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26 September 2014

Precious puzzle

From the large number of small fragments in the Staffordshire Hoard, the research and conservation teams have begun the task of finding joins between the small fragments to form larger objects. During the recent grouping exercise Chris Fern was able to identify 600 new joins and my first task was to rejoin a group of fragments we now know belonged to one object.

I’m Rachel Altpeter, a conservation student from the University College London, I have just started an internship at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and what a way to start:

For the new Staffordshire Hoard gallery, which is due to open on 17th October at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, we want to show some of these puzzle pieces. So last week I got to join together the first reassembled object in the hoard – a silver gilt strip with black niello decoration!

I started out with a box of 25 fragments and, thanks to the researchers and conservators of the last few years, a picture of how they would most probably fit together.

Image 1: All the 25 fragments from one object packed in their boxes

The first step was to lay everything out and then clean the fragments some more, especially on the edges so that they would fit together.

Image 2: The fragments laid out in their right position before the reassembly (view from the back to show the labelling of each fragment)

Looking at the edges so closely, I also came across some interesting finds like this broken edge which appears to have been partially cut, probably when the objects were pulled apart before they were buried: another indication that can help find out what exactly happened to the hoard objects.

Image 3: One of the broken edges under the microscope with what appears to be cut marks

The next question was how to physically put the fragments back together: some were bent so much out of shape that they would never form a strip again, and especially where the niello was lost from its channels, the metal was so thin it would not hold with just an adhesive in between: a backing material would be required to hold the fragments together.

Using modern metal sheets I tested a selection of backing materials and adhesive strengths to determine the best materials to use on the hoard object. What I looked for in the tests were the visual effect of the backing and adhesive on the metal sheets as well its ability to hold the sheets together – tearing the joins apart again gave me a good feel for that strength. From the experiment I decided to use a nylon backing tissue along the joins with a 15% Paraloid adhesive.

That way, I joined together most of the fragments into 5 larger pieces, but these could not be directly put together as they were too distorted. But so that we can still see how they would be orientated next to each other to form the object and for all the parts to rest supported, they now lie on a mount cut specifically for this object from black conservation foam.

Image 4: The newly joined pieces on their supportive mount (view from the side). The distortion of many of the pieces becomes visible from this perspective.

Image 5: The silver strip on its mount after reconstruction: we can now more easily see the continuing “mushroom”-pattern of the niello inlay, the gilt boarder running all around the object with many of the fastening pins still in their original position and the tail shaped end of the strip

So now the first actually joined puzzle object from the hoard is ready to go out on display in the new gallery in a few weeks time together with many old favourites, new research findings and much more – including of course some of the next puzzle pieces waiting in line…

Rachel Altpeter,
Conservation Intern
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery