Conserving the Hockwold silver cups

Before they were buried, someone deliberately crushed and broke these cups into separate parts (bowls, handles and feet) then folded and hammered the fragments even more. Why? The most likely explanations are that the hoard was either robbers' loot, a silversmith's stock for recycling, or bullion for a shrine. Whatever the reason, the fact that the cups were crushed for a purpose in Roman times would normally mean that they would be preserved that way. However, they posed a puzzle which could only be solved by restoration.

The British Museum conservator was presented with thirty-three distorted fragments, black with corrosion. There seemed to be five cups with their handles and feet, but that made thirteen extra pieces. How many cups were there exactly? What shape were they? The answers would not become clear until the silver was reshaped and the pieces made ready for assembly.

First, the original condition had to be recorded. The pieces were photographed and analysed (to examine the crystal structure and corrosion patterns of the metal) and an electroform replica was made of one of the cups in its crushed state. The conservator then had the nerve-racking task of annealing the silver (heating it until it glowed red) to soften it. The conservator gradually eased out the folds and creases by hand or with wood and horn tools. By avoiding undue force, the metal was allowed to resume its own original shape.

It became clear that there were four cups (three with handles and one without), four extra handles and a spare foot. The cup without handles was found to comprise a thin, deeply-patterned outer bowl with a plain liner. The liner was originally thought to be a separate cup. The cups were reunited with their handles and feet. They were joined using a reversible adhesive so that original solder marks would not be contaminated and the cups could be dismantled in the future if necessary.

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