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19 July 2013

Conservation documentation for the Staffordshire Hoard

In addition to cleaning and stabilising hoard objects, an important part of the conservation process is producing accurate and thorough documentation of the objects and the conservation treatments applied to them. Thorough photographic and written documentation of objects is useful to researchers, and because of the many hours spent examining objects under the microscope, the conservator is often the person who is most familiar with every small detail of an object (Figure 1). Tiny details that might be missed in a less thorough examination can reveal useful information such as materials present (inlays, solder, organic material, etc), evidence of how the object was made or evidence of use (worn areas, dents, cuts etc), and it is important that this information be made accessible to others.

Cym Storey conserving a hoard object

Figure 1. Cym Storey conserving a hoard object.

It is also important for future conservators to be able to look back at past photographs and reports to determine how the condition of an object has changed over time and what treatments were applied to an object, as this information can constrain or guide future conservation treatment options for the object. In addition, it is important to document conservation treatments because materials used during conservation (e.g., adhesives) can interfere with or affect results of scientific analysis of the objects.

Conservation documentation for the hoard consists primarily of digital photographs and photomicrographs (i.e., photographs taken through a microscope) and written reports; in some cases hand-drawn sketches are made and scanned electronically. In this blog post I will take you through the process of conservation documentation for the hoard.

Before conservation

When first presented with an object I examine it carefully to ensure that it can be removed from its packaging safely and handled in its current state. Doing this gives me an overall first impression of the condition of the object but also alerts me to any features that make the object particularly vulnerable such as loose or protruding wires, loose garnets, lifting gilding or crumbling niello.

The next step is to take ‘before’ photographs of all sides of the object using a digital camera, including a scale in the image (Figure 2).

Before photo of hilt collar K281

Figure 2. Before photo of hilt collar K281.

The object is then examined under the microscope and photomicrographs are taken to document features too small to be captured in the overall image (Figure 3).

Photomicrograph at 50x magnification of damaged filigree wire on K281

Figure 3. Photomicrograph at 50x magnification of damaged filigree wire on K281. Note that a square, plain core wire can be seen with a beaded wire wrapped around it. This kind of detail is too small to appear in regular photographs and is useful information for researchers.

While examining the object under the microscope I write a description and condition assessment of the object in my daybook and make a brief sketch of it. The goal is not to produce a photorealistic drawing but rather a working sketch to note key features (Figure 4).The daybook is for my own use, but the information is later transferred into a formal written report. The report must be succinct and written in clear language so that anyone who reads it – not only conservators – can understand it.

Scan of Cym’s daybook with condition assessment notes

Figure 4. Scan of Cym’s daybook with condition assessment notes for K94. This information is later added to a formal condition report for the object.

In some cases, particularly when an object has been severely damaged, a sketch can really help make sense of the object. Consider the gold fish/eagle plate K652 (Figure 5). The object, which is torn, twisted and bent, looks like this:

Gold eagle/fish plate K652

Figure 5. Gold eagle/fish plate K652.

By cutting and pasting printouts of photos of the object and filling in gaps with a hand-drawn sketch, my colleague Deborah Magnoler was able to demonstrate what the object looked like before it was damaged (Figure 6):

Deborah’s reconstruction of eagle/fish plate K652

Figure 6. Deborah’s reconstruction of K652.

This image, along with measurements, was used to create a plastic replica of the plate (Figure 7):

Plastic replica of eagle/fish plate K652

Figure 7. Plastic replica of eagle/fish plate K652.

During conservation

At this point conservation of the object begins. If the treatment is complex I will take ‘during conservation’ photos periodically to document my progress (Figures 8a-f).

A series of during-conservation photographs of hilt collar K369

Figures 8a-f: A series of during-conservation photographs of the excavation of the interior of hilt collar K369. Note the corrosion products and foreign objects embedded in the soil.

After conservation

After conservation, photos and photomicrographs are taken again to document the ‘after conservation’ condition of the object (Figure 9).

After-conservation photograph of hilt collar K281

Figure 9. After-conservation photograph of hilt collar K281.

Finally, the images and reports are archived on the computer and the reports are added to the museum’s electronic database, Minisis (Figure 10).

Screenshot of the museum’s electronic database

Figure 10. Screenshot of conservation report in the museum’s electronic database, Minisis.

Objects going on loan require additional documentation such as a pictorial condition report and a document outlining the environmental conditions appropriate for the object. All images and reports are backed up regularly to avoid loss of data and ensure that the information can be accessed in the future.

Cymbeline Storey

Staffordshire Hoard Conservator
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery