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Conservation and Maritime Artifacts: Is It Worth It?

February 18th, 2013

Conservation and Maritime Artifacts: Is It Worth It?

Caitlin Zant

             The conservation of maritime artifacts has become an increasingly important part of the growing field of Maritime Archaeology. Unlike terrestrial sites, maritime archaeological sites are usually much more dynamic and require additional consideration when attempting to conserve artifacts. When the field of Maritime Archaeology first began, the common archaeological method used was a complete excavation of the ship and all artifacts. This process left archaeologists and conservators the arduous duty of figuring out what to do with waterlogged artifacts. Artifacts that have been underwater have been exposed to currents, and in the case of oceanic sites, have been saturated with salts. Upon bringing these objects to the surface, the archaeologists and conservators have had to discover different ways of desalinating artifacts and gradually removing water so they do not shrink and crack upon drying. This potentially long and expensive process has still not been perfected, specifically for waterlogged wood.

            Polyethylene glycol (PEG) has been the preferred method of conserving waterlogged wood, but now, conservators and archaeologists are beginning to find that PEG is not necessarily the best method of conservation. An expensive process, PEG soaking can take years of work in order to saturate the waterlogged wood, and recently, conservators have been noticing the limits of PEG, including microbial growth on the surface of PEG saturated wood have been discovered (Björdal and Nilsson, 2001). With the expense and difficulty of conserving and preserving waterlogged wood on land, archaeologists have begun to favor in situ preservation of maritime sites and artifacts. While this is a much less expensive and simpler alternative to full excavation, what does this mean for conservators and public outreach concerning maritime heritage?

            One of the most well known instances of PEG in conservation is the conservation of Vasa in Sweden. It took conservators working on Vasa nineteen years to soak the ship in PEG and another nine years to dry the wood to prevent any shrinking or cracking. Despite this, the glycol still has not fully saturated the wood. This only adds to other issues with the conservation of Vasa, including the buildup of sulfur in the timbers (Hocker, 2010). Although this is an important part of Swedish maritime heritage, the cost of continued conservation continues to increase, as does the amount of effort it takes to preserve the ship. This brings up the question, is all of this work really worth it? This question truly addresses the core issue behind gaining more funding for conservation projects; is the result worth the cost and effort to conserve?       


The hull of Vasa

Credit: Karolina  Kristensen

            Conservators at work on the Mary Rose have run into a similar issue. After years of soaking the ship in PEG and carefully regulating the relative humidity of its storage, sulfur is beginning to accumulate in the timbers of the warship (Damian, Fors, Jones, and Sandström, 2005). Conservators are fighting a continuing battle to discover the source of these sulfates and to discover ways to combat it for the conservation of this important piece of English maritime heritage.

 mary rose

The hull of Mary Rose         

Credit: The Mary Rose Trust


mary rose 2

 A conservator working on Mary Rose  

Credit: The Mary Rose Trust

            In situ preservation is beginning to be used more and more in place of excavating entire sites, but what does this do to museum collections? If objects are studied, recorded and left on the ocean floor, they are being preserved, but they remain out of reach of the public. Public outreach is a major topic in the field of maritime archaeology, but I believe that this topic must be addressed in the field of archaeological conservation, especially with the conservation of maritime artifacts. This type of preservation has a direct impact on the work of conservators and the idea of preserving the past for the public to see. With most artifacts remaining underwater, this leaves them out of reach to a majority of the public. So how does this effect conservation? How do you preserve cultural heritage for the public and gain public interest when the artifacts cannot be seen? Although this does not answer these questions, bringing them up as something that needs further discussion is an important part of the future of the conservation of maritime artifacts.



Björdal, C. G. and T. Nilsson. 2001. “Observations on Microbial Growth during Conservation Treatment of Waterlogged Archaeological Wood” In “Studies in Conservation”, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 211-220.

Damian, E., Fors, Y., Jones, M. and Sandström, M., 2005. “Sulfur Accumulation in the Timbers of King Henry VIII’s Warship Mary Rose: A Pathway in the Sulfur Cycle of Conservation Concern”. In: “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America”, Vol. 102, No. 40, pp. 14165-14170.

 Hocker, E., 2010. “Maintaining a Stable Environment: “Vasa’”s New Climate-Control System”. In: “APT Bulletin”, Vol. 41, No. 2/3, pp. 3-9.

 Photo Sources

 Kristensen, K.,  Swedish National  Maritime  Museums.

The Mary Rose Trust.




General Conservation

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