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7 August 2015

Introducing Lizzie Miller: Staffordshire Hoard Conservator

Hello! I’m Lizzie Miller and I’m a conservator working on the Staffordshire Hoard 2 days a week. The remainder of my week I am responsible for conserving the rest of Birmingham Museum Trust’s large and varied collection – ranging from ancient artefacts to contemporary art – the variety definitely keeps me on my toes!

Conservator Lizzie Miller

I started working on the Hoard in April and my first task was to undertake an audit of the 4000+ fragments and get to grips the different styles and object types. It was a steep learning curve in sword terminology! The majority of the objects had already been cleaned during previous conservation work, however a final few remained so I cleaned these first. Most of the objects are gold, which survives well in the burial environment as it doesn’t corrode, however they were covered in soil. To clean them I used a solvent (Industrial Methylated Spirits) to soften the dirt and then a natural thorn to gently pick it away. The thorn is a useful tool in conservation as it is firm enough to remove the compacted soil, yet flexible enough not to scratch the soft gold surface. This was an immensely satisfying task and seeing the gold and garnet surfaces gradually being revealed under the microscope was a great privilege.

Nine images showing the cleaning process of a gold and garnet artefact

Now that all the pieces have been cleaned the Hoard team have undertaken the mammoth task of trying to group the fragments and understand which may have formed part of the same object. Following these grouping exercises, it’s then my job to physically join the pieces. I use a conservation adhesive to adhere the fragments together. Some of the fragments are tiny so it can be quite a tricky process at times, but working under the microscope helps. In some cases the fragments are extremely thin so the point of contact is minimal – so to strengthen the join I use a Polyester webbing material which I adhere to the reverse – kind of like a plaster:

Polyester support material joining two fragments

Close up of the join and polyester material

Joining the fragments back together means we can better understand these objects, and it helps us to see more clearly the craftsmanship and imagery used by the Anglo-Saxon craftsmen. It also means that we are reducing the number of individual fragments, which makes keeping track of them all much easier!

Some of the groups of fragments which have been identified as belonging to the same object can’t be physically re-joined either because they’re too distorted or may be missing too many neighbouring pieces. In these cases I’ve been rehousing the groups of fragments together into one box. This keeps the related fragments together which will help for future study, and an added bonus is that it reduces storage space by at least half:

Piecing the fragments together and storing them in one box

Lizzie Miller,
Staffordshire Hoard Conservator