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19 August 2012

Making old friends: First steps of the conservation process

Hello Hoard readers! Let me briefly introduce myself: my name is Arianna Carini, and I’m an American studying at Cardiff University for my MSc in Conservation Practice. I’ve been working with Team Hoard for the summer, and while my time here will end soon, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you.

Over the past year, my first in my degree scheme at Cardiff University, I’ve been fascinated by the relationship conservators build with objects. Conservation requires a strong understanding of construction techniques, historical uses of objects, not to mention the structure and decay of materials. In such a discipline, it’s no surprise that conservators become intimately knowledgeable about the objects we’ve examined under magnification for hours a day. Starting a new object is exciting for me and getting to know that object through observation and treatment has its own rewards.

In my opinion, looking at an object for the first time is like meeting a new person; I may not know much about them yet, but they’re intriguing. After introductions, my curiosity gets the better of me, and I’ll start asking questions if the answers haven’t already come up. Where are you from? What’s your family like? What’s your history? Unlike people objects can’t directly answer these questions (when the objects start talking to you, it’s time to take a break!). Conservators become detectives, searching for answers through visual observation alongside interactive experience.

Even the simple act of removing soil from an object from the Staffordshire Hoard, which is our goal here in the conservation studio, can reveal an endless amount of questions. For example more and more kept coming up relating to my most recent object (see image 1), a gold and garnet cloisonné strip (K1050).

K1050 showing the front decoration

Image 1: K1050 showing the front decoration, after treatment.

Here are just a few of the queries I had about this piece:

This lovely strip has several cells with no garnets or highly fragmented garnets in the cells. As a material, garnet is able to withstand a fair amount of physical abuse and don’t powder or significantly degrade with age, so what could have caused this much damage? Did this damage occur before or during burial?

The gold used for the front is in good condition with minimal amounts of orange corrosion, but heavy black tarnish covers the filigree along the long borders (see image 2). It’s unusual for gold to do this and looks more like tarnished silver despite the yellow colour beneath the tarnish. Could this mean that this edge strip of gold has a higher silver content than the gold from the body? Or is it possible that the gold filigree might not be gold? The gold could be a thin layer over a base of silver, which is known as silver gilding. The silver could then tarnish above a permeable gold layer, which would account for this dark material on the gold. While there is a small amount of silver gilt filigree within the hoard, it would be unusual for a strip like this.

K1050 dark tarnish on gold rivet sheet

Image 2: K1050, dark tarnish on gold rivet sheet, 50x magnified.

Beneath the filigree decoration, a narrow strip of equally black-tarnished gold sheet with several holes is visible. These holes probably held rivets once (and metal fragments were found in the soil nearby), but what were these strips attached to?

Does this object fit with another object, either one that it was riveted to or that fills the unusual gaps in the filigree along the edges (see image 3)?

K1050 in the side view

Image 3: K1050 in the side view, after treatment, with arrows showing gaps in filigree.

This object is one of a pair with K447 (see image 4) with similar garnet pattern and strip construction. Are there more objects that are associated with these strips?

K447 front, twin strip of K1050

Image 4: K447 front, twin strip of K1050.

Sometimes all these questions can be overwhelming, especially when so little is known about the objects and their exact histories, but research is ongoing. Taking part in the process has been a fantastic experience, and I feel my observation skills have dramatically sharpened. After building such a careful relationship with this object, it is my responsibility to write detailed reports with my observations and suggestions of how I believe this object is constructed. These reports are vital for the documentation process, and help to track observations and treatments to inform future conservators, curators, and researchers.

Arianna Carini

Post-graduate student at Cardiff University studying for a MSc in Conservation Practice.

I am a goldsmith who has specialized in ancient techniques of goldsmithing. I have not seen these wonderful artifacts but back in the ’80s I spent time trying to learn the technique of gold and garnet. It was the hardest goldsmithing technique I ever tried to get proficient in. I have seen the Sutton Hoo treasure in the British Museum so I am aware of the scale of these objects.
My wild guess is that these strips were attached to say a silver vessel or object, hence the tarnish on the filigree borders. I have noticed how my 22 karat gold work will tarnish in time just from proximity to fine silver. The cloisonné walls are further from the silver so they are not so effected.
I believe those cloisonné cells are not a soldered construction. They are fused in construction. The final setting of the garnets require hammering/thickening the top exposed edge to set the stones and if solder had been used they would often split on the solder lines with the pounding.