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4 October 2011

A Blacksmith and the Hoard: My Internship in Conservation

Blacksmith Simon Doyle at work

Blacksmith Simon Doyle

My name is Simon Doyle, and I am a blacksmith.  I am privileged to have gained an internship placement with Birmingham Museum whilst studying on a Heritage Ironwork course with the National Heritage Ironwork Group.

Whilst the work here bears little relation to what I normally do as a Blacksmith, the ethics and principles of conservation are very important.  I am going to come across historical ironwork during my career.  Being able to understand the role of a conservator as well as being able to do the work myself will stand me in good stead when working alongside museums and other conservation societies in the future.


The first task as an Intern here at the museum was to clean and report findings on some sections of bone from the museum collection.

Section of bone being cleaned

First task: Clean and report findings on section of bone.

The team here showed me the various tools at their disposal, and trained me on their appropriate use.  I am normally wielding a 3 pound hammer and a pair of tongs stood in front of an anvil, so the adjustment to working with a thorn held in a pin vice and using a microscope was interesting, although the basic skill set remains much the same, both requiring precision, concentration and an eye for detail.

Simon Doyle using a microscope.

Simon Doyle at work in the conservation studio.

Once all the work had been done on the bones, and the reports all written, I was presented with a dried up piece of earth.  This was also a training exercise, but essential to ensure that the skills I have learnt on the bones are put into practice on a metal object.

Dried up earth

Second task: Training exercise in removing dirt.

The process of moving dirt grain by grain under the microscope then continued until my object, a humble looking (though doubtless of great historical significance) plug chain, was revealed!

Plug chain covered in dirt

Plug chain revealed as dirt is removed.

As well as the above mentioned work, I have been lucky enough to be involved with the taking down of a hoard exhibition at Tamworth Castle, and showing items of significance to some Saxon re-enactors and other VIP visitors.

The tools that I have used during the placement are worth mentioning, especially as many of them I had never encountered before.  As well as the already mentioned thorn in a pin vice, I have used:

  • Chemical Sponge – a sort of plastic sponge
  • Dental scrapers
  • Toothpicks and cotton wool – used to make my own tiny cotton swabs
  • Filtered water
  • IMS – Industrial Methylated Spirits – Basically alcohol.
  • Microscope – using it is a skill that I have had to quickly develop.
  • Photo Micrographs – a camera attached to a very powerful microscope, which allows the recording of tiny objects, as well as being able to measure them.

Work on Hoard object K446

Having carried out the training, I was finally presented with my own piece of the Hoard to work on; K446, a partially revealed, though severely damaged, sword hilt plate, seemingly of gold.  Initial measurements, photographs and a pre-inspection report were prepared, and checked with my colleagues.  Removal of the dirt begins with the picking off of the larger grains using the thorn.  As I got nearer to the surface, a tiny swab with only the smallest amount of IMS was used to remove the dirt using the lightest and most delicate of touches.  Each grain of dirt seems to reveal something new or interesting about the item, and it is not hard to get carried away making fanciful stories in your head about how the item wound up in the condition it is in, and what each mark and scratch on the surface might mean.

Sword Hilt Plate covered in dirt

K446 Sword Hilt Plate

The assessment of this piece is ongoing, and once the item has been fully revealed through conservation cleaning and documented, it will enter into the museums database.  It is a sobering thought that a 7th century sword hilt place made from gold is the piece I have been allowed to work on.  The fact that I am allowed to work on something so incredibly valuable and of such historical importance, has given me an amazing experience to remember and learn from.  I have particularly enjoyed looking at the items from a metalworker’s perspective, seeing how the craftsmen would have worked and shaped the metal to create the objects.  Many of the skills are the same for the stubborn and obstinate material I use regularly as for soft and malleable gold, and a real sense of connection to the craftsmen that made these items is the biggest reward I will take from this experience.

Simon Doyle, Blacksmith.

What a fascinating experience you describe working as a conservator. My interest as an engineer is how parts were made in the 7th century and what tools were used. Often broken items reveal much more than what pristine ones can by showing; internal structure from edge damage and how features especially corners were formed, exposed internal tooling marks and transition finishes.

Were you able to identify differences between original manufacturing marks and worn surfaces? Were the edges filed, cut with saws or chisel finished, then polished. Were there any marking out scratches left on what would be unseen surfaces.

Was the item solid gold or gilded. Are there any developments on analysis of the material chemical composition?

What was your perception of the manufacturing quality of the sword hilt plate, plenty of care and attention-to-detail or a commercial job?

Where will I find images of the restored sword hilt plate, K446.