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Horsing around in the lab

Objects brought to us in Conservation can be chosen for treatment for a number of reasons. Sometimes it is because they are in a fragile state and interventive action is required for the long-term preservation of the piece, and sometimes it is so they can be better displayed and understood by the public. In fact, both of these reasons are true for this next object that is currently being treated in the conservation lab.

If you were faced with this….

Would you be able to begin to identify and make sense of it?

Those ‘horsey’ people among you might be able to recognise the pieces as a horses shaffron. This is armour that is used as the head defence for your horse during combat and sometimes for ceremonial purposes. It is made up of the main face plate and two separate cheek pieces. This particular shaffron is Sudanese in origin and dates from the 19th century. General interest in Sudanese arms and armour increased at this time as the British were undertaking military campaigns in the region. This led to an influx of these types of objects finding their way into British collections, either as spoils of war or picked up by travellers wanting a curio from their holidays.

photograph of man on horseback in chain mail armour next to a young man holding a flag

Lieutenant C.F. Wanhill wearing a suit of chain mail armour looted from the battlefield at Karari after the Battle of Omdurman [Source] Durham University Library Archives and Special Collections, ref. SAD.A1/182

So where does a conservator start with something like this?

Well that’s a very good question…

It is usually a good idea to establish what the aim of the conservation process is for the specific object in question, what exactly are we trying to achieve? This shaffron is to be photographed so it can be used by our curator of Asian and African arms and armour for future publications and also for our collections online. The ideal end point for this object would be for it to be photographed in a way that it can be best understood, that is on a horse head shaped mount. The fragility and stiffness of the leather straps means that it is far too delicate to be mounted like that currently, my job is to decide if and how we can make this a possibility.

Firstly, I need to assess the condition of the object and get an idea about the types of materials it is made up of, as this will directly affect what techniques and products I use. I can see this piece is made up of a mixture of organic and inorganic materials, often these will need different, and sometimes conflicting, types of treatment which can complicate matters.

The copper alloy metal is in good condition, though it is quite soiled and could definitely do with a clean. I often use solvents on cotton swabs to clean metal surfaces as they are usually very effective when used in a controlled manner and dried properly afterwards. You may notice that I referred to the metal as ‘copper alloy’, but I can’t really distinguish any further than that without having analysed it. We are very lucky to have a portable XRF (X-ray fluorescence) which can determine the elemental composition of materials in a non-destructive way.

person using a scanner to scan a metal helmet

Our Portable XRF, it gives you a spectrum on the computer of what elements are present allowing you to identify the alloy type.

The coarse cloth lining and padding seem to be okay too, though again they will need a clean. I will probably stick to dry cleaning methods here as introducing water or other solvents can create tidelines, and if the padding gets damp it could hold moisture against the back of the metal plates.  It will be nice if I can identify the textile type, hopefully, I can do this visually under microscopy.

The real issue is with the leather straps, they’re so fragile and have become really stiff over the years as the leather has dried out. Every time they are moved, small pieces are becoming detached. I’m pretty sure it will need some humidification to get it back to a shape that can work on a mount, but you often have to leave the leather in a humidified atmosphere to soften it, which isn’t going to agree with the metal. So I’m going to have to think of a way to target only the leather, perhaps by forming some kind of tent.

The leather is also going to need some cleaning up, and I usually try to stick to dry cleaning with leather for the same reason as with the textile. This may seem strange after having used humidification as a method, but that process uses water in a vapour rather than in the liquid form. I hope to be able to visually determine the animal species the leather has come from but it will depend on how deteriorated it is. The string towards the muzzle end is likely to be a crude historic ‘repair’ rather than being an original element, so there’s an argument for removing this.

woman looking through a microscope at the shaffron

Conservation work on the Sudanese Shaffron. Photo credit: Charlotte Graham

By thinking all of this through, I can come up with a treatment plan for the shaffron which will guide me during the process of conservation. However, it can all change at the last minute. That’s the beauty of conservation, you can use all your experience and scientific knowledge and things still won’t go as planned. It’s a real test of your patience and you have to be prepared to abandon everything you thought you knew, it’s all about being able to adapt as you go. There’s no one-size-fits-all technique and if you ask another conservator, they may well go about treating this shaffron in a completely different way.

metal studding detail of the Sudanese Shaffron close-up.

The beautiful detail of the Sudanese Shaffron close-up.

Finally, once I’ve completed the treatment I then have to record everything. We use photographs of before, during and after treatments, and we write up a treatment record for every object that we conserve. It can be quite a long process and I’m sure you can appreciate that with over 70,000 objects in the collection, it keeps us pretty busy.

Hopefully this has given you an insight into how we approach the conservation process here at the Royal Armouries. It’s never boring, which is my mantra when things are getting tricky. Though we are really lucky being able to work with such interesting objects and the problem solving can be very rewarding.

I’ll be doing an ‘after’ blog once this treatment is finished to let you all know how it went, wish me luck.

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