History Detectives and Their Golden Wonders; Two Years after the Staffordshire Hoard Was Discovered, the Painstaking Work of Cleaning, and Uncovering Its Origins Is Still Ongoing. Neil Elkes Reports
Byline: Neil Elkes
There is a thrill in being the first person to see something which has been buried and caked in centuries-old soil for more than 1,300 years.
And it is that flutter of excitement that keeps the five-strong team of conservationists returning day after day to their lab at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, to meticulously clean tiny fragments of gold, part of the largest-ever haul of Anglo-Saxon artefacts ever discovered.
The painstaking cleaning process of pieces not much larger than a thumbnail can take up to 10 hours of gentle scrubbing, probing and washing, all under the glare of a microscope, to peel back layers of dirt and leave a sword pommel, or helmet decoration gleaming.
Then there are the eureka moments, those flashes of inspiration in which the pieces of this historical conundrum are literally pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle to reveal something new.
Just such a moment occurred for conservator Deborah Magnoler when she spotted something familiar about a gold cylinder, decorated with garnet stones, that she happened to be cleaning.
It occurred to her that the four tiny rivet holes and a central protruding block that had been uncovered beneath a layer of soil were similar to fixtures on the millifiori stud she had cleaned several weeks earlier.
The stud, a beautiful piece of 7th century craftmanship with a black and white check pattern, is one of the star items from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in a farmers field near Lichfield in 2009.'' Returning to the safe, Deborah took out the pretty stud, carefully unwrapped it from the cotton wool and sure enough the holes matched.
She said: "It is a perfect fit. We had little idea what it might be for, other than to decorate something, and still we haven't a clue."
It is painstaking work, but for the conservators and their colleagues, seconded from various university archeology and conservation courses, it is those magical moments of discovery that make it worthwhile.
While their role is to clean and catalogue, much of the theorising and debate about their uses will follow. The results of the work are forwarded to expert archeologists and historians in universities around the world for analysis.
It is a similar process to those seen in forensic science labs on TV detective dramas - the boys and girls in the lab find the evidence, study the items, run the tests then leave it to the detective to come in with the winning theory.
Each of the team members is hunched over a microscope examining and cleaning a fragment, a piece of historic evidence, searching for clues to an item's use, or some meaning in the imagery. The dirt is worked away and the detailed design can be seen by visitors on their monitor screens. Being a soft metal, some with fixed garnet stones, only the gentlest treatment can be used to remove the soil. It is here that all the high-technology equipment has to give way to Mother Nature.
Manager of the hoard conservation project, Deborah Cane, explains: "We are working with hawthorn needles, or blackthorn or polyanthus, held in a pin vice to remove the soil."
She explains that the thorns are fine enough to penetrate small crevices and work away the soil, while being soft enough to not tarnish or scratch the piece. Gardeners among the museum staff have been happy to donate their clippings for this delicate task.
Other than that, a little water or methylated spirits is used for the more stubborn caked-on soil.
"We have to be very careful, it is a slow, painstaking process. It takes an average of seven to 10 hours to clean each piece. It is very exciting, you are the first person to have seen that for more than a thousand years. It is a privilege," Deborah adds.
Some very advanced technology is being used to further study the hoard. Recently some gold was sent to the University of Southampton where it was put through a lengthy CT scan, revealing the internal structure of a five millimetre slice. …