Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Programme Completed
August 8, 2016
The Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Programme draws to a close this month, celebrating six years of intensive work that has successfully unlocked many of the secrets of this incredible treasure.
The Staffordshire Hoard, the world’s largest collection of gold and silver Anglo-Saxon treasure, was discovered by a metal-detectorist in a farmer’s field near Lichfield in 2009. When it was acquired by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils in 2010, the thousands of objects were still encrusted with soil from the field where they’d been found. The first task Birmingham and The Potteries Museums needed to undertake was to clean the objects so they could be studied and displayed.
A conservation team to work specifically on the hoard was assembled at Birmingham in 2010. The team have been working on the objects ever since, as part of the wider research project on the collection, with both the research and conservation funded by the museums and Historic England.
For the first three years, the focus was on cleaning. The team carefully removed the soil to reveal the objects, and to allow them to be recorded and stabilised where they were fragile. Because the gold is so soft, garden thorns (berberis) were used to remove the dirt to prevent scratching. This technique has been very popular with visitors says Conservation Coordinator Pieta Greaves: ‘people really enjoy the fact that this ‘low tech’ method of cleaning is so effective, and we’ve been very lucky to have supporters who send us thorns on a regular basis!’.
Many discoveries have been made. In some cases, entirely new objects have been found hidden in the soil, such as a beautiful cloisonné decorated animal that probably came from a sword hilt. The initial count of 1700 items rose to over 4000 as more and more tiny fragments were discovered.
Once the objects were clean, the long and painstaking job of joining fragments back together began, working closely with the archaeological specialists. The hoard is made up of broken pieces and objects that were removed from other, bigger objects before they were buried, so in some ways it’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle. One of the most intriguing successes has been reassembling a silver object decorated with a technique called niello. It’s one of Pieta’s favourite objects: ‘it was originally in 23 small fragments, so just finding them all and joining them together was a mammoth job which involved both conservators and conservation students working with researcher Chris Fern. I love the fact some of the original fixing pins are still in place.’ But the object remains a mystery- even though it has been joined together, none of the experts are quite sure what it was for- nothing has been seen quite like it before.
As well as contributing to the research which is vital to understanding the hoard, the conservation team have won prominent awards for the programme and its public engagement, including the Pilgrim Trust Trust Award for Conservation at the Icon Conservation Awards 2015. The judges described the Staffordshire Hoard as ‘the poster project for the sector’, and congratulated the team for ‘making the public say “wow” about conservation’.
The conservation team have run many events and behind-the-scenes tours where the public can watch and talk to them about conservation, hosted workshops for children to experience conservation for themselves (not on the real objects!), and given talks about their work all over the world. Over six years, more than thirty professional and student placements have given a wide range of people the opportunity to participate in the Staffordshire Hoard conservation. Deborah Cane, Collections Care Manager, BMT: ‘A discovery like the Staffordshire Hoard comes along once in a generation, so we felt right from the start that we had a responsibility to make sure as many people as possible had the opportunity to see the conservation in action, and even participate in it.’
Pieta Greaves: ‘Leading the conservation team since 2013 has been a great privilege, not only seeing the objects come together though conservation but also working with an array of specialists who have shared their infectious passion for the 7th century. The conservation team has achieved much over the years and it is a credit to all of their hard work, conservators, students and volunteers, that we have now reached the end. I have loved every minute of it.’
With the final documentation now taking place, the conservation programme is coming to an end. But it’s not the end for the research project. The archaeologists and historical experts have another nine months to finish off their research, and then the results will be published, hopefully in 2018. As well as books and articles, a catalogue of the collection object-by-object will be freely available online, so everyone will be able to see the incredible research and conservation that’s taken place, and celebrate the clean and sparkling Staffordshire Hoard in all its glory.
Barney Sloane, Head of Strategic Management and Planning, Historic England: ‘As the research programme approaches completion, we are learning more and more about this remarkable collection, in no small part due to the dedicated work of the conservation team at Birmingham. The fact that so many members of the public have been able to engage with and appreciate the work of the conservation team is a remarkable achievement for Birmingham, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and all other parties involved with this incredible collection.’
The Staffordshire Hoard is owned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils on behalf of the nation, and cared for by Birmingham Museums Trust and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. The research project is funded by the museums and Historic England and conducted by Barbican Research Associates on their behalf. The owners are grateful to everyone who has generously supported the Staffordshire Hoard.