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30 January 2015

Introducing Dr Eleanor Blakelock: Metals Specialist

Hello I am Dr Eleanor Blakelock and last week I started work in the Birmingham Museum Conservation studio as one of two new Esmee Fairbairn positions. I am a trained archaeometallurgist, a scientist that investigates ancient metals and metalworking techniques.

For my undergraduate degree I studied Archaeological Science at the University of Bradford before specialising in archaeological materials with an MSc at the Institute of Archaeology, University College of London. My PhD, also at University of Bradford, focused on Anglo-Saxon and Viking iron and iron-working techniques by studying iron knives. In the Anglo-Saxon period the blacksmiths were producing quality tools, with sharp cutting edges and some even had wonderful pattern-welded designs. So for me the biggest mystery of the Hoard has always been ‘what happened to the iron blades’? Many of the Staffordshire Hoard swords and single edged knives would have had excellent blades, many of which, I suspect, would have been pattern-welded.

Reconstruction of a pattern-welded seax

Reconstruction of a pattern-welded seax, the design is revealed when the surface is etched.

Even before I started work at Birmingham Museum I was already quite familiar with the Staffordshire Hoard, as for the last two years I worked in the British Museum’s Science Department studying the gold of the Staffordshire Hoard. This was a fantastic experience. I was able to see, handle and analyse many different gold objects in the Hoard. During this time I discovered something completely unknown about Anglo-Saxon gold-working. The results from that study showed that Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths were far more sophisticated than we first thought (see news report). They were deliberately treating the gold to remove silver, making it more ‘golden’ in appearance probably to bring out contrasts in the designs. More work is required to understand the methods used by the goldsmiths.

Microphotograph showing the contrast between the gold backing sheet and the filigree wires

Microphotograph of pommel K88 showing the contrast between the gold enriched backing sheet and the filigree wires

For the next year I will be carrying out more analysis of the metals in the Hoard at Birmingham Museum. Two major projects are planned. First there will be a large study of the silver in the Hoard to see if we can see any differences in composition over time, or whether different types of objects were being made out of different alloys. The X-Ray fluorescence (XRF) in the conservation laboratory will be used for this study. The second project is to investigate more about the surface treatment taking place using a technique called metallography, and perhaps even some experiments to try and surface treat some gold using a few known ancient recipes.

Dr Eleanor Blakelock using the XRF in the conservation laboratory

Using the XRF in the conservation laboratory

Watch this space for more information and results from these projects, or visit us in the conservation laboratory on one of our tours.

Dr Eleanor Blakelock,
Metals Specialist