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Conservation Conversation: Friedrich Rathgen’s Contributions to Archaeological Conservation

March 6th, 2013

Conservation Conversation: Friedrich Rathgen’s Contributions to Archaeological Conservation

Taryn Ricciardelli

            Friedrich Rathgen of Berlin (1862-1942) is largely credited as the first archaeological conservator. He was the director of the Chemical Laboratory of the Royal Museums of Berlin, and was one of the first scientists to work in a museum laboratory. Rathgen’s primary contribution to archaeological conservation was his use of the scientific method and core scientific principles to propose treatments for artifacts. He meticulously documented the systematic methods he used on individual materials, including those for stone, bronze, and plaster: materials which were mostly unstudied (scientifically) at the time. Rathgen was also responsible for creating a better relationship between curators and conservators; until his involvement, there had been limited communication between the two professions, and there were often tensions over the artifacts themselves (Gilberg 1987).

Rathgen’s talents did not just extend to archaeological artifacts, but features as well. He was interested in preserving monuments and their stone blocks-he applied various solutions to the outside of buildings and, through the processes of repetition and analysis, he was able to come to conclusion about the source of the material. In a way, Rathgen was also one of the first to practice experimental archaeology, as much of his research was concentrated on constructing past lifeways in order to understand materials within their own contexts. Rathgen benefitted from the use of an exclusive lab and equipment, however, he often had trouble identifying his samples because of unexpected consequences arising from new treatments.

Up until the 70s, Rathgen was ignored outside of Germany as the father of conservation, but, due to his methodological documentation, the records of his successes and experiments have become some of the most important records we have of early conservation.

 

Gilberg, Mark. “Fredrich Rathgen: The Father of Modern Archaeological Conservation.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation. 26(2): 105-120.

General Conservation

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