This gold and garnet lentoid plate is one of a couple found in the summer of 2009 in a field in Staffordshire by metal detector. It is part of a great collection of gold and silver objects, many of which are now being prepared for national and international exhibitions starting this summer.
Description and condition
The lentoid plate measures circa 52 mm x 75 mm, it is about 5mm thick and weights over 38g: This makes it a remarkable object in the collection, which also comprises a large number of very small fragments and loose garnets. The lentoid plate has suffered much damage, with bending and breakage of its metal parts leading to loss of garnets, but the number of original cells is estimated to be 239. Each cell would have contained one individually cut garnet. Because it was found in the ground, this object was brought to the conservation studio covered in soil obscuring much of its surface detail. A meticulous cleaning operation allows us to finally see what lay beneath that soil.
Like for most of the hoard objects, the construction of this piece is quite elaborate: the “eye” shaped base is made of a sheet of gold to which construction details such as borders and cell walls were attached, most probably by a process called eutectic soldering . There are three rivet holes at the back, two of which still contain portions of the rivets.
The cells: these are thin, mostly short strips of gold shaped and soldered to the base to form individual settings for each garnet (image 1 ). It is very likely that the bottom of these cells may have contained a material used to fill them up and support the garnet and its backing foil. The lentoid plate features a very large almond shaped cell in the centre (image 3), which is likely to have contained a decorative stone.
The garnets: there are a variety of garnet shapes and sizes in the hoard, but their average thickness tends to be between 1.1-1.2 mm. All the garnets on this object are red (image 2), and because this is a rather resilient silicate stone, most of them look as shiny as new! 197 garnets are present on the lentoid plate.
The backing foils: As a perfectly cut and polished garnet wasn’t shiny enough, the Anglo-Saxons added to the effect by backing each stone with its own individual gold foil. The waffle pattern, stamped on the extremely thin foils, is microscopically small. The central almond shape cell, having lost its stone, offers a view to one of the largest backing foils in the collection.
The beaded wire: A double row of beaded wire or filigree runs around almost the entire perimeter of the object (image 4). According to measurements carried out using a microscope fitted with picture capturing software, each wire is circa 0.38mm wide. Filigree even finer that this was widely used as a decorative technique by the Anglo-Saxons and the Staffordshire Hoard as a whole offers many splendid examples of this.
The composite nature of the hoard objects makes them often structurally unstable (fragile, in other words); the lentoid plate is no exception. The lifting of soil to reveal the surface can cause the garnets beneath it to become loose; that is why sometimes the removal of soil is only partial, as compact soil can provide much of an object’s structural cohesion . Moreover gold, and especially gold as pure as this, is quite soft and easily scratched, therefore the tools for its cleaning must be chosen carefully. As a rule, no metal tools are used for the cleaning of objects in the hoard. When conserving this object care was taken not to contaminate the surface with any material or treatment which may hinder future analysis. One of the reasons why many of the objects are not perfectly clean is that the level of conservation was decided with the needs for future analysis and study in mind. The adhesive used to secure the unstable garnets is reversible, in other words, it can be undone quite easily if needed. The lentoid plate took over 50 hours to conserve, including bench work, photography, study and consultation and report writing. More than 40 samples of soil, associated fragments and corrosion products were taken from its surface and may help scientists understand the object’s history and burial environment.
So, what is it?
This is the question that we conservators, as well as our curatorial colleagues and research panel are asked on an almost daily basis. A potentially embarrassing question, since the unprecedented nature of many of the hoard objects means we have no existing similar specimen to compare our objects to, in order to help our interpretation and understanding. But rather than shrug our shoulders and look baffled we try to make informed hypothesis, we talk to the experts and we interact with the public who are keen and interested in the subject and whose comments sometimes can open new and interesting avenues. The interpretation of the original use of the lentoid plates is still very much open to debate. Could it be part of a helmet or armour decoration? Was it used on a man or to decorate a horse’s armour?
If you’d like to know more…
The following books are good initial sources of information on the Hoard, Anglo-Saxon crafts and conservation:
The Mercian Trail Tour
Please do not miss the chance to admire this and many other objects while they are on exhibition this summer; not only because the Hoard team has worked so hard to make it happen, but most of all because this is a collection of truly remarkable, unprecedented artefacts. The sites at Stafford, Lichfield and Tamworth are going to provide fantastic locations for the exhibitions starting in July 2011. See more details of the 2011 Tour.
Deborah Magnoler, Conservator, Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Team, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.