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Is Conservation its own field or a subfield of Archaeology?

February 4th, 2013

Is Conservation its own field or a subfield of Archaeology?

Hannah Piner 

            Conservation sprung from the need to protect and conserve our past; it is hard to say that conservation came from archaeology, or any other major discipline specifically. It is the daughter of art, history, archaeology, architecture, and museum studies, just to name some of the influential fields. With advances in technology, artifacts come from a wider variety of places (family homes, private collections, archaeological sites) and with advances in science there are new ways to study these artifacts.  Virtually every advance made creates a new subfield of conservation in the American Institute for Conservation: object, wood, paper, painting, etc.

Even if one eliminates many of the subfields of conservation, and focuses solely on object conservation, it is hard to say that object conservation is merely a subfield of archaeology. Often, conservators do not work in the field with the archaeologists which eliminates the conservator from a majority of an archaeologists work. Instead the conservator spends most of their time in the lab after the artifacts are brought out of the site. Archaeologists may employ the conservator, but conservators are still left out of the process until the archaeologist has gathered all possible visible information and has to call on the conservator to preserve or reveal data that has become hidden by concretion and dirt. This puts a wedge between the two fields and, purposely or accidentally, separates two fields that should work very closely together.

The conservator also has to deal with the wants and needs of other museum professionals.  The reasoning and logic of a museum curator (for example) will be very different from the reasoning and logic of an archaeologist. The archaeologist wants to collect data and research what the artifacts mean. The museum curator, on the other hand, is more interested in using artifacts to demonstrate to the public information about the past. Curators are looking for aesthetic or educational qualities that may not be in the forefront of the archaeologists mind. An objects conservator has the difficult task of balancing these two goals. Their goal is to use the artifact for research and educate the public. The conservator has a responsibility to take an object and stabilize it while keeping the integrity and originality of the artifact for the continuing education of future generations, while answering research questions.

When working with archaeological materials, none of these three fields could survive alone. They work together and must rely on the research and knowledge of each other to gain the most information. Archaeologists have to carefully excavate the artifacts out of the ground. Museums and curators present these findings to the public. And conservators bridge these two, add research and data, and conserve and preserve the artifacts for future generations.

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