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In Situ Preservation at Terrestrial and Maritime Archaeological Sites

March 19th, 2014

In Situ Preservation at Terrestrial and Maritime Archaeological Sites

 Alex Garcia-Putnam

            In situ preservation is a topic within conservation theory and practice that deserves a closer look.  In situ, in simple terms means to leave the object in place or to not remove it in the process of an archaeological dig. Artifacts and features are left in situ for a number of reasons.  Sometimes artifacts, features, or architectural elements are too large to be safely or effectively removed.  Other times there is no need to excavate; the excavators feel that they can get as much information from leaving the object in place as they would by excavating.  Often, when objects are left in the field in their original location, conservators are called upon to provide in situ preservation.
Conservators can treat, triage, and protect artifacts in the field, to ensure they have the longest life possible, all without removing the objects.  This allows for the objects to be maintained in their original context, while being preserved for future study.  Unfortunately, there are also a number of issues with in situ preservation, and more generally about leaving artifacts in situ.  Leaving artifacts in situ allows for the elements to continue to degrade the objects, making the conservator’s job that much harder.  Removing artifacts to labs and museums at least allows for some amount of control over the process.  In a 2002 article, Jans et al. discuss the techniques currently available for in situ preservation of human bone.  The goal of their work is to illuminate the factors responsible for degradation of human remains (Jans et al. 2002: 349).  They inevitably conclude that a multitude of factors such as soil pH, taphonomy, and hydrological processes influence the preservation of a site, therefore making in situ preservation unique to each site, season, and circumstance; a very difficult task (Jans et al. 2002: 349).


Underwater archaeological projects take the topic of in situ preservation to the next level.  The same factors discussed above are at play but to a more extreme degree.  Underwater sites can be incredibly well preserved, especially wooden artifacts, due to the limited oxygen underwater (Cronyn 1990: 250).  Removing artifacts from maritime environments is difficult, costly, and potentially harmful to the objects, making in situ preservation a viable option.  But similarly to terrestrial sites, a multitude of factors continuously batter and degrade objects on the ocean floor, and removing them may be archaeologists’ best chance at studying them closely.


Another, lesser discussed, aspect to this discussion is the looting of archaeological sites.  Looting is a pervasive issue in some countries; artifacts can be stolen and sold for profit.  One way that archaeologists combat this is by removing artifacts back to labs and museums for analysis.  Leaving artifacts in the field allows looters the opportunity to illegally remove them, ruining any chance at further study.  In situ preservation has many pros and cons and should be used judiciously and in the right circumstances.  Although this blog post did not touch upon all facets of in situ preservation, it was meant to serve as an overview for beginners in the field as a place to start thinking about in situ preservation and when to use it.


Work Cited

Cronyn, J.M. (1990), ‘Organic Materials’ in The Elements of Archaeological Conservation: 250-251.

Jans, M. M. E., Kars, H., Nielsen–Marsh, C. M., Smith, C. I., Nord, A. G., Arthur, P. and Earl, N. (2002), In situ preservation of archaeological bone: a histological study within a multidisciplinary approach. ‘Archaeometry’ 44: 343–352. doi: 10.1111/1475-4754.t01-1-00067

General Conservation

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