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Conserving Viking Archaeology Part 2: Treating the ‘Special Finds’ from the Site of the Great Army Encampment at St Wystan’s Church, Repton

11 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.

Five students in white lab coats gathered around a small open plastic box on a table, peering into it with smiles on their faces.

Image: We were extremely excited about the special finds! From left to right: Kitty, Courtney, Lexie, Sorcha, Leonie. Photograph taken by Tessa Corton.

A gold-coloured diamond-shaped brooch with a central diamond shaped knotwork motif surrounded by a border of four different styles of knotwork, one along each side. Above, there is a long, dull coloured pin, one end bent into a circle shape.

Image: Emma’s assigned find, a beautiful brass brooch and separate pin with elaborate knotwork decoration.

A round silver object comprised of two bands. There is a loop on one side of the outer band and a bird's-head shaped appendage on the other. Half of this band is missing. The inner band forms an 'S' shape, and is attached to the outer band via two bars and the top of the 'S' shaped band, which is shaped like a fish.

Image: Lexie’s object, a silver gilt hooked tag, featuring an appendage cast in the shape of a bird’s head.

The top, bottom and two side views of the top section of a pin before and after cleaning. Before cleaning, the shape and colour of the pin is obscured by brown soil and corrosion products: a small section of copper gilding is visible at the very head of the pin from one side view. After cleaning, the green shaft and round shape of the head are visible, as is a larger patch of remaining copper gilding.

Image: Tessa’s assigned object, a copper gilt pin head, before and after cleaning. Photographs taken by Tessa Corton.

A dark green-grey pin, with a rounded point at one end and flat at the other. The flat end, decorated with lines of impressed dots, bends and is turned slightly at the end towards the viewer.

Image: Kitty’s assigned find, a copper alloy brooch pin with small fine decoration on the hinge, after cleaning.

A rectangular lump of thick light brown corrosion, narrowing towards one end.

An X-ray image showing an iron band with crown-like triangular protrusions on one side.

Image: Courtney’s find, an iron zig-zag shaped fitting.

Two lumps, one larger and more cylindrical, and one smaller and flatter, covered in dark brown corrosion products.An X-ray image showing a tightly wound coil.

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.

A pale gold-coloured rectangular strap and two fragments decorated with a knotwork pattern. There are green and blue patches of corrosion between the raised sections of the knotwork. The scale shows that the strap is just over 3cm long in total, including fragments, and just under 2cm wide.The undecorated back of the strap, covered in patches of grey, green and brown 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.

An X-Ray, labelled number K226, divided into four sections that display the same four objects- a tight coil, a band with triangular protrusions, the rectangular strap and a pin with a round head- at different levels of brightness and contrasts.

Image: Photograph of the X-ray of the special finds.

A close-up on X-ray K226 (described above) showing the rectangular strap at two different brightnesses that reveal a human face-like design within the knotwork.

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.

A grey metallic buckle and rectangular strap with a triangular point on one end and a white buckle displayed on a white board square, labelled with the numbers 3 and 4.

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.

A line of fragments of patterned metal rectangular straps displayed on a plastic stand. A drawing on a piece of paper beneath the display shows how the straps were attached along the length of belt straps, some hanging down from the edge of the strap, as well as to their ends.

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.

A dark grey elliptical strap decorated with a pattern resembling a chain made of circular links.A pencil drawing of a section of rectangular strap featuring a pattern of alternate vertical and horizontal lines surrounded by a rectangular border with rounded edges.A short section of the end of a dark brown elliptical strap, decorated with a rounded knotwork pattern and a narrow border around the strap edge.

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.

A dull yellow rectangular strap with pattern resembles a chain made of multiple thin circular links with triangular connectors between them.

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.

A close up on a deposit of orange material between the raised sections of knotwork on the strap end.

Image: Microscope image of possible coral-coloured inlay (x15 zoom).

A higher magnification close-up of the same orange coloured deposit.

Image: Microscope image of same section of inlay (x40 zoom).

A close up of several dark red streak-shaped deposits between the raised sections of knotwork.

Image: Microscope image of possible red inlay (x15 zoom).

A higher magnification closeup of a triangular deposit of the same dark red material.

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.

The front of strap. From this angle, the fragments have been reattached to the main body in an invisible manner. The front of strap. From this angle, the fragments have been reattached to the main body in an invisible manner.

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:


Further reading


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:

Secrets of the Museum. 2020. BBC Two. Available at:


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:


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:

Butler. J. n.d. The Great Heathen Army. Available at:

Current Archaeology. 2019. Resolving Repton: A Viking Great Army winter camp and beyond. Available at:

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:

Richards, J. 2021. The Viking Great Army: the latest discoveries. History Extra [Podcast]. 7 July 2021. Available at:

The British Museum. 2022. Portable Antiquities Scheme. Available at: – 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:


All images belong to me or the other students who worked with me on the Repton finds, unless stated otherwise.