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Preservation, Restoration, and the “Authentic” Meaning of Archaeological Material

February 18th, 2013

Preservation, Restoration, and the “Authentic” Meaning of Archaeological Material

 Jeremy Borrelli

A fundamental issue at the heart of heritage management is the debate between restoration, preservation, and the authenticity of objects from the past. This topic is broad and can be applied to a range of materials, so for the purpose of this discussion I will focus specifically on archaeological artifacts recovered during excavation. What happens to artifacts after they are brought up from the ground or from the sea floor, including where and how those artifacts are to be conserved and ultimately displayed for public use is an important facet of any research design. Once excavations have been completed, the archaeologist must work with conservators and curators to decide what to do with the recovered material. One problem these professionals must answer is whether or not to preserve the artifacts as they are or to restore them to what they might have originally been? This brings in questions of authenticity and what it means to be “authentic” when it comes to archaeological material?

            To begin it is necessary to define preservation and restoration when it comes to cultural heritage. The office of the Secretary of the Interior defines the preservation of historic architecture as “the act or process of applying measures to sustain the existing form, integrity, and material of a building or structure…” (Murtagh 1997, 19). When applied to archaeological artifacts this definition essentially remains the same: to sustain the existing form of the object, as it was when recovered. However, it is often the case that historic sites or building are “restored” rather than preserved. This term indicates the recovery of the form and details of a site or artifact as it appeared at a particular period of time by either adding or removing earlier or later work done to the artifact throughout the course of its life (1997, 20). This would include such acts as the replacement of broken features on a recovered statue or ceramic. What links restoration and preservation is the desire for authenticity; for something to be real, or true. The “authentic” has been the focus of much debate for over 50 years among heritage managers around the world (Starn 2002). What exactly is authentic will vary person-to-person depending on the context of recovery, their personal background, and what the artifact might be.

As an archaeologist, however, it is important to recognize “the value of historical truth” (Muñoz Viñas 2005, 190). Whatever state the artifact is in at the moment it was recovered, whether it is damaged, broken, etc. is all a consequence of the life history of that artifact. Archaeologists are not generally concerned with the restoration of an artifact to anything approaching its original appearance because they can tell more about an object if it is worn, well used, and broken, than if it is in pristine condition (Rodgers 2004, 7). The historical evolution or process of events that culminated in the artifact appearing in a given way is illustrative of how that artifact was used, who used it, why they used it, and what values they placed on it. Restoration hides the true nature of an object, in fact, masking its authenticity and real historical value. Conservators often employ minimum intervention, where the conservation process “consists of the least amount of intervention required to achieve its goals” (Muñoz Viñas 2005, 189). This idea implies that conservators should essentially strive to freeze the artifact in its current state, therefore allowing the natural evolution of the artifact to come to the fore, rather than restoring it by utilizing modern interpretations of how the object might have been used. Ultimately what is important is the story of the artifact and the people that used it. By emphasizing preservation over restoration for archaeological material, archaeologists allow that story to come to life.


Muñoz Viñas, S. Contemporary Theory of Conservation. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Murtagh, W. 1997. The Language of Preservation. In Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons. 15-24.

Rodgers, B. 2004. Archaeologist’s Manual for Conservation : A Guide to Non-toxic, Minimal Intervention Artifact Stabilization. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Starn, R. Authenticity and Historic Preservation: Towards an Authentic History. History of the Human Sciences 15(1): 1-16.

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