A reconstructed helmet band, depicting a frieze of warriors, which was found as part of the Staffordshire hoard. Photograph: Birmingham museums trust/PA
More than 1,500 scraps of silver gilt foil from the Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure, including strips stamped with designs of warriors and beasts and other fragments the size of a fingernail, are being pieced together by archaeologists and conservators into a warrior’s helmet of international importance – as it is one of only five ever found.
With years of conservation and research remaining, Historic England will announce a £400,000 grant on Tuesday to fund the continuing study of the largest hoard of Anglo Saxon precious metal work ever found. It was discovered by a metal detector in 2010 in Staffordshire farmland before another 90 pieces were recovered from the same field three years later.
Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent councils, joint owners of the hoard, are trying to raise an additional £120,000 towards the project, which will include an online catalogue of the complete hoard by 2017.
“Until we started fitting the pieces together we weren’t even quite sure that we had a helmet, but we are now certain that we have most of it,” said Pieta Greaves, coordinator of the conservation team at the Birmingham museum. “We are missing some pieces including the iron frame, but we should end up with an academically respectable guestimate of what it could have looked like. I think some form of reconstruction will prove feasible.”
The helmet would have dazzled when new, set with bands of precious metal and golden intricately decorated pieces covering the ears.
“We’re missing bits that we see on the Sutton Hoo helmet, like the eyebrow and face protectors, but we have the ear pieces, most of the cap and the crest. What we have is the valuable bits, the stripped out silver and gold – it may be that somebody else got a bag full of base metal to melt down,” Greaves said.
The hoard is unique in that it consists entirely of male ornament and decorative weapon fittings – “warrior bling” as one archaeologist put it – and a few Christian pieces that may have been wrenched off bibles or reliquaries. Among more than 4,000 pieces nothing has been identified that was made for a woman.
The meticulous cleaning and study of even the tiniest pieces has also identified a unique sword pommel, which was among more than 70 examples in the hoard, that combines Irish and British styles, and materials including gold, silver, garnet, glass and deliberately blackened silver niello work.
Chris Fern, the project archaeologist, said the skill of the workmanship was thrilling and the pommel a truly exciting object. “It combines multiple different styles of ornament, much in the same way as the earliest seventh-century illuminated manuscripts do, like the Book of Durrow. It suggests the coming together of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish high cultures.”
Greaves said the pommel was the only piece to combine so many materials: “It’s as if the craftsman was showing off, saying look at me, look at what I can really do.”
The gallery for the hoard opened in October by Birmingham city museum has had more than 110,000 visitors. Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, said: “Since its discovery in 2009, the Staffordshire hoard and the stories behind it have captured the public imagination.”