K453 and the ‘Cheek piece’ Group

November 3, 2011

Observation, examination and collaboration: How conservators help piece it all together

Image 1. K453, front.

Description

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.

Image 2. K453, side.

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.

Conservation

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.

Image 3. K453, back.

Condition and first associations

Image 4 also shows the irregular, torn surface produced by the forceful removal of a component from that area.

Image 4. Silver gilt. Image taken with the Keyance 3D microscope, showing a cross section of the silver core of the object, to which a layer of gold was applied.

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.

Image 5. The tabs: discovered during a grouping session, were unidentified at first; my knowledge of K 453 prompted me to make a connection between them and the silver gilt plate.

 

Image 6. Tab K1507 matching the break on the edge of 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.

Image 7. Magnified image of a tab, showing its torn end, an area of gilding and its silver grey main body. The cut marks on the edge suggest that a sharp object or blade was used to aid the dismantling of the piece, perhaps by creating a weak point in the area to be then bent and torn.

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.

Image 8. Top edge – some of the vertical marks on the surface.

 

Image 9. The ribbed wire objects feature two slots each in the middle; the one on the left fits onto the edge of the plate, with the slots aligning with the breakages and the tabs.

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.

Image 10. A fresh addition: the torn off side of a second silver gilt plate: note the niello and intertwining snakes decoration, as in K453

 

Image 11. The side (K97) and tabs of a second plate which must have looked very similar to K453.

Many questions

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.

Image 12. The back of K97, with the broken gilding lifting and flaking off the silver underneath.

 

Image 13. Detail of the broken, lifting gilding, (Mag. X20)

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.

7 Responses to K453 and the ‘Cheek piece’ Group

  1. What a puzzle!
    I don’t think the gilt plate, the tabs and the two ribbed wire objects originally fitted together. The gaps on the plate suggest an attempt at re-use. The ribbed wire objects look to me as if they were made to encircle something, perhaps a piece of jewellery or pommel.
    Given the depth of the plate I cannot see how it would have fitted on a helmet. Perhaps it formed one of the corners of a purse or container.
    You have a difficult but fascinating task! Best wishes, Peter Gay

  2. Just saw the special on National Geo and was compelled to visit this site. I was really amazed by this find it’s truly remarkable. I was also equally impressed by the work put in by the archaeologists and local scientists involved. Truly a national treasure best of luck unlocking the next discovery!

  3. Many thanks to all of you for your interest and comments. The Hoard team are working hard at conserving this find and only beginning to piece it all together: we are always happy when we get an enthusiastic response! All the best, and keep following us!

  4. What a task you have with all these magnificent finds. There are so many mysteries here but what I find rewarding is that they were found in the heart of the old Mercian kingdom, best described by Ian Walker and Sarah Zaluckyj.

  5. It is beginning to look more like the tip of a scabbbard.
    Being lined to protect the blade it would need to be larger than the weapon.
    The tabs being fixings to possibly a thick decorated leather
    or even wooden sheath,riveted in place.
    Having seen it several times at exhibitions,it seems rather thick and heavy for a helm and small for a cheek piece.
    Unless it was a third section at the bottom of the face guard.
    Any trace of a channelled type section to clip or hold the two pieces together, in the absence of rivet holes ?
    I seem to remember a lot of decorated channel shaped items of unknown origin, put down to possible shield decoration.
    Pity I cant draw a sketch here to illustrate what I mean.

  6. Pingback: The Staffordshire Hoard Helmet: Update 1 | Grant Cox Media

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.