My first acquaintance with the Staffordshire Hoard was in 2009, not long after it was found – I was part of the team that made the first television documentaries about the discovery for National Geographic. Our initial filming day coincided with the first time the entire hoard was laid out at the British Museum to enable experts to start discussing the best way to clean and study it. It was a remarkable occasion.
It took the four-person Treasure team 4 hours to lay it all out on a very long table. I’d seen the photographs in the press, but nothing can really prepare you for the sheer amount of it. All those tiny foils and pins and thousands of fragments. Of course it was all still dirty and ‘only’ consisted of 1700 items then, as many groups of objects were still hidden by soil.
When it was realised that the hoard needed to be laid out again in 2014, I revisited that filming experience to try and help the team plan the exercise this time. We had to decide how large a room and how much table space would be needed – we knew that the piece count had more than doubled, but that now everything was individually numbered, items could be laid out without boxes. So would it take up more room, or less? We estimated, but only the process of actually laying it out provided the answer. In the end, it took up more table space, but not as much as we’d estimated.
It was decided the grouping exercise should be filmed again for future use. Birmingham Museums have an in-house photographer who was commissioned to record the grouping exercise in still photographs and time-lapse, and myself and a television colleague George Pagliero shot moving footage. Having not filmed the hoard for several years, I was reminded again just how small the pieces are, and how fine the detail on the objects. Using an HD camera to film such tiny objects in close up is a tough task – every speck of dust on the table is recorded in glorious close up too. Filming one object at a time you can clean the table before you place the object, but with all of them laid out, we just had to live with some dust, as there was no way of blowing or brushing it all away without endangering the objects.
I am very privileged to have filmed the hoard laid out not once, but twice. The first time, the ‘wow’ factor of the size of the collection was most obvious – and its rarity – we could sense the excitement of the experts and the scale of the challenge ahead. The second time, the ‘wow’ factor was still there of course, but with all the objects clean and laid out in order, the excitement came from understanding how far the research and conservation has come in 4 years. Filming all the amazing detail on individual objects, and the groups Chris Fern has assembled, it really brought home how much closer the team is getting to understanding the collection.