Staffordshire Hoard Objects with Niello Inlay

August 15, 2012

To date, more than 300 hoard objects have been conserved, including many of the largest and most intact pieces. This leaves approximately 3200 pieces—many of which are fragments—that have not yet been conserved. The English Heritage-funded research programme is now underway, and the hoard conservation team is contributing to this process by focusing on more fragmentary sets of material. The aim is to further understanding of what kinds of objects are in the hoard by bringing together small fragments into more complete objects that can be studied by the research team.

I chose to examine a group of 84 silver and/or silver gilt objects that have niello inlay. Niello is a metal sulphide formed of silver, copper and/or lead filings combined with sulphur. When heated, this mixture fuses into a hard, slightly glossy black substance that is used as an inlay material. Typically, a channel is carved into a metal object and the niello is inserted into the channel, where it hardens (see Figure 1). Different formulations of niello have been used in different locations and time periods; the types of niello seen most frequently on Anglo-Saxon artefacts are silver/sulphur and silver/copper/sulphur (La Niece, 1983).

 Close-up view of niello inlay on K310.

Figure 1. Close-up view of niello inlay on K310. Note that the niello is missing from some channels (bottom and left).

Niello has been used as a decorative inlay in metalwork for centuries; the earliest scientifically confirmed example of niello is seen on a 4th century BC silver rhyton in the shape of a deer head, though an as-yet unconfirmed example of niello on a silver bowl thought to date from 1400 BC is being investigated (La Niece, 1998).

For this project, all 84 of the hoard objects with niello inlay were gathered and assessed. After checking the condition of all objects and carrying out any necessary conservation for stabilisation (e.g., applying a Japanese tissue support backing to an object with a large crack) I separated the objects into groups based on physical characteristics and design (Figure 2). The goal was to find and document associated objects, fragments of the same object, and joins were possible, but not to physically reconstruct the objects.

Cym assessing and sorting niello fragments.

Figure 2. Cym assessing and sorting niello fragments.

Only three hoard objects made of gold have niello inlay; the remainder are made of silver and/or silver gilt. Many of the silver objects are fragmentary, heavily tarnished and corroded. In many cases the objects have broken apart along the niello channels, where the metal is thinnest.

Some striking objects have been identified in the course of this project such as a silver strip with niello inlay and gilt borders (Figure 3) and a sword fitting with an interlace design (Figure 4). In total 12 groups of objects were identified in the course of this project, and the 84 fragments form approximately 20 individual objects.

A silver strip with niello inlay and a gilt border.

Figure 3. A silver strip with niello inlay and a gilt border.

Sword fitting with traces of niello inlay.

Figure 4. Sword fitting with traces of niello inlay. During burial, bulky corrosion products formed on the object, pushing off most of the niello.

Because of soil coverage on break edges, confirming which pieces join was impossible in many cases, though tentative configurations such as the one seen in Figure 3 could be made. Cleaning of break edges will be required to confirm most joins.

It is hoped that grouping projects such as this one will contribute to the research programme by making sense of fragmentary sets of material. It is also hoped that this project will prompt discussion amongst academics, conservators and scientists. New questions about the manufacture and use of these objects have emerged from this work. The next phase of investigation into these objects will involve a closer look at the construction and manufacturing details of the objects such as depth and shape of niello channels, tool marks and evidence of the method of niello application employed.

Several samples of niello from the hoard are being analysed at the British Museum (BM), with which we have a partnership for scientific analysis. Scientists at the BM are determining the composition of the niello and comparing it with Anglo-Saxon niello from other sites such as Sutton Hoo.

You can see some objects with niello inlay in the BMAG hoard gallery (gallery 16). Additional niello objects are on display until September 2013 at the Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent, including ‘star’ pieces such as the inscription strip (Figure 5) and the object resembling a helmet cheekpiece (though its identity is still the subject of debate; see Figure 6).

The inscription on K550 is formed of niello letters.

Figure 5. The inscription on K550 is formed of niello letters.

K453, with niello inlay in zigzag lines running from top to right edges.

Figure 6. ‘Possible cheekpiece’ K453, with niello inlay in zigzag lines running from top to right edges.

Cymbeline Storey

Staffordshire Hoard Conservator
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery


La Niece, S. (1998). Niello before the Romans. Jewellery Studies, 8, 49-56.

La Niece, S. (1983). Niello: an historical and technical survey. The Antiquaries Journal, LXIII, 279-297.

One Response to Staffordshire Hoard Objects with Niello Inlay

  1. About 20 years ago I tried making some niello with lead silver and a bit of copper then filed it onto a powder, added flowers of sulphur and cooked with a flame. I did this in a small space and the fumes were over powering. Metal filings change to a fine soot like dust that I then applied to silver and tried to bake on a bit like you would with enamel but with little success. I found the process very unpleasant and never tried it again.