at http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/
Chris Fern is the Lead Archaeologist and Pieta Greaves is the Conservation Coordinator for the Staffordshire Hoard Project. Lizzie and Kayleigh are both object conservators working on Phase II of the project, and Rachel is a final year UCL Masters student who has been working on the hoard during her placement with Birmingham Museums Trust.