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Behind the scenes at the Staffordshire Hoard

I’ve been fascinated by the Staffordshire Hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold weapon mounts since its discovery by a metal detectorist was publicised in 2009. Christopher and I went to see it at a temporary exhibition in Stoke mid-way through his chemotherapy treatment in 2010, and had a thoroughly interesting time looking at it. That weekend ended unfortunately, with Christopher projectile-vomiting on Stoke station, and an unscheduled trip to hospital. Despite that, it was well worth making the effort to see the gold in its original state, just as it had been found. Many of the pieces were still covered in mud – they hadn’t been cleaned, much less conserved, but we knew that Christopher didn’t have enough time left to wait for the conservation process to run its course and for the gold to go on permanent display.

So I was really interested when I saw that my favourite archaeological travel company, Andante, were running a one-day “Study Day” to Birmingham Museum to see the Staffordshire Hoard, and go behind the scenes to the conservation laboratories to see how the treasure is being cleaned, conserved, and the pieces fitted back together again. I thought that was an opportunity not to be missed, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

The day started with an early train from Malvern to meet the group on the steps of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery before it officially opened to the public. We were met by a tour manager from Andante, plus the Andante office manager who had come along for the ride as it was a topic she was particularly interested in. Alongside them were three members of the museum’s Hoard Conservation Team, who were our hosts for the day. 

We started with an illustrated lecture about the discovery, excavation and contents of the Hoard. I knew most of it already, through having seen it before, but it was interesting hearing about the latest research. The Hoard consists almost entirely of precious metal mounts stripped from weapons – golden sword pommels and hilts, a helmet, decorative gold and garnet fittings from sword-belts and scabbards, and the like. All had been violently torn from their original weaponry back in the 7th Century, with no care whatsoever, and ended up buried in a field that was then, and still is now, pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

The second lecture was from a materials scientist who has been examining the metallurgical content of the hoard, originally with a view to trying to identify where it was made. That didn’t prove possible – the gold content seems to be a right mixture, made from melting down and recycling old Roman and Byzantine gold coins. However, she came up instead with what I thought was a really interesting discovery – the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had treated the surface of many of the gold pieces to make them look a purer gold than they actually were. It’s still not clear exactly how they did so, as the “recipe” has been lost in the mists of time, but it was clearly deliberate and selective.

After lunch we went into the museum gallery to see the Hoard display. The original find was declared Treasure Trove, and jointly acquired by Birmingham and Stoke museums, with the objects divided between them on a rotating basis. I found it very interesting to compare them with how they’d looked when I’d last seen them – all the mud has now been cleaned off, and they look even more magnificent than they did before.  

We then went down into the bowels of the museum, behind several locked doors, to the conservation laboratory, where large parts of the Hoard were still being examined and dealt with. There was a little pot on the conservator’s desk full of thorns from the Berberis shrub, which seemed somewhat incongruous. It turns out that she had discovered this was the best thing to use to clean the mud off the delicate jewellery – the thorns are as sharp as a scalpel, but softer than gold so they don’t leave any scratches. And they’re easily and freely available from supporters’ back gardens, so don’t eat into the conservation budget! We then looked at a number of pieces from the Hoard under a high-powered microscope. Some of the gold filigree work was just exquisite, and extremely detailed. Apparently modern goldsmiths struggle to replicate the work, and that’s with the benefit of modern tools – the original smiths were clearly very highly skilled indeed.

All in all, it was an absolutely fascinating day. I felt very privileged to be able to go down into the labs and see parts of the hoard without the protection of glass display cases. It was really good to be able to catch up on what has happened to it since I last saw it, and to see it now it’s been cleaned and conserved.