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22 March 2016

Three very special pommels

When the hoard was first discovered, it was its gold objects that hit the headlines. The silver items garnered less attention, probably because they were generally much more fragmentary and in poorer condition. However, as the painstaking research and conservation has progressed, the silver items have emerged to be just as exciting as the gold.

In 2015, we announced the reassembly of silver pommel K291- an exceptional object identified from 26 separate fragments by Chris Fern, the project archaeologist, and reconstructed by the conservation team. It’s worth recapping how special it is. For one thing, it is enormous- probably 8cm long and 3cm tall originally- which makes it easily the largest pommel in the hoard. It must have made a mighty statement on the hilt of its owner’s sword.  It’s also extremely unusual in its decoration. The pommel has a rounded hump on its shoulder, known as a ‘sword-ring’- and a second, incomplete, on the other. Many swords from this period in England and Europe have such rings, but this pommel is the first ever discovered to have had two. The craftsman who created it also used a wealth of decorative techniques, from garnet and glass inlays, to gold filigree wire ornament and niello (a black inlay).

Pommel K291
© Lucy Martin/ Barbican Research Associates

K291 definitely caused a stir, with Chris considering the lavish decoration pointing to it possibly belonging to an individual of significant status.

Even more excitingly, we have now identified two more silver pommels of similar type. Likewise, both K136 and K163 have been joined together by the team from a large number of fragments. Both have two sword-rings surviving each, and share similar decorative techniques. K136 is ornamented with gold panels decorated with filigree and a central rock crystal gem, and K163 is decorated with interlace designs and had settings of green glass.

Pommel K136 being reassembled under the microscope by conservator Lizzie
© Birmingham Museums Trust

Reassembling the pommels has been a slow process, as Pieta Greaves, the conservation coordinator for the hoard says, ‘from first documenting and conserving the small fragments with thorns, through to reassembling them for display, these objects have been on a fascinating conservation journey. The pommels are the result of close working between conservators and the finds specialist, Chris Fern, discovering and reassembling small fragments over many months.’

Taken together, Chris believes the pommels form a very unusual and important group: ‘these three objects are united in form and decoration. In particular the double feature of their two fixed ‘sword-rings’ makes them unique in Europe.’ Chris also considers them to be ‘very important in art-historical terms, as they date to the mid-7th century, when the art of the British Isles was undergoing considerable change, as Anglo-Saxon styles mixed with British and Irish traditions. This we see on the pommels, like in the earliest manuscripts of the same period.’

Pieta and Chris both agree that ‘reassembling the three silver pommels from dozens of pieces was a great thrill. Discovering that these very small silver fragments have now come together to form these important objects is amazing and one of the highlights of the research project so far.’

Chris hard at work on the hoard
© Birmingham Museums Trust

When the research and conservation project is complete, a catalogue of the collection will be made publicly available. Cotswold Archaeology are undertaking the technical photography which will accompany Chris’s descriptions. Their fantastic photographs of these pommels provide a great taster of the images to come.


Pommel K163
© Lucy Martin/ Barbican Research Associates

All three pommels will be on display to the public for the very first time when the exhibition Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard opens at the Royal Armouries, Leeds, 27 May 2016. Two are travelling with the exhibition, whilst the third will remain on display in the Midlands. Catch these special objects if you can!

The Staffordshire Hoard is owned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils and cared for on their behalf by Birmingham Museums Trust and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. The Staffordshire Hoard research project is funded by Historic England and the owners, and is managed by Barbican Research Associates.

Jenni Butterworth, Pieta Greaves, Chris Fern