K453 and the ‘Cheek piece’ Group
November 3, 2011
Observation, examination and collaboration: How conservators help piece it all together
K453 is one of the larger pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard. This has been described as a silver gilt plate with rows of zoomorphic decoration. It has been called a cheek piece, because it strongly resembles the sides of a warrior’s helmet, but this has not been confirmed, as some argue that this object appears to be too small to serve that purpose. The research teams will be investigating this object further in the coming year.
This object was likely cast and chased, it is approximately 100mm long, 80 mm wide and 19 mm deep, and weights almost 84 grams.
When an object made of silver has a layer of gold applied to its surface, it is called silver gilt. As can be observed from image 4, two layers of metal, one of silver and one of gold, can be seen on this object.
The conservation of this object was limited to the removal of surface soil, in order to reveal the dense and interesting decoration. The darkening produced by the silver tarnish was left in situ, as was a patch of green corrosion product which may suggest the contact of K453 with a copper object during its burial. The back of the object (image 3) features patches of discolouration that may indicate contact or association with another material, possibly organic, that has left a dark stain on the gold surface. Note that the minimal extent of cleaning in this part of the object, as on the rest of it, is aimed at retaining as much material evidence as possible.
Condition and first associations
Image 4 also shows the irregular, torn surface produced by the forceful removal of a component from that area.
The overall shot of the object (image 1) shows that there are two gaps on its top edge. Conservators, having the opportunity to closely observe the objects they work on, can really get to know their features; that is why, while sorting trough several Hoard boxes during a grouping session, the four tabs in image 5 seemed to have much in common with K453.
The tabs are made of silver, but they bear visible traces of gilt at their lower extremity (Image 7); their weight, thickness, state of preservation and fractured edges prompted me to match them against the gaps on the plate (Image 6) – two out of the four tabs match those gaps, taking into consideration the metal distortion suffered by the edges, which no longer allows for a ‘perfect’ fit.
Further discoveries made during conservation
It also occurred to me during the cleaning that there were a series of short, vertical, equidistant marks along the top border: why were they there? What caused them? A possible answer is that they were caused by the ribbed wire gold objects in image 9, which were, up to that point called “eyebrows”, because of their similarity to such features on a face or potentially, an Anglo-Saxon helmet. They have now been renamed ‘fittings’. A discussion among experts, who observed a set of two oblong slots in the centre of these gold fittings, concluded that one of these must have fitted on top of the plate, with the tabs, in their original position, inserted though the slots, to form the grouping in image 9. The marks that the ribbed wire must have left on the plate (image 8 ) while rubbing against it during use provided further support for the match.
Evidence of a second plate
Until a few weeks ago we had a first, exciting grouping, and the suggestion of a second one in the extra pair of tabs and the second fitting. Further evidence to the existence of a second plate came when its broken off side was discovered. It was conserved by one of our interns, who probably had little idea of what it was at the time. It was only while I was checking the pictures of some of the finished objects that I recognised that shape and decoration as being practically identical to that of K453. You can easily notice the similarity while comparing the object in image 10 and the side shot of K453 in image 2.
This obviously raises the question: where is the rest of the second silver gilt plate? Images 12 and 13 show a severe case of the gilding layer breaking and delaminating from the back of K97, suggesting that it is possible that the gold may, to some extent, have separated from the silver underneath: Could some of the many fragments of what have so far been defined as sheet metal actually be detached and fragmented gilding? How did the destruction of K97 occur? Was it deliberate? And if so, why entirely rip apart one plate and leave the other relatively untouched? Why putting so much effort into breaking off those thick tabs? Is the answer to the question to be found on the value of gold and silver at the time?
Examination has suggested that the main body of the plate in its original state probably looked like solid gold, as the gilding on it is quite thick. The tabs, on the other hand, although bearing thin smudges of gold and being now darkened by tarnish, are likely to have looked quite silvery: was there a chance that without the tabs the plate could have passed for solid gold and sold at a higher price? Part of these questions will be answered by further examination and analysis, such as a closer observation of the sheet metal fragments,and discussions and interactions with the research teams.
It’s in the USA now!
The first plate, with its two tabs and the two ribbed wire objects are currently on exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC, together with many more of the Hoard’s star pieces.
Deborah L Magnoler, Conservator, Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Team, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.