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16 January 2015

Introducing Peter Mc Elhinney: Organics specialist

My name is Peter Mc Elhinney and I am an object conservator with research interests in the scientific analysis of cultural material. For the past number of years I have been working as a conservation research fellow at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. where I completed research on objects ranging from Native American baskets to WWII German aircraft. I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of using scientific techniques to help solve some of the mysteries surrounding objects found in museums and galleries.

Cleaning space shuttle Discovery

I arrived at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery last week, and for the next 6 months will be carrying out analysis of the organic materials associated with the Staffordshire Hoard. Whilst the iconic gold, silver, and garnet components of the Staffordshire Hoard are familiar to readers of this blog, the organic components – broadly speaking, plant and animal remains and by-products – tend to deteriorate more readily during burial than inorganic materials, and as such are less conspicuous.

Happily, some organic materials have survived burial, and I will be trying to figure out what these materials are, and in collaboration with the Staffordshire Hoard team, what they might be able to tell us about the people, environment, and culture in which these objects were made.

In addition to small fragments of suspected wood and bone associated with some objects, I will be looking more closely at organic pastes employed as part of the cloisonné technique. The pastes are typically found at the bottom of the cloisonné cells, underneath the garnets and gold foils, and are thought to have been used to adjust the height of the cell contents to create the flush top surface we see in the objects on display. Sampling the pastes would typically present a challenge, buried as they are at the bottom the cloisonné cell, but many of the cloisonné pieces in the Staffordshire Hoard appear to have been hurriedly stripped away from their swords and daggers, and in the process have been distorted, twisted, and damaged, revealing otherwise inaccessible pastes in the process. The seemingly rough treatment of the objects prior to the hoard’s deposition is not fully understood, but the apparent tragedy of the damage to some objects has a silver lining for me- unprecedented access to a range of organic materials for comparative analysis.

Object K131: Organic material circled

On a more personal note, I was privileged to hold some of the hoard items in my (gloved) hand for the first time this morning. One of the most striking objects that I held was a small gold pommel cap. The piece has a surprising size to weight ratio uncommon today outside of plumbing components and expensive watches. I wish there was some way to convey the exceptional solidity of some of the pieces. This particular pommel cap is about the size of 9 volt battery, but with the weight of a small bag of pound coins. The delicate gold and garnet decorative work seem at odds with its menacing mass, like a special forces body guard in a smart suit. But then, perhaps that’s the point of a warrior class pommel cap. Resting at the warrior’s side it is an easily identifiable mark of status, but it can just as easily serve as the weapon of choice for a good pommeling. Holding it in my hand I suspect it still could do damage… even after 1400 years.

First object inspection

First object inspection

The next year marks an exciting research phase for the Staffordshire Hoard, and I look forward to finding out more about this in the months ahead. Visit the blog again soon to learn more about our progress.

Peter Mc Elhinney,
Object Conservator – Organics Specialist