Archive for the ‘Archaeological Conservation’ Category

Conservation And Native American Beliefs: The Totem Pole

March 23rd, 2015
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Conservation And Native American Beliefs

“The Totem Pole”

 Lori Gross

                  Totem poles are one of the world’s greatest monumental expressions of the Northwest Coast Native Americans. Most commonly we think of them as tall, carved, freestanding, outside poles depicting animals stacked one upon another. As a child I had the opportunity to travel to British Columbia and I was mesmerized by the totem poles. I recall tilting my head back as far as I could to take in their immense size, intricate carvings and bold colors but like most I never wondered about the ‘what’, ‘why’ or ‘who’ that led to the creation of such masterpieces.

Given my experience it is no wonder that these beautiful artifacts have been coveted by museums and private collectors for centuries. I have to wonder is that what Native Americans intended when they crafted them? Were they meant to be moved, conserved, displayed and used as tourist attractions without fully understanding their meaning and intention (Mawani 2005)? Seen as a symbol of the Northwest Coast Indian during the late eighteen hundreds it was thought that no anthropological museum was complete without at least one pole so procurement was set as a priority employing the reasoning that those poles that were not sent to museums were at the mercy of natural processes and would rot, fall and be lost forever (Darling, et al., 1980). What museums did not take into consideration was the Native Americans perspective “…objects are created to be used and when those objects are damaged or worn out, they are thrown away and new ones are made. This applies to everything from small masks to large totem poles. For example, many Indian people feel that once a pole has served its purpose it should be allowed to go back into the ground. The objects themselves are not important; what matters is what the objects represent” (Cramner-Webster 1986).

In recent years more attention has been focused on understanding the perspective of the Native American Culture in regards to totem poles, especially by conservators. Instead of approaching the conservation of a totem pole with mere intellect some have turned to understanding the spiritual and ceremonial significance as well (Rhyne 2013).

One such totem pole ‘The Tongass Island Raven’ owned by a Tlingit Tribe was approached for conservation utilizing more than traditional conservation techniques. Recognizing that when a totem pole is originally raised, a great ceremony is held to honor the significance of the totem. The conservator came to understand that it was also important to perform a similar ceremony prior to the restoration. He learned that the purpose of the Raven for the tribe was to link them to their ancestors. Before the conservation was begun a Tlingit elder sang a blessing in their native language to explain the purpose of the intervention (conservation) to the Raven. The Raven was asked to understand that no harm was meant and that the effort to preserve the wood and stabilize the materials was so the Raven could continue to remind the native people of their culture, their symbols and the past (Rhyne 2013).

Gross Blog 3 Pic




Pictures Courtesy of the Ketchikan Museum Heritage Center


I was very touched and encouraged when I read the quote from the conservator following the ceremony “For myself as the conservator responsible for the treatment, the experience was a reminder that spirits and ancestors from the past were associated with the Raven and were understood to be involved with my work” (Rhyne 2013).

For me The Raven project signifies respect for not only cultural heritage and conservation but a new beginning. I hope in the future that conservators around the world embrace new approaches like the one described above and experience what I believe was a life changing experience for both the Tlingit and Rhyne.



Rhyne, Charles S. 2013. “Changing approaches to the conservation of Northwest Coast totem poles.” Studies in Conservation 45(Supplement-1): 155-160.

Cranmer-Webster, Gloria. 1986. “Conservation and Cultural Centres: U’Mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, Canada,” in Symposium 86: The Care and Preservation of Ethnographic Materials, ed. R. Barclay, M. Gilberg, J.C. McCawley and T. Stone, CCI, Ottawa (1986) 77-79.

Darling, David and Cole, Douglas. 1980. “Totem Pole Restoration on the Skeena, 1925-30: An Early Exercise in Heritage Conservation.” BC Studies 47: 29-48.

Mawani, Renisa. 2005. “From Colonialism to Multiculturalism? Totem Poles, Tourism and National Identity in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.” Social and Legal Studies 14 (3): 315–340.

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Patience is a virtue when Conservation is the goal: “The Ozette Village”

February 26th, 2015
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Patience is a virtue when Conservation is the goal: “The Ozette Village”

Lori Kay Gross

          As archaeologists we have all learned the delicate and deliberate methods of excavation, recovery and cataloging of artifacts. Time limitations, Mother Nature and funding often dictate the methods of excavation creating a dilemma between archaeologists and conservators.   The Ozette Village is an example where conservators and archaeologists worked as a team to preserve one of the most extensive collections of artifacts through careful excavation utilizing unusual yet appropriate methods to ensure maximum preservation in a challenging environment.

The Pacific Northwest is rich in archaeological discoveries. Among these discoveries is a particularly interesting archaeological site located on the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. This site, nestled on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, represents one of the most important North American archaeological sites. The significance of this site is demonstrated by the large number of artifacts recovered their unprecedented preservation and is often referred to as ‘A North American Pompeii’ (Steury 2008). This site is called ‘The Ozette Village’.

This Makah Indian fishing village, occupied from the Middle Pacific to the Early Modern time, was buried by a mud slide in the mid 1700’s, preserving the site and its artifacts nearly unaltered. In the late 1960’s, during a survey of the entire Pacific Coast of Washington, Ozette was identified as an important site by Richard D. Daugherty when he performed a test trench survey revealing radio carbon dating data correlating to approximately 2,000 years ago. He encountered well preserved artifacts which supported its significance but without funding the excavation did not continue. It wasn’t until the early 1970’s, after a series of storms battered the coast that large portions of this ancient village began to emerge (Kirk 2007). The exposure of well-preserved artifacts reignited the interest in saving this important archaeological find and with the support of the modern day Makah Indians and the Washington Archaeological Research Center excavation began (Steury 2008).

Geological evidence and historical records indicate that the most probable cause of the massive mud slide was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that dislodged a water saturated hill above the village. Although devastating, the composition of the soil contained large amounts of oxygen free clay combined with the water. Excavation findings confirm that these conditions created an up to 10-foot thick clay covering that aided in the preservation of the predominately wooden artifacts. Excavation would require the use of water to continue the careful exposure of the artifacts from the clay and for transportation and final conservation (Daugherty 1977).

Getting the delicate artifacts out of the slide in the first place provided the initial challenge. Most of the wet site was excavated hydraulically. The Ozette archaeologists pumped seawater at various pressures for different stages of excavation. Initial clearing was with high pressure. Once artifacts started to show, lower-pressure garden hoses were used to clean and remove the artifacts. At the end of a nearly eleven year excavation, the artifact inventory exceeded 50,000 items including wooden structural remains, harpoon shafts, hooks, canoe paddles, wooden bowls, whale bones, whetstones, woven baskets and mats (Daugherty 1977).



Whale Bone Club 2


Wood and Whale Bone Fishing Hook

 Photos courtesy of


Many of the artifacts recovered from Ozette are much the same as they were when they were buried. Once they’re exposed to oxygen, however, they begin to get brittle and disintegrate. So everything that came out of the excavation immediately went into a preservative bath of polyethylene glycol which forces the water out, solidifies it and begins the conservation process (Steury 2008).

In reviewing the process and procedures that Richard D. Daugherty followed from his first knowledge of the Ozette village in 1947 through the nearly 40 years of investigation, research and excavation his involvement reveals a very ethical and conscientious archaeologist. Even when faced with this exciting discovery Daugherty knew that disturbing the site before procuring the necessary support could result in artifact decomposition upon exposure.   Although it was certain that this location was rich in artifacts and history his complete evaluation of the site and advanced preparation to ensure the safe and effective recovery was inspiring.

As unique as the Ozette excavation was it also stands apart in that no artifacts from the site left the Makah reservation. Everything discovered is either displayed in the cultural center or stored in a state-of-the-art storage warehouse. The museum is expertly curated and the artifacts are mesmerizing. This is the result of Daugherty’s collaboration with the members of the Makah Nation and his belief that the excavation work should be accessible to the public to participate in the revealing of the collective history of the Ozette Village (Steury 2008).


Daugherty, Richard D. The Ozette Archaeological Expedition: A Cooperative Project of Makah Nation, Washington State University, National Park Service, National Science Foundation, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Washington (State): S.n., 1977-. Print.


Steury, Tim. “The Home of My Family: Ozette, the Makah’s and Doc Daugherty.” Washington State Magazine (2008): 1-8. Abstract. Print.


Kirk, Ruth, and Richard D. Daugherty. Archaeology in Washington. Seattle: University of Washington, 2007. Print.


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Shaving a Beard? How Tourism Hurt the Boy King

February 26th, 2015
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Shaving a Beard? How Tourism Hurt the Boy King

Stephanie Byrd

           Tourism can bring an added economic boost to a country that has a national treasure. However, this can also affect conservation efforts for these national treasures. This is the case with many famous artifacts in Egypt with the latest being the beard of King Tutankhamen. This has not been the first issue between conservation and public display; much of the Egyptian past was exported during the Victorian age and the spread of British colonialism. One of the biggest issues facing conservators is that the process of conservation can take time to do the job properly, which presides over the wants, need, and desire of the public and sometimes the museum for a faster turnaround time.

In a recent cleaning disaster, the beard of King Tutankhamen’s funeral mask was bumped and broken (Cascone 2015). An epoxy was used to reattach the beard to the mask but in doing a fast job, the epoxy was visible between the beard and mask. Part of the mask also had epoxy found dried on the surface and this was scraped off leaving a mark on the mask. There has been conflicting remarks as to whether the epoxy is reversible but there is a larger issue here (Cascone 2015). The issue becomes when public interest scrutinizes the work of conservators and can witness and put pressure on conservator. Conservators feeling pressure to return items for public viewing or working in the view of the public can increase the likelihood of errors and rushed jobs. This shows just how much power the public has over on going conservation projects.

One example of a site that draws a lot of public interest is the tomb of King Tutankhamen, where in 2012, a replica of the tomb had to be made due to the damage seen by tourism. Since first being discovered, humans have done more damage in less than 100 years than thousands of years of forgotten time (Beach 2012). Additions include stairs, handrails, and lights all to show the public what was meant as a sacred tomb. Tombs were meant to be sealed and left in the dark but have become modified to hold modern technology and human traffic, all of which increase the rate of deterioration (Getty 2013). While some of the technology has damaged the artifacts alternatively, some technology is used to monitor the climate of the museums and tombs to help keep a stable environment (Getty 2013). The ongoing issue with the Egyptian artifacts comes down to finding a balance between the need to preserve the past and serve the public who wants to see the artifacts. The making of the replica tomb is a start but acting hastily in repairing the mask shows that the balance is a work in progress. As for now the mask is in a low light display, said to minimize the noticeable damage to the mask (al-Mahmoud 2015), but with the public knowledge of the damage this low light method seems to be a little too late to stop the public from criticizing the museum for a poor repair job.

The hope with this latest, and very public repair job, is that it can show how the public needs to be made aware of the time and energy that are required for a good conservation process. Once something is in a museum it does not place the artifact in a vacuum, and demonstrates that damage from human traffic and cleaning can affect the life of an artifact. The museum is needed to show that the public can trust that the conservation work completed with all artifacts is up to ethical standards, but being honest with the public can be one way to grow a relationship between public and professional groups regarding conservation projects moving forward.



Al-Mahmoud, Husam. “King Tut’s Death Mask Glued Together in Botched Repair.” Alaraby. January 22, 2015. Accessed February 3, 2015.

Beach, Alastair. “How Tourism Cursed Tomb of King Tut.” The Independent. November 4, 2012. Accessed February 4, 2015.

Cascone, Sarah. “King Tut Damaged in Botched Repair Attempt.” January 22, 2015. Accessed February 3, 2015.

“Conservation and Management of the Tomb of Tutankhamen.” Conservation and Management of the Tomb of Tutankhamen. March 1, 2013. Accessed February 3, 2015.

“Egypt: Preserving King Tut’s Tomb.” : Campbell Datalogger Controls Monitoring of Conditions at Tutankhamen Site. Accessed February 3, 2015.


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Archaeology and Conservation, An Uphill Battle Against Human Nature

February 11th, 2015
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Archaeology and Conservation, An Uphill Battle Against Human Nature

Will Creech

Anthropologists often face a grave threat to their research and even to their profession at large, from renegade amateurs, history enthusiasts, and rampant treasure hunters.  Treasure hunting in particular has become a problem in the United States where cemeteries and ruins are at the mercy of locals, especially because many of these sites are not properly recognized and protected by state and federal law.  Often, anthropologists and others seeking to protect sites have to rely more on the contents of a site rather than obtaining recognition for the site as a whole.   At the same time, anthropologists are required to back track the claims of some of these amateurs and re-evaluate sites that were partially destroyed and misrepresented or misunderstood.  These two problems are by no means a recent problem only, even during the last hundred years, where supposedly modern scientific methods and responsible science was being done; there have been cases of gross neglect.



(Hanson/Fort Craig): Torn cup left by looter in exposed grave at Fort Craig. Sourced from works cited below.


Anthropologist Jeffery R. Hanson’s article in American Antiquity is centered on the cultural interest in treasure hunting and amateur archeology, both of which he claims is causing significant damage to historical sites both discovered and undiscovered.  In the article, Hanson discusses the story of a man nick-named Gravedigger, who was an amateur archeologist and treasure hunter with many ties to the archeological community in the American South West.  From these ties, he acquired tactics, skills, and general information that aided his efforts in pillaging a civil war fort, Fort Craig, its neighboring cemetery, and possibly other sites in the area.

According to Hanson, archeologists at the site discovered enormous amounts of damage and evidence that the site had been pilfered many times over the last five decades.  Archaeologists had to spend a great deal of time and effort, not to restore the site, which was destroyed not just by local treasure hunters in addition to Gravedigger, but to reclaim the remains of soldiers and other artifacts.  There is a National law that Hanson refers to which gives the government authority to relocate the remains of military personnel to national cemeteries regardless of where they are buried.  A number of legal matters still had to be dealt with despite the fact that the government technically owned the land on which the fort and cemetery stood.  Archaeologists excavating the site were able to recover the remains of many soldiers, however the site had been looted of most artifacts, and it was discovered that many graves had been disturbed and their entire contents removed.

Hanson believes this a typical example of how a historical site can be ruined and history lost because of untrained hands in the field that may just be looking for souvenirs.  He argues, quite effectively, for a greater amount of wariness in the archeological community and more stringent laws for the destruction of historical sites.


    (James/DuraEuropos): Overhead of Tunnel under Tower 19 showing features at Dura-­Europos. Sourced from works cited below.


A separate article written by Simon James on the pitfalls of early archeology and the excavation of sites led to wrong conclusions and even potential damage to historical sites.  The example used for both of these subjects is a Graeco-Roman fort on the Syrian Euphrates River that was under attack sometime in the year 256 C.E. from the Partho-Sasanian (Persian) Empire.  Around what is known as Tower 19, an excavation began in the late 1920’s by amateur archeologist Robert du Mesnil du Buisson.  The Persians attempted to bring down the tower from underground and open a hole in the wall to bypass the Roman defenses.  When excavated, du Buisson discovered 21 bodies in a preserved state within a tunnel that had been dug underneath the tower from outside and inside the fort.  Twenty of the bodies were found to be Roman soldiers and servants wearing traditional armor, weapons, and many even had coins in their purses, while the remaining corpse apparently belonged to a single Persian soldier. Du Buisson correctly made the assumption that the Persians had attempted to tunnel under the tower from a nearby temple and that the Romans had discovered their efforts and carved a second tunnel from their side of the tower in order to meet the Persians head on and stop them.

Du Buisson believed that the Roman soldiers were trapped in a cave-in during the battle, but James re-interprets the site based on a re-examination of the tower, the tunnel, and the remains.  Unfortunately, much of the data was lost over the years or not recorded, and some of the site was destroyed by du Buisson’s team.  However, the re-examination found traces of the chemicals bitumen, or pitch, and sulphur in the tunnel around the bodies and noted the odd positions of the corpses.  It seemed from the evidence that the Roman soldiers had fallen on top of each other in a weird pattern that could not be explained by simply concluding that a cave-in was the cause of death.  Instead it became apparent that the corpses had been stacked into a crude wall around the Roman side of the tunnel.  James believes the evidence indicates there was conflict when the Romans met the Persians.  Du Buisson, decided the Romans likely retreated and attempted to collapse the tunnel in response to the Persians, sealing off the tunnel with a wall of Roman bodies.  The absence of Persian bodies suggests they were removed from the tunnel and the Persians attempted to create an explosion that would bring down Tower 19.  James’ believes the single Persian corpse was a soldier who either started the blast or failed to retreat in time before the explosion.

James uses this modern re-examination of evidence from the original evidence collected in 1920 as an example of the potential pitfalls facing early archaeologists, many of whom were untrained and ill-prepared for the complexities of a site like Tower 19.  In the article, James goes further by pointing out where the original team went wrong, not just in their understanding of what happened, but in how they handled the evidence, much of which was destroyed in the haphazard excavation of the fort.  Granted that much of the fort had been destroyed by numerous attacks both by man and by nature, but the treatment of the site and its artifacts was ill-managed to the point of nearly ruining it for other anthropologists who might come later to verify the findings.



 (Karmon/Rome):  Ruins in central Rome, old sketch. Sourced from works cited below.


While the problems anthropologists face with preserving sites and artifacts of importance in this modern age are significant, they pale in comparison to the problems of Renaissance Rome.   Since Christianity came to Rome the Emperors, Popes, nobles, and even the common man have been blamed for the systematic destruction of artifacts, buildings, and significant locations.  In his recently published article, anthropologist and historian David Karmon is attempting to combat the arguments and complaints of historians and other important persons decrying the destruction of Rome at the hands of its leaders and citizens for the last thousand years.  In his arguments he draws comparisons between the historical protests and writings of past important figures with documentation supporting his claims that the leaders of Rome took many actions in an effort to preserve the ancient glory of the city.

Karmon draws attention to the practices from the early reign of the popes in Italy where it is known that countless temples, palaces, and monuments were scavenged for their marble and stone in order to build palaces and churches for the Catholic Church and Roman nobles.  In some cases, so called pagan temples were destroyed outright in order to crush resistance against the Church, though some of these were rebuilt and converted into churches.  However, the most egregious crime was the construction of the Vatican and St. Paul’s Basilica almost entirely from marble and stone taken from the Roman Coliseum and the Forum.  Karmon does not deny these horrendous acts, but argues that very early on the citizens of Rome made known their disgruntled feelings over the ravaging of old Roman glory to the Popes and nobles.  He points to documentation found among surviving documents that suggest the leaders of Rome were well aware of these complaints and took action to preserve as much of the ancient city as possible.

Archaeologists continue fighting the growing demands of human civilization and a lack of interest in preserving historical sites.  More extensive laws might curb the tide of destruction, but at some point laws aimed at conservation can be detrimental to excavations with no certainty of preventing all crimes. It has become a struggle to balance the interests of conservation against human interests, though as Karmon demonstrates, there have long been parties interested in preserving history.  In conclusion, hopefully, despite criminal behavior and human error always being present, society will strive to preserve as much of its history as possible.








Works Cited


2011       “LOOTING OF THE FORT CRAIG CEMETERY: DAMAGE DONE AND LESSONS LEARNED.” American Antiquity 76.3 (2011): 429-445. PRINT.



2011       “STRATAGEMS, COMBAT, AND ‘CHEMICAL WARFARE’ IN THE SIEGE MINES OF DURA-EUROPOS.” American Journal of Archaeology 115.1 (2011): 69-101. PRINT.



115. 2 (April 2011): 159-174. PRINT.



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Public Conservation

February 4th, 2015

Public Conservation

Kate Thomas

What is public conservation? To answer this we must look at a more discussed relative, public archaeology. Public archaeology is involving the public in the excavation, interpretation, and dispersal of archaeological inquiries. This takes many forms, from public days at national parks and on excavations, to tours around current excavations, to engaging the community at a local town hall, to Congress making laws about material culture, to relying on the public to contact you with sites of interest (McManamon 1991). Public conservation, although requiring far fewer bodies to complete, operates in the same way. It involves getting the public to understand what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and getting them involved in the conservation of artifacts.  For my own thesis, I believe that both public archaeology and public conservation are and will be integral portions. The artifacts that I am using will be transferred back to the community they came from, to be displayed in the county museum. It will be up to the members of the community to care for these artifacts, and involving them in the process allows them to display these artifacts and their history without a conservator on staff.

The pros and cons of a public conservation are very similar to those of public archaeology. The biggest pro is that the involvement of the community allows us to access more and more artifacts. Archaeologists and conservators cannot be in all places at once, and having the public bring artifacts to our attention makes our jobs slightly easier. The other pro is that the public is inherently interested in what we do. By getting them involved in the care and knowledge of their own history, it improves our work as they have valuable knowledge to add to the conversation. This is especially true in cases of the disenfranchised, as their involvement in their own history should be a necessity.

The most obvious con is that giving the public the knowledge of conservation methods may cause them to completely skip using professionals and do it on their own. Without the help of a professional, they could damage an object or handle it improperly. This con may be mitigated by incorporating lessons about contacting local conservators or universities combined with basic conservation lessons. One could argue that this will also lead to a devaluation of the field if they no longer need professional conservators, but I think this perspective is pessimistic. By educating the public, we are giving them the tools to recognize when they need the help of the professional, and can help the conservator once they become involve. They may also be more likely to heed the advice of a conservator if they have a basic knowledge of conservation.

With so many specialized degrees related to archaeology and conservation, the question becomes why we should even have a public conservation. Beyond the fact that the items we produce are consumed by the public in museums and that the public seems interested in many of the topics related to both these subjects, it is also vital to our survival (Borque et al 1980,796). Pragmatically, there is a question of funding. Earlier this week Senator Rand Paul and Representative Lamar Smith criticized the National Science Foundation for funding projects that the public does not care about, and provided examples involving archaeology and anthropology projects (Altschul and Heller 2015). Based on personal experience, I would disagree that the public is not interested in any of these projects, but the suggestion by our representatives makes it clear that large portions of the public neither understand nor care about the projects that conservation and archaeology can tackle. This directly affects our funding, making our projects more difficult to complete.

Financial reasons, however, are not the only consideration. As an archaeologist, I have instances of relying on the public for my data. A personal example would be my thesis, where I became involved after members of a community found artifacts and reached out to East Carolina University. This is what we want the public to do when they find artifacts, and we need to work with them rather than alienate them from the process. Archaeology took a while to start in America, really not coming into its own until the late 1800’s, and because of this collecting is a popular activity by many people. Although unethical according to a variety of societies in archaeology, these collectors hold important information that archaeologists can still use (Kelley 1963). Do we completely ignore the data they have collected, or do we work with them to parse what data we can? Conservation has to answer the same question. Is it better to refuse to work with the public because they do not have the same level of education or do we work with the public to ensure the preservation of artifacts? Archaeologists need to work with collectors and the public in order to gather data and maintain sites, and so do conservators. A public conservation is the optimal way to do this.




Altschul, Jefffrey H. and Monica Heller. 2015. Research in the Public Interest (accessed 1/19/15)



Borque, Bruce J, Stephen W. Brooke, Ronald Kley and Kenneth Morris. 1980. Conservation in Archaeology: Moving toward Closer Cooperation. American Antiquity. 45(4):794-799.


Kelley, Jane Holden. 1963. Some Thoughts on Amateur Archaeology. American Antiquity. 28(3): 394-396


McManamon, Francis P. 1991. The Many Publics of Archaeology. American Antiquity. 56(1): 121-130

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Field Conservation Methods and the Impact on Organic Residue Analysis

April 3rd, 2014

Field Conservation Methods and the Impact on Organic Residue Analysis

 Sophia Carman

            A main goal of field conservation is to prevent further deterioration and to promote long-term preservation of recently excavated artifacts. This is achieved by various techniques designed to clean and stabilize degraded materials. Additionally, field conservators are also able to make suggestions on proper handling and storage of artifacts, focusing on the continued preservation and longevity of artifacts. Consequently, these techniques may not preserve other important information, such as that from organic residues present on the surface or within the matrix of artifacts (Paterakis 1996). It could be considered contradictory to preserve one aspect of an artifact while destroying another. Oudemans and Erhardt (1996) argue that “there may be a difference in the purpose of conservation treatments, usually directed at preservation and consolidation of the physical, structural and optical qualities of an artifact, and treatments for organic residue analysis, primarily directed at the preservation of chemical characteristics of the original material” (104). Therefore, attention needs to be drawn to proper handling, storage, and conservation of archaeological objects, keeping in mind the preservation of all avenues of information that the object may provide.

Image 1

Figure 1: Canaanite amphora sherd from Amarna with visible organic residues on the inner surface. From:


Traditional field conservation techniques can interfere with organic residue sampling and subsequent analysis (Oudemans & Erhardt 1996; Paterakis 1996). Simple techniques to clean ceramics, such as mechanical cleaning with a brush or wet cleaning with water, may remove organic residues from the surface. Other techniques, such as acid cleaning and consolidation, have the potential of destroying the organic residues altogether. In addition, contaminants can skew the results of organic residue analysis or render the organic residue unobtainable. Such contamination can occur at various points in the excavation and conservation process and is usually the result of the improper handling or storage of an object. Factors, such as fingerprints, transportation, plasticizers from plastic bags, inadequate storage environments, and so on, are examples of points during the excavation process where contaminants can be introduced. Therefore, recent advances in the analysis of organic residues have created a need for a re-evaluation of the treatment and care of archaeological ceramics.

Scholars, such as Paterakis (1996) and Oudemans and Erhardt (1996), have made suggestions on proper treatment procedures of archaeological artifacts after excavation, in specific reference to the preservation of organic residues. It is stated that if organic residue analysis is to be conducted on an object, the recommendation for the handling of the vessel is minimum intervention. Such handling was demonstrated by Evershed et al. (1994) in the collection of recently excavated potsherd samples. It is stated, “Sample handling was kept to a minimum to reduce the possibility of contamination from skin lipids, and the samples were not washed or otherwise cleaned prior to storage” (910). Further analysis of these organic residues did not reveal any contaminations due to excavation or conservation.

The concept of minimal intervention will not only add to the preservation of organic residues, but also promote the preservation of the structure of the object itself. As conservators, we must be cautious of over cleaning, conserving or restoring artifacts at a risk of causing more damage than preservation. Once the information stored within an object is obtained and analyzed, other conservation techniques can be applied to the object. In this way, the full spectrum of information and preservation can be achieved.



Evershed, R. P, K. I. Arnot, J. Collister, G. Eglinton, and S. Charters. 1994. Application of Isotope Ratio Monitoring Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry to the Analysis of Organic Residues of Archaeological Origin. Analyst 119:909-914.

Oudemans, Tania F.M., and David Erhardt. 1996. Organic residue analysis in ceramic studies: implications for conservation treatment and collections management. In Archaeological Conservation and Its Consequences. Preprints of the Contributions to the Copenhagen Conference, 26-30 August 1996. Ashok Roy and Perry Smith, eds. Pp. 137-142. London: International Institute for Conservation.

Paterakis, Alice Boccia. 1996. Conservation: Preservation versus analysis? In Archaeological Conservation and Its Consequences. Preprints of the Contributions to the Copenhagen Conference, 26-30 August 1996. Ashok Roy and Perry Smith, eds. Pp. 143-148. London: International Institute for Conservation.

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Considerations in Conserving Wooden Ships

April 3rd, 2014

Considerations in Conserving Wooden Ships

Michell Gilman

            Archaeological excavations worldwide reveal wooden ships, usually in waterlogged conditions where a decision must be made whether to begin conservation treatments, leave in situ, or do nothing to protect the vessel.  Many aspects must be considered and this usually begins with whether the find is located on public or private lands, and where in the world the archaeological site is located.  Depending on the country, laws lay out the requirements for the management of shipwrecks.  For example, in the United States the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 delineates government ownership and the management of most abandoned shipwrecks, while other countries have similar statutes.  In fact, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage is a treaty that was adopted in 2001 by 45 countries and was designed to protect submerged cultural objects and sites older than 100 years.  In any case, each decision carries with it the positive aspects as well as negative implications.

Most wooden shipwrecks from archaeological environments are not fully excavated, conserved, and exhibited, due to the high number found, the high cost, and ongoing time requirements.  The options to leave wooden shipwrecks in situ or to reinter them into their original location or another suitable environment have become favorable amongst some archaeologists and conservators.  Björdal and Nilsson (2008) conducted a study in Marstrand harbor, Sweden to see how wood samples of sound oak, pine and birch decomposed above and within marine sediment.  Their findings suggest that reburial of wooden shipwrecks in marine sediments is a viable option for long-term preservation of these vessels.  Although there is a considerable amount of time and money required to conduct an archaeological project where the result is to leave a shipwreck in situ or to rebury it, these resources are significantly less than what is required to excavate and apply conservation treatments to them.  The few wooden shipwrecks that are deemed significant enough to conserve require a lot of time planning, excavating, retrieving, and ongoing upkeep to ensure their long-term preservation. Positive outcomes related to this planning includes such as putting the find into the place and time where it originated, adding to the body of knowledge in disciplines like history, anthropology, archaeology, and other fields of study; and increasing the general public’s awareness of and involvement in their cultural heritage which sometimes leads to additional funding for further research and conservation projects. The positive outweighs the time commitment and financial impact in conserving some archaeological conservation projects, one example being the Mary Rose.

The Mary Rose is a 16th century wooden ship owned by Henry VIII and sunk in 1545.  It was extracted in 1982 and continues to undergo conservation work; the Mary Rose Museum opened May 31, 2013 where the public can observe the final stages of conservation through viewing ports.  Not only do visitors get to tour the museum and learn about some of 16th century in England, they have the opportunity to observe some conservation techniques in progress!  In addition to public support, the raising of this vessel has contributed to researchers’ understanding of underwater archaeology and conservation techniques.

The decision whether to excavate a wooden shipwreck requires a commitment to following legislation governing archaeological, conservation, and preservation activities and there is a substantial amount of planning, resources, time, and money needed to engage in these processes.  Conservators are expected to adhere to ethical guidelines that are the framework for ensuring they demonstrate the proper treatment of the objects they conserve.  Sometimes a find such as the Mary Rose is deemed to be culturally and historically significant and the positive outcomes of that find outweigh the extensive resources required to save it.  Not all wooden shipwrecks discovered can be excavated and the alternative options of reburial or leaving them in situ are conducted in the hopes that these vessels survive long-term until better methods for conservation and preservation are developed.  In any case where an abandoned shipwreck is discovered, decisions must be carefully made and there are both negative and positive implications that result from those decisions.


American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Work (AIC) 2003   Defining the Conservator: Essential Competencies.  Pp. 3-17.


Björdal, Charlotte Gjelstrup and Thomas Nilsson 2008   Reburial of shipwrecks in marine sediments: a long-term study on wood degradation.  Journal of Archaeological Science 35:862-872.


National Parks Service 2014     Archaeology Program.  Abandoned Shipwreck Act (ASA).  Retrieved on March 18, 2014.


National Parks Service N.d.     Federal Historic Preservation Laws.  Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987.  Retrieved on March 18, 2014.


The Mary Rose website.  Retrieved on March 18, 2014.


United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2001   Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.  Retrieved on March 18, 2014.


United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2001   Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.  Paris, 2 November 2001. Retrieved on March 18, 2014.

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What Can be Learned from the Swedish Heritage Conservation Model

February 24th, 2014

What Can be Learned from the Swedish Heritage Conservation Model

 Allison Miller

            Kristin Huld Sigurdardottir’s article (2003) on the conservation-education challenges facing archaeologists and conservators today, led to an exploration of the laws governing archaeological finds and excavations in the Scandinavian countries. In her article, Sigurdardottir stated that the five Scandinavian countries all have well-developed laws governing archaeological heritage management with strong systems of enforcement in place. In a broader statement, she claimed that within these countries “all excavated objects are the property of the nation” (2003:221), which sounds like an ideal environment to deter treasure hunters and salvers, both on land and sea, especially with an effective penalization system in place. The investigation into these Scandinavian laws and what archaeologists and conservators might learn from them began with Sweden.

In Sweden, cultural environment and cultural heritage sites are overseen by the National Heritage Board, which in turn answers to the Ministry of Culture. The current legislation stems from the Heritage Conservation Act of 1988 (Europae Archaeologiae Consilium 2011:1). Chapter 1, Section 1 of the Act begins with, “The care and preservation of our cultural environment is a matter of national concern” (Swedish National Heritage Board [SNHB] 1988:1). This is a telling statement, which many countries, particularly America, could take a lesson from.

Recognizing the cultural heritage that belongs to people as individuals and as a nation should be at the forefront of the minds of archaeologists and conservators as they seek to protect the sites and artifacts that can be used to learn about the past. The support of the government and politicians is crucial in assisting with this effort. Without adequate laws and the enforcement of them to prevent the destruction and looting of archaeological sites, and to protect those sites and artifacts that have been properly excavated, archaeologists and conservators are fighting a losing battle. There will always be individuals who seek to gain from the selling of artifacts , but minimalizing their effects would provide a more solid foundation on which to develop our views of the past.

Sweden’s Heritage Conservation Act helps to prevent such looting and selling of artifacts by providing reimbursement to individuals who report their finds to the state (SNHB 1988). Though some information may be lost from the artifact not being found in context and with its provenience, it is not without value of its own. The practice of paying for such artifacts may encourage individuals to report their finds to the state, rather than selling them illicitly. The Act outlines measures against such illicit trade activities as well, detailing fines and punishment for various offenses, including the exportation of Swedish cultural goods from the country. Unfortunately, these laws do not protect against the trade of cultural goods from other nations, and such trade, particularly in Chinese artifacts, is quite rampant throughout the country (Lunden 2004).

In conclusion, though the Swedish heritage conservation model is not without its flaws, it has taken many progressive steps towards providing archaeologists and conservators with a well-structured legal guideline in which to work. The National Heritage Board details who is to care for archaeological sites and finds, and cooperates with several other state authorities to protect these sites.  These established avenues serve to protect the sites and finds, as well as the valuable work of archaeologists and conservators.


Europae Archaeologiae Consilium

2011    Archaeological heritage management in Sweden. Archaeological Heritage Management in Europe, Europae Archaeologiae Consilium <>. Accessed 10 February 2014.


Lunden, Staffan

2004    The Scholar and the Market. De nasjonale forskningsetiske komiteene <>. Accessed 10 February 2014.


Sigurdardottir, Kristin Huld

2003    Challenges in Conserving Archaeological Collections. In Of the Past, For the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, Neville Agnew and Janet Bridgland, editors, pp.220-223. Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, CA.


Swedish National Heritage Board

1988    Heritage Conservation Act (1988:950). UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws  < 1998_engtno.pdf>. Accessed 10 February 2014.

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Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology

February 19th, 2014

Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology

 Alex Garcia-Putnam

            Every professional society or organization has its own statement of ethics or list of guidelines for its members; archaeology and conservation are no different.  Should conservation, working alongside archaeology, be subject to both archaeological and conservation ethics, and vise versa?  Every archaeological society has its own ethics statement, so for the purposes of this entry, as it is most likely to affect conservation, I will focus on the Society of Historical Archaeology, and their code of ethics.  This particular code is relatively standard amongst the archaeological societies.

The SHA ethics statement calls for its members to follow seven principles of professionalism, detailed here.  Members must behave and work in a professional manner. They have a duty to preserve and protect archaeological sites and collections. They should make their knowledge public through peer-reviewed publications. They have the duty to collect accurate information and data and make it available to future researchers. They must respect the “dignity and human rights of others”.  They cannot profit from the sale of artifacts, nor should they place a monetary value on archaeological specimens. And finally they have a duty for public outreach. (Ethics Statement, Society of Historical Archaeology, 2007).

The American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has a similar set of ethical statements, compiled on their website.  They too call for professional behavior and work.  They also have a duty to respect and care for archaeological and artistic specimens.  They have a duty to do the best work possible preserving a particular artifact or work of art.  They also have a duty to know the limits of their expertise, in order to best serve the conservation of an object. They have a responsibility to use practices that will not negatively affect the objects they work with, as well as a policy of reversibility and limited alteration in their treatments.  They have a duty to promote the profession, and enforce and promote these ethics.  (Code of Ethics, American Institute for the Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works, 2013).

In general these codes are similar enough that following them both would not be a challenge and would probably be positive for both archaeologists and conservators.  They both stress professionalism, public outreach, and responsibility to the protection and preservation of the past.  Really, both of these codes are standard, and could probably be tweaked for any profession.  But there are particular elements that are crucial to each society and should be strictly adhered to by both archaeologists and conservators.  I think public outreach is critical for both groups, for the simple and pragmatic reason of funding.  The more we get the public involved, the more interest we can develop, and hopefully that leads to a more concerned public.  This concern can help in the preservation of sites and artifacts, as well as aid our funding woes.   Also critical for both groups, but not mentioned specifically by the AIC, is the honest and timely publication of results.  It is critically important to produce peer-reviewed works, both for current and future researchers, but also for the public.  It surely seems obvious to those in both fields that a respect for the past and the object we work with is paramount; our ultimate responsibility lies with that, and both codes of ethics make that clear.  In sum, the codes seem to work well with each other and should be, and can easily be, adhered to by both archaeologists and conservators.

Works Cited

“Code of Ethics”, American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (2013).

“Ethics Statement”, Society of Historical Archaeology (2007).


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The Need for More Archaeological Conservation Programs in the U.S.

February 12th, 2014

The Need for More Archaeological Conservation Programs in the U.S.

Michell Gilman

            Within the United States, there are select programs designed strictly for archaeological conservation.  Historically, conservation has been viewed as a designation for the fine arts and most programs in the U.S. are geared towards the preservation of artworks.  Archaeological conservation is as necessary and important as art conservation.  Archaeologists often find organic and inorganic objects in dire need of preservation.  They find things made of leather, textiles, wooden objects, paper, basketry, and various metals, to name a few kinds of materials.  It is likely many archaeologists do not realize some of the artifacts they excavate need specialized care in order to preserve those objects’ integrity, and either simply neglect to provide the attention necessary or do not plan for this possibility within their research design.  This can be because they do not think they will find materials needing conservation, or do not know of the necessity of conserving some things until it is too late.

Currently, the only educational opportunity specific to archaeological conservation is at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.  This is a three-year program and applications are accepted every other year.   Other opportunities include New York University History of Art and Archaeology, the University of Delaware, an Archaeological Conservation program at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, and a few courses at ECU.  Admissions requirements vary with each institution and studies are closely aligned with a focus on artworks or build upon the existing training of conservators and archaeologists.  With the abundance of artifacts and collections already housed in museums, universities, and other laboratories, it is clear that additional prospects are required in order for these materials to have a chance at being conserved.

An increase in the amount of educational opportunities is necessary for archaeologists to learn how to properly excavate and care for these objects due to the fact that they are typically untrained in conserving the delicate artifacts they sometimes excavate.  Granted, most artifacts excavated from archaeological sites are inorganic materials that do not require the degree of protection as organic materials such as wood which can deteriorate almost immediately after being extracted from the soil.  Better preparing students seeking degrees in archaeology would ensure fewer losses of unexpected finds that need specialized treatment.  Additional programs would also bring a greater awareness to students interested in pursuing archaeology and archaeological conservation, as well as allow undergraduates to better prepare themselves for this career goal.

When undergraduates are contemplating a graduate education in archaeology, they are typically focused on learning excavation methods, the laws governing archaeology, or learning more about particular cultures of the past.  It would be safe to say that archaeologists are typically concerned with saving past material culture and knowing that archaeological conservation is a possible education and career focus would more likely lead them to taking the proper courses in chemistry and art history while studying at the undergraduate level.  This would better prepare them for applying to archaeological conservation programs upon completion of their undergraduate degrees.  More archaeological programs would likely provide more volunteer and internship opportunities, further preparing students for graduate work and eventually careers in archaeological conservation, or at the very least better prepare them as archaeologists in general.  It is not reasonable to suggest nor is it necessary that every archaeologist be trained in archaeological conservation, however having the greater availability of accessing archaeological conservators would surely ensure fewer losses of delicate artifacts.

More programs designed to focus on archaeological conservation would benefit the field of archaeology in the U.S. because this would lead to an increased awareness of the specialized care needed to preserved artifacts in danger of eroding away.  It would also lead to more archaeologists conducting fieldwork capable of implementing the proper procedures for beginning the conservation process upon discovery of fragile artifacts.



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An Ode to Fieldwork

August 26th, 2013

An Ode to Fieldwork

Taryn Ricciardelli

             Although professional discourse often dissuades us from thinking that archaeology and conservation share any similarities, ECU’s recent conservation field school in Israel showed me that both of these specialties have the same, ultimate goal. We want artifacts to be expertly handled and preserved so that researchers in the present and the future can glean all possible knowledge from objects which others might see as trash, or land which others might see as a development opportunity. Archaeologists and conservators want the history of objects to mean something to the public. We want adequate storage for the multitudes of cultural objects connected to self-identity, and we want the story of our past to continue developing, so that we can feel connected to our ancestors (or learn from their mistakes). We want the opportunity to travel– to learn from others whose perspectives might offer new insights into our own individual and professional growth. But most of all we want artifacts to get the respect and attention they deserve, both in the field and in the lab.


         Photograph 1. Dome of the Rock seen from the Jaffa Gate Hostel

            The conservation field school in Israel was what all successful field schools are: one part good planning and three parts good luck. No matter what you expect from a field school going in, you should always mostly expect the unexpected. Working in the field, in both archaeology and conservation, requires you to become comfortable with flexibility. A constantly changing environment, a limited amount of tools (or budget), and a variety of artifact materials make work especially exciting, while play is no less of a shocking experience. There are new smells at every turn, colors you never thought imaginable blur your vision, you start waking up to the cultural sounds of a very distinct people. In other words, your senses are completely overwhelmed from start to finish, and your history starts to mingle with others’ histories. It’s common knowledge that for a traveler, you can never go home again. The explanation behind this is that everywhere becomes home.


 Photograph 2. The Mediterranean as seen from Ashqelon

            The biggest challenge for those first starting fieldwork is understanding that fieldwork is both mentally and physically strenuous. The climate is never perfect. Almost all landscapes have hills to climb. Artifacts are heavy. Shovels cause callouses, or in the case of a conservator, your neck and eyes hurt after scrutinizing one artifact for six hours. You are constantly thinking and researching and asking yourself, “What the hell is that?” And, yes, the first week makes you reconsider your career choice. But once you get over the shock of constantly being in motion or the nuisance of changing your schedule fifty times to accommodate new surprises, you start realizing that you love being exhausted at the end of the day. You love eating bugs for the first time and meeting people who are genuinely interested in what you do. I admit it, I personally like the chaos. Chaos breeds new experiences in a way that planned trips never can. Professionally, chaos creates the perfect venue to meet new, exciting people. In Israel, we had a chance to learn from wonderful archaeologists and conservators alike. And, although they might not agree that we met amidst chaos, there were certainly plenty of loose artifacts to invoke the idea that we were all heading in the right direction.

 Photograph 3. Chelsea Freeland, Samantha Sheffield, and author holding up the arch of Ashqelon

            Israel was an ideal place for an archaeologist’s first fieldschool with a conservation focus. I saw more artifacts in one place than I have ever seen in my life. Israel’s history is so deeply rooted in archaeology that its cultural attributes are highly valued, and, therefore, most artifacts are either on display or being conserved by the Israel Antiquities Authority (henceforth referred to as the IAA).   The IAA sees every artifact from both private and public archaeological sites pass through their office. Every prehistoric pottery sherd, every Roman glass piece, every waterlogged coin is conserved by a specialist and put in storage. This is incredibly different from American archaeology, in which artifacts are not required to be conserved by a central party, and so are spread out among universities and researchers across the country. There are benefits and downsides to both systems, but in both countries artifacts play a central role in politically-charged conversation. In other words, archaeology and conservation are relevant fields, and they remind us that people do care about their history and what is becoming of their material heritage.


Photograph 4. The Negev Desert

             If you choose to go into archaeology or conservation, remember that we all want the same things. We love artifacts and the reconstruction of the people behind those artifacts. We want to represent cultures fully and accurately, while still embodying their humanity. If you want to be in archaeology or conservation, my advice is to love fieldwork for what it is. You probably have an addiction to adventure, and, even though you will complain, even your worst days in the field will be productive and inspiring. How else can a professional know they have reached the pinnacle of their career unless they have had the experience of cleaning one artifact for four hours and then having a colleague (or professor) lean over them and say calmly, “Have you started cleaning that yet?”


Photograph 5. Author sitting next to Petrie’s old archaeological tunnels in the Negev


Note: All photos are by the author and should not be reproduced without the author’s permission.

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Working Together in the Field: Compromise and Communication between Conservators and Archaeologists

February 14th, 2013

Working Together in the Field: Compromise and Communication between Conservators and Archaeologists

 Hannah Smith

            Having the split personality that I do as a student of both archaeology and conservation, I’ve seen the unintentional divide that exists between conservators and archaeologists. In so many cases, this divide is due to a lack of understanding of what a conservator really does, as well as how to communicate what would be the best course of action to preserve a collection. That process encompasses the entire time from the moment the artifact leaves the ground to when it leaves the conservation lab. As a result, better communication is needed – on both sides – so that the history that is embodied by excavated artifacts can be preserved in the best way possible. Part of this communication needs to include demystifying what a conservator does, as well as how archaeologists can work with conservators to make both sides’ jobs easier.

            Much of the work conservators do takes place in an environment that is very different from where archaeologists work. The equipment needed and the vocabulary used to describe conservation can also prove to be a gap in a non-conservator’s knowledge. Once someone understands how and why a certain treatment is done and what the terms used to describe it are, it’s no longer so foreign. To that end, conservators should make an effort to show archaeologists more of what they do, while still cautioning that treatment shouldn’t be undertaken without proper training.

Because artifacts deteriorate so quickly, care must be taken from the very moment that the artifacts are uncovered on the site. Of course, the ideal situation includes a conservator working with the archaeologist before the excavations begin, and continuing through until everything is cleaned, stabilized, and safely stored or displayed (Singley 1981). But rarely does the ideal situation become reality. More often, artifacts sit in storage for a long time before a conservator can assess and treat them. Therefore, it is necessary for conservators to keep an open line of communication with the archaeologists in the field as to how best to clean, package and store their artifacts (Singley 1981). This means that there needs to be more information available to those outside of the field of conservation as to how to manage the basic needs of artifacts – those of stability and protection. While there are plenty of sources of information and supplies available, we need to bring those sources to the attention of archaeologists. We also need to account for the fact that not every project will have unlimited funds, so less expensive, but still appropriate, options for collection management should also be explained to our colleagues.

            Before an artifact can be stored, however, it needs to be cleaned, and each type of material has different needs. The cleaning methods needed for ceramics, for example, are different than those for metals (Singley 1981). A basic understanding of these methods will greatly improve the conditions that artifacts are in after excavation. Dirt left behind can provide an environment that allows decay to begin or continue, especially if the environment the artifact is housed in is unstable (Cronyn 1990). And while many archaeologists know the basics of cleaning artifacts, changes in best practices may have occurred since they were in school. By communicating well, conservators can keep archaeologists abreast of the changes that are occurring in our field, which will help collections survive to provide more information to future generations of conservators and archaeologists alike.

 Cronyn, J. M. 1990. Elements of Archaeological Conservation. New York, New York: Routledge.

 Singley, Katherine A. 1981 Caring for Artifacts After Excavation – Some Advice for Archaeologists.  Historical Archaeology 15(1): 36-48.

Archaeological Conservation

Conservation Conversation: Conservation Within the Discipline of Anthropology

February 4th, 2013

Conservation Conversation: Conservation Within the Discipline of Anthropology

Taryn Ricciardelli

Archaeologists have always been a problem for the field of anthropology. They are crass and red-faced, most of them, dirty, but, if we want to be frank, archaeologists travel, drink, and crunch numbers with the best of them. They are scientists and theorists as much as they are shovel-bums; sinking into labwork just as quickly as they hurry into the field. In essence, archaeologists fall in love with past societies and imaginary individuals. They can start from the most basic material remains and uncover the beautiful, complex connections that make human beings so fascinating. But as archaeology continues to expand, recognize new specialties, and delve into even more intricate forms of questioning, the conservation of artifacts, both on-site and off, becomes an essential part of the discipline. I sense that soon there will be discussions similar to the debate surrounding archaeology since the rise of processualism: is conservation a subspecialty or its own discipline? Should archaeological conservation become part of the discipline of anthropology? Is archaeological conservation directly related to the study of people and how people behave? My argument would be that, yes, the conservation of artifacts can tell an important diachronic, and truly cultural, story about the people behind the objects.

Marcel Mauss wrote in The Gift that objects possess the spirit of the maker, which is then manifested in different ways through the acts of giving and receiving. As a distinguished cultural anthropologist writing about egalitarian societies, Mauss invested strong social value into all human-made objects. Although the context is different in archaeology, I still find that Mauss gives a lot of credence to why archaeologists do what they do. They find objects in order to understand the people associated with them, to highlight humanity, finding (or disproving) patterns on a larger scale. Conservators are not solely focused on the object, either. The intrinsic spirit of the object is what drives the conservator to conserve, and it is that intrinsic spirit which comes from the maker of the object, the culture surrounding the artifact, and the life history of the object (conditioned by the conservator’s culture) after it has been excavated.

Some archaeologists might argue that conservators are constantly in labs, tucked away from the field, pouring over chemical analysis and not worrying about the larger social and cultural implications of the objects they are saving. However, this accusation largely arises from a lack of communication between archaeologists and conservators, which, in my opinion, should end immediately. As Singley (1981) acknowledges, misinformation on either the archaeologists’ or conservators’ part (about the other) can lead to inherent problems in the object’s long-term survival and also in the analysis of the culture of the artifact. If archaeological conservation were part of the anthropological discipline, much of this misinformation could be avoided. Archaeologists would be required to learn at least the basics of conservation, and conservators would be required to learn some archaeological methods supplemented by some anthropological theory. Although I can hear the groans and the indignant outbursts from the scientists in the room, anthropological theory is largely underrated in the sciences, yet it offers a unique perspective that is beneficial to developing research questions and understanding artifact patterns, excavation techniques, and, hopefully soon, conservation techniques. All in all, conservation is about humanity. (Now whether more conservators or anthropologists disagree with this statement, I am not sure, but the comments section is below.) Whether or not conservation ends up in anthropology, it is the cooperation and understanding of conservation and archaeology that is most beneficial to the progress of anthropological academic research.


Works Cited

Mauss, Marcel. 2000. The Gift. W.W. Norton & Company.

Singley, Katherine R. 1981. Caring for Artifacts after Exacavation— Some Advice to Archaeologists. Historical Archaeology 15(1): 36-58.

Archaeological Conservation, Ethics and Theory ,

Is Conservation its own field or a subfield of Archaeology?

February 4th, 2013

Is Conservation its own field or a subfield of Archaeology?

Hannah Piner 

            Conservation sprung from the need to protect and conserve our past; it is hard to say that conservation came from archaeology, or any other major discipline specifically. It is the daughter of art, history, archaeology, architecture, and museum studies, just to name some of the influential fields. With advances in technology, artifacts come from a wider variety of places (family homes, private collections, archaeological sites) and with advances in science there are new ways to study these artifacts.  Virtually every advance made creates a new subfield of conservation in the American Institute for Conservation: object, wood, paper, painting, etc.

Even if one eliminates many of the subfields of conservation, and focuses solely on object conservation, it is hard to say that object conservation is merely a subfield of archaeology. Often, conservators do not work in the field with the archaeologists which eliminates the conservator from a majority of an archaeologists work. Instead the conservator spends most of their time in the lab after the artifacts are brought out of the site. Archaeologists may employ the conservator, but conservators are still left out of the process until the archaeologist has gathered all possible visible information and has to call on the conservator to preserve or reveal data that has become hidden by concretion and dirt. This puts a wedge between the two fields and, purposely or accidentally, separates two fields that should work very closely together.

The conservator also has to deal with the wants and needs of other museum professionals.  The reasoning and logic of a museum curator (for example) will be very different from the reasoning and logic of an archaeologist. The archaeologist wants to collect data and research what the artifacts mean. The museum curator, on the other hand, is more interested in using artifacts to demonstrate to the public information about the past. Curators are looking for aesthetic or educational qualities that may not be in the forefront of the archaeologists mind. An objects conservator has the difficult task of balancing these two goals. Their goal is to use the artifact for research and educate the public. The conservator has a responsibility to take an object and stabilize it while keeping the integrity and originality of the artifact for the continuing education of future generations, while answering research questions.

When working with archaeological materials, none of these three fields could survive alone. They work together and must rely on the research and knowledge of each other to gain the most information. Archaeologists have to carefully excavate the artifacts out of the ground. Museums and curators present these findings to the public. And conservators bridge these two, add research and data, and conserve and preserve the artifacts for future generations.

Archaeological Conservation ,

When Conservation is not the Answer

January 28th, 2013

When Conservation is not the Answer

Lucas Simonds

Although any reasonably pragmatic conservator accepts that, due to many considerations, the conservation of material culture is not feasible in every situation; Time, cost, level of deterioration, and other factors can often combine to make conservation efforts impractical. It is generally accepted that material culture and cultural heritage are intrinsically valuable, and should be preserved whenever possible. As an archaeologist, I would have to, in most situations, agree with this sentiment, as the profession of archaeology is based on the notion that cultural heritage holds an intrinsic value. This assumption of value, however, ignores the fact that the culture whose heritage is being preserved may in fact place a higher value on factors other than the preservation of cultural heritage. Competing viewpoints on value are especially likely to come to a head on the issue of the preservation and use of landscapes which contain cultural heritage. Be it a shipwreck in the middle of a highly fished area or a prehistoric settlement under a cornfield, the reality is the same that to people in the present day, their profitable relationship to the landscape is likely to hold a higher value than the archaeologist’s preservation oriented relationship.

This complex interplay of relationships has been dealt with at length in a recent article by Chris Dalglish, in which he argues in favor of what he calls “landscape justice.” To Dalglish, landscape justice is a theoretical framework in which all relationships to a landscape, past, present, and future, must to be taken into consideration alongside the preservation of cultural heritage for its intrinsic value, so that good relationships to the landscape can be promoted (Dalglish 2012). Furthermore, Dalglish proposes that rather than possessing any sort of intrinsic value, material cultural remains draw their value not from within themselves, but from groups living in the present who believe that those remains reflects their cultural heritage (Dalglish 2012, 335). As a result of this, Dalglish comes to a number of conclusions that would be somewhat shocking to most archaeologists and conservators, the most blunt of which is found in his third principles of  archaeological landscape ethics, which states,

Adopting an approach that connects the past, present and future tenses of the relational

landscape requires us to move away from a position where conservation actions are our

stock response to any situation. Conservation of the status quo, its relationships and its

material elements, is an option which remains open to us, but it is only one of many

possibilities (Dalglish 2012, 338).

While suggesting that complete preservation may, at times, be the wrong choice comes as an offense to the sensibilities of those of us who work in the preservation of cultural heritage, I believe Dalglish’s theory of landscape justice exposes an inherent narrow-mindedness in our profession. Despite the value which we place on cultural heritage, our relationship to the landscape in which material cultural remains lie is not the only one that matters. Those who draw their livelihood from the landscape or reap other benefits from it must have a say in the management plans of that landscape, as their relationships to it are no less legitimate than those of archaeologists and conservators.

A word of caution must be given, however, as this is not meant to suggest that the potential of a landscape to produce a profit must take precedence over its cultural significance. This is meant to suggest though, that the prioritization of conservation in every situation without regard to other relationships to the landscape is not only unjust, but leads, more often than not, to a poor relationship between the archaeological community and the public, as well as to the possible mismanagement of landscapes. I would suggest, therefore, that Dalglishs’ theory of landscape justice be given careful consideration as plans for landscape management and conservation are developed, and that both archaeologists and conservators should attempt to take a more open minded view when dealing with the complex interplay of relationships surrounding landscapes containing cultural heritage.


Dalglish, Chris. 2012. Archaeology and landscape ethics. World Archaeology 44 (3): 327-341.


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