English Heritage Begins Early Spring Clean at Whitby Abbey

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 15 February 2008
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  • Archived article
photo of a woman dusting a piece of stonework with a brush and a vacuum cleaner nozzle

The dusting gets underway. Courtesy English Heritage

Spring has come early again in the garden and countryside, with daffodils coming into bloom and the sun warming things up. In the spirit of things, English Heritage are also doing their spring clean early at Whitby Abbey, brushing down relics including a rare Anglo Saxon hair comb.

Experts are to painstakingly clean over 250 historic items spanning 1,400 years which form the centerpiece of the popular exhibition in the Abbey visitor centre, housed within the spectacular shell of a 17th century banqueting house.

The items, all excavated from the site, include finds from the Dark Ages, including the comb made from animal bone, jet crosses, medieval knife handles and even beer bottles all discarded by 20th century tourists, unaware that their rubbish would be recycled as archaeology 80 years later!

Although dust might seem more of a nuisance than a danger, it is in fact one of the chief enemies of the nation’s heritage. Not only does it make objects unsightly, it also attracts moisture, which accelerates decay and erosion, particularly of metal objects. That is why Whitby’s treasures are kept in tightly sealed glass cases, where humidity and temperature are also constantly controlled.

However, despite all of the precautions, every few years conservators have to don their white gloves and mount a major cleansing exercise, as Susan Harrison, English Heritage Curator, explains.

“It’s a massive job cleaning all the objects,” she says, “but eventually it has to be done. Dust is a very resilient and insidious problem. We use a variety of brushes and specially adapted vacuum cleaners with precisely adjustable suction levels to rid objects of particles.

photo of an engraved metal comb with only a few of the tines remaining

The bone comb. Courtesy English Heritage

“Along with gloves to protect objects from our natural skin oils and a magnifying glass, the other chief requirement is patience.”

The artefacts help tell the story of the spectacular North Yorkshire abbey and its headland for thousands of visitors every year. Many were uncovered during the 1920s when ex-servicemen from the First World War were recruited to clear historic sites of thousands of tonnes of rubble which had accumulated over the centuries.

Other items were unearthed during more recent digs, which paved the way for the £6 million restoration of the Whitby Headland and the creation of the new visitor centre six years ago, while a number are on loan from the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society.

The oldest objects from the Anglo Saxon period are amongst the few tangible reminders of the monastery founded by St Hilda in 657AD. The ruins we see today are those of the 11th century Norman abbey. They include a metal book mount, a writing stylus and a panel inscribed with the word ‘Aed’, part of a female name and a reminder that both men and women were part of the first monastic community at Whitby.

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