As I sit on the commuter train back to London, packed with businessmen and women and high school children, I grin to myself a little as I know something they don’t. I have just spent a week in their city, Stoke-on-Trent, working on what may be considered some of the best archaeological gold and silver Anglo-Saxon artefacts the world has ever seen.
My name is Natalie Harding and I am a conservator working on the Staffordshire Hoard. Usually based at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, I have been brought across to Stoke-on-Trent to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to begin the task of cleaning and conserving their part of the Staffordshire Hoard artefacts. The top 100 objects are currently on display at the Potteries Museum, and although housed in a bespoke exhibition space, the objects on display needed some conservation.
For far too long these objects have been kept under their safety wrapper; concealed within their original burial soil, each like an individual package waiting to be discovered. What secrets may lie beneath? I thought as I was lead through the Hoard gallery and asked which pieces I would like to work on first. It was like asking a child in a sweet shop what candy they would like to try first! How can you decide?!?!? So I did as any child would – I went for the biggest, shiniest and best looking! This is not so easy when these pieces are covered in soil (and much less satisfying to the taste buds). However I managed to pick some beauties!
I am relatively new to the Hoard conservation project, so I am still genuinely excited about all the objects that I get to work on and I am trying to work on as many as possible!!
One of the pieces I found most interesting was a gold pommel cap elaborately decorated on all sides with cut garnets recessed into their own individual cells, (images 1 and 2).
The garnets were cut and arranged in an interesting way, with an arrow head pattern surrounded by a semicircle of gold on one side panel (image 3) and the other panel decorated with a pattern of alternating arrow and mushroom shaped cut garnets (image 4).
The fact that this piece was decorated all over, even on the sides of the shoulders, (image 5) suggests that this was made by a very skilled craftsman. What really made this piece special for me was that a specific method of construction could be seen. The rivet shoulder fittings (where the rivets would have passed through the pommel to hold the cap onto the sword, (image 6) were mechanically joined to the piece rather than soldered on, which is what has been seen previously.
To my knowledge this form of construction has not been seen before which makes this a new and exciting find! Small curved over ‘tabs’ were found when looking at the underside of the piece (image 7 and 8). These ‘tabs’ pass through holes in the main pommel piece and hook over, tightly securing the side rivet fittings in place. This is such a straight forward mechanical join and a simple solution to attaching one piece to another. With complicated pieces such as this with the high level of decoration and intricacy of the cut garnets, the simpler features can sometimes get overlooked. This simple solution has to be admired and suggests that the Anglo-Saxons were not only highly skilled but were good problem-solvers too!
While I was working away at my little technical find, my colleague uncovered a ‘timely kiss’. For St. Valentine’s Day, a gold filigree piece was fully cleaned and uncovered the silhouette of a love heart formed by the silhouette of two bird-like figures touching their beaks, (image 9). Much to the curators delight of this appropriately timed find, the press was informed and I found myself giving my first ever radio interview – eeek! St Valentines evening I found myself excitedly yelling at the television when I saw it being presented on the local news, it even made it to the Times website!
All the excitement aside, one thing that humbled me the most was the unwavering interest and enthusiasm shown by the Staffordshire Hoard volunteers at the Potteries Museum. They willingly dedicate their time and energy to present, explain and discuss the artefacts of the Hoard to the visiting public and are essentially the first point of contact for the Hoard. Over the course of the week, we had a stream of visits from the very interested and enthusiastic volunteers. We agreed and encouraged that this was the perfect time for the volunteers to get up close with the hoard objects and for us as conservators to explain our finds and our own curiosities with pieces. This benefited both parties as they shared information about the Hoard (which impressively, is in some cases more than we know ourselves!) and as conservators we were able to share our own findings and theories and we able to show them under the microscope those small details that fascinate, like construction layout lines, or the gold foil backings of the garnets.
I found this eagerness and passion for the project to be one of the most rewarding and valuable experiences and it reminded me why this project is so important; it is capturing everyone’s imagination and getting everyone involved.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time working at the Potteries Museum, the staff were friendly, helpful and the enthusiastic volunteers engaging. My week experience here, although short, made me realise that I am involved with something very special and that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
I hope to be back at the Potteries Museum in March to continue our programme of cleaning and conserving to enable these very important and brilliant looking pieces to go back on display for all the public to enjoy! Do make a special trip to the Potteries Museum to see these pieces in their new un-earthed state!
Staffordshire Hoard Conservator (English Heritage funded 3 month post)