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Archaeologists as Conservators: Promoting an Interdisciplinary Approach to Archaeology

January 30th, 2013

Archaeologists as Conservators: Promoting an Interdisciplinary Approach to Archaeology

Caitlin Zant

            Preserving archaeological materials uncovered during excavation has always been a concern of field archaeologists, but the proper handling and storage of such materials is something that has been foreign to many field archaeologists. The theory and practice of the archaeological field have not largely focused on concerns for conservation, but in recent years, these two fields are being increasingly integrated. The importance of knowledge of conservation in the field of archaeology cannot be overstated. Though these two disciplines require the expertise of the other, there has been a struggle to find a balance between the importance of each field.

            Recently, the archaeological community has begun to implement conservation and preservation into its code of ethics, indicating an understanding of the essential bond between conversation and archaeology (Agnew and Bridgland, 2006). In the past, archaeologists have been blamed for the improper handling and storage of recovered artifacts before conservation. Before conservation in the field became an integral part of the archaeological process, many archaeologists did not understand the consequences of certain actions involving recovered artifacts. Following the implementation of conservators on site in the field, at first glance, it would seem most of these issues would be solved. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Though many archaeological sites employ conservation technicians, archaeologists are still the first people to encounter the artifacts. Without some extent of conservation knowledge, these archaeologists have no way of understanding the proper handling of objects (Sigurðardóttir, 2006).

            It seems that there is a general lack of interdisciplinary training for archaeologists. Although the primary goal of undergraduate and graduate programs in archaeology should focus on the theory and methods for archaeological research, a basic knowledge of conservation should be implemented in these programs. While some have noted that, only an introductory class in conservation is not enough to ensure archaeologists obtain adequate knowledge of proper conservation techniques (Sigurðardóttir, 2006), it is not possible to implement a more rigorous conservation curriculum into all archaeology programs. That being said, I believe all archaeologists should have a basic knowledge of conservation theories and techniques so that proper care of artifacts can begin as soon as they are uncovered. Since field conservators are becoming increasingly implemented on archaeological excavations, archaeologists should be trained enough to be able to uncover artifacts and safely transport them to the project’s conservator.

            In archaeological programs, it is important for a student to have the basic knowledge of conservation techniques so that, as an archaeologist, they can be more prepared going into the field. Even if an archaeologist never has to use their conservation training, they can have an understanding and appreciation for the processes involved in conservation. If objects and artifacts are recovered and not cared for properly it can become more difficult for archaeological interpretations. Artifacts are one of the most useful sources of information from an archaeological site. The field of conservation is inherently interdisciplinary, since conservation covers such a wide variety of objects and materials. With the increasing integration of conservation into the field of archaeology, it is imperative for archaeologists to share this interdisciplinary understanding. This is also important in terms of determining an object’s significance. With more interdisciplinary training, archaeologists can gain an understanding of an object’s potential importance, even if deemed unimportant to the archaeological work at hand.

            With these issues in mind, the border between conservation and archaeology can become more fluid, and a common cause between both disciplines can begin to be attained. This way, a more comprehensive understanding of sites and objects can be reached in the hopes of better understanding and preserving cultural heritage. 



Agnew, N. and Bridgland, J., 2006, “Introduction”. In: Of the Past, For the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, pp. 1-4.

 Siguroardottir, K., 2006, “Challenges in Conserving Archaeological Collections”. In: Of the Past, For the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, pp. 220-223.

General Conservation

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