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17 April 2014

Three years in Red and Gold

Deb Magnoler’s last blog as a conservator of the Staffordshire Hoard.

In this blog I will attempt to take you through over three years of memories working on the Staffordshire Hoard by sharing stories about some of the objects I have conserved.

I was very lucky, when, in October 2010, I was offered a two weeks professional placement working on the Staffordshire Hoard. Those two weeks turned into a two months contract and eventually into three years.

I knew I was onto something special right form the start. As I removed the layers of soil and revealed the beautiful objects underneath, I was totally engrossed in what I was doing; it was truly a feast for the eyes. The minute scale of each decorative element, the quality of construction and the incredible variety of patterns made observing the objects very exciting. Not to mention that gold and polished garnets look simply glorious through a microscope lens.

The Seax Collar

K449 after treatment

Image 2: K449

K449 is part of a seax handle (image 3) and each part of the animals’ bodies that decorate its front and back are individually cut and set garnets.  Zoomorphic designs frequently decorate the objects of the Staffordshire hoard and sometimes they are so stylized that they are difficult to recognise, but this one is quite easy to make out. I remember thinking what a privilege it was to be able to closely observe such a remarkable object and that whoever looked upon it all those years ago must have admired it too, as, presumably, they fully understood the significance and meaning of that type of decoration.

The seax handle

Image 3: The complete seax handle

K449 was filled with soil when it was brought to the studio (image 4), and, like the rest of the objects in the Hoard, it was carefully excavated and cleaned using thorns. Back then thorns were a novelty for me, but I was impressed at how efficient such a simple method was.

Conservation cleaning with thorns

Image 4: Conservation with thorns

The Fish and eagles mount

K652 (image 5) is one of the first objects I cleaned and also one of my favourite ones. Its function is currently unknown. It weights just over 60 grams and its gold purity is close to 20 carat. As I considered its current damaged state I wondered what it must have looked like originally.


 K652 after conservation

Image 5: K652 after conservation

We are obviously unable to unfold the objects so I decided to draw what I thought the object would have looked like when whole. Using photographs and line drawing the missing elements I made a very good approximation of the objects.

Reconstruction drawing of  k652

Image 6: Reconstruction drawing

My approximate reconstruction (image 6) of K652 is far from being of professional standard, but it helped people understand its original shape. I love its design which, to me, represents that Anglo-Saxon way in which shapes and detail may be rich and elaborate but never look superfluous.  I have often considered that a reproduction of it might look quite contemporary today.

G is for gloves

While handling museum objects is something that has to be done selectively and conscientiously, sometimes it is simply necessary. After explaining the importance of protecting objects from human touch by the wearing of gloves, I am very proud to say that I have convinced a number of people to eagerly slip (or struggle) into these little blue nitrile numbers over the years.

Dave Symonds with re-enactors

Image 7: Dave Symonds with re-enactors

Image 7 was taken during a day of talks and viewings at the Museum Collection Centre in 2011 where my colleagues and I had the opportunity to speak to the public about what we do. There were many other occasions for the public to talk to us, such as tours, family days and in-gallery cleaning events (image 8).

Deb explain hoard conservation to members of the public

Image 8: Explaining conservation and the objects at event 2013

One of the most enjoyable parts of my job has been talking about the Hoard to the public and the response has always been attentive and enthusiastic. I enjoyed taking every possible occasion to explain why this is a truly remarkable find and that they should take their time observing it and understanding it, as much of what is essential can be overlooked during a quick visit of the museum.

Faces and Filming

K1775 after cleaning

Image 9: K1775 after cleaning

The final story that I will share with you is of K1775, it is a very small and thin stamped foil, under 2cm wide; it depicts two male faces with joining moustache. This object reminds me of when a TV crew came in the studio to film part of a National Geographic documentary.  Filming for various programmes has taken place on several occasions, as the high profile of the Hoard has generated much interest.

National Geographic filming

Image 10: National Geographic filming

This is me being filmed cleaning K1775 (image 10).  When film crews and photographers come in they encourage you to “act if they are not there”, although this can sometimes it can be tricky, I enjoyed it all.

There are plenty of other memories other than working with the objects, such as travelling to Washington DC on occasion of the exhibition at the National Geographic museum in 2011, installing exhibitions at Stafford and the beautiful locations of Tamworth Castle and Lichfield Cathedral and even having my portrait taken and exhibited at the RBSA (image 11).  All I can say is thank you, to all I worked with and came across while at Birmingham Museums Trust, I’ll never forget it.

Portrait of Deborah Magnoler by Robert Neil, 2012.

Image 11: Portrait of Deborah Magnoler by Robert Neil, 2012