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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.