An artifact that has been buried for an extended period of time has reached equilibrium with its surroundings and the minute it is exposed, an object can start to change and deteriorate. Therefore, without proper foresight and preparation, valuable information can be lost due to damage from exposure or improper handling techniques. Preventative conservation is one way to avoid this. According to Jean-Bernard Memet, preventative conservation is to “anticipate, restrict or halt any acceleration in the degradation of objects after their discovery” and involves taking a logical and cautious approach when dealing with cultural remains (2008, 45). A broad range of methods can be applied in order to maintain a protocol for keeping artifacts safe during their journey from excavation to storage or a museum. Luckily, recent years have brought about cheaper and more efficient ways of preserving and protecting artifacts.
It is not difficult to find stories of excavations gone wrong, when objects that were lifted or excavated fell apart in the archaeologist’s hands because of exposure to air. Allowing things to be exposed to open air can speed up the process of deterioration and cause many problems. This is especially true for submerged cultural remains, such as wood. Removing wood from its underwater environment and allowing it to dry without employing proper techniques can cause it to shrink, crack, or fall apart completely. Objects that are removed from their underwater environment should be kept in a similar environment until preservation can take place (Memet 2008, 43). For example, an archaeologist who lifts wood from the seabed should place that wood in saltwater.
Dugout canoe submerged in treatment tank. http://nautarch.tamu.edu
Archaeologists may not be trained in conservation but should be aware of impacts on artifacts once they are exposed during excavation. Conservation begins at the excavation level and the archaeologist is responsible for executing the appropriate level of care for the artifact (Singley 1995, 8). Suitable equipment and supplies should be available to ensure that proper care of artifacts is taken. Sometimes, intervening scientifically is not possible because there is not enough funding or appropriate technology for the long-term conservation of artifacts; these artifacts may then end up in a storage facility with no conservator to evaluate them (Khakzad et al. 2012, 471). This begs the question of whether objects found in this situation should be removed from their original environment in the first place. Perhaps leaving a site alone may be deemed a better alternative and may also reserve the right for future techniques to be employed (Khakzad et al. 477). Future methods for preservation may come along that are technologically superior, quicker, and cheaper (Gregory et al. 2012, S147). After all, the goal of archaeology and conservation is to ensure the survival of the greatest number of finds and if the required technology is not available, those artifacts should be left alone for a later time (Gregory et al. S139).
It can be difficult when considering whether or not to remove an artifact from its surroundings. Underwater cultural remains provide a drastic example: surge, currents, divers, and environmental factors all can impact a submerged site. Is it better to learn what we can and excavate something, thereby speeding up its deterioration, or should we leave objects in their original environment, where they will still deteriorate at a possibly slower rate? These questions are not easy to answer and they are best dealt with in a case-by-case situation. Some artifacts, for example, are more likely to be raised and preserved if they are in a particularly aggressive environment or are deemed to be historically or culturally significant in some way. It should be noted, however, that objects should not be brought up without the necessary equipment, transportation, and storage facilities. Funding for research and preservation of the object should also be considered before cultural remains are excavated. Preventative conservation involves thinking ahead and being prepared when caring for an artifact. This starts with the archaeologist in the field, before the object is even taken from the ground.
Gregory, David, Paul Jensen, and Kristiane Straetkvern. 2012. Conservation and In Situ Preservation of Wooden Shipwrecks from Marine Environments. Journal of Cultural Heritage 13S: S139-S148.
Khakzad, Sorna and Konraad Van Balen. 2012. “Complications and Effectiveness of In Situ Preservation Methods for Underwater Cultural Heritage Sites.” Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 14(1-4): 469-478.
Memet, Jean-Bernard. 2008. Conservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage: characteristics and new technologies. Museum International 60(4): 42-49.
Singley, K. 1995. Caring for Artifacts after Excavation: Some Advice for Archaeologists. Historical Archaeology 15(1): 35-48.