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Working Together in the Field: Compromise and Communication between Conservators and Archaeologists

February 14th, 2013

Working Together in the Field: Compromise and Communication between Conservators and Archaeologists

 Hannah Smith

            Having the split personality that I do as a student of both archaeology and conservation, I’ve seen the unintentional divide that exists between conservators and archaeologists. In so many cases, this divide is due to a lack of understanding of what a conservator really does, as well as how to communicate what would be the best course of action to preserve a collection. That process encompasses the entire time from the moment the artifact leaves the ground to when it leaves the conservation lab. As a result, better communication is needed – on both sides – so that the history that is embodied by excavated artifacts can be preserved in the best way possible. Part of this communication needs to include demystifying what a conservator does, as well as how archaeologists can work with conservators to make both sides’ jobs easier.

            Much of the work conservators do takes place in an environment that is very different from where archaeologists work. The equipment needed and the vocabulary used to describe conservation can also prove to be a gap in a non-conservator’s knowledge. Once someone understands how and why a certain treatment is done and what the terms used to describe it are, it’s no longer so foreign. To that end, conservators should make an effort to show archaeologists more of what they do, while still cautioning that treatment shouldn’t be undertaken without proper training.

Because artifacts deteriorate so quickly, care must be taken from the very moment that the artifacts are uncovered on the site. Of course, the ideal situation includes a conservator working with the archaeologist before the excavations begin, and continuing through until everything is cleaned, stabilized, and safely stored or displayed (Singley 1981). But rarely does the ideal situation become reality. More often, artifacts sit in storage for a long time before a conservator can assess and treat them. Therefore, it is necessary for conservators to keep an open line of communication with the archaeologists in the field as to how best to clean, package and store their artifacts (Singley 1981). This means that there needs to be more information available to those outside of the field of conservation as to how to manage the basic needs of artifacts – those of stability and protection. While there are plenty of sources of information and supplies available, we need to bring those sources to the attention of archaeologists. We also need to account for the fact that not every project will have unlimited funds, so less expensive, but still appropriate, options for collection management should also be explained to our colleagues.

            Before an artifact can be stored, however, it needs to be cleaned, and each type of material has different needs. The cleaning methods needed for ceramics, for example, are different than those for metals (Singley 1981). A basic understanding of these methods will greatly improve the conditions that artifacts are in after excavation. Dirt left behind can provide an environment that allows decay to begin or continue, especially if the environment the artifact is housed in is unstable (Cronyn 1990). And while many archaeologists know the basics of cleaning artifacts, changes in best practices may have occurred since they were in school. By communicating well, conservators can keep archaeologists abreast of the changes that are occurring in our field, which will help collections survive to provide more information to future generations of conservators and archaeologists alike.

 Cronyn, J. M. 1990. Elements of Archaeological Conservation. New York, New York: Routledge.

 Singley, Katherine A. 1981 Caring for Artifacts After Excavation – Some Advice for Archaeologists.  Historical Archaeology 15(1): 36-48.

Archaeological Conservation

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