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20 September 2013

Mark Fenn: Professional placement experience

The news of the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard was the beginning of a great adventure for me.  Having long been a student of early medieval jewellery I followed closely each announcement and blog posting, searching out and studying photos of the objects as they appeared.  I was thrilled to see the posting for three professional placements last March.  My interest in the material, plus my experiences as a goldsmith, enamelist and an art conservator seemed a perfect fit, so I anxiously applied and was thrilled to be awarded one.  After decades of looking at photos, I was finally going to be able to see and handle the real things!

Mark working in the lab at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Image 1. Mark working in the lab at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

During my two weeks with the project I learned a great deal about how the pieces were made.  It was especially instructive to look at the backs, insides and undersides, and at damaged areas where the surfaces normally hidden in an intact object were exposed.  Some of what I observed was what I would have expected from my own work, other things were surprises.  Some details echoed observations made by other researchers on other Anglo-Saxon work before the Hoard was discovered, and some are still unexplained.  Here are a few examples.

Removing the soil from the inside of a gold filigree pommel cap at the Potteries Museum in Stoke on Trent (K 553) I could tell by the seams the shape of the gold sheet the smith started with and how it was bent and soldered to produce the finished piece.

Looking closely at a damaged gold and cloisonné garnet corner fitting (K373) I could see that the cell walls were soldered to each other and to the side walls. But in the cell where the garnet, foil and paste were missing, the cell walls were not soldered to the base plate, they didn’t even reach it.  The bottom edge of one of these walls was very ragged and uneven, the one adjacent was straight and level.[1]  Since the upper ends of all the walls are level, it would seem that they were assembled and soldered together upside down on a flat surface before being turned over and placed, as a unit, into the box formed by the side walls and base plate.

K373 cell wall stops short of base plate

Image 2. K373 cell wall stops short of base plate x50

An x-ray showed that the five copper alloy pins which presumably once attached the fitting to some substrate (now lost) were set within five of the cells, which meant that it must have been pinned to the substrate before the garnets in those cells were set.

One of the biggest surprises was just how small these garnets are; most are about the size of a match head.  This raises many questions about how they were cut.

One gold pommel cap (K355) was particularly interesting because it was constructed with the cells one typically finds filled with garnets, but instead of red gemstones and embossed gold foils, all the cells were full of a powdery, light green material resembling some sort of copper corrosion.  Was it possibly some severely degraded enamel?  In the course of pursuing this question I found many fascinating details.

Unlike the pommel cap I examined at Stoke, this one was made using many different techniques.  The center portion was composed of a framework (the members of which displayed the texture typical of casting on their inner surfaces) while the two rivet ears were made up of soldered sheet and wire and soldered on.  One end of the pommel was heavily damaged, exposing the crossbar between the two halves of the framework.  Deep notches at the ends of this crossbar suggest that the entire framework was cast flat, as a unit, probably in a simple two piece mold.  The notches were then made where it would be bent into its three dimensional shape.

Close up of K355 damaged rivet ear end

Image 3. K355 damaged rivet ear end on x30

The cell walls were of variable thickness, and the sides of some have a cast texture, with no hammer, file or other marks to suggest otherwise.  Some appear to be contiguous with the framework, while others are clearly separate pieces. It might be that the cells were all meant to be cast with the framework but the casting was incomplete and the separate pieces were added after.  The end of at least one wire seems to be set into a notch in the frame rather than merely butted against it.[2]

Roughly triangular areas at the intersections of some wires are filled in with one or more small scraps of wire to form solid gold areas.  (In many other pieces such areas appear to be formed by a single sheet of gold cut to shape and soldered into the opening.)

K355 at side

Image 4. K355 at side 6 x20

I don’t think the green material is corroded enamel.  In one cell a black material resembling the “paste” typically found under the foil in garnet cloisonné work is visible below the green.   Analyses of other examples of pastes show that they have a large organic component, which would have burned at the temperature necessary for melting enamel, producing ash and gasses which would have interfered with the enamel.  The top edges of the cells are burnished, as is seen with cloisonné garnet work, where it apparently served to hold the stones in the cells.  This would be unnecessary with enamel, which bonds to the metal on which it is melted.

A hilt collar (K967) shares many of the construction details seen in the above pommel cap; the two pieces might constitute parts of a matched set of fittings.

K967 wire filled corners

Image 5. K967 wire filled corners x50

Based on the observations I made during my professional placement I am certain a careful survey of the materials and techniques employed on all the pieces in the hoard would help to show relationships among them and between them and other Anglo-Saxon metalwork.

Mark Fenn,
Associate Head of Conservation
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Professional placements are generously funded by the Mercers Trust


[1] Coatsworth, Elizabeth and Michael Pinder (2002)  THE ART OF THE ANGLO-SAXON GOLDSMITH, Woodbridge.  The same details were observed on the Kingston Down brooch and other pieces, p. 133-135.

[2] Coatsworth, and Pinder.  This same technique was observed on a silver-gilt strap-end from Faversham (p. 135-136)

I’m really happy to be able to see such terrific photos of the pieces close up that allow the construction techniques to be discussed. Thanks for putting together such an interesting article!