Staffordshire Hoard

Science of the Staffordshire Hoard

My name is Peter Mc Elhinney, and I am the organic materials specialist for the 7th Century Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard research project. The predominant imagery of the Staffordshire Hoard for many museum visitors is one of gold, garnets and other precious materials. While these materials make up a large proportion of the hoard objects, a small amount of organic materials have survived in the burial environment. Over the past few months I have been using different analytical techniques to better understand the nature of the organic components of the Staffordshire Hoard objects.

Materials like wood, horn, beeswax, animal glue, and calcium carbonate based fillers were employed structurally and decoratively in some hoard objects. Many of these materials would not have been visible when the objects were originally in use, but the nature in which the decorative elements were removed from their host substrates prior to burial exposed these materials, giving our research team extremely privileged access to samples for analysis.

Over the past few days, I have been analysing a large piece of beeswax that appears to have been used as a fill material for the beautiful pommel cap pictured here.

The front of the reconstructed sword pommel (c) Birmingham Museums Trust

The front of the reconstructed sword pommel (c) Birmingham Museums Trust

The analysis involved using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) to characterize the unknown material. In this case the sample was analysed across 16 different places, forming a grid of analysis points as shown in the image below.

Image View

The analysis revealed that beeswax was present at almost all of the 16 analysis points, and an additional protein based material was present at three analysis points.  The section highlighted in blue in the spectra below spans a region in which two protein related absorbance peaks appear. These peaks are known as the amide I and amide II bands, and are typically a good indicator that a sample contains some protein based material.

Spectra

In order to understand the distribution of the protein material across the sample I used the chemical mapping feature of the analysis software to produce the distribution map pictured below.

Chemical Imaging

The map shows the relative distribution of amide I and amide II bands (and therefore the protein content) across the surface of the wax sample. We can see from the map that there is a concentration of protein based material in the lower left hand corner of the map, as indicated by the warmer colours in this region. The map gives some indication that the protein based material is not evenly mixed through the beeswax sample, asking questions about how the fill material was mixed and applied.

Further analysis is required to determine the exact nature of the protein based material, but it may be animal glue which has been added to the molten wax, or possibly propolis or other impurities related to the original hive from which the wax was collected. I’ll be doing more analysis in the weeks ahead to solve this mystery.

Antiquities, databases and an atypical day at the British Museum

The Moorlands Staffordshire Trulla

The Moorlands pan, one of my favourite objects

For the last eight years, I have worked at the British Museum, following a couple of years working for a German Investment Bank in the City of London. I’m responsible for the management of the Portable Antiquities Scheme‘s IT infrastructure and I provide advice to the British Museum on ICT issues when needed. The world of IT, is entirely self taught knowledge for me; at university I studied archaeology at undergraduate and post graduate levels, with a specific interest in maritime archaeology. It has been a sharp learning curve, and one that I think will always be challenging and disrupted by new technology. Of course, I’m open to offers to get back below the seas and excavate underwater again!

The department that I work for, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (and Treasure) is a DCMS funded project that records objects that have been found within the boundaries of England and Wales by members of the public. They voluntarily bring these objects forward to one of our 60 members of staff, who then record them on our database. You could say that this is at heart, public archaeology in action. This database now provides the basis for a massive amount of research within the university environment and it is very gratifying to see what people do with the database that I built. For example, the map below (produced in ArcView – I use QGIS at home) shows where coins of different periods are found by our contributors. Of course, I have to be very careful who has access to the full spatial co-ordinates, academics have to apply for access and I use some maths to obfuscate points on a map.

A plot of all coins recorded on the Scheme's database

A plot of all coins recorded on the Scheme's database

I’ve also been heavily involved with the #dayofarch project alongside friends and colleagues (we’re calling ourselves”Digital Archaeologists” ). The team working on this project were Matt Law and Lorna Richardson who came up with the plan, Tom Goskar, Jess Ogden, Stu Eve and Andy Dufton). I provided the project with server space, Google analytics, installation of the software and configuration of the software with Tom Goskar. The project has been amazing to work on, and we’ll hopefully be writing this up and getting a chapter on it into Lorna’s PhD.

My day is pretty varied and is either filled with writing funding bids, writing papers (CASPAR workshop papers on Archaeology on TV and Museums and Twitter at the moment), refactoring or writing new code, creating maps in various GIS packages, manipulating images (by script and hand), meetings with academics, TV people or colleagues. It is extremely different to my previous job, and it is probably why I’ve stuck with the role for such a long period. The database that I run, has been written from scratch and I’m currently transferring all my code to GitHub so that others can make use of my work. All the software that I either use or build has to be open-source. I have a very small budget for my IT work – £4000 per annum; is this the smallest budget for a National IT programme ever? I use products from Vanilla for our staff forum, from WordPress for our blogs and various framework packages like Zend Framework for our main website and database. As such, I spent only £48 on the site’s rebuild, the rest goes on server hosting and backup! At the moment, I am also working on a variety of funding proposals, a couple of JISC bids and I’m also looking for funding for the Video-Conferencing workshop that Elizabeth Warry refers to in her post. This is based around the discovery of the Frome hoard and forms the basis for her Masters’ dissertation that I’m supervising with Tim Schadla-Hall. Other people working on this include the British Museum’s education team and members of the Treasure Team. I’m also on various academic advisory boards, an honorary lecturer at UCL (currently helping to supervise Lorna Richardson’s PhD) and a Trustee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, a scholarly society based in Marylebone that has a wonderful collection of artefacts, maps and photos, and I’m currently involved in helping with a research bid for high resolution imagery of fragile documents which involves a wide array of partners.

Ian Richardson hold a double eagle

Ian Richardson hold a double eagle

Currently we have records for over 720,000 objects which have been contributed by over 19,000 people in a 14 year time span. We get around 60,000 visitors per month to our site and around 3-10,000 objects recorded; the time of year has a great effect on this – harvest and seasons especially impact. The site was awarded ‘Best of the Web’ as a research tool or online collection at this year’s Museums and the Web conference in Philadelphia. Something I’m extremely proud of for all our staff and contributors.  All of these records are released under a Creative Commons NC-BY-SA licence and we’ve had considerable success with a variety of digital projects. High profile finds that come up generate a huge amount of interest, and I’ve been trying to get suitable images for the Wikipedia community. We’re finding our relationship with them very beneficial and we now have lots of images in the Wikicommons.

With my wife, Katharine Kelland, I built the Staffordshire Hoard’s first website in 12 hours, and this was viewed by 1/4 million people in one day when we launched. I now use this model as a way for publicising other significant archaeological discoveries. I’m very lucky to work in the British Museum, I never thought I’d end up working there and you never tire of walking through the main gates and up the stairs to the Great Court. In the last few years I’ve been privileged to have seen amazing discoveries close up – the Hackney hoard, the Moorlands patera, the Staffordshire Hoard, the Frome Hoard, the Wheathampstead hoard, and the list goes on. I’ve even got to dress up as a gladiator and parade around the Great Court. Where else could you do this?

A week in the life of an FLO

A week in the life of a Finds Liaison Officer

By Wendy Scott, FLO forLeicester, Leicestershire andRutland.

Saturday 16th July

My first ‘National Archaeology Fortnight’ event. I am doing an identification session at Melton Mowbray museum today.  During the week I assisted the local detecting and fieldwork groups mount an exhibition for NAF in the Community Showcase. So I have a wonderful backdrop of Roman, Medieval and post medieval metalwork and pottery! I have met two new finders and recorded some good material.

Sunday 17th July

Festival of History!  Today was a very long but very enjoyable day. We always have a stand in the English Heritage marquee and we usually manage to speak to hundreds of people about our work, especially when it rains and they run for cover!  Watching re-enactors of all periods mixing together is quite weird, I’m sure it must confuse the kids! The afternoon dogfight between a Messerschmitt and a Spitfire was cool (obviously the spitfire won!)

Monday 18th July.

Today I am having a well earned rest! I am just in the office to return equipment used over the weekend and to collect a couple of small treasure items which I am passing on to our manager, Roger Bland tomorrow. He will then take them down to the BritishMuseum for the curators to identify and prepare a Treasure report for the Coroner.

Tuesday 19th July

Regional meeting,  BirminghamMuseum. This is when we catch up with each other, discuss issues, organise events etc. Today we had a special treat. We visited the Conservation lab to have a look at Staffordshire hoard objects being cleaned before going on display. They get more amazing the more we see them!  We also said goodbye to Duncan Slarke, Ex West Mids. FLO (the person the Staffordshire hoard was reported to).  Hes off to a new life in Oslo. Lykke til Duncan!

Wednesday 20th July

Today I dealt with Treasure paperwork, passed on purchased Treasure to the Museums staff and took delivery of a medieval gold ring which needs to go through the Treasure system. I spent the rest of the day editing photos (taken at a MD club meeting) ready to add to our website.

This evening I am going to the  launch of   ‘Visions of Ancient Leicester’ A book showing reconstructions based on the last 10 years of extensive excavation in the city.  A large Roman coin hoard,  a treasure case I worked on, recently purchased by Leicester City Musuems.

Thursday 21st July

Today I am trying to get some records on the website. I have a collection of objects including a group of early Medieval metalwork, which has confirmed the location of a long suspected Anglo-SaxonCemetery in the Melton Mowbray area. So as well as adding these to the website I have alerted local Archaeologists who have been wondering where the cemetery might be!  This morning I also processed some Museum Identifications which may or may not end up on the web too.

Friday 22nd July

More data entry today (it never ends!).  I have written a Treasure report for the ring I collected on Wednesday and sent that to the British Museum for checking. I also had the joy of submitting my quarterly financial claim, which always involves fighting the County Council Finance system for a few hours!  Last job of the day was packing my car with Roman material and kids activities for Saturday’s event.

Saturday 23rd July

Meet the experts’ at Harborough Museum. My last NAF event, today we are concentrating on the Iron age and Roman periods to compliment our wonderful Hallaton Hoard display (over 5,000 Iron age coins excavated from a ‘temple’ site). I have been showing people Roman coins and artefacts and getting children to design their own coins. My Colleague Helen Sharp has been teaching people about life in the Iron age and letting people make their own replica coins, always immensely popular!

I’m now off on a camping trip with my extended family, so enjoy ‘Day of Archaeology!