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Restoring the helmet from the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo
When found, this magnificent helmet was in hundreds of pieces. It was recovered from an Anglo-Saxon grave at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in 1939.
The burial chamber had collapsed and reduced the helmet to a pile of fragments. Pieces of rusted iron were mixed up with pieces of tinned bronze, all so corroded as to be barely recognizable.
The first restoration of the helmet was completed by 1947, but continuing research showed it to be inaccurate and it was dismantled in 1968. The new restoration relied entirely on the evidence of the fragments themselves and not on preconceived ideas - the aim of all modern archaeological conservation. It took the conservator a year of painstaking study and experimentation with more than 500 fragments.
The pieces had to be identified and matched by their thickness, texture and traces of the design in the corrosion. As months passed, vital discoveries were made about the helmet's structure. The cap size and shape were established by joining fragments from the top and one of the sides; a small riveted plate on one piece provided evidence for the attachment of the ear-flaps. The discovery of the position of a third dragon's head completed the dramatic face mask.
A temporary support was made (a plaster dome covered with modelling clay) on which the fragments were held with long pins while they were joined. The missing areas were filled with jute textile, stiffened with adhesive and skimmed with plaster. These infills were coloured brown to match the iron.
Though rusted now, the helmet would originally have been a bright silvery colour, with the tinned bronze panels, the gilding and the garnets, it would have had the striking appearance we see in the reconstruction.