Conserving Viking Archaeology Part 2: Treating the ‘Special Finds’ from the Site of the Great Army Encampment at St Wystan’s Church, Repton11 January 2023
In 865, The Great Army, a 3000-strong pan-Viking force, arrived on the Kent coast.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the force reached Repton, Derbyshire in 874, and established a long-term camp. In response, the Mercian king fled the country, allowing the Vikings to take control of Mercia, and later incorporate East Mercia into the Danelaw. Until recently, only contemporary writing was the only evidence such a camp had existed.
Digs around St Wystan’s Church in the 1970s uncovered remains of Viking burials and a defensive ditch resembling those found in Scandinavia.
Further excavations were carried out in 1998, 2016, and 2018 to gauge the nature of Viking influence on the surrounding area. These uncovered many objects dateable to the late ninth and early tenth centuries.
Six other conservation students and I were lucky enough to treat metal finds from these digs while on placement at Cardiff University. This blog series goes behind the scenes at the lab, looking at how conservators contribute to discoveries we make about the past from the evidence hidden beneath our feet.
Besides the iron finds we batch-treated, there were seven finds, one for each of us to work on, judged ‘special’ by the archaeologists at Repton based on their artistic merit.
Image: We were extremely excited about the special finds! From left to right: Kitty, Courtney, Lexie, Sorcha, Leonie. Photograph taken by Tessa Corton.
Image: Emma’s assigned find, a beautiful brass brooch and separate pin with elaborate knotwork decoration.
Image: Lexie’s object, a silver gilt hooked tag, featuring an appendage cast in the shape of a bird’s head.
Image: Tessa’s assigned object, a copper gilt pin head, before and after cleaning. Photographs taken by Tessa Corton.
Image: Kitty’s assigned find, a copper alloy brooch pin with small fine decoration on the hinge, after cleaning.
Image: Courtney’s find, an iron zig-zag shaped fitting.
Image: Leonie’s assigned find, a coil-shaped iron object.
My Special Find
My assigned find was a decorated copper alloy strap. It had broken into three pieces, and the original surface was obscured by bright blue-green corrosion products.
Image: Photographs of the front and back of the copper alloy strap end with scale.
X-raying copper finds offers a ‘preview’ of what should be uncovered by cleaning, helping guide conservators’ hands and so reduce the risk of damage to the surface that could be caused by mechanical tools and chemical treatments.
We exposed these special finds to higher kVs than we did our iron finds, as copper is denser than iron. The greatest amount of detail was revealed on the strap when exposed at 100 kV and 110 kV for two minutes.
Image: Photograph of the X-ray of the special finds.
Image: A close up on my special find under kV90 and kV100 with 90 seconds and two minutes of exposure time respectively, revealing its knotwork pattern in detail, including the face-like motif.
This confirmed that the strap is decorated with a rounded knotwork pattern, featuring a design resembling a human face.
While visiting Dublinia, I saw an object resembling my find described as a Viking belt strap-end.
Image: Viking-era belt buckles (top left, bottom) and strap-end (top right) on display at Dublinia, Dublin, Ireland.
I found similar objects described as belt strap-ends and decorations at Museo Civico Archaeologico in Fiesole, Italy.
Image: Pre-Roman belt strap-ends and strap-shaped decorations excavated from Fiesole, on display at Museo Civico Archaeologico, Fiesole, Italy.
The patterns strongly resemble those on strap-ends confirmed as of Scandinavian origin found in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.
Image: FAKL-E19532 (top, The Portable Antiquities Scheme); NLM161 (centre, The Portable Antiquities Scheme); LIN-909EA2 (bottom, Lincolnshire County Council).
While some of the finer details of the original design have been lost, the decoration strongly resembles the ‘vertebral ring-chain’ characteristic of the Borre style.
Borre’s golden age, c.850 – late 900s, overlaps with the Great Army’s arrival. However, the ring-chain was one of the designs adopted by British artisans, and although the decorative work is much finer on my piece than that on many Anglo-Scandinavian examples from the period, it does resemble this finer-worked Anglo-Scandinavian strap-end found in Suffolk.
Image: Belt strap-end identified as Anglo-Scandinavian, copyright Suffolk County Council.
Although it cannot prove or disprove the Great Army’s encampment at St Wystan’s Church on its own, our little strap end still tells us a lot about Repton’s strong connections with Scandinavia and Norse culture during the late 9th and 10th centuries.
I removed the corrosion obscuring the design mechanically, using IMS (industrial methylated spirits) to soften denser areas before gently scraping them off with a scalpel.
The metal is extremely thin, especially at the edges of the strap. To minimise the pressure placed on these areas, I rested the find on a piece of Plastazote foam covered with blue roll.
Cleaning exposed red and orange-coloured areas between the gaps in the knotwork. Before attempting to remove these, it was important to confirm they were not part of an enamel, niello or gold inlay. There are few strap-ends from this period with surviving evidence of inlays, and almost none of Viking origin.
Image: Microscope image of possible coral-coloured inlay (x15 zoom).
Image: Microscope image of same section of inlay (x40 zoom).
Image: Microscope image of possible red inlay (x15 zoom).
Image: Microscope image of another area of the same material (x40 zoom).
I chose 40% Paraloid B-72 in acetone to readhere the broken pieces of the strap, rather than an epoxy resin. While acrylics do not form as strong a bond and take longer to cure, they are more reversible, meaning they could be removed by a future conservator if a more suitable adhesive was developed. The position of pieces can also be easily adjusted for a longer period after the adhesive is applied, helpful when such small pieces are involved.
I compensated for the relative weakness of the bond by backing the strap with a layer of Japanese tissue paper. I initially backed the front and back, as backing the front allowed me to ensure that the way I had arranged the pieces matched the knotwork pattern. I later removed the front ‘backing’ with acetone and a scalpel.
Image: The readhered strap-end, with Japanese tissue paper removed from the front.
The next blog post will look at the process of conducting SEM (Scanning Electron Microscopy) analysis on our finds, and hopefully discovering the identity of that coloured inlay!
If you missed the first blog in this series (on the batch conservation of the iron finds), you can read it here: https://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/conservation/conserving-viking-archaeology-part-1-the-batch-treatment-of-iron-finds-from-the-site-of-the-great-army-encampment-at-st-wystans-church-repton/
Interested in finding out more about what conservators do? Check out:
Mathiasson, J. and Rumsey, K. The C Word: The Conservators’ Podcast [Podcast]. Available at: https://thecword.show/.
Secrets of the Museum. 2020. BBC Two. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/m000f1xt/secrets-of-the-museum.
To find out more about how we use X-rays to interpret the condition and construction of metal objects:
Historic England. 2006. Guidelines on the X-radiography of archaeological metalwork. Swindon: English Heritage Publications. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/x-radiography-of-archaeological-metalwork/xradiography/.
You can find out more about our work on the Repton finds, and about our work at Cardiff as conservators, on our social media!
History and Archaeology
BBC. 2014. Viking Dig Reports. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/dig_reports_01.shtml.
Butler. J. n.d. The Great Heathen Army. Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Great-Heathen-Army/.
Current Archaeology. 2019. Resolving Repton: A Viking Great Army winter camp and beyond. Available at: https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/resolving-repton.htm.
Hadley, D. and Richards, D. 2021. The Viking Great Army and the Making of England. London: Thames & Hudson.
Jarman, C. 2021. River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads. London: HarperCollins.
Levine, J. 2022. Digging Up the Rich Viking History of Britain. A massive 1,100-year-old graveyard leads to a surprising new view of the Nordic legacy in Britain. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/digging-up-viking-history-britain-180979790/.
Richards, J. 2021. The Viking Great Army: the latest discoveries. History Extra [Podcast]. 7 July 2021. Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/viking/viking-great-army-latest-discoveries-podcast-julian-richards/.
The British Museum. 2022. Portable Antiquities Scheme. Available at: https://finds.org.uk/ – This scheme records archaeological objects discovered by the members of the public in England and Wales on a searchable database.
University of Nottingham. 2022. Vikings in the East Midlands. Available at: https://emidsvikings.ac.uk/.
All images belong to me or the other students who worked with me on the Repton finds, unless stated otherwise.
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