Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Mission to Mars Body Farm

April 9th, 2015
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Mission to Mars Body Farm

Stephanie Byrd 

            With 100 individuals scheduled for a one-way trip to Mars, the idea of studying body decomposition and preservation of the body on reentry would be possible. An understanding of Mars atmosphere would be a valuable study planet; if bodies exposed to the environment were allowed to decompose outside of the earth-like artificial environment, a new body decomposition study could be conducted.

The atmosphere on Mars to Earth would be the first point of comparison. According to the Phoenix Mars Mission from the University of Arizona (Smith n.d.), Mars atmosphere is made of 95.32% Carbon dioxide, 2.7% Nitrogen, 1.6% Argon, .13% Oxygen, .03% Water vapor, and .01% Nitric oxide; compared to the Earth atmosphere that is made of 77% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, 1% Argon, and .038% Carbon dioxide. The largest elements that could affect human decomposition would be the differences in the Carbon dioxide, Nitrogen, and Oxygen levels.

Human decomposition is aided by the destabilization of the human body; the living body is kept in balance with the live bacteria in the body. Once the body is dead, the bacteria growth is uninhibited, helping the decomposition process internally. Oxygen and insect activity aids in decomposition on the outside of the body (Vass 2001). The lack of insects and oxygen on an exposed body in Mars could show how external forces impact remains. In order to understand the rate of atmospheric effects on the body, a closed camera feed would be part of the study based on the camera used in the current Mars project. The Mast Cameras used currently on Mars have the ability to take video at 10 frames per second or color snapshots and can house thousands of images and hours of high-definition video (NASA n.d.) This camera is used to photograph and record land, rock, soil, and other environmental factors on Mars, and could easily be used to record stages of human decomposition in color images.

One of the more difficult challenges would be ethics: should the bodies be brought back to study or left on Mars? In this unprecedented situation, the ethical thing to do would be allow the individuals on the project to say beforehand how their body should be handled at the time of death. If individuals waive their rights, the next of kin should have the right to request the body from Mars or have the remains left on Mars. Should a request that the remains be brought back to earth made, the complication of reentry and the effects of the body would need further study. The best case would be to work on preservation or mummification in flight back to Earth, working in a controlled similar atmosphere and slowly alter the atmosphere to mimic Earth This would be an atmospheric stage bath, much like a staged water bath for fragile organic materials. In order to know how this works in a Mars-like atmosphere, it could be produced in a laboratory setting and human remains set up for a Body Decomposition Laboratory and Reentry study.

It might be years before the human decomposition study on Mars will be done, but with the 100 individuals set to leave in the coming years for Mars, it will be important to understand all stages of life included death on a foreign planet. With the ongoing technological advancements, it might even be possible to take samples for study at the different stages of decomposition. Time will be the biggest factor in determining how the advances in science, conservation, and outer space will play out.



Unknown author. (N.D) Mast Camera (Mastcam)

Smith, Peter H. (N.D.) The Phoenix Mission. University of Arizona.

Vass, Arpad A. 2001. “Beyond the grave-understanding human decomposition”. Microbiology Today. 28. 190-192.

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“What is eating the Titanic?”

February 11th, 2015
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“What is eating the Titanic?”

James Kinsella

The story of the RMS Titanic is one of the most fascinating yet tragic events of the 20th century.  The RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sunk off the coast of Newfoundland after she struck an iceberg on April 15, 1912 during her maiden voyage.  She remained lost for the next seventy-four years until she was discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard.  This was touted as one of the greatest maritime discoveries of all time.  The discovery of the Titanic also brought about quite a bit of controversy.  The controversy ranged from who owned the wreck, jurisdiction of different nations, and whether or not any part of the wreck should be salvaged.

After the discovery, Dr. Ballard and crew spent time meticulously documenting and recording the wreck.  Once they left they had agreed that this should be a protected site and that no artifact recovery should take place.  In the years following this would become a topic of great debate.  There are many like Dr. Ballard that agree this should be a protected site and that it should remain undisturbed.  They feel that it is a tomb of all that were lost.  Then there are several who feel that there should be a recovery effort on Titanic and the artifacts.  The reason behind this thought is that the ship is deteriorating at an alarming rate and the feel that undertaking a recovery effort will preserve this part of history.

As the development of iron and steam maritime archaeology have emerged so has new areas of research, particularly the development of corrosion science and the understanding of the disintegration process of iron shipwrecks (Green 2004).  With new research, the individuals who want to recover part of the wreck feel that time is running out.  This is due to the fact that the deterioration of Titanic is actually a destructive bacteria that is eating away at it.  There are some that speculate a rust stain is all that will remain of the Titanic in 15 to 20 years, according to new research into the submerged ocean liner wreck (News Discovery 2013).  According to this source the science behind the deterioration is the bacteria which was isolated from rust samples appears to be accelerating the Titanic’s deterioration.  The bacteria are eating the wreck’s metal and leaving behind “rusticles.” The rusticles look like icicles; however are just deposits of rust.  Sooner or later these rusticles will dissolve into a powdery substance leaving behind just a stain of rust.  This was bacteria was analyzed by samples taken from a 1991 expedition to the wreck.  The researchers proposed a name for the bacteria; Halomonas titanicae (Ventosa 1991).

One of the biggest parts of the debate on whether or not to recover parts of Titanic is that in addition to those that feel it is disturbing a gravesite, there are others that feel that people looking to recover wreckage are just looking into it for financial gain.  There has been considerable debate within the maritime archaeological circles over codes of ethics (Green 2004).  The debate centers on whether or not it is appropriate to excavate a site and then sell the collection.

I can respect that there are those who wish Titanic remain as an undisturbed grave site.  I agree with their motives and feel that the site should be left alone.  I do not think that any personal artifacts should be brought up.  This is a grave site and there could be human remains left down there.  On the flip side however, I feel that an effort should be made to recover portions of the ship itself.  I understand that this would be huge undertaking and possibly cost prohibitive but the fact is that in 25 years the wreck will be gone.  All that will be left is rust stain on the ocean floor.  I firmly believe that there is enough science and technology to successfully recover a portion of the wreck and properly conserve it for future generations to enjoy in a museum setting.



“Titanic Being Eaten by Destructive Bacteria: DNews.” DNews. February 11, 2013. Accessed February 4, 2015.

Sanchez-Porro, C., Kaur, B., Mann, H., and Ventosa, A. “Halomonas Titanicae Sp. Nov., a Halophilic Bacterium Isolated from the RMS Titanic.” IJSEM. January 8, 2010. Accessed February 4, 2015.

Green, J.  2004.  Maritime Archaeology: A Technical Handbook. 2nd ed.


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A Thing of the Past: The Importance of Correct Cleaning Techniques of Tombstones

February 11th, 2015
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A Thing of the Past: The Importance of Correct Cleaning Techniques of Tombstones

Kristi Brantley

           The role of a tombstone is complex. It is a final physical connection to surviving friends and family- a reminder of life and a representation of loss. An important artifact for the historian, the tombstone normally has identifying information inscribed on it.  It can tell us who, what, when or where and sometimes, why.  Its cultural value increases with age.  The use of tombstones to mark grave sites is beginning to diminish, creating urgency for deliberate conservation efforts.  Tombstones should be preserved, not only for the obvious information they provide, but also for their value as a material culture object.

There are primarily two types of cemeteries: perpetual and non-perpetual.  A perpetual cemetery is usually privately owned.  A portion of the money collected for a burial plot goes into a special account that accrues interest.  The interest is used to ensure that the grounds and grave markers will continually be maintained. A non-perpetual cemetery is owned by an individual family, a local municipality, a church, or an organization, such as state and national veteran cemeteries.  They rely on private funds, donations or tax funds to maintain the gravesites and landscape.

The tombstones in the cemeteries are usually made up from one of four kinds of stone: granite, marble, slate and sandstone.  These stones are in direct contact with the ground and absorb some water from the surrounding soil.  The porous nature of the stone allows air to circulate and evaporate the water.  One could say that the tombstone breathes (an eerie thought), as it allows air to pass through it. The nature of the tombstone sets the stage for natural deterioration.

Normal weather occurrences such as rain, snow, ice, or wind impact the stability and inscription details of the tombstone.  Vegetation growing around and on the stone often causes damage.  A common problem is the attachment of lichen, fungi, or algae to the stone. These trap moisture and secrete acids.  Often roots from ferns, ivy, and moss will grow into the stone (particularly on the north side of it), further destabilizing it.  In addition, shifts in the ground from erosion can have a substantial impact on the degeneration of the stone.

There are man-made causes of tombstone deterioration as well.  Erosion problems as a result of poor landscaping can cause a tombstone to fall over or break at the base.  Pollution found in rainwater (i.e. acid rain) can do significant damage to the stone.  Actions such as recording the epitaph through crayon, pencil, or wax rubbings can eventually destroy the stone.  The practice of rubbings has been banned in some states and many others are now requiring a permit. Stones can erode internally, while the outside hardens because of environmental exposure thus giving the impression of a sturdy gravestone. The pressure applied during a rubbing can cause the stone to implode.  Cleaning attempts can also create a dangerous environment for the tombstone.  It is not uncommon to hear of someone using bleach to clean and enhance the stone.  The salt from the bleach is hazardous to the stone and wears away details.




Inappropriate cleaning techniques:  A power washer was used to clean this tombstone.

The top image is before and the bottom image is after.

Notice the reduction in detail in the after photo.



There are a few companies that clean gravestones, but it is a job primarily done by ancestors of the deceased.  It is important to use proper techniques when cleaning a tombstone.  Never use household cleaning supplies to clean a tombstone.  The safest way to clean a gravestone is to keep a constant flow of water over the spot to be cleaned, using a hose, and gently scrub the stone with a soft bristle brush. If one has access to it, a D/2 Biological solution can be used.  It can be a time consuming task, but is eventually effective and safe for the preservation of the stone.




Appropriate cleaning techniques:  Notice the improvement in the tombstone after it had been gently cleaned with a soft bristle brush and water.

The top image is before and the bottom image is after.





During the 1970s, many cemeteries, especially perpetual cemeteries, began moving away from using upright tombstones as grave markers and instead began using flat, bronze plates.  These ground-level plates granted more accessibility for grave digging equipment and allowed maintenance upkeep such as grass cutting to be easier and more cost efficient.  As cemetery spaces decrease and maintenance costs increase, the use of tombstones to mark graves will continue to diminish.  It is essential that the public be educated on gravestone conservation techniques and begin employing them because, eventually, tombstones may be a thing of the past.



Photo by Kristi Brantley.




Melton Caison, Jr. Location Manager of Johnson Funeral Home; Operation Manager of Rocky Mount Memorial Park, Rocky Mount, N.C., telephone call January 23, 2015

Eddie Finch, Funeral Assistant, Johnson Funeral Home, Rocky Mount, N.C., telephone call January 20, 2015.

Chris May, Funeral Service licensee, operation manager Cornerstone Funeral Home, Nashville, N.C., telephone call January 23, 2015

Chicora Foundation, Incorporated. 2008.

Conneticut Gravestone Network. 2012.

Odgers, David. Caring for Historic Graveyard and Cemetery Monuments. 2011.  Digital.




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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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How visible should conservation treatments be?

February 12th, 2014

How visible should conservation treatments be?

 Lawrence Houston

Retaining and producing documentation of conservation treatments is considered a fairly recent development when it comes to historical and artistic works.  The prior philosophy of repairs was often to make them so invisible that the original and the repair could not be told apart.  It was thought that the slightest hint of visible treatment would ruin the value of an object and many objects were ill-treated in order to attain this visual effect.  When conservators worked together to develop treatment ethics, one of the aspects of ethical repair that was examined closely was how treatments should be incorporated into the object as a whole.  How can damage repair be undertaken in a manner that neither detracts from the perception of an object, nor attempts to pass itself off as authentic?

One guidepost that conservators set was the ‘six foot/six inch rule.’  Basically put, a repair should be incorporated into the object so that from 6 feet away, the repair blends seamlessly with the object.  The object and its aesthetic experience should be at the forefront of the observer’s attention.  Treatments should not detract from the appreciation of an object.  However, treatments should not be so invisible that the object becomes something that it is not.  Original detail and the work of time and craft should be distinguished readily from the restoration and stabilization work done to care for an object.  Hence the six inch rule, which states that treatments should be apparent on close examination.

Why make the treatments visible at all?  Conservators have the responsibility of ensuring that an object is allowed to speak for itself.  Hiding the treatments entirely creates a false appearance that can mislead or even create forgeries of authentic craft.  Those who access the objects treated have the right to know which parts of an object are original. Likewise, conservators have the obligation to show what is interpolation or which portions are not supported by authorial intent and are merely an assist to stabilization.  Conservators have developed techniques like tratteggio [Italian for sketching] and rigatini [striping] for adding paint to compensate for loss.  Other times, the ‘reading side’ of an object will not show work that is readily visible from the back.  When treatment documentation is lacking or absent, it is often these visual clues that are an important help to guide researchers and conservators in their approach to an object.

Figure 1

Page from a copy of Homer’s Iliad. 1722. 

Aqueous treatment was being contemplated to fix the staining of the page.  Repairs are almost invisible.

Figure 2

Note the undocumented repairs that are easily visible on close inspection.  Should aqueous treatment be attempted with this object, these historical repairs can be accounted for by the conservator and loss of the information can be prevented. These visible repairs are also of note to researchers.  In this case, the repairs indicate a printing error that was caught and likely corrected early in the object’s life. (Raking and transmitted light used in the photos provided to visually highlight the repairs).

Figure 3

Current AIC guidelines require conservators to “not falsely modify the known aesthetic, conceptual, and physical characteristics of the cultural property.”  As conservators we need to ensure that repairs stay in the background and do not drown out the voice of the object.  But we also need to avoid the vanity of creating a truly invisible repair and work to hone our craft in a way that allows the object to speak for itself.



AIC Code of Ethics.  January 21, 2014.

Applebaum, Barbara. Conservation Treatment Methodology. Lexington, ky 2010

Capel, Chris. Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method, and Decision Making. Routledge. ny, ny. 2000

Phillips, David. Exhibiting Authenticity. St Martin’s Press. NY, NY. 1997

Schweidler, Max.  The Restoration of Engravings, Drawings, Books, and Other Works on Paper.  Ed. Roy

Perkinson.  Getty Conservation Institute. Los Angeles. 2006.

Photo credit: Lawrence Houston.  Images from ΟΜΗΡΟΥ ΙΛΙΑΣ. Homeri Ilias: id est, de rebus ad Trojam gestis. Printer J. R. Prostant. 1722.

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Conservation: Using Others Mistakes to Avoid Our Own

February 14th, 2013

Conservation: Using Others Mistakes to Avoid Our Own

Kate Clothier

Conservation involves multiple fields coming together in order to better protect and understand artifacts. A combination of archaeology, chemistry, even biology can all be called upon at the same time by the conservator whilst they are working on the said object. Since conservation efforts require so many different fields of knowledge, the conservator must be aware of what is going on in other fields. By expanding their gaze, information can flow easier and benefit their effort. The information that can be gained from other fields is not limited strictly to data concerning decay or material makeup, but it can also involve ethical questions.

One such question is where to draw the line at examining artifacts. What is meant by this is how much of an object are we willing to remove and potentially destroy in order to gain information.  Conservators must walk a fine line in determining what is acceptable to “sacrifice” for the good of the entire collection. For example, taking a few coins from a collection of over a thousand and then breaking them down (as in removing a section of it or cutting into the coin) to better understand their process of decay. However, once those coins are broken down, they can no longer be part of the collection.  How is it decided what is ok to take away from the collection since it will no longer be available for future use? In conservation the size of the collection and the potential benefits of ‘sacrificing’ the object are weighed out before anything irreversible is done. This helps to ensure that what is lost is not more than what will be gained.

A prime example of the damage that can be done if the cost vs benefit ratio is not properly followed is highlighted in a University of Arizona Environmental department article concerning the Prometheus Bristlecone pine. A geology researcher eager to get results concerning glacial features decided rather than taking a small sample from the Bristlecone pines to gather his information he would cut an entire plant down for more immediate results. Soon after he cut down one of the Bristle cone pines, it was learned that the plant selected was the oldest tree alive, dating nearly 5000 years old (UA Communications, 2013. “Keepers of Prometheus: The World’s Oldest Tree.” University of Arizona Research & Discovery in Environment & Sustainability, Accessed: Web. 5 Feb. 2013). The article explains that the same results could have been gathered from the plant, dubbed Prometheus, if the researcher had followed the approved methods of dendrochronology by taking small samples of the core, which would not have hurt the plant. This would have allowed future researches the chance to monitor and learn more about the plant survival strategy in addition to the plant yielding the needed information for the geologist in his glacial research, but there was no way to undo what had been done.

This same concept can be applied to the conservation world. The conservator must be careful in what they select to break down and examine in an irreversible way. If the object is one of a kind then it cannot be treated in the same manner that something like a large collection of coins would be treated, or else future information can be lost, similar to what happened with the Prometheus Bristlecone pine.  Taking small core samples can yield useful information without damaging the entire collection. It can explain the material makeup of the object, why or why not it is decaying, what type of decay is happening, and what the best method to protect the object would be. Looking into other fields and the mistakes they have made can help emphasize why conservators need to be so diligent and practical in their art. The information and materials they work with is one of a kind.


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