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25 April 2013

Filigree patterns in the Staffordshire Hoard

Conservation of objects for the research programme is well underway and the hoard conservation team has been busy conserving a number of objects for the research team to study.

A number of objects decorated with filigree wire have been conserved recently. Many different styles and patterns have been uncovered – too many to cover comprehensively here – but I would like to share with our blog readers just a few of the remarkable objects we have conserved in recent months. Time and time again the conservation team has been impressed by the variety of patterns observed as well as the outstanding artistry and craftsmanship required to make these objects. Many of the objects shown here have not been seen by the public before. Prepare yourselves!

What is filigree?

Filigree is essentially wires soldered to the surface of objects for decorative effect. The most common types of wire are beaded wires (so called because they have a series of bumps that resemble a string of beads) and round twisted wires, though less commonly we have seen flat twisted wires and beaded wires that have been twisted around a core wire. For a more in-depth discussion of wirework in the hoard see Jamie Hall’s blog.

Before conservation begins x-radiographs of objects can be useful to identify types of filigree wire used. In Figure 1, for example, you can see the beaded and twisted wires quite clearly. However, because the x-radiograph shows the filigree on both sides of the object in the same image it is difficult to decipher the design. To do this it is necessary to remove soil from the surface.

Figure 1. X-radiograph of pommel cap K554.

Figure 1. X-radiograph of pommel cap K554. Note the beaded filigree (centre) and twisted filigree (ends). It is difficult to interpret the design because both sides of the object show up on the same image.

Most of the objects decorated with filigree are made of gold, but a few are made of silver. A rare example of a silver filigree pommel cap is K306 (Figure 2).

Figure 2. K306 a silver pommel cap

Figure 2. K306, a silver pommel cap with silver beaded and twisted filigree decoration.

Zoomorphic filigree

Some of the filigree patterns are zoomorphic (i.e., they form animal designs). An example of a relatively clear, simple animal design can be seen on pommel cap K457 (Figure 3):

Figure 3. (a) Gold pommel cap K457.

Figure 3. (a) Gold pommel cap K457. Note the four snake heads on this side.

Figure 3. (b) Detail showing two of the snake heads

Figure 3. (b) Detail showing two of the snake heads with gold granules for eyes.

The depiction of animals on Anglo Saxon objects is not always obvious; sometimes the animals are quite abstract and difficult to see and interpret. When it is unclear what animal is depicted, or when it appears to be a mythical animal, the animals are simply called ‘zoomorphs’. Consider pommel cap K686 (Figure 4).

Figure 4. K686, a gold pommel cap

Figure 4. K686, a gold pommel cap with zoomorphic filigree design.

Do you see the zoomorphs in this design? Hint: There are two of them. Try picking them out and compare your results with an Anglo-Saxon expert’s interpretation of the design at the end of this blog.

Interlace patterns

A number of objects feature filigree in an interlace design. A nice example of this type of design can be seen on hilt collar K314 (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Gold hilt collar K314, front.

Figure 5. Gold hilt collar K314, front.

At first glance these designs might look as if they are formed by long wires, but they are actually formed of many short sections of wire painstakingly arranged to create this illusion. Look carefully at the wires in Figure 6; you can see the snipped ends of wires where the interlace strands meet.

Figure 6. K314, front detail.

Figure 6. K314, front detail. Note how the interlace is formed of short sections of wire. Also note that a beaded wire that has been twisted runs along the top and bottom of the object.

On a few objects in the hoard the spaces between the filigree wires were pressed down to make the filigree stand out even more. You can see the result of this on the back of K314 (Figure 7).

Figure 7. K314, back.

Figure 7. K314, back. Note the protruding bumps corresponding to the spaces between the filigree on the front.

This has the effect of enhancing the illusion of depth and making the filigree look more substantial and ‘pop out’ of the surface of the object. Now look back and compare the filigree on Figures 4 and 5. Can you see the difference that this technique has on the appearance of the filigree?

Unusual designs

There is a rich variety of filigree designs in the hoard, including some unusual and spectacular designs.

One object that created a real ‘wow!’ moment in the conservation studio was when my colleague Deborah uncovered the magnificent filigree work on hilt collar K2 (Figure 8). It features linear, interlace and spiral designs on one side and a dense ‘patchwork’ effect of blocks of tiny twisted wires on the other side.

Figure 8 (a). One side of gold hilt collar K2.

Figure 8 (a). One side of gold hilt collar K2 with linear, interlace and spiral designs. All of these filigree wires are <1mm wide.

Figure 8 (b).  The other side of gold hilt collar K2

Figure 8 (b).  The other side of gold hilt collar K2 with dense ‘patchwork’ effect of blocks of tiny twisted wires. All of these filigree wires are <1mm wide.

Another unusual design can be seen on hilt collar K735 (Figure 9). It features a loose, flowing interlace alongside two rows of annulets (small rings of beaded filigree wire):

Figure 9. Gold hilt collar K735.

Figure 9. Gold hilt collar K735.

Another hilt collar, K1144, features small granules (balls) of gold surrounded by rings of beaded wire (Figure 10).

Figure 10. K1144, a gold hilt collar

Figure 10. K1144, a gold hilt collar with unusual filigree design.

As conservation of the hoard continues more and more designs are being uncovered. If you can, do try to see some of these objects firsthand by visiting Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery or the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent.

Further reading

For more information about Anglo-Saxon art and an in-depth discussion of the interpretation of Anglo-Saxon designs I recommend Leslie Webster’s accessible, informative and beautifully illustrated book Anglo-Saxon Art: A New History published by The British Museum Press, 2012.

Figure 11. Recommended book by Leslie Webster.

Figure 11. Recommended book by Leslie Webster.

Finally, here is an interpretation of the zoomorphic design on pommel cap K686 by Anglo-Saxon expert Chris Fern.

Figure 12. Chris Fern’s illustration of pommel cap K686

Figure 12. Chris Fern’s illustration of pommel cap K686 showing two intertwined zoomorphs. The white section in the middle is an interlace joining the two zoomorphs.

Cymbeline Storey

Staffordshire Hoard Conservator

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Fabulous. I am planning a visit to see the hoard next month! I can’t wait. It is truly a awesome sight to behold! Incredible workmanship.