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The Investigative Conservation of a Poorly

Preserved Anglo-Saxon Lyre from Prittlewell

Elizabeth Barham

Zwischen 2004 und 2005 wurde die erste auf
Laborarbeiten basierende Untersuchung einer
angelschsischen Leier aus Grobritannien durchgefhrt ein Meilenstein der britischen Musikarchologie. Bei einer Ausgrabung in Essex, Sdostengland, hatte der Museum of London
Archaeological Service Ende 2003 eine erstaunliche
Entdeckung gemacht: eine noch ungestrte angelschsische Grabkammer (um 600 n. Chr.). Zu den
in dieser Kammer niedergelegten Objekten gehrte ein nicht identifizierbarer hlzerner Gegenstand, der sich in einem schlechen Erhaltungszustand befand. Er wurde mit der ihn umgebenden
Erde ins Labor gebracht, gerntgt, sowie einer forschungsintensiven Konservierung unterzogen. Die
Arbeit fhrte zu dem Ergebnis, dass es sich um eine
Leier des Sutton-Hoo-Typs handelt, die mit der
Vorderseite nach unten lag und in ihre Einzelteile
zerfallen war. Dennoch konnte erstmals ein Eindruck von der Gesamtlnge und -breite des Instruments gewonnen werden. Mit Hilfe von CT-Aufnahmen konnten die an den Oberflchen nicht
sichtbaren Verbindungen und ihre Passformen
untereinander in situ erkannt werden. Daraufhin
wurde der Erdblock umgedreht, sodass die zuvor
unten liegende Erdschicht vom Instrument entfernt werden konnte und die Vorderseite sichtbar
wurde. Laseraufnahmen und hochauflsende digitale Fotografie wurden daraufhin zur Aufnahme
beider Oberflchen eingesetzt. Kleine Proben des
Materials gengten, um das Holz zu bestimmen
und den Konservierungsprozess einzuleiten. Diese
gewonnene Erfahrung belegt das Ausma, in dem
relevante Informationen auch unter nicht eben
vielversprechenden Umstnden gewonnen werden
knnen und zeigt den Wert einer minutisen Herangehensweise in der Ausgrabung stark fragmentierter hlzerner Musikinstrumente.
There were many rare and beautiful objects discovered in the Anglo-Saxon chamber grave at Prit-

tlewell in Essex in 20031, but the lyre from the

grave has been one of the most challenging to conserve and interpret, because so little survives. In
fact at times it has been like conserving the ghost
of an object, rather than the object itself. Despite
this, a surprising amount has been discovered
about the structure of the instrument, even though
it is very poorly preserved.
It provides the first direct archaeological evidence of dimensions of an Anglo-Saxon lyre from
Britain, and shows how various fragments found
from some previous examples of lyres interrelate
and what purpose they probably served.
This paper is about the conservation process
rather than drawing conclusions about the artefact,
the grave and its occupant, because the project of
which it is a part is still ongoing, but the application of investigative techniques may be useful to
others in the field of archaeological musical studies.
The chamber grave in which the lyre lay was
discovered during an archaeological evaluation by
MoLAS prior to the widening of a road near
Southend, a large town in the south-east of England, close to the northern edge of the Thames
estuary. The project was initially a simple test of
archaeological potential, opening three trenches on
green space at the edge of a road, in soil which,
below the topsoil, was essentially damp sand over
gravel. Fortunately one of the trenches was situated directly over the remains of the chamber. Soon
after its excavation had started, a host of artefacts
began to appear, mostly copper and iron objects,
the copper in relatively good condition, the iron
less so. There were virtually no organic remains.
Those organic remains that did survive were mostly close to copper and silver fittings or artefacts.
Some patchy waterlogging may also have played

The site and the find will be discussed further in forthcoming publications in the MoLAS monograph series.


Elizabeth Barham

a part. In the case of the lyre, this meant that very

little of the original body of the instrument had
survived, as the fittings are small and most of it
would have been made of wood.
Figure 1 shows the location of the lyre in the
chamber in relation to some of the other objects
and Figure 2 an image of the remains in situ on the
chamber floor. The remains mostly consisted just
of a woody stain with metal fittings. It was difficult to identify the lyre while in the ground, and
on British sites it is apparently quite common not
to initially recognise these instruments, because of
the extent of decay2. As a result, remains that survive have tended to come up as fragments that are
difficult to relate to each other, and they have
rarely been conserved. Fortunately this instrument
had not been disturbed during burial, and an
archaeologist was able to define the stain well in
the ground, especially given the number of other
objects in the chamber that had hung above it and
that had lain on the floor nearby. In fact a concreted iron object had fallen onto the lyre during burial, but it was later possible to separate the two off
site, without damage to either item.
From the early stages of the conservation
process, the consultant finds specialist Dr Graeme
Lawson was very helpful in advising on likely features to recognise and in explaining the potential
finds wider significance. This was very important
to the investigative work, and the collaboration
between archaeologists and conservators on the
project was also crucial.
The image of the lyre in situ (Fig. 2) was
already of great interest, as it provided approximate
dimensions of the instrument for the first time, but
there was clearly more to know from the fittings
and how they related to any woody remains. The
aim of the investigative conservation work was
firstly to provide clearer evidence that the object
was a lyre; to record any proportions and dimensions; and then to stabilise and record what
remains there were for display and interpretation
The object was block-lifted in and on its surrounding soil, that is, taken up as one block of soil,
surrounded by temporary support materials and
undermined with metal plates. It is fairly standard
conservation practice in Britain to lift such an
object whole and conserve it off site, so that noninvasive and more detailed investigation can be
done than is possible in the field. The result was a
block of soil circa 150 mm thick with the very thin
layer of remains close to the surface. The block
was kept damp by spraying with deionised water
and in cool, dark storage under plastic. This was
done to prevent the wood from drying out in an
uncontrolled manner, which can cause shrinkage
and distortion prior to conservation treatment,

and cool, dark storage was necessary to discourage

The object was firstly X-rayed in a conventional way. Due to its size, this was done in a leadlined room at an English Heritage facility. On the
positive side, the resulting X-radiographs provided enough information to confirm that the object
was a lyre through its diagnostic features. They
also showed that the object was lying on its face.
However conventional X-radiography had limitations: the images gave insufficient detail because of
the density of the block and the delicacy of the
metal fittings of the object. The result was also
very two-dimensional; effective images could not
be taken from the sides of this delicate and thin
artefact. It was also necessary to fit the image over
two plates, because the object was twice as long as
the larger size of X-radiographic plates available;
so viewing and assessing the image as a whole was
not easy.
It was realised that a computerised axial
tomography (CT) scan was needed. This technique is not often used in our archaeological projects because of the cost and time involved in setting it up, but was worthwhile for this type of
artefact. The scan was done out-of-hours, at a
hospital-based scanner centre in west London.
The scanner, a Siemens Somatom Sensation
machine, was one of the most technologically upto-date in Britain at that time. The scan takes digital X-ray images or tomograms and can scan the
whole in less than a minute (Fig. 3). It provides a
three-dimensional digital image that can be
manipulated on the screen and is much more
powerful than conventional X-radiography so it
could bring out more detail.
New fittings could be seen that had not been
visible before. The locations of the metal fittings
could be seen in three dimensions, and it was possible to see which fittings belonged to which side
of the instrument. In this way it also gave an
impression of the depth of the object remains. It
was also possible to make a preliminary assessment of the condition of the fittings. The result
was a very flexible imaging tool, as one can examine the image on the screen, store the data on a
disk or print it out in hard copy as radiographs.
The scanning work provided both a good
record and a guide to further investigation. There
was then sufficient information to clean the surface lightly with small hand tools. Once clarified,
the lyre surface was also digitally photographed at
high resolution, some of it in stereo. The resolution of these images makes it possible to zoom in
closely for detail on-screen. The surface was also

personal communication Dr. Graeme Lawson.

The Investigative Conservation of a Poorly Preserved Anglo-Saxon Lyre from Prittlewell

drawn by an archaeological artist and, in conjunction with the conservator, detailed measurements
were taken of the surface elements and the distances between them.
The surface was also laser-scanned (Fig. 4); this
is a very detailed way of recording surface contours. The laser records surface topography by
measuring it in a series of tiny laser points across
the surface, and this builds up a digital image of it
which can be used as a record or even as a basis for
making a replica.
The laser was portable, so it was not necessary
to move the object, and the work took approximately one hour. The scan was expensive but partly funded by the Southend Museums Service, as
they understood the potential benefits of the work
for recording and future display purposes. The
images and drawings could be used in a conventional way for a publication. However, it would
also be possible to eventually use all the scan data,
images and drawings and knit them together to
make an interactive display to make this very fragmentary object more understandable, via a website
or in a gallery as part of a museum exhibition. The
laser data could even be used to recreate a replica
of the original soil block.
The detail in which the artefact was recorded
using these methods was considerable, but it was
clear that in order to conserve the wood remains
effectively, it would be necessary to eventually dismantle the block, so non-invasive recording prior
to this was very important.
Once all of these recording processes of this
surface were completed, it was then necessary to
clarify the other side (the original front face) of the
lyre by turning the block over. It was considered
whether it would be necessary to divide the block
because of the shifting weight of wet sand on the
delicate fittings and the difficulty of turning the
block in a controlled way. However, the CT scan
showed there so much gravel in the block, that it
would have been too disruptive to the remains to
do this.
Instead, the surface was faced thickly in layers
of wet Japanese tissue, the sides of the block were
bound more tightly, and it was turned as a whole
between two strapped boards. This was successful;
besides keeping all in place, the wet tissue also
provided a support cradle which could be sprayed
regularly with deionised water to help keep the
remains damp during the work.
Small hand tools, sprays and swabs of deionised water were then used to excavate down to
the original surface. The radiographs were used to
track where fittings should be. The first layer to be
discovered was a surprising dark layer of staining
and plant fibre remains from the decayed chamber
floor. Beneath that lay the remains of the instru-


ment itself: a very thin layer of artefact fragments,

for example, Figure 5, in their supporting sand.
Much of it was only a dark brown woody stain,
but the main joints of the upper cross-bar seemed
quite well preserved directly under their decorative metal strengthening plates. The new surface
was drawn, photographed and laser scanned, and it
was then time to dismantle the block to conserve
the surviving fragments of wood.
When removing any woody stain remains that
no longer had a structure, an excavation grid of 20
mm squares on polyester film was overlaid and the
sand with its stain was removed in 20 mm2 spits.
The taking of these sand samples was done on the
recommendation of the finds specialist as he felt
they could be useful to analysts in the future. The
wood fragments were also mapped 1:1 on film as
they were lifted out. The fragments were supported on small rafts of polyester film and kept in
archival plastic boxes. Small samples for wood
identification were then taken prior to conservation treatment.
It was difficult to decide how best to treat the
wood, as the associated delicate metalwork precluded standard immersion treatments in polyethylene glycol (PEG) or dewatering chemicals.
Eventually it was decided to pipette on appropriate molecular weight and incremental concentrations of PEG solution. It was also decided to
freeze-dry the fragments in a freezer, rather than
by using a freeze-dryer, to avoid any effects of
pulling a vacuum on the fittings. Where necessary
stable reversible adhesives were used to conserve
the metal fittings. Now consolidated and fully dry,
the fragments have been packed into archival plastic boxes, supported to enable them to be easily
viewed with as little handling as possible. Each has
been related to its location on the diagrams made
of the remains in situ in the block. There is potential for further analysis of the metal composition
of the fittings and the structure of the remaining
wood elements at a later stage in the archaeological
The analysis and interpretation of the lyre is
still a work in progress. It is important to note
that the work has taken place over a long period,
partly because the external scanning arrangements
and the agreement of costs have taken some time,
and also because there have been over a hundred
other vulnerable objects to work on in the meantime from the same chamber grave. It has been
necessary to keep the object damp continuously
when not working on it, which can be quite
labour intensive. Although the work on it probably equates to circa 20 days of conservation time
taken place over 1.5 years, 1 : 1 drawings and
observation over that period suggest that there
has been no noticeable deterioration in the wood


Elizabeth Barham

since excavation. However in this case the remains

are fragments; the wood identification work has
shown that the cell structure is not in good condition, and some of it has mineralised through proximity to its iron fittings. If it were better preserved, it would have required a different
approach and timescale.
Alongside the conservation analysis and interpretation of the object itself, a very important
outcome has been the establishment of a thorough virtual record of the lyre. In addition to its
analytical value, this could be a very useful tool in
the future public display of the lyre. It could help
the museum visitors to understand this very frag-

mentary artefact despite its condition and show

visitors how conclusions have been reached in its
interpretation through the process of archaeological conservation.

The author would like to thank the Museum of
London Archaeology Service project teams,
Dr. Graeme Lawson, the Museum of London Conservation Departement, English Heritage, Southend
on the Sea Borough Council and Southend Museums Service.

The Investigative Conservation of a Poorly Preserved Anglo-Saxon Lyre from Prittlewell

Fig. 1 A prelimenary reconstruction of the Prittlewell chamber-grave layout. Copyright MoLAS.



Elizabeth Barham

Fig. 2 Lyre remains in situ. Copyright Andy Chopping

at MoLAS.

Fig. 3 A Prittlewell artefact enters the CT scanner.

Copyright Museum of London.

Fig. 4 The lyre surface is laser-scanned. Copyright

Andy Chopping at MoLAS.

Fig. 5 A fitting from the lyre with surrounding wood

remains. Copyright Museum of London.