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Museum and Library Apps
Using Android, iPad, iPhone, or iTouch?
Check out these apps that can be useful in conservation:
Museum and Library Apps
When examining objects, it is important that conservators describe them in great detail. This can help document what condition an object is in before treatment, identify any changes that have happened to the material over time, or to just provide a record in the event the object is damaged or lost. Photographs can also be helpful in this process, but sometimes areas of damage aren’t visible.
When you are examining an object it is important to record your observations about what the object is, what it is made out of, how it was constructed, and what condition it is in. Are there any attached pieces? Is there any evidence of previous repairs?
Here is a guide to help identify the types of terms that conservators use:
It is also important not to use words that are too general. If you were reading your description in 100 years, would you be able to picture the object without an image? Here are some words not to use!
Other useful resources:
What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society
Which is more valuable?
We see them everywhere behind glass in museums, in a dim room with a spotlight on them, a guard standing around telling you not to touch: historical objects and artifacts on display for our viewing pleasure. To a museum visitor, the objects may be nice to look at or learn about from the brief informational placards. To a conservator or archaeologist, the objects may be a key to unlocking information about our human past and need to be preserved for future study. Different people view historical objects in various ways, and sometimes this can cause problems, especially when objects are seen for their monetary value only.
To an archaeologist, the context of an object is just as important as the object itself. After all, one can only learn so much about a single ceramic pot. If that pot, however, is found within a burial an archaeologist can make interpretations about the culture that made the pot: ritualistic behaviors, societal hierarchies, and the function of the pot can all be gleaned from its context.
The general public is less likely to understand the importance of context. This is understandable since most of their interactions with historical objects occur when they are standing in front of a glass case in a museum. They see the object at the end of its journey: after it has been removed from the field and been cleaned, preserved, and placed on display. The public sees these objects as valuable: they know they are behind glass cases for a reason and that museums pay (sometimes large) amounts of money for certain objects. The very circumstances surrounding museums place value on the object alone, rather than historical context (especially since accompanying informational text is brief).
In line with this concept is the idea that mundane or common objects are less worthy of being studied, collected, or placed on display in museums, which creates a bias of what is seen behind glass cases, as Caple mentions in “Reasons for Preserving the Past” (2003, 21). Unique, famous, rare, or beautiful objects are prized over everyday objects and are sought after for their monetary value. They are also more likely to be displayed in a museum in the hopes of attracting more visitors.
One example of highly sought after objects are those classical artworks such as Greek or Roman marble statues and vases. The modern aesthetics of these types of objects is sometimes seen as more highly prized than the object’s original context. The objects, according to Sarah Scott in “Art and Archaeology,” are displayed “as art rather than archaeology” (2006, 629). This has caused, and is still causing, looting or damage to archaeological sites as people try to find and sell such objects (628). They know there is a market for them and market value is given more importance than contextual detail (629). Archaeologists should stress the importance of context lest looting occur. Placing a high value on objects can lead to the “continued prioritization of a select range of objects, most notably classical sculpture” (636). Our modern view of what is considered “art,” such as classical statues, causes them to be considered as commodities to be bought and sold, rather than ancient objects that can lend information about the past societies in which they existed.
In conclusion, keeping objects in their original context, rather than applying value and aesthetics to them, is ideal. Archaeologists and conservators alike have a responsibility to make the acquirement of objects without context unacceptable both academically and socially. For example, archaeologists can refuse to help treasure hunters or salvors with excavation. Similarly, conservators can refuse to work on objects that have been obtained through less desirable means. Museums must be very careful when buying objects and place an importance upon integrity of objects. Finally, placing significance upon the study of seemingly mundane or common objects also helps to decrease the mindset of historical objects as commodities.
Caple, C. 2003. Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.
Scott, Sarah. 2006. Art and the Archaeologist. World Archaeology 38(4): 628-643.
Conservation of Wetlands, or Conservation of Archaeological Materials: Maybe They’re One in the Same
In addition to being an inspiration for cautionary bedtime stories by Han Christian Anderson, bogs, also known as peatlands and wetlands, have produced some of the best-preserved sources of archaeological materials in northern Europe and the United Kingdom (Buckland, P.C., 1993:513). It probably doesn’t help the bog’s reputation that the incredibly preserved remains of individuals killed by stabbing or hanging and then dumped into swamps millennia before present continue to be found by archaeologists in these wetlands. But the very existence of other, similar, undiscovered archaeological materials in bogs has been and continues to be threatened by both natural and cultural formation processes. Moving past the ghostly perils and carnivorous plants, should archaeologists and conservators advocate along with environmental scientists for the preservation of bogs, peat deposits, and wetland ecosystems?
As of 1988, more than 120 sites have been identified containing preserved human remains and archaeological objects in bog deposits (Omar et al., 1988:101). Threats to the continual preservation of these deposits include development, decreases in the water table via drainage and water abstraction, peat abstraction and wastage, and other environmental factors including climate change. (Van de Noort et al, 2002:18)
Bogs are formed over long periods of time on both dry land and standing water when layers of moss and algae find suitable surfaces to grow on. The moss retains water very easily (on dry and wet land), and any soil under the moss eventually becomes saturated and waterlogged. As the accretion of moss continues to grow over time, enough water collects in the once soil covered area to become swampy and submerged in successive layers of moss and water. Conversely, when algae and moss grow on the surface of standing water in lakes and ponds, those same layers continue to grow until they fill up any remaining space, preventing other biological organisms from growing in the vicinity (Lobell and Patel, 2010:27).
The importance of peat in preserving ancient organic materials lies in its anaerobic, water logged, acidic environments. Colder temperatures can also help in the preservation of deposits in bogs. Lack of oxygen and microbial life prevents the destruction of delicate materials, like wood, textiles, and even the bodies of humans and animals (known as Bog Bodies).
According to authors Lobell and Patel in their 2010 publication of Bog Bodies Rediscovered, the chemical nature of bogs vary. The exact chemical composition and interaction for successful preservation is not understood, and while half of a body or object can preserve beautifully, another half might completely disintegrate. For instance, Tollund man, found in Denmark, retains only the bones of his hands, while his feet remained fully intact.
There are other problems behind wetland archaeology that cause scientists to hesitate before excavating in peat and water logged sites. Despite the enormous potential of these areas for preservation of archaeological materials, archaeologists are guilty of diving head first into excavation without thought for how to take care of their findings once they are removed from their protective bed of soil. For this type of excavation and preservation, a trained conservator must be present during the stages of the artifact’s life span after removal from the burial environment.
Early methods of conservation have included slurries (oak bark), and solutions of distilled water and various oils, or solutions alternating concentrations of ethanol – anywhere from 33 to 99 percent (Omar et al., 1989:101). Methods used today include freeze-drying. However, it was necessary before carrying out this process to determine what should be used to impregnate the body. PEG is a type of water soluble wax used today that is a popular treatment for waterlogged wood. An object or organic substance, when placed in a solution of PEG 400, will absorb the wax from the water solution, filling and providing structure to otherwise compromised and delicate organic finds with either plant or animal cell structures. Once the PEG has been completely absorbed, the body or object can then be freeze-dried, and later, put on display in stabilized, museum environments.
It was not immediately clear to conservation scientists whether or not a consolidant would be required in the preservation of Lindow Man However, options existed that were successful when used on waterlogged wood and leather. These solutions involved PEG or polyethylene glycol and was first applied to Lindow Man at Silkeborg Museum, Denmark. Before they applied this solution, however, a n experiment was carried out on peat buried and preserved samples of pig skin to determine what solution of PEG would work best on bog bodies (Omar et al., 1989:104). After being buried in peat, the pig skins were tested by submersing them in solutions of PEG 400 with 10 percent PEG 2000. White, waxy residues congealed on the surface of the PEG 2000 samples. From these results, it was decided that it would be safest in the long term to use PEG 400 as a consolidant on Lindow Man (Omar et al., 1989:104-105).
Before his consolidation with PEG, Lindow Man was stabilized over the course of a year, first by storage in a custom made icebox. Limited numbers of people were allowed in the room at the same time to prevent fluctuations in temperature, and the body was consistently sprayed with distilled water, to prevent dehydration. The environment in the box was kept at a constant four degrees Celsius, while the surface of Lindow Man were continuously covered and recovered in a combination of cling-wrap and a loose-weave cloth used by doctors to make casts for broken limbs. These were dampened with water to harden, and painted with pastes, and then covered with fiber glass materials to form a very hard, custom body cast. This casting was meant to help the body retain its form, and after being placed in its temperature controlled environment, was made more secure by layers of peat to copy the original burial environment, and to prevent the cast and body from sliding around (Omar et al., 1989:101-104).
The remnants of these bodies, and the details of their last few days or years can also be analyzed by scientists seeking to reconstruct the past. Without the proper conservation of these finds, they would very quickly dry, crack, and warp into an unrecognizable form; useless for display. This is why it is so important to not only have conservators present from the time of removal from the burial environment but also why archaeologists and conservators must pay attention to the threats placed on wetland ecosystems. If we allow these areas to be destroyed, we allow rich potential resources of archaeological data on the past to be destroyed as well.
Buckland, P.C. 1993 Peatland Archaeology: a conservation resource on the edge of extinction. Biodiversity and Conservation 2(5):513-527.
Van de Noort, Robert et al. 2002 Monuments at Risk in England’s Wetlands. University of Exeter. English Heritage Strategy for Wetlands.
Lobell, Jarrett A. and Patel Samir S. 2010 Bog Bodies Rediscovered. Archaeology 63(3):22-29.
Envionmental Protection Agency Water: Wetlands In North America. 2013. http://water.epa.gov/type/wetlands/bog.cfm
Omar, S. et al 1989 The Conservation of Bog Bodies by Freeze-Drying. Studies in Conservation 34(3):101-109.
An Ethical Dilemma of Artifacts for Sale
The selling and trade of artworks and artifacts is a highly inflaming topic amongst those in the fields of archaeology and conservation, and others committed to the preservation of their cultural history. On the other side, there are those who believe there is nothing wrong with gaining profit from the sale of antiquities, and there are situations where priceless artworks and antiquities are in danger of being auctioned. Aside from the illegal trade of antiquities, what are the ramifications of the legal selling of these items? As archaeologists and conservators, where does our responsibility lie?
One interesting case study is with the city of Detroit which is facing bankruptcy and contemplating selling artwork housed at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) to pay its creditors. Media in the headlines (USA Today) report that the city of Detroit has been granted the option to file bankruptcy and their creditors and many in the general public have suggested that the city-owned DIA sell its precious artworks to offset the city’s debts of approximately $18 billion. This is an example that illustrates the consequences of public-owned museums and why it is so important that artworks and other antiquities be housed in institutions funded by private foundations committed to their conservation, preservation, curation, display, and storage. Media reports (USA Today) state the artworks in concern are city-purchased and represent about 5% of museum’s art collection, and have been appraised by Christie’s Auction House at $454 to $867 million. There is a long process before it can be determined whether the artworks can be auctioned. Should the outcome be that even some of the art is eligible be sold, the impact could reach well beyond Detroit; this could potentially affect current and future donors’ decisions concerning donations to museums and other institutions that house antiquities. A remedy for this potential outcome could be that there would be parameters set as to who could be eligible to purchase the objects such as other museums.
More recently, media in the headlines (San Francisco Chronicle) report a couple in the state of California discovered tin cans filled with 19th century $20, $10, and $5 US gold coins on their property. According to news reports (San Francisco Chronicle) the couple plans to keep a few of the coins, help the homeless in their community, and auction the majority of the hoard. It is unknown as to who buried the coins and why they did it. Understandably, the couple did not know what they were digging up when they saw something sticking up from the ground, however their retrieval took them out of context and a part of their cultural history is lost. The numismatic value of these coins far outweighs their metal value; they are rare and in excellent condition. To be clear, the couple is well within their legal rights to do whatever they want with the coins as they were found on their private property. The concern here is a situation where people find prehistoric and historic cultural materials on their property and exercise their right to sell them — how is this different than say private for-profit companies who conduct archaeological excavations with the intent of documenting and then selling their find? This question is not intended to be answered with a simple explanation, but instead to stimulate critical thought on this issue. It is not known whether there exists a historical archaeological site in the area where the coins were discovered. Should a survey have been done to determine historical significance? Current laws protect sites on federal lands and most state laws do not concern finds discovered on private lands unless they are human remains or burial goods of Native American ancestors. In this case, the couple is not obligated to have their property surveyed. Not all of the historical value of the coins has been lost because they can be placed into historical context of when they were minted (it should be noted that these are uncirculated coins) and represent a part of the socio-economic system of their time.
These are only two of many situations that contribute to the antiquities trade. Although legal, they do have the potential to impact illegal activities. As professionals in the archaeological and conservation fields, we do not have a legal obligation to be involved with these kinds of activities, but we do have ethical considerations and are expected to follow ethical codes of conduct such as those set by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Work (AIC) and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). While we are not usually required to be involved in private, legal activities in the sale of artifacts and works of art, we are still expected to be stewards and advocates for the protection, conservation, and preservation of cultural objects and sites. We are not obligated to involve ourselves in these specific situations, but we do have a responsibility to educate others about the important role cultural materials have in connecting people to their cultural past. Furthermore, as the disciplines of archaeology and conservation change, so does our framework of thinking. This does not suggest that there be no legislature in place to protect antiquities, but that the discussion should be ongoing.
A reality for archaeologists and museum curators is the fact that space for storing artifacts is limited. In fact, there are many cultural materials that have been excavated, but not curated and will likely never be analyzed. Some might argue that in cases where there is an abundance of a particular kind of object, as in the case of the gold coins, some be kept for full curation and display, and the rest be sold. This is a sensitive topic and one that will never be fully resolved, but as previously mentioned, the discussion must be an ongoing one as the disciplines of archaeology and conservation adapt to changes and situations. One of the best tools we possess is the ability to educate those outside the disciplines about the significance of cultural materials and our connection to the past.
Borney, Nathan, and Mark Stryker 2014 Judge says no to 1st step toward selling Detroit’s art. USA Today. January 22. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/22/detroit-bankruptcy-institute-of-arts/4771613/. Retrieved on February 26, 2014.
Fagan, Kevin 2014 Gold Country couple discover $10 million in gold coins. San Francisco Chronicle. February 26. http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Gold-Country-couple-discover-10-million-in-5266314.php. Retrieved on February 26, 2014.
National Parks Service 2004 AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. http://www.nps.gov/training/tel/Guides/HPS1022_AIC_Code_of_Ethics.pdf. Retrieved on February 26, 2014.
Society for American Archaeology 1996 Principles of Archaeological ethics. http://www.saa.org/AbouttheSociety/PrinciplesofArchaeologicalEthics/tabid/203/Default.aspx. Retrieved on February 26, 2014.
To Keep the Patina, or Not to Keep the Patina…
Patina is a natural layer of corrosion that appears on the surface of various types of metals, including copper, bronze, and brass (Ankersmit 2013). This layer is stable and uniformed across the surface of the object, unlike other types of corrosion products which can be bulky and localized. It provides protection from other environmental degradation processes and slows further corrosion of the metal (Caple 2000). Although patina provides these benefits, it can appear on the surface of brass as a brown coating, hiding the lustrous metal below. Therefore, should the layer of patina remain when conserving the object, or should the patina be removed to reveal the true nature of the metal? As conservators, we are continually faced with these types of difficult ethical and theoretical issues. In order to make the most informed decision, a conservator must weigh the benefits and downfalls of the layer of patina on a case-by-case basis.
Patina can be preserved on objects because of its protective qualities and aesthetically pleasing aged appearance. Metal objects are subject to corrosion processes, such as humidity, rain, and air pollutants (Curkovic 2010). Therefore, it is not uncommon for artists and conservators to replicate the process of patination, by accelerating the corrosion using various chemicals. In addition to its functional value, the benefits of patinas are also apparent from an aesthetic point of view. Brandi (1996) states, “Historically we have seen that the patina documents the passage through time of the work of art and thus needs to be preserved” (378). The brown layer of patina gives the object an aged appearance that is consistent with other antiques, which has implications towards the object’s aesthetic, historical, and even monetary value. Thus, these benefits of the patina layer on objects can make a case for the justification of its preservation.
Image 1: Apollo as an Archer (Apollo Saettante), a bronze Roman statue, dating to 100 B.C.–before A.D. 79, featuring an exterior layer of patina. http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/apollo_pompeii/
On the contrary, it can be argued that the mere presence of a brown patina layer inhibits the true nature and appearance of the metal below. According to Caple (2000), “The true nature of an object includes evidence of its origins, its original construction, the materials of which it is composed and information as to the technology used in its manufacture” (62). It is further stated in the process of conservation, it is desirable “to move towards revealing the truth(s) about an object and away from the obstruction of dirt, decay, or inaccurate and inappropriate restoration” (Caple 2000:62). Most brass metal objects displayed a lustrous surface when they were originally constructed. Taking this into consideration, the matte appearance of patina is not consistent with the true nature of the metal. This perspectives provides a justification for the removal of the patina.
Image 2: Polished brass (left) and tarnished brass (right). https://www.cci-icc.gc.ca/caringfor-prendresoindes/articles/metals-metaux/index-eng.aspx
Conservators are frequently faced with ethical and theatrical issues that require them to make judgments and decisions towards the treatment of object. These choices are based off of personal experience, current trends in conservation, and weighing the positive and negative factors associated with such treatments (Caple 2000). When making a decision on whether or not to preserve the patina, conservators should consider the object’s historical significance, aesthetic value, original function, current state of preservation, future display location, and true nature. Some of these factors represent conflicting viewpoints, but it is the delicate balance between such factors in addition to preserving and maintaining the longevity of an object that provides the foundation for a holistic, effective, and appropriate conservation treatment.
Ankersmit, Bart, Martina Griesser-Stermscheg, Lyndsie Selwyn, and Susanne Sutherland. 2013. Recognizing Metals and their Corrosion Products. Canadian Conservation Institute. https://www.cci-icc.gc.ca/caringfor-prendresoindes/articles/metals-metaux/index-eng.aspx
Brandi, C. 1996. Theory of Restoration, Part III. In Historical and Philosophical Issues in Conservation of Cultural Heritage. Pp. 377-379.
Caple, Chris. 2000. Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making. New York: Routledge.
Curkovic, H.O., T. Kosec, A. Legat, and E. Stupnisek-Lisac. 2010. Improvement of corrosion stability of patinated bronze. Corrosion Engineering, Science and Technology 45(5):327-333.
The Human Element
Exhibiting objects and works of art in museums pose many problems, some of which may not be immediately recognizable. There are the readily thought of dangers of storage and display – using proper archival materials, controlling relative humidity and light exposure. What is more of a problem, however, are the uncontrollable elements, particularly, the human element.
While smaller objects are generally kept safe in cases, larger objects and works of art cannot be displayed in such a manner. Paintings and sculptures are obscured when viewed from behind a screen and their aesthetic value is depreciated, so they are generally open to public viewing. This, however, presents the problem of human contact. People are prone to want to touch displays, and taking photos or selfies with artwork has steadily become more popular, as seen in Image 1. It seems the larger and more popular the museum, such as the Louvre, and the more famous the work of art, such as the Mona Lisa, the worse the problem (Heritage 2013; Jones 2009). This is not only rude to other museum visitors and takes money from the museum gift shops sales but it is also harmful to the objects on display (Collections Conversations 2014b; DeRuiter 2010).
Entertainers taking selfies with the Mona Lisa has become its own trend (Heritage 2013).
“Theft is the most obvious danger to artifact preservation that people pose” (Collections Conversations 2014b), but there are more common dangers that many museum visitors do not realize. When taking photographs, not using flash is crucial, as light damage is cumulative. Light damage can permanently alter an object by participating in chemical reactions causing discoloration and fading. The oil and dirt from people’s hands can also cause similar damage, as well as the wearing away of surfaces from an object.
Museums often post signs and have guards to prevent such harmful behavior, yet they are regularly ignored by museum visitors and guards alike, as they fail to enforce the rules. Perhaps if museum visitors were educated on the damage their actions were causing, they would be less prone to try to photograph and touch priceless objects and works of art. Activities at museums can easily entertain and educate both adults and children with just a little effort from museum staff (Collection Conversations 2014a). Museums, such as the Getty Villa in California, offer permanent exhibits for both the visually impaired and the public-at-large that are available for touch. Museums may also conduct workshops where visitors are encouraged and educated on how to handle museum artifacts and works of art. Generally, these are replicas of more famous works of art, so that the original is still protected (The J. Paul Getty Trust 2014). Creating more of these special exhibits and touch tour programs, as well as opening them up to broader public, has the potential to help offset the damage to the primary exhibits, while at the same time educating and providing visitors with greater access to museum objects (Collections Conversations 2013). Without an understanding of the damage they are causing to museum collections and appreciation of preserving them for the future, museum visitors will continue to partake in such harmful behavior. Education, as always, is key.
2013 Managing Touch. Collections Conversations, July 17, 2013. North Carolina: Connecting to Collections, Raleigh, North Carolina <http://collectionsconversations.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/managing-touch/>. Accessed 25 February 2014.
2014a A C2C Badge? Collections Conversations, January 8, 2014. North Carolina: Connecting to Collections, Raleigh, North Carolina <http://collectionsconversations.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/a-c2c-badge/>. Accessed 25 February 2014.
2014b People Pose Preservation Dangers. Collections Conversations, February 25, 2014. North Carolina: Connecting to Collections, Raleigh, North Carolina <http://collectionsconversations.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/people-pose-preservation-dangers/>. Accessed 25 February 2014.
2010 Ten reasons why you shouldn’t take photos in museums. The Everywhereist <http://www.everywhereist.com/ten-reasons-why-you-shouldnt-take-photos-in-museums/>. Accessed 25 February 2014.
2013 Selfies: the dos and don’ts of the word of the year. Shortcuts Blog. The Guardian, New York, New York < http://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2013/nov/19/selfies-dos-donts-oed-word-of-the-year>. Accessed 25 February 2014.
The J. Paul Getty Trust
2014 Accessibility. The Getty Villa. The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles, California <https://www.getty.edu/visit/villa/plan/accessibility.html>. Accessed 25 February 2014.
2009 These tourist snappers are killing the Mona Lisa. Jonathan Jones on Art Blog. The Guardian, New York, New York <www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2009/mar/09/mona-lisa-tourist-snappers-louvre> Accessed 25 February 2014.
In Situ Preservation at Terrestrial and Maritime Archaeological Sites
In situ preservation is a topic within conservation theory and practice that deserves a closer look. In situ, in simple terms means to leave the object in place or to not remove it in the process of an archaeological dig. Artifacts and features are left in situ for a number of reasons. Sometimes artifacts, features, or architectural elements are too large to be safely or effectively removed. Other times there is no need to excavate; the excavators feel that they can get as much information from leaving the object in place as they would by excavating. Often, when objects are left in the field in their original location, conservators are called upon to provide in situ preservation.
Conservators can treat, triage, and protect artifacts in the field, to ensure they have the longest life possible, all without removing the objects. This allows for the objects to be maintained in their original context, while being preserved for future study. Unfortunately, there are also a number of issues with in situ preservation, and more generally about leaving artifacts in situ. Leaving artifacts in situ allows for the elements to continue to degrade the objects, making the conservator’s job that much harder. Removing artifacts to labs and museums at least allows for some amount of control over the process. In a 2002 article, Jans et al. discuss the techniques currently available for in situ preservation of human bone. The goal of their work is to illuminate the factors responsible for degradation of human remains (Jans et al. 2002: 349). They inevitably conclude that a multitude of factors such as soil pH, taphonomy, and hydrological processes influence the preservation of a site, therefore making in situ preservation unique to each site, season, and circumstance; a very difficult task (Jans et al. 2002: 349).
Underwater archaeological projects take the topic of in situ preservation to the next level. The same factors discussed above are at play but to a more extreme degree. Underwater sites can be incredibly well preserved, especially wooden artifacts, due to the limited oxygen underwater (Cronyn 1990: 250). Removing artifacts from maritime environments is difficult, costly, and potentially harmful to the objects, making in situ preservation a viable option. But similarly to terrestrial sites, a multitude of factors continuously batter and degrade objects on the ocean floor, and removing them may be archaeologists’ best chance at studying them closely.
Another, lesser discussed, aspect to this discussion is the looting of archaeological sites. Looting is a pervasive issue in some countries; artifacts can be stolen and sold for profit. One way that archaeologists combat this is by removing artifacts back to labs and museums for analysis. Leaving artifacts in the field allows looters the opportunity to illegally remove them, ruining any chance at further study. In situ preservation has many pros and cons and should be used judiciously and in the right circumstances. Although this blog post did not touch upon all facets of in situ preservation, it was meant to serve as an overview for beginners in the field as a place to start thinking about in situ preservation and when to use it.
Cronyn, J.M. (1990), ‘Organic Materials’ in The Elements of Archaeological Conservation: 250-251.
Jans, M. M. E., Kars, H., Nielsen–Marsh, C. M., Smith, C. I., Nord, A. G., Arthur, P. and Earl, N. (2002), In situ preservation of archaeological bone: a histological study within a multidisciplinary approach. ‘Archaeometry’ 44: 343–352. doi: 10.1111/1475-4754.t01-1-00067
An artifact that has been buried for an extended period of time has reached equilibrium with its surroundings and the minute it is exposed, an object can start to change and deteriorate. Therefore, without proper foresight and preparation, valuable information can be lost due to damage from exposure or improper handling techniques. Preventative conservation is one way to avoid this. According to Jean-Bernard Memet, preventative conservation is to “anticipate, restrict or halt any acceleration in the degradation of objects after their discovery” and involves taking a logical and cautious approach when dealing with cultural remains (2008, 45). A broad range of methods can be applied in order to maintain a protocol for keeping artifacts safe during their journey from excavation to storage or a museum. Luckily, recent years have brought about cheaper and more efficient ways of preserving and protecting artifacts.
It is not difficult to find stories of excavations gone wrong, when objects that were lifted or excavated fell apart in the archaeologist’s hands because of exposure to air. Allowing things to be exposed to open air can speed up the process of deterioration and cause many problems. This is especially true for submerged cultural remains, such as wood. Removing wood from its underwater environment and allowing it to dry without employing proper techniques can cause it to shrink, crack, or fall apart completely. Objects that are removed from their underwater environment should be kept in a similar environment until preservation can take place (Memet 2008, 43). For example, an archaeologist who lifts wood from the seabed should place that wood in saltwater.
Dugout canoe submerged in treatment tank. http://nautarch.tamu.edu
Archaeologists may not be trained in conservation but should be aware of impacts on artifacts once they are exposed during excavation. Conservation begins at the excavation level and the archaeologist is responsible for executing the appropriate level of care for the artifact (Singley 1995, 8). Suitable equipment and supplies should be available to ensure that proper care of artifacts is taken. Sometimes, intervening scientifically is not possible because there is not enough funding or appropriate technology for the long-term conservation of artifacts; these artifacts may then end up in a storage facility with no conservator to evaluate them (Khakzad et al. 2012, 471). This begs the question of whether objects found in this situation should be removed from their original environment in the first place. Perhaps leaving a site alone may be deemed a better alternative and may also reserve the right for future techniques to be employed (Khakzad et al. 477). Future methods for preservation may come along that are technologically superior, quicker, and cheaper (Gregory et al. 2012, S147). After all, the goal of archaeology and conservation is to ensure the survival of the greatest number of finds and if the required technology is not available, those artifacts should be left alone for a later time (Gregory et al. S139).
It can be difficult when considering whether or not to remove an artifact from its surroundings. Underwater cultural remains provide a drastic example: surge, currents, divers, and environmental factors all can impact a submerged site. Is it better to learn what we can and excavate something, thereby speeding up its deterioration, or should we leave objects in their original environment, where they will still deteriorate at a possibly slower rate? These questions are not easy to answer and they are best dealt with in a case-by-case situation. Some artifacts, for example, are more likely to be raised and preserved if they are in a particularly aggressive environment or are deemed to be historically or culturally significant in some way. It should be noted, however, that objects should not be brought up without the necessary equipment, transportation, and storage facilities. Funding for research and preservation of the object should also be considered before cultural remains are excavated. Preventative conservation involves thinking ahead and being prepared when caring for an artifact. This starts with the archaeologist in the field, before the object is even taken from the ground.
Gregory, David, Paul Jensen, and Kristiane Straetkvern. 2012. Conservation and In Situ Preservation of Wooden Shipwrecks from Marine Environments. Journal of Cultural Heritage 13S: S139-S148.
Khakzad, Sorna and Konraad Van Balen. 2012. “Complications and Effectiveness of In Situ Preservation Methods for Underwater Cultural Heritage Sites.” Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 14(1-4): 469-478.
Memet, Jean-Bernard. 2008. Conservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage: characteristics and new technologies. Museum International 60(4): 42-49.
Singley, K. 1995. Caring for Artifacts after Excavation: Some Advice for Archaeologists. Historical Archaeology 15(1): 35-48.
Construction for Sindh Cultural Festival threatens ruins at Mohenjo-Daro and Poses Preservation and Money-Making Questions
Mohenjo-Daro, one of the oldest cities in the world, was recently the site of a festival in honor of Sindh culture. Spear headed by Pakistan’s People Party, Balawil Bhutto Zardari, the event was highly contested among conservators and archaeologists. Heritage professionals worried for the preservation state of the ruins while platforms were built over the brick walls and open spaces of the city. A BBC photograph recorded workers hammering together a platform balanced on many, spindly wooden legs. Although the number of people allowed to attend was limited, the platforms had to hold 500 people in addition to the stage and entertainment. Colored lights, much like the lights shone on the Pyramids at Giza, were meant to illuminate the ruins and the festival, one can only assume, as night fell on the gathered crowd.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and the archaeologists in charge of the maintenance at Mohenjo-Daro are now subject to the scrutiny of Pakistani citizens and cultural heritage professionals. Conservators and Pakistani archaeologists have already spoken out against the plan and appealed to the United Nations.
Mr. Bhutto Zardari made his case for the festival at Mohenjo-Daro. A BBC interview with Zardari recorded his “passionate” interest in the preservation of history in Pakistan. The People Party leader also acknowledged the intense need for conservation efforts at the ruins. Despite the controversy over “hammering a nail” into ruins anywhere in the world, let alone Pakistan, I think Mr. Zardari’s choice of location held huge potential for garnering the interest of funders with deep pockets. Time in the limelight of the international media has enhanced international knowledge of the ruins. If the Sindh festival can garner attention from wealthy patrons willing to invest in preservation of culture heritage anywhere, the more advantageous to the continued care of heritage in Pakistan in the long run.
Although, I have to ask: why did Mr. Zardari have to have the festival on top of the ruins? Was there no nearby countryside that would have suited the occasion just as well?
The tenuous state of preservation at Mohenjo-Daro is compounded by the commonplace threat of flooding by the Indus river: ironic, considering the city is the first in world history with its own public drainage systems. For archaeologists, Mohenjo-Daro is a site of great interest to Southeast Asian heritage and also well-known for its extensive, fortified wall embankments and evidence of long-distance trade with Mesopotamian civilizations. Mohenjo-Daro, like many archaeological sites, pays the price of wear and tear from exposure to the elements for one specific reason: excavation and subsequent exposure to the elements causes rapid decay of archaeological materials. Buried archaeological deposits are faced with their own set of unique preservation challenges, but by excavation, the exposed burnt-brick city walls and buildings are subject to the effects of severe salt corrosion. Gloomy predictions by some archaeologists predict the city’s complete disintegration in the next 20 years.
Salt corrosion is not an unusual problem for sites located in environments like Mohenjo-Daro. A study conducted in 1977 by A. S. Goudie in the journal of Earth Surface Processes, identifies and dissects the problem of disintegration by the formation of sodium sulphate – a more damaging cousin of everyday table salt.
The salt crystals, which spread over the faces of brick walls, are the combined result of a high ground water level, high level of salinity, rapid, daily changes in temperature, and corresponding evaporation of water. Water droplets that condense early in the morning are then subject to a sudden drop in that humidity, causing an increase in the aridity of the environment, and rapid evaporation of condensed water. Because the water droplets evaporate so quickly in the arid environment, by default, salt crystals are left behind. These sodium sulphate crystals can be observed on the walls at Mohenjo-Daro as small and needle like colonies so common, whole portions of walls appear white washed. It is the sulphate component of this compound, which causes the most damage and poses the greatest obstacle to preservation efforts (Goudie, 1977).
The UN originally named Mohenjo-Daro one of six of UNESCO’s important sites of world heritage. UNESCO, the culture heritage preservation organization will hopefully be likely to impose restrictions in the future to protect the ruins from unnecessary exposure. Despite these efforts, the festival was allowed to continue and was held on the 1st of February. The damage, which can no longer be undone, can now only be minimized by the efforts of poorly funded preservation minded archaeologists and conservators. One hopes, the interest cultivated by Mr. Zardari’s festival will have the heads of people with money turning in archaeology’s direction.
I would suggest that archaeologists and other professionals specializing in the study, preservation and teaching of cultural heritage could benefit from tourism and the popularization of the study of history and archaeology. Profits accrued by tourism via important sites like the Pyramids at Giza, the Greek Pantheon, and Williamsburg, Virginia, while not a direct source of funding for archaeologists and conservators, retains vast, untapped potential. The kind of attention being drawn to Mohenjo-Daro by the Pakistani festival is another of these untapped monetary resources. The dilemma imposed by this tenuous situation is how cultural heritage professionals and stewards of cultural heritage like government institutions can take advantage of public interest for funding while simultaneously preserving the source of interest for that monetary well. Needless to say, no preservation means no archaeological site. If Mohenjo-Daro completely disintegrates by 2034 because of exposure to construction and the wearing of pedestrian feet, there will be no site to draw the gaze of the interested world public or the fascination of funders with deep pockets on which the site’s survival depends.
So what can archaeologists and conservators learn from this situation? Need for funds and the relationship allowed by professionals between the public and cultural heritage will always be pressing if this community of preservation minded individuals wants to keep educating the public. How can we do this without causing irreparable damage to a non-renewable resource? According to Farzand Masih at Punjab University and head of archaeology, “you cannot even hammer a nail at an archaeological site,” – at least, not in Pakistan, according to what the BBC references as the Antiquity Act (although they do not specify what institution enforces this legislation) (BBC, 2014). So what can professionals do at sites of cultural heritage to bring tourism to Mohenjo-Daro without risking further damage? What about other sites around the world whose stewards fight for both dissemination of knowledge and preservation – could Pakistan and Zardari learn anything from their examples? Meanwhile, conservators will once again have to swoop in to salvage what remains of the day.
Goudie, A.S. 1977 Sodium Sulphate Weathering and the Disintegration of Mohenjo-Daro, Pakistan. Earth Surface Processes 2:75-86.
Mackay, E. J. H 1934 Further Excavations at Mohenjo-Daro. Journal of the Royal Society of Arts. 82(4233):206-224.
Dales, George F. 1965 New Investigations at Mohenjo-Daro. Archaeology. 18(2):145-150
BBC News: Asia. January 30-31st, 2014 Pakistan’s Mohenjo Daro ruins ‘threatened by festival.’Mohenjo-Daro: Protest over Pakistan Festival at Ruins
Lifting Techniques for Retrieving Artifacts from an Excavation
There are many considerations essential to minimizing damage to deteriorating artifacts upon their discovery during an archaeological excavation including preparation, cost, time, and minimizing the effects of surrounding features of a site. Archaeological conservators collaborate with others involved in the methods used for processes of conserving significant organic and inorganic materials determined to need specialized care. The early stages of preparation and retrieval of objects from a site can set the stage for the degree of impact and damage to them; improper retrieval can severely damage objects and it is critical that conservators recognize that in some cases, the best option is to leave objects in situ.
There are several lifting techniques used by conservators that, if prepared and performed correctly will provide safe storage and transportation of fragile artifacts until they can be properly excavated, analyzed and curated in a laboratory. The methods for lifting from a terrestrial excavation, are block lifting objects isolated in situ on a platform and lifting objects that have been isolated on a pedestal; they have been developed as a means to provide support to prevent fracturing and further deterioration of cultural materials. Prior to using any lifting technique, it is imperative that all preparation steps have been set, including having all materials and assistance necessary for a successful excavation. If the conservator cannot attain the required materials and assistance, then they should not engage in any attempts to retrieve an object. In a case where the situation calls for rescue archaeology techniques, improvisation with materials on-hand may be necessary. A reasonable assertion is the most crucial component to lifting an artifact is a thorough preparation. It should be noted that with future technological advances, techniques for artifact conservation will likely improve and lifting methods will also change. Additionally, the method chosen is determined by the condition and type of artifact and should be the least intrusive to the object itself as well as the context of its immediate surroundings within the archaeological excavation.
The method of block lifting involves lifting an object from the ground. First, the surrounding upper and lower parameters of the block must be determined. The object is isolated in situ on a soil platform with enough soil to sustain the integrity of the object. Second, the soil environment the object has resided in must be maintained as much as possible to minimize damage; in the case of moist soils, the humidity is retained by misting the soil with water and then covering the entire block in a protective covering of gauze bandages. Third, the bottom of the block is undercut with a trowel and then a strong, firm support slid underneath the block. Finally, the block can be further protected with additional bandages and/or other safe protective materials, and then removed and placed into a proper storage container.
Methods for lifting objects isolated on a pedestal are similar in that they both require parameters for removal to be delineated, and objects to be pedestaled and protected by some kind of supporting material. Their differences lie in the types of supports and materials use. One method is referred to as “lifting from a cocoon” (Cronyn 1990:47) where the object is isolated on a soil pedestal where the object may be partially exposed. Next, the soil can be misted with water and both the object and pedestal wrapped in damp non-acidic tissue. Then the object and pedestal are wrapped in gauze bandages that have been soaked in plaster of Paris. Once the plaster of Paris has set and hardened, the cocoon can be removed from the ground by undercutting with a trowel then sliding a firm support underneath. The cocoon can then be inverted and placed in a proper container. Another method, referred to as “Lifting by the formation of a polyurethane foam cocoon” (Cronyn 1990:49) involves isolating the object on a soil pedestal and wrapping it in some kind of “clingfilm.” Next, a rigid support such as corrugated cardboard is set in place around the object. The cardboard must be supported by surrounding soil banked up against it. Then polyurethane foam can be poured in according to directions and allowed to set. Once set, the cocoon can be covered and stopped with a plywood lid, and removed from the ground as in the previously discussed methods. The cocoon is inverted and placed into a proper container.
Other similar techniques used vary in the kinds of materials used to protect fragile objects. The primary focus is for conservators and people they collaborate with on a given project to carefully determine all the necessary preparation, materials, methods, and available assistance required to ensure minimal damage to objects. If these steps are unattainable, or an object cannot be safely excavated then retrieval must be postponed until circumstances provide for a safe retrieval.
Cronyn, J.M. 1990 The Elements of Archaeological Conservation. London: Routledge.
Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre 2007 Conservation Manual for Northern Archaeologists, 3rd ed. Rosalie Scott and Tara Grant, eds. http://www.pwnhc.ca/programs/downloads/conservation_manual.pdf, accessed February 23, 2014
What Can be Learned from the Swedish Heritage Conservation Model
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 <http://www.european-archaeological-council.org/files/archaeological_heritage_management_in_sweden.doc>. Accessed 10 February 2014.
2004 The Scholar and the Market. De nasjonale forskningsetiske komiteene <https://www.etikkom.no/Documents/PDF/stefanart.pdf>. 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 <http://www.unesco.org/culture/natlaws/media/pdf/sweden/se_ordincehertgeconservat 1998_engtno.pdf>. Accessed 10 February 2014.
Ethics and Theory of Digital Reconstruction in Archaeology
Recent advances in 3D imaging technology has allowed archaeologists to digitally reconstruct objects and monuments. These reconstructions are available to a wide audience in the form of scholarly publications, websites, or museum displays, and allow for cultural heritage to be transmitted through many generations (Bruno 2010). This newly developed software allows objects and monuments to be rotated 360 degrees, creating a virtual and interactive experience for the viewer without restriction. However, reconstruction theory and ethics become more complex when the original construction is not known. Is it deceiving to the general public to digitally reconstruct an object or monument when the reconstruction created is based off of inferences from the archaeological record? Since we usually do not know the original construction, is it ethical to digitally reconstruct anything? To further understand this ethical issue, it is important to understand the theoretical basis of archaeological reconstruction.
A digital reconstruction of an ornate Roman plate based on two original fragments unearthed near Haddington in East Lothian, Scotland, in 1919. From: https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/Petra/excavations/technology.html
Brandi (1996:Part I) describes the duality between the historical significance and the aesthetic value of an object or monument when a reconstruction is being considered. On one hand, a reconstruction can be based on historicism by utilizing information from the archaeological record, in absence of any modern cultural or aesthetic biases that may alter its historical value. On the other hand, a complete reconstruction is aesthetically pleasing to the viewer and can provide further information on how an object, building, or site may have been constructed in the past. These two factors also speak to a wider distinction between structure and appearance. Is it the historic structure that is maintained in the reconstruction, or should the focus be on an aesthetically pleasing and complete appearance? It is important to consider the benefits and limitations of these two factors and how they should be integrated into the final product.
Digital reconstruction of the Great Temple at Petra, Jordan, From: https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/Petra/excavations/technology.html
When conducting a reconstruction according to historicism, the focus is on the historical significance of the building instead of its aesthetic value (Brandi 1996:Part I). Such a reconstruction may be implemented, “as long as this is possible without producing an artistic or historical forgery…” (Brandi 1996:Part I p.231). In other words, archaeologists may undertake the reconstruction of an object or monument unless the end product is untrue to its historic value or original appearance. This poses to be a difficult task for archaeologist, since many reconstructions of monuments are base off of interpretations of the archaeological record. Nonetheless, the product of such interpretations, when based on historicism, is an image of a monument that strives towards historic authenticity.
Reconstruction of the Bronze Age fortified settlement ‘Friaga Wald’ based on digital topographic mapping and records from archaeological excavations. From: http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/oeggl317
Reconstructions in accordance to aesthetics weighs less heavily on an object or monument’s historicism and more on its overall appearance and the potential unity of its components. This theoretical standpoint argues that “the essence of the work of art is in the fact that it is a work of art, and the historical event that the work represents is only a secondary aspect” (Brandi 2010: Part III p.378). In addition, Brandi (2010) further states that “a work of art is effectively made up of several components,” and when “taken individually, the components do not have any particular aesthetic significance” (Part II p.339). Therefore, when all of the components associated with the object or monument, whether authentic or reconstructed, are brought together, the finished product represents aesthetic unity, but not necessarily historic authenticity.
A reconstruction is an important aspect to the process by which the information, structure, and appearance of an object or monument is transmitted to future generations. Recent advances in digital technologies assist in this process by creating virtual reconstructions that are easily obtainable and transmittable, but also allow for falsehood. It can be agreed upon that the general public looks to archaeologists for authenticity, and thus deception by such reconstructions is unethical. To assist in the prevention of this issue, archaeologists carefully consider the complex duality between and object or monument’s historical significance and its aesthetic value, and how that duality pertains to the true nature of the object or monument that is being reconstructed.
Brandi, C. 1996. Theory of Restoration, Part I. In: Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. 230-235.
Brandi, C. 1996. Theory of Restoration, Part II. In: Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. 339-342.
Brandi, C. 1996. Theory of Restoration, Part III. In: Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. 377-379.
Bruno, F. et al. 2010. From 3D reconstruction to virtual reality: A complete methodology for digital archaeological exhibition. In: Journal of Cultural Heritage. 11:42-49.
How visible should conservation treatments be?
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.
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.
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).
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. http://www.nps.gov/training/tel/Guides/HPS1022_AIC_Code_of_Ethics.pdf. 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.
The Need for More Archaeological Conservation Programs in the U.S.
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.
Preservation at Pompeii
Image 1: Map of the Bay of Naples, Italy. Image from: http://www.markville.ss.yrdsb.edu.on.ca/projects/classof2008/chong2/hrivnak/template.htm
The ancient city of Pompeii, located in the Bay of Naples, maintains a rich history as a vibrant city during the Roman times (Image 1). Nevertheless, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 led to the total destruction and preservation of the site. Pompeii laid untouched for almost 2000 years, until excavations began in 1748 and continued to the present day (Slayman 1997). During these excavations, the daily life of the citizens who had been frozen in time was revealed in the form of residential architecture, wall frescos, household objects, and casts of the people themselves (Image 2). Although the information collected from these excavations remains valuable to the history of the site, the integrity of the newly exposed architecture, art, and objects are continually being threatened by both natural forces and human activity. Therefore, one must ask themselves if it is appropriate to excavate a site, such as Pompeii, if the current preservation techniques may not be sufficient in caring for the materials uncovered? Such a question is constantly on the minds of conservators and addresses an ethical issue that is prevalent in the field of archaeology and conservation today.
Image 2: Archaeological plan of Pompeii. Image from: http://www.dogsofpompeii.com/tour.php
Once structures and objects are exposed by excavations, the deterioration process begins. Factors that affect the integrity of the archaeological materials can be natural and/or anthropogenic (Slayman 1997). Natural deterioration factors include exposure to sun, wind, rain, erosion, or even fluctuation in temperature. Botanicals also play an active role in the deterioration of structural elements of the city by growing within the matrix of the walls, causing them to collapse, or behind the plaster frescos, forcing them from the wall. On the other hand, humans have a hand in the destruction of the site. International wars have destroyed parts of the site in addition to priceless objects, both of which were unable to be recovered. Tourists visiting the site cause daily wear and tear, especially when theft or vandalism is involved. Archaeological excavation itself is a destructive technique that does not necessarily allow for re-excavations in the future. It is these deterioration processes that are a prevalent issue in the preservation of the site today.
Image 3: House of Amarantus. Left: Photo from the 1950s excavations showing the amphorae. Right: Photo from the 1994 excavations showing the same amphorae. Image from: Picking Up the Pieces
Early excavators of Pompeii gave little notice to the care and maintenance of the site (Slayman 1997). Once unearthed, various features were directly exposed to environmental conditions and have not survived to the present day. For example, a group of amphorae in the House of Amarantus, which was initially documented in the 1950s, remains today only as shattered vessels (Image 3). In other parts of the site, frescos have lost their pigment color and some walls have collapsed altogether. Essentially, these early excavators were not able or did not have the means to handle the maintenance needs of the site after it was exposed.
Although conservation techniques are far more advanced than what they were in the 1700s, there are still some conservation issues that they are difficult to address today. The restoration and maintenance of Pompeii is a top priority, but is hindered not only by the sheer size of the city, but also by the availability of manpower and the amount of funds that are able to be accessed. When a new section of Pompeii is exposed, both support and protective structures have to be constructed in order to care for that portion of the site. Further restoration needs to be enacted to maintain the structural integrity of the walls and floors. All objects uncovered in the excavations need to be properly cared for and stored, which requires space in a storage facility or museum. Therefore, undertaking an excavation does not stop when the field season has finished, but continues for many years to come. If the resources, manpower, and funding are not available to care for and maintain the site once the excavations are completed, it would seem to be unethical to excavate the site in the first place. However, since the time of the first excavations of Pompeii, the techniques of conservation, preservation, and restoration have improved dramatically and are able compensate for the earlier shortcomings.
Digital archaeology has allowed conservators to effectively care for, maintain, and document the remains of Pompeii today (Bruschini 1991). Digital databases preserve various features and objects from the site by documenting the more technical information associated with their state of preservation. Such information can include general descriptions, a history of restorations, damage analyses, graphic documentation, etc. Databases also allows archaeologists and conservators to gain information on the distribution patterns of features and objects in order to learn more about city planning and daily life at Pompeii. Additionally, photographic documentation allows for the condition of various features to be monitored over time by noting any changes that may be caused by deterioration processes. Such images also permit conservators to simulate restoration techniques digitally, prior to implementing the modifications on the feature itself. Furthermore, three-dimensional modeling enables conservators to reconstruct objects and architectural features which can assist them in the restoration process. It is clear that these recent technological advances in digital archaeological has dramatically improved the way in which a site, such as Pompeii, is documented and maintained.
Pompeii has a rich history that is preserved in a layer of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Since the first excavations in 1748, the techniques to preserve, conserve, and restore the site have significantly improved. Digital archaeology has opened up additional avenues in maintaining the site by enabling the conservator to observe changes in features and objects over time through databases and photographs. However, there is still much to be uncovered and learned from the two-thirds of the exposed Pompeii, as well as further advances in conservation techniques before the last third of the site is exposed and excavated.
1991 Imaging Pompeii. In Archaeology. 44(2):32-35.
Slayman, Andrew L.
1997 Picking Up the Pieces. In Archaeology. 50(6):34-36.
Archaeological Conservation: Art or Science? Why not both!
Conservation is critical to how both archaeologists and the public interpret the past. The material culture studied by archaeologists is maintained, preserved and restored by conservators, aiding in our understanding of the people that made or used these objects in the past. And some of these same objects are displayed in museums and must survive the rigors of a life on display (instead of say, stored in a climate controlled curation room). Conservators must have the know-how to stabilize and maintain artifacts as well as restore them for museum display purposes; in this way conservators must bridge the divide between art and science. This divide and the work done by conservators somewhere in the middle of it, and leads to a discussion of the motives and ethics of archaeological conservation.
Conservators, tasked with repairing, restoring, maintaining, and protecting artifacts, have to keep in mind who the audience of their work will be, as per their code of ethics presented by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (2013). As previously mentioned, both archaeologists and the public view and utilize conservators’ work. Archaeologists need conservation to help expose the original surface of artifacts that may have been deposited in the ground thousands of years ago. As artifacts are brought out of the ground, they immediately begin to degrade. Stable environments make for the best preservation, and once artifacts are removed it takes the deft hands of a conservator to make sure that they are maintained in order to gain as much information from them as possible.
The other side to conservation, and probably the one that is thought of most, is the work they do in museums, maintaining artifacts and works of art to go on display. Conservators can have creative license to retouch, and change these archaeological materials. Here in lies the issue. Museums, from a business and aesthetic perspective, want on display objects of beauty that will attract crowds and admiration. Many artifacts come out of the field, be that excavated from a terrestrial site or salvaged off the ocean floor, in a state of disrepair, not exactly what museum goers want to see behind the glass cases. It is one of the many jobs of conservators to fix and treat artifacts to prolong their life on display. They must be allowed some creative license in this process, but where do they draw the line between simply exposing and preserving the artifact and embellishing or changing it from its original form? Do the alterations made by a conservator take anything away from the original maker of the object? Even if the conservator’s intentions are simply to revitalize and protect the objects, is it not in some way intrinsically altering it? Conservators combat this dilemma by ensuring that as much of their work as possible is reversible, thus allowing for the original structure to be maintained. They are also incredibly concerned with using safe treatments, storage practices, and display techniques that allow the artifacts the longest ‘shelf life’ possible.
I do not mean to seem critical of the alterations made by conservators on objects from the human past, but I do believe that it is crucial that extreme care be taken in the decision making process of conservators when altering objects. It is not the raw dirty artifacts that the public sees, they see the ones cleaned, preserved, and refurbished by conservators. The point being that the public needs to be careful when viewing these artifacts, they need to understand that this is not how we found these objects; and conservators need to be judicious in the treatments and alterations they make.
“Code of Ethics”, American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (2013). http://www.conservation-us.org/about-us/core-documents/code-of-ethics#.UvKL_v1ATwI.
To remove or not to remove?
Deeply ingrained within the concept of restoration is the notion of ethics. Restoration involves the removal of more recent layers to return something to a former condition. Paintings, chairs, and houses can all be restored and there can always be a debate about what or how much should be removed from an object in an attempt to return it to an earlier state.
Who decides what is important or what should be restored? How can all aspects of a building’s history be represented equally? What should be removed and what should be left in tact during a restoration project? There are no easy answers for these questions and the matter of restoration is prone to gray areas. It is important, however, to consider these questions and keep in mind some of the difficulties conservators face when dealing with such projects.
Murtagh, in Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America, defines restoration as involving the removal of later work or replacing missing earlier work. When thinking of the concept of restoration, historic buildings frequently come to mind and Murtagh appropriately warns that too much restoration borders on “creeping reconstruction,” in which the original elements of the building are slowly refurbished until the original building has practically been replaced (pg 20). Restoration, then, has the potential to be a systematic destruction of parts of a building’s history. Perhaps this is why some people believe that buildings should be left alone: all construction is a part of its history.
Sometimes, there are also subjective influences as to why some things are restored. A case study that provides an example of this is the restoration of Montpelier, the home of former president James Madison. Montpelier was built and owned by the Madison family from 1723 to 1844, when it changed ownership multiple times until the DuPont family purchased it in 1901. The DuPonts were a wealthy family in the Upper South that contributed greatly to the development of thoroughbred horse racing and even used the grounds of Montpelier to host yearly horse races. Throughout their ownership of Montpelier, extensive construction took place, which increased the 22-room Madison-era mansion to a whopping 55 rooms (Gontar, “Rediscovering James Madison’s MONTPELIER,” 122-124).
DuPont Era Montpelier: Photo from http://nookstowersandturrets.blogspot.com
Those 33 DuPont-added rooms are gone now; they have been demolished or deconstructed during the restoration of Montpelier to the original Madison-era mansion. Marion DuPont Scott, the last private owner of Montpelier, willed the mansion to the National Trust for Historic Preservation before her death and it took much discussion and consultation before the decision to restore the mansion to its earlier form was made. The National Trust, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the National Park Service, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the remaining members of the DuPont family were involved in this decision-making process (“Mansion Restoration”).
Madison Era Montpelier: Photo from http://www.traditional-building.com
In the early stages of planning, there were high hopes for exhibiting both the Madison and DuPont eras of the mansion. It was hoped that the restoration would be able to display a “house within a house” (“Restoration Of Montpelier Aiming At 2 Eras”). Today, however, it is obvious that there is less DuPont and more Madison present in the mansion. While some applauded the immense amounts of tedious work that went into the restoration of the Madison era home, some remained unconvinced that deconstructing the DuPont’s work was ethical while others argued Madison’s work for the country overshadowed the DuPont additions to Montpelier (“Uncovering Montpelier’s Hidden Past”).
It is no surprise that the home of a former president is placed on a higher pedestal than that of an Upper South wealthy family; visiting the home of a former president is an easier sell to tourists (or grant providers). Less is known about daily life during the Madison’s time than daily life during the DuPont’s time and there is much information to be gained from the restoration process. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that both families were important in the history of Montpelier and in choosing to restore one part of that history, many other facets of the building’s complex life are destroyed or given up. The case of Montpelier provides just one example of how ethics are closely tied to restoration.
Gontar, Cybèle Trione. 2007. Rediscovering James Madison’s MONTPELIER. Magazine Antiques 171(4): p120-129.
Mansion Restoration. The Montpelier Foundation. http://www.montpelier.org/research-and-collections/mansion-restoration (accessed 01/20/14).
Murtagh, W., 1997, Chapter 1: The Language of Preservation. In: Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America, pp. 15-24.
Shea, Christopher. 2008. Uncovering Montpelier’s Hidden Past. Preservation. www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2008/september-october/montpelier.html (accessed 01/20/14).
Stevens, William K. 1986. Restoration Of Montpelier Aiming At 2 Eras. New York Times News Service. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1986-05-25/news/8602070975_1_du-ponts-madison-era-triple-hung-windows (accessed 01/20/14).
Condition Reporting Keywords
“appears to be”
Pronounced: visible in numerous places
in situ: found in place, as originally designed
If something is flaking/detaching:
Crack: separation of two sides that were originally a whole piece
Cohesive: stuck together as originally intended, uniform
If something is broken:
Dislodged: not in the original position, but still attached
Fractured: damaged by being split, but still attached
Fragmented: detached and in pieces
“loss of surface”/”surface loss”
Relief: decoration stands out on surface, (high-relief: higher than surface, bas-relief: lower than surface)
Concave: curving inward, dip
Convex: curving outward, bulging
Facing: applying a solid support to the surface of an object for the purposes of providing strength for lifting or manipulating it
Study Abroad in Israel- More than an educational experience!
(Photo by Author)
Where should I even begin? This trip was designed to be a field school for archaeologists and conservators alike; yet, it was more than just a field school. Study abroad in Israel was an educational, professional, and personal trip for me. I was able to expand my educational boundaries restricted by text books, gain an understanding of what it takes to be an archaeologist or conservator, but most importantly I was able to broaden my horizons by challenging myself to venture on this expedition.
(Photo by author)
Year after year I sat in classrooms reading about the history of countries located in parts of the world I couldn’t fathom going too. However, in the summer of 2013, I found myself in a place where the history was endless and the evidence was there to prove it- Israel! After everyone had arrived we were all ready to handle artifacts from time periods unimaginable. Within the first couple of days we had begun walking in the ruined fortifications that were thousands of years old. These ancient ruins included Israel’s fifth largest port city and ancient coastline defense, a fortification known as Ashdod (see photo above). In addition, we walked through the world’s oldest arched gate, which was used for defensive purposes, known as the Canaanite Gate (see image below). These were only two of the many locations we visited! Before I realized I found myself on a century old Kibbutz, a Jewish settlement, which was something I had never heard or read about. Furthermore, to my surprise, while residing on the Kibbutz I was rooming with one of the lead archaeologists of the area Dr. Jeff Blakely.
The Canaanite Gate
(Photo by author)
It couldn’t get any better than this! I prepared my list of questions to gain more insight as to what it took to become a professional archaeologist. I wanted to use my time wisely and find out how someone like me could follow in the footsteps of someone such as Dr. Jeff Blakely. While on the Kibbutz I was able to preserve eleven artifacts from various time periods including a chalice from the 10th century. I learned how to properly examine, handle, clean, and preserve all types of artifacts. The day came when we departed the Kibbutz only to find ourselves working in the labs of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the I.A.A. It was here that I was able to reconstruct and preserve a 10th century Roman oil lamp. While working on the oil lamp I couldn’t help but think about the various preservation labs we had visited. I began comparing the conditions of the facilities such as the ability to control atmosphere conditions, the equipment, and the ability to store artifacts. All of the facilities, except the Kibbutz, were able to properly control the atmosphere with air conditioning and equipment which was of a higher standard. Here, we can clearly see how the availability of funds can affect both archaeologists and conservators while out in the field or in a permanent structure such as a lab.
(Photo by author)
As I come to a close I think it is important for anyone interested in studying abroad to know what it takes to commit to such an adventure. For me, it was standing on my own two feet in the real world as I experienced a lot of firsts! This trip was my first time out of the country, my first field school, my first hostel experience where I roomed with people from around the world at the same time, spoke to people in a foreign country in a foreign language acting as a translator in one scenario, and my first time being alone in the world without family or friends down the street to hold me up when I was weak. This trip gave me almost an entire month of self-reflection which had an effect on my life that words can’t even begin to describe! I realized some personal strengths and equal amounts of weaknesses. Just as important, I was able to see another culture that was similar to mine but so different on so many levels. However, being able come back home holding my head high knowing I accepted such a challenge and completed it successfully was worth everything I experience while on this trip to Israel!
(Photo by author)
Israel Summer Study Abroad: A Blog of Beginnings
The summer program in Israel was an adventure full of firsts for me. Aside from the trips I was too young to remember, this was the first time I’ve ever been out of the country. The international terminal at my airport was a mystery until now, the flights to Paris and Istanbul were nothing but a distant wish. This trip to Israel was an amazing experience and everything a first-time traveler could have hoped for. We saw so many important historical and cultural sites and artifacts. As a student of anthropology and history and a Christian, all of the places we visited and all of the things we saw had an impact on me at a personal level as well.
The most memorable of all the many things we did for me was the tour of the holy sites in Jerusalem. As a religious person, those places were mind-boggling. To think that entire basis of my religion was centered on this rock, this altar, this place, and I get to see it and touch it. It made a lot of the theoretical and intangible aspects of my faith real and alive. That is something you only get to experience once in your life.
Scientifically, the trip was more than educational, it was enlightening. We took tours of the conservation labs in famous facilities like the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Observing and working with conservators in their element gave me just a taste of what it would actually be like to do this kind of work. We were set up in a field lab on a Kibbutz that revealed the real world conditions and obstacles that conservators are faced with. These are important things to learn and understand about the field and they are things I will take with me on my next steps toward my education and career.
While this trip was brimming with huge learning experiences and deep personal revelations, a lot of the things that made this trip what it was, were simple and mundane. Tasting an authentic Israeli falafel, or getting a movie ticket and fortune cookie written in Hebrew, or even just seeing the sun set from over the Mediterranean were all just as important experiences. They are experiences I am grateful to have had the chance to feel and will stay with me always.
Thoughts on a Study Abroad in the Holy Land
Jerusalem is an experience unlike any other. It is half major tourist attraction and half actual religious experience. The faithful are everywhere. But so are the tourists. Religious symbols are sold on everything from key chains to carpets. Want a Hand of Fatima keychain? Or how about a star of David embroidered on a Yamakah? Not Jewish who cares – you can take it as nifty souvenir. The streets are narrow and lined with shop stalls and the noise decibel is set to a steady roar. There are stairs everywhere and the stones are so polished from centuries of walking that are very slippery if you are wearing flat-soled shoes. The beauty of the old city is dampened by the crush of people and that odor that clings to all cities – the combination of exhaust, sweat, trash and urine.
While we stayed in the Christian Quarter, the idea of the city being divided into quadrants: Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian is not as clear-cut as the name nor maps suggest. They blend into one another a great deal and seeing Jewish people walking in the Muslim quarter or vice-versa is a very common sight. The Muslim quarter however is much older and less well kept but that is because of the political situation and not a reflection of the population at all. We never had a poor experience or a rude encounter. Which is even more incredible when you take into account that we were there during Ramadan so they were forbidden from eating during the day. I don’t know about other people but I tend to get grumpy when I haven’t eaten!
On our approach into Jerusalem I was the navigator – which was okay – if they actually used street names that were printed on the map. Everything is abbreviated at best, and at worst it is the slang. Our hostel had a terrace and gorgeous views of Jaffa Gate, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We capped off our first night in Jerusalem by going to eat an Armenian restaurant – one of the highlights of the trip was eating all the new food.
Our first full day was spent at the Israeli Antiquities Authority. They receive all the artifacts from all the digs around the country. They are the national repository so they conserve, preserve, document and store: metals, pottery, organics, and anything else they come across. Emily and I were assigned the negatives from the period of the British Mandate (pre-1948). We had to remove them from their packaging and re-label and re-package. It was pretty mundane but very important and we got to look at some amazing dig sites and artifacts. One of the most amazing things I’ve ever been able to do in my life so far was to see and handle the original glass plate negatives of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are many things about Israel that are similar to the United States: the prevalence of English, beautiful beaches, big cities, lots of places to spend lots of money, but in Israel there is always a thread of unease. The political situation is very different than what we as Americans are exposed to at home. There is not outright danger of bodily harm, usually; it is more insidious it is psychological conditioning of an us versus them mentality. Everything from art museums to where and how people live is to distinguish those who belong from those that do not. Even in the museums when they are referencing pre-1948 when present-day Israel was called Palestine they do not call it Palestine they call it Eretz Israel.
I greatly enjoyed my trip to Israel it is a beautiful country with many wonderful people. I encourage people to go there and see for youself.
Conservation Advising FAQ’s
Students interested in cultural heritage conservation at ECU are typically enrolled in a masters program through the Department of History or Department of Anthropology. We often have students from other disciplines as well interested in doing research related to preservation.
To determine how conservation can fit into your curriculum, you are strongly encouraged to contact your program graduate studies director:
Department of History: Dr. Carl Swanson
Department of Anthropology: Dr. Christine Avenarius
They will be able to best advise you on how the conservation courses fit into your overall academic program and on thesis related questions!!!!
If you are interested in having a part of your thesis on conservation, you are encouraged to contact Susanne Grieve at GrieveS@ecu.edu to begin discussing ideas!
1) What do professors look for when reviewing prospectuses?
Professors evaluate the thesis proposal as a whole until. In the beginning you should clearly demonstrate your research question. Where is the argument? What are you trying to hypothesize? Your thesis should somehow contribute to the body of research in your profession. Above all, make sure you have a clear research question identified! You also need to be able to demonstrate how your project fits into the bigger picture.
ECU History Website: “A thesis is an examination of a well-defined historical subject that relies chiefly on primary sources, published or unpublished, to form an argument. It should possess some degree of original thought on the topic, or in its approach to that topic. The thesis should not be a compilation of detail or a simple narrative. Instead, it should pose an argument. It should be expository rather than descriptive.”
Refer to your Departmental Graduate Student Handbook for details on how to craft a prospectus. Here are some additional resources:
ECU Anthropology Graduate Student Guidelines (Please note Anthropology graduate students are expected to defend their thesis prospectus at the end of the first spring semester (May of your first academic year).
2) What components should my thesis proposal have?
Be sure to use headings to organize your proposal and don’t forget to include images or tables to demonstrate your points.
3) What is the purpose of the thesis?
The thesis is meant to demonstrate that you have acquired the skills of the profession and that you can conduct an independent research project. It is also a good demonstration of your writing and research ability.
4) Is a thesis necessary?
The Department of Anthropology offers a non-thesis option for students. If you are remotely considering doing a PhD program, I highly suggest you complete a thesis. Even if you are not interested in education past a master’s degree, employers are looking for people who have good writing skills and your thesis is one way of demonstrating that ability. With that said, we are in a new era of employment and universities and employers may judge your professional work based on the amount of peer reviewed literature you have contributed to the field (ie: journal articles, publications, etc.). If you are planning to produce publishable work during your academic training then a thesis may not always be necessary. In conservation, having either publications or a thesis (or both!) will benefit you greatly if you plan on working at a museum or university.
5) Does my thesis have to include archaeology or history related topics?
If you are getting your degree in the Department of History or Department of Anthropology for public history, maritime studies, or archaeology, I highly suggest having some component of your thesis relate to your main field of study. There are many theoretical considerations in each of these fields that apply to those topics.
6) Like what?
Public History Theory
7) How long should my thesis be?
Refer to your Departmental Graduate Student Handbook, but generally the thesis should be between 80-120 pages.
8) Is a doctorate possible/necessary in conservation?
While a master’s degree is considered to be terminal degree in the field, there are a few universities that offer conservation specific doctoral programs. These often require you to have several years of experience for a research based degree or that you attend their masters program before entering the doctorate. A few examples of programs are the University of Melbourne and University College London. Check with the requirements of the programs to see if you would qualify.
9) Can I expect to leave the ECU program as a conservator?
The goal of our courses is not to produce conservators, but to expose students to the complexities of archaeological conservation through theory and practical experience. We will work on building up your portfolio during your time at ECU and meeting your interests and goals in conservation. There are several dedicated masters programs in conservation that will ensure you have employability once you graduate. These programs often require 400 hours of prior lab experience and Organic Chemistry training. For a list of universities that are dedicated conservation programs, please see the AIC website on Conservation Training Programs.
10) Do I have to focus on archaeological materials?
No, absolutely not! We work with a variety of institutions, museums, private citizens and organizations that have diverse collections of historical objects, family heirlooms, contemporary artworks decorative art, and folk art as well as archaeological materials. The laboratory was founded to work with maritime archaeological materials and while our strength is in treating these types of objects, we apply conservation methods to a variety of material types.
11) What courses can I take at ECU that relate to conservation?
There are four main courses offered in the Department of History that are cross listed with Anthropology:
We also offer material culture courses that are theory based:
Please see the ECU online catalog for more information on the course offerings.
12) How many hours are required for the internship?
3 credit hours=140 hours on site
6 credit hours=280 hours on site
9 credit hours=420 hours on site
13) What official paperwork do I need to be aware of for completing my thesis?
After your prospectus is completed and approved by your committee, you will need to complete an approval form provided in the Department of History Graduate Student Manual. Also be sure to check the dates for when you need to have your thesis components submitted and defended at the ECU Thesis and Dissertation website.
Preservation in Israel-Summer Abroad
Israel was #19 for me. The more countries I visit, the easier it is to think I’ve seen everything at least once. Israel has Roman and Hellenistic ruins, like Italy and Greece. It has international wars in its recent past, like Serbia. Like Morocco, all the signs are trilingual. But I found Israel to be a stand-out trip: somewhere I couldn’t group with my other experiences.
Israel is a good country to visit to learn about history: Israel’s history, world history, and your own story. I saw the world’s first piece of artwork. I went to the Holocaust Museum. I stood at the Western Wall with women from every country imaginable. Overall, it was an immensely entertaining, educational, and memorable trip.
Author at Western Wall, Jerusalem.
(Photo by Samantha Sheffield)
Because the purpose of the study was conservation-oriented, I also learned about Israel’s cultural heritage in a way not usually presented to the public. There’s something to be said for seeing Islamic glass in a museum, and actually meeting the conservator who attempts to piece the vessels back together. I found that conservation in Israel is a somewhat developing field. Most conservators we met at the Israeli Antiquities Authority are not academically trained as conservators, but rather as chemists or artists. Those who do receive formal degrees do so in other countries, notably Italy.
I don’t envy the task of the Israeli Antiquities Authority conservators who work with everything from the recent past to some of the oldest human remains in the world. The pottery assemblage alone is simply mind-blowing. Because the IAA receives and records all artifacts found during excavations in Israel, they are responsible for the documentation, conservation, and storage of thousands of artifacts each year. The amount of talent present in that office is amazing, particularly given the volume and variety of artifacts.
Our field experience in Ruhama gave me my first taste of an on-site lab set-up. Strikingly different than my sterile chemistry labs, it gave me the first-hand knowledge that you do the best you can for the artifact with the materials given. The experience convinced me that rescue conservation, with limited resources and a quick turn-around, is extremely important, even if frustrating. Equally as important, I know now that I have a good understanding of the variety of conservation conditions and can be prepared for new experiences throughout my career.
As I write this, I’m sitting in my airplane seat, about to land in Chicago. While also craving Israeli chocolate cake and some strawberry mango juice, I look forward to the next time that I can visit Israel. Of all my travels, I think this will be the hardest to catalogue, hardest to document, and hardest to share when I get home. How can I explain what it felt like looking at the Dome of the Rock from the Mount of Olives?
Mount of Olives, Jerusalem.
(Photo by author)
How do I explain how badly an invasive-species jellyfish sting hurts? How can I look at Caesarea and just say, “I went snorkeling and we saw some columns?” My pictures do justice to nothing, but certainly not to the splendor that is the “Holy Land.”
(Photo by author)
Public Conservation – Why Should We Care?
The fourth and final blog in this series will focus on conservation and the public. In order to understand what public conservation is, we can look at the definition of a similar subject; public archaeology. K. Kris Hirst (2010) states that public archeology is the relationship between archaeologists and the public. Public archaeology allows for academic findings to be presented to the public in an informational and entertaining format. From this definition, we can conclude that public conservation is the transfusion of information from conservators to the public.
Public conservation allows for the public to understand why conservation is important and also allows for the public to develop a connection with the artefacts being displayed. In order to create a relationship between the public and the work of conservators, physical and electronic displays are made available to the community. The exhibits can include but are not limited to websites, television programs, museum displays and possibly laboratory tours. The displays are often informative. They tell the story behind an artefact and often explain the way in which the object was processed by conservators.
A major, beneficial result of public conservation is the public’s increased interest in conservation. By educating the public about conservation, the public is better able to understand what conservators do and consequently develop an interest in conservation. With conservation becoming more popular, funding can increase. An increase in funding can allow for greater quantity objects to be conserved and can also allow for artefacts to be treated with better quality methods. With conservation becoming a more well-known profession, the amount of certified conservators can increase. This increase of conservators is advantageous for artefacts because with more labour available, more objects can be treated.
The public’s increased interest in conservation can also be a disadvantage if public conservation is not done properly. A display should never completely explain the treatment process of an object to the general public. The protection of specific conservation techniques is important because if these methods were not protected, members of the community would ultimately attempt to conserve their own artefacts. This would be potentially hazardous to the amateur conservator as well as to the object itself.
Overall, public conservation is still in its development and can be extremely beneficial to the growth of conservation science but it is important to monitor the way by which information is provided to the public so as to ensure that the artefacts themselves as well as credibility of the profession are protected from irreparable damage.
Hirst, K. K. (2010). Public Archaeology is … Retrieved 03 04, 2013, from Society for American Archaeology: http://www.saa.org/publicftp/public/forArchaeologists/outreach_PAis.html
Hired! The job market and outlook for Conservation jobs
Every student has to worry about getting a job upon graduation; this is no different for the conservation student. Finding a job can be difficult and frustrating, no matter the profession, but for a career that only employed 11,900 people in 20101, how should students maximize their chances of getting a job?
Most employers like seeing, both, a knowledge and education in an associated field and real world experience on their potential candidate’s resumes. In conservation this could include: internships at a conservation lab, previous job experience as a museum technician, volunteer work with collections, or experience in a museum or art gallery, as well as a bachelor’s or master’s degree in museum studies, anthropology, history, public history, art, chemistry, or library science. About thirty-three percent of the conservators with jobs have a bachelor’s degree and about thirty nine percent have a master’s degree, while only nine percent have a doctorate degree2. The lack of doctorate degrees in the field could show that most employers see no need for a PhD, when a master’s student can do the same job for less salary.
Median salary for a conservator was $37,120 in 2009, with a range between $23,000 and $68,0003. Most likely federal jobs have better benefits for their employees, while large or famous museums probably pay a higher salary; this is not the average museum though. The majority of accredited museums, in the United States, have a budget between one and 2.9 million dollars annually and are non-profit or privately owned and funded, and have between six and fifteen staff members4. With such small budgets and small staffs, the average museum cannot often afford to hire someone with a PhD, and are probably looking for an employee who can fill many job positions within their museum.
The conservation field is expected to grow 6.7 percent between 2010 and 2020, but, because this is such a small field, this is only 800 jobs in ten years5. Most conservators will have to volunteer or intern before they find jobs and these jobs will likely be in museums, and some will be in colleges and universities as well6.
Considering these statistics and projections, the conservation student should be prepared to move wherever there is a job, they should be prepared to start at a salary of 20 to 30,000 dollars, and should be looking for medium sized museums and libraries, as well as some colleges and universities. The more experience the applicant has, the higher their chances, and building professional relationships with museum personnel and conservators all over the country is a necessity. One way to do this is to join professional groups like the American Institute of Conservators (AIC) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), as well as any local or state run professional groups.
 “Conservators and Museum Technicians”. <http://www.iseek.org/careers/careerDetail?id=1&oc=100385&title=>. Copyright 2013 iSeek Solutions. Viewed 3/1/2013.
3 U.S. News: University Directory. “Museum Technicians and Conservators”. <http://www.usnewsuniversitydirectory.com/careers/museum-technicians-and-conservators_11873.aspx#.UTZWKY5WRUQ>. Copy write 2013 U.S.News University Connection. Viewed 3/1/2013.
4American Alliance of Museums. “Statistics”. <http://www.aam-us.org/resources/assessment-programs/accreditation/statistics>. Viewed 3/1/2013.
5 “Conservators and Museum Technicians”.
6 U.S. News: University Directory.
Connecting With the Public: The Importance of Conservation
The driving factor behind conservation, in my opinion, is the desire to create a connection with the past for current and future generations. Maintaining this link to the past is pivotal in keeping the information and knowledge of older societies from being neglected and ultimately forgotten. Once the past is forgotten it is near impossible to regain the lost knowledge, take for example the Library of Alexandria. The library had been filled with texts and writings that explained ancient knowledge and societal information. It was the most extensive library of its time and the amount of information it possessed was insurmountable. In a tragic accident, the library was burned down and the information within it was lost to the world.
Preserving the past is not enough. The information gathered must be made accessible to the public or else it is as good as being lost. Not only does the information need to be widely accessible but it has to be presented in a manner that is safe for the artifact while maintaining historical accuracy. It is in this step that conservation becomes a key component in the preservation, the knowledge and know-how of the conservator guiding the presentation to the public. The National Park Service (NPS) is one such example of a successful marriage between conservation projects and public outreach. This blog will explore how the NPS works together with conservators in order to create a successful public outreach program.
The unique aspect of the National Parks is that they are geared more towards public interaction. Museums are also geared towards the public but in a very different aspect. There, people go into rooms filled with pieces of history that have been gathered over years to represent different events and view them from afar. At the National Parks, people have the opportunity to go to the actual site and experience the history themselves, interacting with the environment and site. The National Park Service keeps these sites going because “History is a part of who we were, who we are, and who we will be” (National Parks Service 2013. “Discover History” National Park Service: U.S. Department of the Interior, Accessed: Web. 4 Mar. 2013) and the conservator is charged with keeping the site well preserved. By having the conservator working with the sites it allows NPS to watch the site and artifacts and monitor their health.
When the conservator is working with the National Park Service they have to take several different factors into account. Unlike museum conservation, which is also very viable and important, most of the NPS sites are outdoors. This means that the conservator has a new set of problems to face. They cannot control the relative humidity, the temperature, or light exposure. Instead, the conservator must alter their approach to preserve and conserve the site to fit the given environment. For example, preserving wood that is going to remain outdoors at a NPS site would probably not benefit from a sucrose treatment. This treatment would attract insects and have a higher possibility of becoming moldy because the conservator could not control the ecological factors. Therefore, the conservator must make the artifact and site able to withstand their environment without experiencing further deterioration. That being said, the conservator must also make the judgment call of whether an artifact should remain at the site. If it cannot be properly protected and runs the risk of complete deterioration then steps to properly protect it will have to be taken.
This is just one of many working examples where the presence of conservators benefits the public outreach concerning history. These sites offer a chance to preserve the historical significance of a site in addition to creating a place for the public to interact. Public interest and concern is key in assuring that the information will not be lost over time. By the conservator working with the National Park Service it opens up the accessibility to history that might otherwise not be available. The balance between keeping a site open for the public and safe from the wear and tear of the public can be a thin one. By knowing the environment of the site and a general history of it, as well as the type of public interaction, the conservator serves as the backbone of the site. With the use of good, well-rounded conservators, the National Park Service and the public should see the maintenance of sites for years to come, and the preservation of our shared historical connection.
National Parks Service 2013. “Discover History” National Park Service: U.S. Department of the Interior, Accessed: Web. 4 Mar. 2013
Learning from the Past at Tuzigoot National Monument: Early Conservation Efforts Gone Awry
Conservation is exciting. A properly trained conservator has the chance to stop the deterioration of artifacts and structures. This talent allows both conservators and archaeologists to discover human stories. Not only are stories being rediscovered but also artifacts are put in a state of preservation. By preserving an artifact or site, future generations have an opportunity to share in the story and to use future technologies to uncover more of the past.
The art of conservation, however, has not been perfected. Each object that has been put under a conservator’s protection is part of a learning curve of discovery. This means that with time and practice, conservation efforts become more productive in their goal through the trial and error of past conservation projects. This is not to say that conservators are blindly experimenting with solvents and tape in order to restore something to its original prestige. In fact, it is saying quite the opposite. The whole mentality of conservation has undergone quite the change in maturity since its origins. The point is not that these people were bad conservators to begin with, in fact, it can be quite sure that these people had the best intentions for the artifacts. It is with time that conservation efforts can be seen as positive or negative, despite the scientific effort that went into the original conservation project (Godfrey 1990; Jakes 1992). Efforts now, are broadly to preserve. Restoration has become less popular because it is impossible to understand the intentions of the original crafter (Caple 2003; Sease 1996). True, some original efforts were “bad,” but with these original follies, it is possible to understand the limitations of various conservation projects.
A valuable example in the growth of conservation efforts can be seen at Tuzigoot National Monument, located in Cottonwood, Arizona. Louis R. Caywood and Edward H. Spicer excavated the pueblo in 1933-1934 (Caywood 1935). They were graduate students at the time of the excavation, and workers from the Federal Emergency Relief Agency’s Civil Works Administration assisted them (Arizona Ruins 2012). This was a massive project, once the work was done and the reports turned in, Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed Tuzigoot Ruins to be a U.S. National Monument on July 25, 1939 (NPS 2013).
After excavation, the monument was left exposed. The pueblo is predominately made from limestone, the mortar that holds it together is from river sediments, ash and other natural binding materials. Without the Sinagua (peoples that lived at Tuzigoot) to do annual maintenance on the pueblo, it was understood that weathering would soon erode this structure away. So in order to counter-balance nature, workers covered the mortar with Portland cement in order to hold the monument together.
Portland cement was an incredibly popular preservationist tool used all throughout the American Southwest in the 1920s. This was because it was “cheap, easy to mix and apply, could be tinted to match any color and is incredibly strong” (Guebard 2013). Preservationists of the time were very concerned about the wall stability, so they did what they thought was best to conserve the integrity of the wall. The issue is that today, with the knowledge of what long-term effects negatively impact Tuzigoot’s walls, the Portland cement is being removed.
The archaeologists at the park have learned that Portland cement is negatively impacting Tuzigoot for a number of reasons. Some of them are: differential erosion, mineral formation and water retention (Guebard 2013).
Portland cement is considerably stronger than the original, non-synthetic mortar. This causes differential erosion. The cement is much harder than the sediment mortar, so when windblown sediments blow across the monument, it erodes the softer materials and leaves the Portland cement as is. Since some of the structure is being eroded away and other parts are staying intact, this leaves the structural integrity at risk. The softer parts of the pueblo can become voids within the larger context of the additives; this can cause a collapse. These are effects that preservationists can see today, so in order to fix the issue the Portland cement is slowly being chipped away. In place of that particular synthetic mortar, they now mix 10 percent Portland cement with 90 percent sand which creates an even erosion pattern (Guebard 2013).
(NPS worker removing original Portland cement)
Another issue with the harder Portland cement is that it does not “breathe” as well as natural materials. This is an issue because when it rains, water stays retained in the walls rather than drying quickly. Moisture inside the walls can deteriorate the interior structures; it is much better for the structure if after a rain storm the water evaporates quickly. When stones remain wet, they are more likely to succumb “to cracking and breakage caused by expansion/contraction, freezing/thawing and mineral depletion (continued wet/dry cycles may leach minerals from stone, causing them to become weak)” (Guebard 2013). Another issue is that Portland cement has soluble minerals in the mixture that can hurt the monument. They include: chlorides, carbonates, and nitrates. This has the potential to deteriorate the softer stones used in the structure. Once again, these are impacts that are only seen with time. Conservators’ efforts of the past are being dealt with currently in order to maintain structural integrity (Guebard 2013).
There are other issues that Portland cement brings, such as negatively reacting with UV light and changing it’s aesthetic make-up to non-natural colors such as purples and blacks, but this is not affecting the structural integrity of the wall so it will not be addressed here. Conservators have learned a lot through trial and error, Tuzigoot’s Portland cement issue is a prime example of that. In order to deal with the situation, Tuzigoot’s head archaeologist, Matt Guebard says, “When possible, we use only natural materials to avoid unintended interactions between synthetic materials and the environment” (Guebard 2013).
Conservation is a relatively new field, and it is still learning. There may be mistakes along the way, but publishing projects allows for a group learning curve to be achieved. With each project, professionals are getting closer to permanently maintaining features of past cultural heritage. Conservators must thoroughly be aware of past conservation efforts in order to grow as a profession.
Arizona Ruins. 2012. Tuzigoot, Hatalacva & Bridgeport. <http://www.arizonaruins.com/tuzigoot/tuzigoot.html>. Accessed 3 March 2013.
Caple, C., 2003, Chapter 4.2: History of Conservation. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 50-58.
Caywood, Louis R, and Edward H. Spicer. 1935. TUZIGOOT-The Excavation and Repair of a Ruin on the Verde River near Clarkdale, Arizona. U.S. Department of the Interior. < http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/berkeley/caywood-spicer/intro.htm>. Accessed 3 March 2013.
Godfrey, I., and N. Smith. 1990. Conservation of Degraded Rope from Maritime Archaeological Sites. In: AICCM Bulletin, Vol 16, No 3, pp. 93-108.
Guebard, Matt. February 2013. Chief of Resource Management, Park Archeologist at: Montezuma Castle National Monument and Tuzigoot National Monument. Email Correspondence.
Jakes, K. and J. Mitchell. 1992. The Recovery and Drying of Textiles from A Deep Ocean Historic Shipwreck. In: Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol 31, No 3, pp. 343-353. Electronic Resource.
NPS. 2013. Tuzigoot National Monument. Department of the Interior. <http://www.nps.gov/tuzi/index.htm>. Accessed 3 March 2013.
Sease, C. 1996. A Short History of Archaeological Conservation. In: Roy, A. and Smith, P. (eds.) Archaeological Conservation and its Consequences, pp. 157-161).
Skeletons in the Closet:
A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community
Case Study: Spirit Cave Man
Throughout the previous three blogs I have covered legalities, handling, and display issues surrounding human remains. Now, let’s examine a case study where human remains ownership was contested in court.
Spirit Cave Man, the oldest North American mummy to date, was excavated in 1940 by SM and George Wheeler in Spirit Cave, Nevada. When archaeologists decided to do extensive testing on the remains in the mid 1990’s, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe claimed Spirit Cave Man as one of their ancestors and tried to reclaim the remains under NAGPRA. This petition did halt invasive testing until the matter could be investigated. Because the remains date to around 9419 BCE, Spirit Cave Man is extremely far removed temporally from the present day tribe. The tribe’s stance was that they have been in this area since the beginning of time according to their oral histories. Archaeological evidence does show a long continuous occupation at the site, but the Bureau of Land Management ruled in 2000 that there was insufficient evidence for tribal affiliation. The remains are currently owned by the government. (Gregory 2007)
As of 2006, the courts have decided to send the case back to the Bureau of Land Management for further review (Friends of America’s Past 2009). This particular mummy will remain tied up in legal battles for the foreseeable future. Conservators must be vigilant to ensure the storage, handling, and records keeping for Spirit Cave Man are up to date as possible and are being handled in a professional and sensitive manner. It is the conservator’s duty to ensure the remains are in the best possible condition whenever the courts and the Bureau of Land Management make their final decision.
Gregory, Cheryl A. 2007. “Spirit Cave Man: A Body of Contention.” Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. Cassman, Vicki, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell ed. AltaMira Press. Lanham: 256-258.
Friends of America’s Past. 2009. “Spirit Cave Man.” < http://www.friendsofpast.org/spirit-cave/> Accessed: 3/4/2013.
Conserving the Future: Determining Significance in the Digital Age
The issue of conserving digital material is a subject that does not seem imperative to today’s discussions on the ethics of conservation, but in our digital world as more media and data is stored in digital formats, ethical and interpretative questions must begin to be discussed. Along with the basic methodological issues surrounding digital media and data stored in “the cloud”, conservators must begin to discuss possible interpretive issues that will present themselves in the future. All of these questions and issues boil down to one basic question: How do future conservators determine significance in digital media?
Today, conservators have to discuss the issue of significance and determine the importance of an object of material culture before beginning the process of cleaning and restoring/preserving and artifact. This helps determine the order in which objects are conserved. Essentially, conservators have to determine which objects are “high priority” and why. Besides these initial details, other questions have to be asked in order to determine this: What academic values does an object have? What cultural value does it have? Who is funding your efforts, and what are their motives for conservation? These questions, along with many more, must be asked when beginning the process of conservation (Nason, 1987). How then, do these questions and issues transfer to the future of conservation in a digital age?
While many of these beginning steps in the process of conservation will most likely still be relevant, many more questions will certainly arise. Our world today is so digitally geared, the sheet volume and digital information available to future conservators will likely be overwhelming. Today, everyone has access to an infinite amount of digital media. With Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, wikis, and discussion boards on line, information is shared across the internet at an incredible rate. Anyone and everyone can post information online or store information on USB drives, in “the cloud”, and in any other type of digital media. When attempting to determine significance, how does the conservator gather an idea of what is important to conserve? Today, we do not consider what someone shares on Facebook important or significant information, but would this type of information be considered important pieces of cultural heritage to our future society?
This brings up the question: what is cultural heritage? Since we are moving into an increasingly digital world, not only will important government documents be saved for archivists, but it is possible that information produced by the masses will be available for conservators to preserve. This brings an exciting thought to the future of conservation. If a methodology for preserving this digital media is developed, it is potentially possible for future conservators to gain a better understanding of our cultural identity.
Today we rely on objects and artifacts that have survived intact enough to provide information about societies of the past, but many times, these objects can skew our perceptions of the past. Conservators can only work with what they are able to conserve, and researchers use these objects to interpret certain sites or societies of the past. Because of the degradation of different materials, some objects are not preserved enough to even show a record of existing (Caple, 2003). Without these artifacts, certain areas of a society’s cultural heritage cannot be preserved; a true picture of the society as it actually existed cannot be determined. In the future, with the sheer amount of digital information being stored today, future conservators potentially have the opportunity to gain a more complete understanding of our cultural heritage than we have of many of the societies that have come before us. This also demonstrates the importance of determining significance of digital media. In order to make conservation of digital media manageable, a method of determining significance must be addressed.
While similar to questions today’s conservators face, future conservators will have to face an entirely new realm of ethical issues, and questions revolving around determining the significance of digital information in order to begin conserving it. Though these issues do not seem very significant today, these are questions that will have to be answered in the near future. Although this article asks more questions than it answers, it brings to light questions and concerns that will need to be breached in the future. Maybe today we will not answer these questions; maybe we cannot yet. Regardless, as a community, conservators will have to discuss these questions soon. In one hundred years, what really will be left for our digital conservators to conserve? Will it give them an accurate picture of our world today?
Caple, C, (2003). Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.
Nason, J., (1987). “The Determination of Significance”. In: Material Anthropology, pp. 47-51.
“Saving Our Data from Digital Decay” (2010). ScienceDaily. Nov. 23, 2010. Accessed Feb. 19, 2013. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101116072749.htm>.
Reverence and Objectification
The Issue of Conserving and Incorporating Human Remains Within the 9/11 Museum
Within archaeology, conservation, and museum curation one of the most difficult decisions that must be made is what to do with human remains when uncovered. This has been an on-going ethical issue for the field that resulted in the passing of laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. It is often the case within archaeology, however, that the remains are hundreds, if not thousands of years old and it is the ancestral ties between contemporary Native Americans and their predecessors that facilitates their claim to the remains. What about modern remains?
After completing four years of undergraduate study at a school merely forty minutes from New York City (NYC) I grew to love the big city. As a native of upstate New York, with relatives who live in NYC the events that happened on September 11, 2001 are especially poignant for me. As I continued to visit the city in recent years I watched as the World Trade Center (WTC) Memorial was slowly being built. One of the issues surrounding that memorial is what to do with the 9,041 bone fragments that have been recovered from the fallen towers. These fragments belong to the 1,123 unidentified victims from the tragedy. The bones and what little tissue remained were dehydrated for preservation by the medical examiner who is still sorting through the pieces trying to find matches, which has not been accomplished since 2009 (Hartocollis 2011). Now, officials from the Memorial are planning on placing those remains behind a wall with a sentimental quote for visitors to pay their respects at. This has gained some support, but has also sparked debate amongst many of the victim’s families who do not want their loved ones displayed as a tourist attraction.
The ethical issues surrounding the display of WTC victims have to do with notions of memorialization and objectification. Brooks and Rumsey (2008) argue that displaying bodies can serve as connection of the past with the present, the dead with the living, while also rendering them ambivalent: as both persons and things (261). This is reflected in the arguments presented on the side of the victims’ families who do not want the remains used as a lure for tourists. Because these were actual human remains and not just material culture, they add to the effect it has on visitors to those museums. The question is where to draw the line between material culture or cultural remains versus human remains.
As it becomes commonplace to investigate more recent events, and subsequently uncover more recently deceased remains, there is an increased chance that descendents, relatives, or other direct stakeholders in those remains will need to have a say in what happens to the remains. In the case of the WTC Memorial and museum, the actual event the people lost are still very much in the minds of those stakeholders. To use the bodies in a museum context is unwarranted in this case. Instead, the remains should be separate from the museum in a setting more akin to Arlington Cemetery, which is treated as hallowed grounds. These issues raised from the case of the WTC Memorial are incredibly complex and are relevant to all who deal with human remains on a regular basis.
Brooks, M., and C. Rumsey. 2007. The Body in the Museum. In Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions, ed. V. Cassman et al. AltaMira Press. Lanham: 261-289.
Hartocollis, A. For 9/11 Museum, Dispute Over Victims’ Remains. The New York Times, April 1, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/nyregion/03remains.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1& (Accessed 02/16/2013).
For more information on NAGPRA visit: http://www.nps.gov/nagpra/
Conservation Conversation: Friedrich Rathgen’s Contributions to Archaeological Conservation
Friedrich Rathgen of Berlin (1862-1942) is largely credited as the first archaeological conservator. He was the director of the Chemical Laboratory of the Royal Museums of Berlin, and was one of the first scientists to work in a museum laboratory. Rathgen’s primary contribution to archaeological conservation was his use of the scientific method and core scientific principles to propose treatments for artifacts. He meticulously documented the systematic methods he used on individual materials, including those for stone, bronze, and plaster: materials which were mostly unstudied (scientifically) at the time. Rathgen was also responsible for creating a better relationship between curators and conservators; until his involvement, there had been limited communication between the two professions, and there were often tensions over the artifacts themselves (Gilberg 1987).
Rathgen’s talents did not just extend to archaeological artifacts, but features as well. He was interested in preserving monuments and their stone blocks-he applied various solutions to the outside of buildings and, through the processes of repetition and analysis, he was able to come to conclusion about the source of the material. In a way, Rathgen was also one of the first to practice experimental archaeology, as much of his research was concentrated on constructing past lifeways in order to understand materials within their own contexts. Rathgen benefitted from the use of an exclusive lab and equipment, however, he often had trouble identifying his samples because of unexpected consequences arising from new treatments.
Up until the 70s, Rathgen was ignored outside of Germany as the father of conservation, but, due to his methodological documentation, the records of his successes and experiments have become some of the most important records we have of early conservation.
Gilberg, Mark. “Fredrich Rathgen: The Father of Modern Archaeological Conservation.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation. 26(2): 105-120.
Ethical Conservation Concerns
There are many ethical considerations within the discipline of conservation. One such consideration involves the publication of unprovenanced archaeological objects. Some archaeologists think that these objects should never be published or cited in print because it “indirectly supports illicit trafficking of antiquity” (Argyropoulos, Charalambous, Polikreti, & Simon 2011:214). Others, however, believe that “conservators’ technical and/or scientific study of such material helps to fight against criminal activity by identifying fakes and forgers” (Argyropoulos et. al. 2011:214).
Today, the illicit antiquities trade is considered to be one of the largest illegal businesses worldwide (Argyropoulos et. al. 2011). Falsified documents made to demonstrate authenticity are not often questioned or are hard to expose, and this often results in illegitimately obtained items being displayed in privately or publicly funded museums (Argyropoulos et. al. 2011). Conservators use scientific studies of objects in order to obtain results that may authenticate them or “increase their monetary value through publication” (Argyropoulos et. al. 2011).
These outcomes seem to warrant a set of standards or an ethical code to be drafted and ultimately ratified concerning ethics of the practice of conservation. In 2011, it was noted that “research and publication in conservation currently do not provide ethical reviews when studies involve such problematic material in order to ensure scientific integrity of the results” (Argyropoulos et. al. 2011).
With every controversial topic, there are pros and cons of each opinion involved, and it is important to consider the different viewpoints. Though it is important to discourage illicit antiquities trafficking, it is also important to identify authenticity from forgery. Possibly, ethical standards could be established to try to safeguard against antiquities trafficking. Although the questionable practice of publishing information concerning unprovenanced objects may continue, there could also be information published about the importance of prohibiting illicit trafficking of antiquities. Perhaps a system could be introduced in order to verify whether documents certifying authenticity are genuine. Bearing all of this in mind, it seems important to set ethical standards concerning research and scientific publication of information regarding cultural objects.
Argyropoulos, Vasilike, Dimitris Charalambous, Kyriaki Polikreti, and Stefan Simon. “Ethical Issues in Research and Publication of Illicit Cultural Property.” Journal of Cultural Heritage. 12. no. 2 (2011): 214-219.
The Dilemma of Reversibility
The third installment of this conservation blog will leave factors affecting the understanding of an artefact and instead focus on a dilemma that can affect the longevity of an artefact’s life. The quandary being discussed is the reversibility of a treatment applied to an object. Reversibility is a major principle in a conservator’s work. It is widely accepted and predominantly viewed as a mandatory in the treatment of any object. In “Overview of conservation in archaeology; basic archaeological conservation procedures,” the University of Texas A&M states that in order for a treatment to be reversible, the treatment must have the ability to be undone at a future time.
Using a treatment that is reversible is extremely important because it allows previously treated objects to continually be preserved. Reversibility assumes that no treatment is ever final so it is important for conservators to frequently reexamine treated artefacts and determine whether retreatment is necessary. Therefore, as technology progresses, so does the science of conservation. In the future, there will most likely be superior conservation methods developed, which will be less hazardous to the objects being treated. In order to use future techniques on all objects, both treated and untreated, the treatments that conservators use now must be reversible so that previous treatments will not react with new treatments. Therefore, the probability that a change in treatment will negatively affect the structure of the artefact is reduced.
The theoretical idea of reversibility does not create any issues but problems arise when reversibility is applied in a real world situation. Scholars have stated that it is impossible for any treatment to be completely reversible because a conservator cannot feasibly remove every molecule of the previous treatment that was applied. Consequently, there will always be a minute amount of treatment that is not reversible. The only solution to this problem is for a conservator to remove as much of the previous treatment from the artefact as possible, so that any interaction between the past treatment and the future treatment will be diminished.
Overall, reversibility is an important factor to consider in the preservation of artefacts because using reversible treatment methods allows for the science of conservation to progress and improve, which can help to lengthen the life of an artefact.
Rogers, B. A. (2004). The Archaeologist’s Manual for Conservation: A Guide to Non-Toxic, Minimal Intervention Artifact Stabilization. New York: Springer.
University of Texas A&M. (n.d.). Overview of conservation in archaeology; basic archaeological conservation procedures. Retrieved 02 19, 2013`, from Centre for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation: http://nautarch.tamu.edu/CRL/conservationmanual/File1.htm
The Conservator’s Role in the Illicit Antiquities Trade
When discussing the ethics of archaeological conservation, one topic that often finds its way to the forefront is the conservation of irresponsibly or illegally recovered artifacts. The complexities of this issue have been summed up well by Catherine Sease, a conservator who has been involved in court cases dealing with illegally recovered artifacts from Cyprus. Arguing vehemently against the damages that are caused by the illegal antiquities trade and those involved with it, intentionally or not, Sease contends that any reputable conservator must have nothing to do with objects of any questionable provenance, illegal or not (Sease, 1997). Rejecting any notion that the information gained from conserving an illegally recovered or unprovenanced artifact is still valuable, she writes that, “it is better to lose some data than to actively contribute to the wanton destruction of the archaeological record” (Sease, 1997: 56).
While arguments such as that made by Sease are most certainly noble in their conception, they represent a fundamentally flawed view of the causes of the illegal antiquities trade and the ways in which it can and should be combatted. Of course, in a perfect world, when every conservator stopped treating illegally recovered artifacts, the trade would grind to a halt. Unfortunately, however, in reality, there are, and will always be, “black market” conservators who will pick up the slack. Much like the trade in ivory, drugs, and other illegal commodities,
For all of the archaeological community’s talk about the value of artifacts and the need to excavate them properly, the fact remains that most artifacts, after documentation, are either returned to a storage location on site, or are put into long term storage, never to be seen again. At a time when both concerns of storage space and an illegal antiquities market are raging, the solution would appear to be quite simple. The regulated sale of artifacts from storage would serve both to alleviate storage concerns, as well as cutting into the market of illegally recovered antiquities. A system whereby registered artifacts are sold through licensed dealers, in combination with a system for tracking the ownership of artifacts after their sale, would profit museums and archaeological administrations, while still keeping track of the artifacts whereabouts so that further study could be conducted when needed. In an extreme example, GPS trackers could be inconspicuously attached to artifacts offered for sale so that they may be tracked at all times after the sale.
While this paper does not claim to present a comprehensive plan for such a system, I would nevertheless resolve that it is only through a regulated and legal antiquities market that the problem of the illegal and irresponsible recovery and sale of artifacts can be finally solved. Much like the illegal alcohol market has all but disappeared since the lifting of prohibition, so could such a controlled system for the sale of antiquities phase out the illegal antiquities market. While conservators will still have to wrestle with such ethical dilemmas as outlined by Sease as long as an illegal antiquities market exists, they should also recognize that in refusing to treat illegally or irresponsibly recovered artifacts they may be taking the moral high ground, but they are not moving any closer to a solution to the problem of antiquities trafficking.
Sease, Catherine. 1997. Conservation and the Antiquities Trade. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 36 (1): 49-58.
The Benefits of Teaching Conservation
East Carolina University (ECU) is unique in that it offers introductory courses in conservation methods to students who may not pursue it as a profession. This raises a question by the conservation community of whether conservation methods should be taught to non-conservators, specifically archaeologists. The fear is that teaching archaeology students conservation techniques they will try to use them on artifacts rather than going to a more qualified conservator, potentially damaging the artifact. It is my belief that this fear is unfounded and that teaching conservation to archaeologists will actually help communication.
The conservator is a very vital part of the archaeological excavation. It is the conservator’s job to protect the artifacts that the archaeologist removes or exposes during the excavation process. Depending on the artifact, preservation and conservation methods may take longer than expected. This in turn can cause some communication problems between the archaeologists and the conservator. The archaeologist wants to gather information from the object as soon as possible but some treatments require the object to be removed from the site for a long duration. This is one aspect of where having some knowledge of conservation methods can help. If the archaeologist is aware of some basic conservation methods for different materials they can better understand the time frame to be expected. This will help promote a better understanding between the conservator and the archaeologist and relieve some tension on site concerning the conservation process.
Perhaps the most important aspect of teaching this course it helps the researcher understand their limits. When an artifact is found, often times the first instinct is to mechanically clean it and scrape away dirt or other debris. Taking a course in conservation informs the researcher that the dirt and debris left on artifacts can actually be clues that should not necessarily be removed. Different elements interact with the environment in unique ways. If the artifact is given to a conservator before everything has been removed it will give the conservator a chance to analyze how the material is breaking down, leading to a better course of action for the artifacts protection.
Having working knowledge of conservation methods and techniques can lead to better communication between conservators and archaeologists. This translates into better artifact care. Both professions go out of their way to protect the history they are working with and can benefit each other by coming together. By offering courses in conservation to its students, ECU is allowing future conservators, historians and archaeologists a chance to learn a common language and lessen the gap between the studies. This will benefit research of the future and promote a more interdisciplinary approach.
Hamilton, Donny L. 1997. “Basic Methods of Conserving Underwater Archaeological Material Culture”. Nautical Archaeology Program, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, Accessed: Web. 18 Feb. 2013
Conserving “the Cloud”: Preserving Cultural Heritage of the Digital Age
Conservation of historical materials has been in existence in one form or another for centuries. The act of preserving cultural heritage has existed almost as long as humans have had an interest in their own past. The traditional idea of a conservator is someone who is interested in primarily historical objects found in archaeological sites; items that can help uncover lost information about the past. To us, as modern individuals, these objects are usually ancient books, manuscripts, ruins, bones, and other tangible pieces of cultural heritage. But the conservation of cultural heritage no longer is reserved for objects centuries old. As we enter an ever-increasing digital age, we come across the issue of the conservation of digital information. While it is not a major issue for today’s conservators, the conservation of digital media is an area within the field that will soon have to be breached, but the question remains: will conservators be ready to handle digital conservation?
While it is not a pressing topic in the field of conservation today, a method of preservation for digital media will need to be discussed within the coming century. Though we are surrounded by digital information, there is little to no scholarly work being done in the field of conservation on this topic. Researchers in the field of Software and Information Technology have begun to discuss this potentially problematic issue, but it is a topic that seems so far out of the realm of traditional conservation, that it is something conservators have yet to consider (Schilke and Rauber, 2010). Audio and visual materials have now existed for over one hundred years and many are in need of conservation, and the field must develop new methods of conserving this type of cultural heritage. But as technology moves into an ever digital era, how do future conservators deal with this? As technology develops, old materials are soon obsolete. The 8 tracks of thirty years ago are no longer compatible with today’s iTunes and iPods, just as floppy disks cannot be read in most modern computers. How do conservators approach trying to preserve data stored on these obsolete objects?
This concern becomes even more pressing as one thinks about the amount of digital data in use today. With more and more data being saved to “the cloud”, saved in pixels or being streamed instantly across the internet, there is less of a paper trail for conservators to physically treat in order to preserve cultural heritage. What happens in one hundred years when a future conservator discovers an old USB drive on an archaeological dig? How are they to handle this? While you can save multiple copies of data to different sources, computer hard drives and the computers themselves will one day become historical objects that serve as a defining piece of today’s cultural heritage. The question boils down to how long can this technology be maintained? Technology changes and advances at a rapid pace. Already cassette tapes, CD’s, floppy disks and VHS tapes are close to obsolete. In fifty to one hundred years, today’s digital technology could go the same way, but with data saved in “the cloud”, there will be no tangible material left to conserve.
We have information from hundreds of years ago due to the preservation of ancient works, but these are tangible objects. What happens when there is no physical object? How do you conserve something that is not physically there? This is a question conservators must begin to address in the near future in order to begin preserving our future cultural heritage. Perhaps conservation will have to undergo a dramatic change, pairing with computer scientists and information technology specialists instead of archaeologists. Regardless of what the future of digital information brings, conservators must be ready to adapt to new ways of preserving and conserving cultural heritage for future generations.
“Saving Our Data from Digital Decay” (2010). ScienceDaily. Nov. 23, 2010. Accessed Feb. 19, 2013. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101116072749.htm>.
Schilke, S.W., and Rauber A., 2010. “Long-term Archiving of Digital Data on Microfilm”. International Journal of Electronic Governance, 3 (3): 237-253.
Schrödinger’s Cat: Important Cultural Artifacts or Boring Junk
I once knew an architect who, when applying for a new project, delivered his proposal in a box entirely filled with mud. His premise was that the visceral act of extracting the building concept from wet earth was critical to his artistic vision for the design. While the image of a wealthy client rolling up his sleeves to mine for a project bid has comedic value, the architect’s statement and method of expression has always impressed me. To me, this was a literal hands-on experience of art—but to another, this experience could be little more than a ruined manicure. Things are important to people, but we experience and value them in different ways. In this case, the choice of using a tangible experience to convey an artistic expression carries many similarities to historical museum display. The importance and interpretation of an object, however, varies greatly to the individual.
A tangible and perceptible link to an otherwise long-forgotten past can arguably present more impact and educational opportunities than any other historical experience. Objects matter in human cultural consciousness, whether revered or ignored, beautiful or utilitarian—and many reveal information that can redefine, strengthen, or reject what we know of history. Yet, curators and resource managers face many difficult choices in selecting which pieces are most worthy of display and conservation. Budget constraints, public interest, and the collective cultural remains of millennia of human history present a wide array of options on what pieces (and thus, what and whose history) to display and preserve.
For example, East Carolina University houses over 650 artifacts in their African Art Collection. Donated over the last sixteen years, the collection includes artifacts originating from across the African continent, spanning an unknown number of years, tribal groups, and proveniences. Only a handful of these artifacts are on display at any given time, rotating through the university’s Ledonia S. Wright African-American Cultural Center and Wellington B. Gray Gallery. ECU’s online Museum Without Walls exhibit also displays these objects; however, many of the pieces have no information listed on their significance (East Carolina University, 1998).
ECU’s African Art Collection has tremendous inherent value in that it is a window into cultures that had little or no primary written histories; these objects are the historical record for their creators. But we might also ask why these artifacts, so minimally exhibited for the use of ECU students with so little presented or known information, have been displayed, conserved, and stored, using space and budget that could be reserved for local history or art? Is it their exotic origins, or a nod to the multi-cultural heritage of ECU’s student body, or is it merely that they were donated? How often are they used by the ECU students for study or enjoyment, and how much awareness has been raised on their availability to the larger public community? Has their full potential been maximized? To whom do they matter, why are they important, and what can we seek to learn from them? What has not been displayed in their place? In short, one individual might instantly derive value from this collection—but another might be uninterested, frustrated at the lack of available object information, or prefer relics of local history.
Historical resource managers must therefore constantly evaluate the direction for their collections. The huge opportunity presented by a visitor-artifact experience balances the potential negative consequences of neglecting other pieces. Moreover, even though different individuals will derive value and benefit from disparate objects, conservators must still decide which pieces to prioritize, and cultural resource managers must choose which pieces to accession and display. Thus, to some, my friend’s architectural achievement was the culmination of intense artistic process—but for a future resource manager, it is just as easily a muddy old box.
East Carolina University. 1998. African Art Collection http://web.lib.ecu.edu/africanart/aahome.htm (accessed 02/18/2013).
Skeletons in the Closet:
A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community
“Shake your Money Maker: Human Remains on Display”
Museums face challenging concerns everyday such as: ‘How do we keep the doors open and the lights on?’ ‘How do we keep people coming here?’ ‘How can we compete with amusement parks and roller coasters?’ A time tested crowd pleaser (in the western world) since the Enlightenment has been the display of complete or partial human remains. Everyone loves an Egyptian mummy, right? Human remains can be political symbols, personal connections to the past, high price commodities, religious relics, research materials, and the list goes on. Problems arise when cultural approaches to human remains differ. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to displaying human remains. Museum curators, exhibit designers, and conservators have to be extremely careful and sensitive when deciding what should or should not be on display for the public.
The display of human remains in a museum setting, as we think of it, is closely tied to the scientific revolution and colonial exploration. People were fascinated by people and things that were different than the ‘known’ plants, animals, and people. Museum displays were for the strange, the macabre, and the exotic. In the scientific community, doctors were discovering the way the body and diseases worked and demanded bodies for their research. Bodies became commodities used for profit. This way of thinking led to larger establishments curating large collections of human remains from around the world. Over the years more marginable groups’ wishes have been acknowledged (ex. NAGPRA), but there is still an obvious power dynamic. Who actually owns the body? Should the wishes of the individual take precedent or the wishes of the family, the group, or the public? These are all challenges faced by conservators. (Cassman, Odegaard, and Powell 2007)
Most bodies in museums are presented as objects for study. The western way of thinking linearly and secularly helps distance people from the remains they are viewing, temporally and geographically. People are separated physically and sensually from the remains by glass cases. At the same time, thinking of bodies as objects can be seen as separating the viewer from acknowledging our own mortality. One way some institutions help the public connect to remains as individuals is by naming them. Some places also do reconstructions (though highly interpretive) of skeletal remains, so it is easier for the public to acknowledge the humanity of the remains. (Cassman, Odegaard, and Powell 2007)
Today, museums and conservators have become more culturally sensitive to the wishes of more marginal groups and the various interests surrounding bodies in their collections. It is an effective way to encourage interest in exhibits and connect the public to their own past. Conservators in particular should assist museums that choose to have human remains on display presenting them in safe, lasting, yet emotionally accessible ways.
Cassman, Vicki, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell ed. 2007. Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. AltaMira Press. Lanham: 261-283.
Tricky Situations: The Role of a Conservator during Ownership Battles
Since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990, the dynamic between Native Americans and archaeologists has changed drastically. “NAGPRA provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items — human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony — to lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations” (NPS 2012). The majority of the public agrees in appropriate treatment of the dead; this thought extends to Native American ancestors (McManamon 1994). Therefore, scrutiny after excavation, without permission, has fallen out of favor. It is Federal law that all Federal agencies and private museums that have been funded by Federal dollars must comply with NAGPRA. The pressing issue is not archaeologists refusing to comply with the law, but the action those conservators and archaeologists must take when multiple Nations are declaring ownership of excavated human remains and funerary goods. The conservators have to make a choice on what actions they should or should not take while waiting for legal battles to be solved.
NAGPRA ensures that a greater amount of respect is shown towards Native American groups. This Federal law has required that greater amounts of communication transpire between American Indians, all Federal Museums, and government archaeologists. Museums must create inventories for all cultural items that are subject to NAGPRA; after the inventory has been made, they must be sent to all potential lineal decedents and Indian tribes (McManamon 1994).
There are complications. Human remains and grave goods that have been found today do not necessary have a direct connection to today’s contemporary tribes. This is an issue because ancient nations do not all exist; many tribes have changed and integrated into other nations. At one point, there may have been one prehistoric American Indian group, but with time, people moved and dispersed across the country. This is an issue because when Federal agencies release inventory lists, multiple groups may lay claim to a single artifact. An example of this can be seen in Arizona, specifically at Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot, and Montezuma Well. There are various grave goods and human remains that are originally from the Sinagua people. However, there are no Sinagua people today; it is best inferred that they integrated with Hopi and Yavapai peoples (NPS 2013). This leads to battles in who is allowed rights to the funerary remains.
Today’s archaeologists must adhere to strict rules when dealing with all potential burials, however, archaeologists of the past had very few guidelines and many of them brought up anything that caught their interest. Burials are not as likely to be excavated today from professional archaeologists; however, today there are many cultural items in museum collections that are in the process of being returned.
Conservators and curators have a duty to hold on to artifacts and human remains until the legal issues have been sorted. There are a variety of materials that can be associated with burials, ranging from linens, ceramics, food remains, and bones. Since each Nation wants a different outcome for the cultural items, it can be hard for conservators to know what to do This could be a tricky situation depending on the mentality of the Nation; some may be interested in preserving an artifact, while others may be more interested in reburying it. This could become complicated for the conservator, who of course, is interested in the life history of the artifact and has a time window when an artifact may be preserved or begin to deteriorate. A conservator may not know if they are solely supposed to stabilize an artifact from further deterioration or if they should begin to mechanically clean an artifact and slowly reveal some of the artifact’s basic characteristics. Some nations feel violated when their past is uncovered by people not of their heritage, whereas others enjoying seeing a physical connection to their own ancestry regardless of who discovered it. It can also be difficult if a collection has been broken up in multiple museums (Iverson 2008). Ceramics found in the desert are fairly easy to conserve but organics, such as cotton and yucca woven cloth needs to be preserved in a stable environment. An issue is that many Nations do not want these specific cultural items to be preserved; yet they do not want them to deteriorate until they have had the items returned to them for reburial.
The best action for conservators to take that are faced with the shifting ownership of cultural items is to have open communication. There needs to be an agreement between Federal agencies and various American Indians tribes so that no group becomes alienated with the conservation practices while the court discussions proceed.
Conservators are obviously interested in preserving the past in order to uncover the story of humans, however just because they have the ability to discover the facts does not mean they should uncover the past. This is easier said than done, at least from a curious person’s perspective, and admittedly, conservators and archaeologists are curious people. To not analyze artifacts that hold answers to the past that have been left in front of them can be very difficult. The best way to deal with this situation is to work with tribes in order to find a happy medium for all groups. American Indians understand that burials and grave goods have information about the past that the public is interested in their story. It is possible to have a compromise, such as the conservator continuing treatment of the artifacts, so long the artifacts remain in a stable condition and all actions done to the artifact are non-invasive and reversible. There can be workable scenarios, such as photographing all artifacts and human remains for further study. These photos would have the caveat of not being seen by the public and solely used for research purposes.
In order to have good working relationships between Federal agencies and American Indians, many cultural collections may be repatriated. To date, 38,671 individuals, 998,731 associated funerary objects, 144,163 unassociated funerary objects, 4,303 sacred objects, 948 objects of cultural patrimony and 822 objects that are both sacred and patrimonial have been repatriated since the passage of NAGPRA (NPS 2012). This has been hard for archaeologists and conservators but it has created better relationships with American Indian groups because it shows that researchers are doing their best to respect Native American practices. Better relationships have the potential to allow for more research to occur in the future.
Conservators are knowledgeable on the deterioration of various organics and inorganics. This knowledge allows them the insight in how they should proceed in attempting to preserve artifacts. Conservators today have to be concerned with more than artifact conservation; they must be updated on current events and artifact ethics before they proceed with any work done to an artifact. Today, the popular trend in conservation is preservation, not restoration. This allows the artifact to keep more of its original integrity. This mentality has the potential to forge better relations with American Indian groups since their cultural collections are not being manipulated in a way that was unintended.
While various groups battle over human remains and grave goods in court, conservators must forge open communication so people can benefit from the past’s insights. They must do their best to not alter the artifacts original substance while trying to conserve it and if they lose their cultural collection in court, they must be willing to accept that as a respectable decision.
Iverson, Anne, 2008. Tuzigoot National Monument: NAGPRA Report. In: Western Archaeological and Conservation Center. < http://www.cpcesu.nau.edu/current/documents/TUZINAGPRAreport.pdf>. Accessed 17 February 2013.
McManamon, Francis P., 1994. Changing Relationships Between Native Americans and Archaeologists. In: Forum Journal March/April Vol. 8. No. 2. National Trust for Historic Preservation. <http://www.preservationnation.org/forum/library/public-articles/changing-relationships-between-native-americans.html>. Accessed 17 February 2013.
National Park Service, 2012. Frequently Asked Questions. In: National NAGPRA. U.S. Department of the Interior. <http://www.nps.gov/nagpra/FAQ/INDEX.HTM>. Accessed 17 February 2013.
National Park Service, 2013. Montezuma Castle National Monument Arizona. In: Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary. National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior. < http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/cultural_diversity/Montezuma_Castle_National_Monument.html>. Accessed 17 February 2013.
The Role of Context in Conservation
Context in archaeology is defined as the physical position and the surrounding set of objects and physical attributes that affect the interpretation and meaning of the object in question (SAA, 1996) . An artifact’s context is usually determined in reference to three primary attributes. It consists of its immediate matrix, which is the material surrounding the artifact, its provenience, the horizontal or vertical position, and its association with other artifacts and materials in the same matrix. Context is extremely important to the archaeological process for determining the significance of every object recovered. But what does context mean to conservators?
Context, to the conservator, has the same value that it does to the archaeologist. Keeping an object in its original environment as much as possible, helps to retain its meaning and value. Once the significance is established, the conservator can judge how best to proceed with treatment of the material. For example, the discovery of a Native American projectile point is fairly common, but the context of the object can help to interpret more about the artifact. If the projectile point was found embedded in the rib bone of a bison, one can infer more about the scenario that brought the point there. Context can help a conservator to tell more of the object’s story and determine where to go from there.
The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) has a code of ethics and guidelines for professional conservators. More than a few points in the code of ethics are in regard to respecting the integrity and cultural significance of an object. Context is a major aspect of determining its integrity. Without knowing the context of an artifact, an archaeologist or a conservator cannot know the truth of the object. The guidelines state, “All actions of the conservation professional must be governed by an informed respect for the cultural property, its unique character and significance, and the people or person who created it.” (AIC, 1994). It is through the context of the object that this respect is even possible.
AIC. 1994. Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. http://www.conservation-us.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewPage&pageID=858&nodeID=1 (Accessed January 26, 2013).
SAA. 1996. What is Archaeology? http://www.saa.org/ForthePublic/Resources/EducationalResources/ForEducators/ArchaeologyforEducators/WhatisArchaeology/tabid/1346/Default.aspx (Accessed February 12, 2013).
Past as Propaganda, Part Two: Archaeological Cleansing in Athens
Athens is a model city for the study of Classical antiquity. Its whitewashed marble overwhelms the casual visitor in the bright Mediterranean sunlight. Athenian tourism caters to those craving the beauty and classical design from the height of Greco-Roman culture. Athens, however, exists in a bubble that tends to exclude its other 2,000 years of history. Where are the Byzantine and Ottoman structures? What about Greece’s history as a German-occupied state in World War II? This history takes a back seat to the power and prestige afforded to Athens by the dominance of the Classical Age.
The Acropolis, the main focal point of Athenian tourism, changed dramatically in the years following Greek independence. Nationalist archaeologists removed its Ottoman character and scrubbed it down its 5th century BCE roots (Athanassopoulou 2002: 273-274). Athanassopoulou states that “archaeology plays an important role in establishing national identities and creating collective memories or imagined communities” (2002: 276). This assessment goes a long way in explaining why the “archaeological cleansing of the Acropolis” occurred during the years immediately following the war of Greek independence in the 1830s; Greece was creating a national identity by building on its Periclean heritage.
The decision to emphasize Classical roots over Ottoman heritage no doubt springs from the wave of Philhellenism that became prevalent in 19th century Europe. Greece was not only building a foundation for itself, but for all of Western Civilization (Athanassopoulou 2002: 291). Is it right to ignore these other foundations of Greek history? To clear the Parthenon of its Ottoman Mosque? To pretend that it never happened? The answer is no.
The Acropolis hill contains two Roman monuments; the rest of the buildings and statues date from the height of Athenian power in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. That Roman history is important as well. There was a mosque inside the Parthenon under the Ottomans (Athanassopoulou 2002: 278). There are Byzantine churches scattered throughout Athens, but you won’t find any in the city center. The Venetians used the Acropolis as a fortress when they took control of Athens in 1684. These pieces of history should have been preserved as well, but they are noticeably absent from the cultural landscape of Athens.
Athens has a rich cultural history: the original melting pot of people and ideas. It is a shame that a visitor to the city will most likely not be exposed to the wide range of uses that the Parthenon had, or even be able to see Byzantine and Ottoman artifacts or monuments. It is a testament to Greek pride in its Classical roots that this history has been given top billing to the exclusion of others. This is not to say there aren’t museums in the city that can shed some light on this, or that you won’t find any trace of the Ottoman legacy in this European capital. It does mean that you won’t see any on the Acropolis, and this “alternative history” will always be shown as less important in the overall scheme of the Greek story: a spot that it has been relegated to, but does not deserve.
Athanassopoulou, Effie K. 2002. An “Ancient” Landscape: European Ideals, Archaeology, and Nation Building in Early Modern Greece. In: Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol 20, pp. 273-305.
Artefacts from Mars and others from Venus: The Affect of Gender Roles in Conservation
This week’s conservation blog will continue to analyze factors that may affect the understanding of an artefact by exploring the significance of gender roles in a society. Gender roles are incredibly important to the organization of a civilization or culture because they help to define the customs that are upheld by a society. The customs of a culture influence the function and production of that culture’s artefacts. Therefore, through proper investigation, objects are able to reflect the gender roles of a society.
The job of a conservator can be extremely difficult at times because a conservator is required to be objective in the treatment of each and every artefact. This means the conservator cannot let his or her own cultural customs influence the way the artefact is documented and understood. There are many diverse cultures that have very different gender roles from those belonging to Western culture. Gender roles include not just female or male but also androgyne, a presence of both genders, as well as agender, neither male nor female. If a conservator does not take the gender roles belonging to the society that produced the artefact into account, the conservator may misinterpret the function of the object and this, in turn, could negatively affect the treatment used on the object.
The gender roles of the object’s owner can also affect the treatment of the artefact. Many cultures determine the significance of the object based on the standing of the object’s owner and therefore, it is extremely important that an artefact is treated in a way that respects the customs of the object’s culture. For example, if an artefact originally belonged to a woman and was primarily used by women, some cultures would prefer a woman conservator to work on the object even if her techniques may not be as proficient as her male colleague. This could severely affect the treatment of the artefact but the customs of the society should be respected. In order to remedy the solution, a different, more skillful female conservator could perform the conservation of the object.
Overall, gender roles can have a significant affect on the conservation of an object and conservators should not let it interfere with the wellbeing of the artefact. However, A conservator does need to recognize and respect the gender roles of the artefact’s society in order for that object to be fully understood and, consequently, displayed properly to the public.
The British Museum. (n.d.). Gender Identity. Retrieved 02 04, 2013, from British Museum: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/themes/same-sex_desire_and_gender/gender_identity.aspx
Skeletons in the Closet
A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community
“Handle with Care”
A conservator works with a variety of materials from metals, to paintings, to books, to ceramics, to textiles, but skeletal remains are in a category of their own. They can hold a variety of meanings to the various groups interacting with them. To scientists, they are a window into the past. They tell a story about how people moved across the landscape, interacted with the environment around them, and help trace diseases. For descendent communities, they tell the story of their ancestors and can carry the spirit of the deceased. The conservator is put in a very delicate position. Often there are several groups that may have extremely different stances on proper handling and care of human remains. Finding that middle ground and compromising with interested parties is one of the most challenging issues facing conservators. (Weiss 2008)
Some important rules for conservators when handling skeletal remains:
-Avoid invasive or destructive techniques. Invasive techniques can include pesticides, adhesives, consolidation, cleaning, screws, and wires. It is easy for conservators to think they are being helpful, but some of these can be extremely destructive. REVERSIBILITY should always be the goal.
-Documentation is crucial. Everything that is done to the remains should be properly documented.
-Finally, always handle the remains with the utmost care, as gently as possible. Conservators should be in a mental state, acknowledging they are handling the remains of conscious individuals. (Cassman, Odegaard, and Powell 2007).
Everyone can agree human remains are different than other artifacts and should be treated with respect. How that translates to the actual physical handling is a whole other matter. Conservators should be culturally conscience at all times. At the same time, conservators have to take into consideration their own knowledge of what is best for the long term treatment of remains, and the legal ramifications of their actions- a delicate dance on the ethical tightrope.
Cassman, Vicki, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell ed. 2007. Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. AltaMira Press. Lanham: 77-81.
Weiss, Elizabeth. 2008. Reburying the Past: The Effects of Repatriation and Reburial on Scientific Inquiry. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. New York: 49-83.
Preservation, Restoration, and the “Authentic” Meaning of Archaeological Material
A fundamental issue at the heart of heritage management is the debate between restoration, preservation, and the authenticity of objects from the past. This topic is broad and can be applied to a range of materials, so for the purpose of this discussion I will focus specifically on archaeological artifacts recovered during excavation. What happens to artifacts after they are brought up from the ground or from the sea floor, including where and how those artifacts are to be conserved and ultimately displayed for public use is an important facet of any research design. Once excavations have been completed, the archaeologist must work with conservators and curators to decide what to do with the recovered material. One problem these professionals must answer is whether or not to preserve the artifacts as they are or to restore them to what they might have originally been? This brings in questions of authenticity and what it means to be “authentic” when it comes to archaeological material?
To begin it is necessary to define preservation and restoration when it comes to cultural heritage. The office of the Secretary of the Interior defines the preservation of historic architecture as “the act or process of applying measures to sustain the existing form, integrity, and material of a building or structure…” (Murtagh 1997, 19). When applied to archaeological artifacts this definition essentially remains the same: to sustain the existing form of the object, as it was when recovered. However, it is often the case that historic sites or building are “restored” rather than preserved. This term indicates the recovery of the form and details of a site or artifact as it appeared at a particular period of time by either adding or removing earlier or later work done to the artifact throughout the course of its life (1997, 20). This would include such acts as the replacement of broken features on a recovered statue or ceramic. What links restoration and preservation is the desire for authenticity; for something to be real, or true. The “authentic” has been the focus of much debate for over 50 years among heritage managers around the world (Starn 2002). What exactly is authentic will vary person-to-person depending on the context of recovery, their personal background, and what the artifact might be.
As an archaeologist, however, it is important to recognize “the value of historical truth” (Muñoz Viñas 2005, 190). Whatever state the artifact is in at the moment it was recovered, whether it is damaged, broken, etc. is all a consequence of the life history of that artifact. Archaeologists are not generally concerned with the restoration of an artifact to anything approaching its original appearance because they can tell more about an object if it is worn, well used, and broken, than if it is in pristine condition (Rodgers 2004, 7). The historical evolution or process of events that culminated in the artifact appearing in a given way is illustrative of how that artifact was used, who used it, why they used it, and what values they placed on it. Restoration hides the true nature of an object, in fact, masking its authenticity and real historical value. Conservators often employ minimum intervention, where the conservation process “consists of the least amount of intervention required to achieve its goals” (Muñoz Viñas 2005, 189). This idea implies that conservators should essentially strive to freeze the artifact in its current state, therefore allowing the natural evolution of the artifact to come to the fore, rather than restoring it by utilizing modern interpretations of how the object might have been used. Ultimately what is important is the story of the artifact and the people that used it. By emphasizing preservation over restoration for archaeological material, archaeologists allow that story to come to life.
Muñoz Viñas, S. Contemporary Theory of Conservation. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.
Murtagh, W. 1997. The Language of Preservation. In Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons. 15-24.
Rodgers, B. 2004. Archaeologist’s Manual for Conservation : A Guide to Non-toxic, Minimal Intervention Artifact Stabilization. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Starn, R. Authenticity and Historic Preservation: Towards an Authentic History. History of the Human Sciences 15(1): 1-16.
Can’t Buy Me Love: Tourism Dollars, Cultural Property Management, and Activism
On my first trip to Paris, I decided to visit the catacombs. As a claustrophobe with a vivid imagination, the winding underground tunnels were challenging, but manageable. The careful stacks of remains displayed more macabre market appeal than educational interpretation, but they caused me no distress—until I watched a group of American tourists grab several human skulls. After playing around with the bones, one man nonchalantly dropped them to the ground. I do not know what appalled me more: the desecration of human remains or ancient history, but I ran for the exit, revolted.
Cultural heritage needs people. National parks, landmarks, and museums all compete for audiences, frantically trying to get people in their doors, vying against the magnetic pull that alternate entertainment sources assert on our society. Even when an individual opts to prioritize intellectual engagement over the mindless buzz of sitcom shows, museums still must compete for that person’s attention—after all, they can visit the Louvre online, watch a documentary from their computer, or download a book to read on their tablet. Even if they get off their couch, the museumgoer still has their pick of which venue to choose and which collection to support. In many ways, our museums, deposits of cultural heritage artifacts, are just like every other for-profit business: reliant on money, marketing, and superb collections to keep their doors open.
It remains also that the use of capitalistic formulas (more traffic=more money=successful museum) can also have disastrous consequences. The prioritization of public approval can influence which pieces are accessioned, lead to dramatized exhibits derailing academic integrity, and can endanger the artifacts themselves. As Caple succinctly states, “Those who care for historic buildings and artefacts have a love-hate relationship with visitors” (2003:22). The finances associated with visitor management are an inescapable reality for cultural heritage managers. There is yet another element, however, the primary reason for cultural heritage’s significance: its ability to teach people about their past.
If those tourists had been educated about the significance of the human beings who lined the Paris catacomb walls, would they have shown respect or interest, and thus acted like more civilized human beings? If education has the potential to improve the human condition, then we must consider conservation to be a form of activism. This concept conceivably strengthens the case for public education and outreach beyond its financial benefits, even when weighed against the evident threats that such interactions pose to artifacts. Perhaps that is why UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, denotes cultural heritage as a fundamental human right (UNESCO). We as conservators have an obligation to try, to the best of our abilities, to convey that heritage and preserve an object’s integrity, so that we might continue to educate the public—and just maybe, better our species in the process.
Caple, C., 2003, Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 22.
Logan, W., 2012, “Cultural Diversity, Cultural Heritage and Human Rights: Towards heritage management as human rights-based cultural practice.” International Journal of Heritage Studies. 18. no. 3, pp. 231-44.
Conservation Conversation: Heritage Sites and Identity, A Review of Theoretical Approaches
I recently read an intriguing article from 1994, written by Rghei and Nelson, entitled “The Conservation and use of the walled city of Triopli”. In this article, Rghei and Nelson argue that a change in a conservator’s theoretical perspective can help save heritage sites which are slowly decaying because of cultural change (in this example, Tripoli), and can also give structures a productive use-life in order to boost cultural connection to the site.
In the past, the Madina ofTripoli was the center of cultural events and had an incredible amount of historical and social significance. However, as Rghei and Nelson explain, businesses have recently shifted away from using heritage sites as event centers, and many structures have become part of low-income housing which do not have the resources to keep the site in repair. In fact, many of these historic areas do not have proper drainage or sewage; this has largely taken place since the wealthy have stopped patronizing cultural centers, and moved outwards to larger cities.
Rghei and Nelson explain that when North American and European historic sites are in danger of becoming isolated, policies are created to conserve and preserve historic areas. However, most sites in North America and Europe are truly saved by what Rghei and Nelson call a “culture-dependent approach”. This perspective sees heritage sites not as museum exhibits, but as actual living entities, which should be completely incorporated within a culture’s identity. Rghei and Nelson offer solutions to the “selective approaches” some traditional Islamic cities have taken, in which sites are seen as part of a distant past, not as an integral piece to present cultural affiliations. These solutions range from economic incentives to live and work in historic sites to efforts from the government to encourage conservation and conservation education.
I personally commend the culture-dependent approach, in which sites become more than just objects and a presentation of the past. I believe archaeological and historical sites in North America can be much more than just exhibits; they can be teaching tools, connections with the distinct cultures and social groups essential to American history, and as sites for future research questions. I think Rghei and Nelson were a bit premature in praising North America and Europe for using cultural heritage sites as more than exhibits, but recognizing the need for growth and development is not always negative. America should embrace the idea of truly interactive site-conservation, in which even subregions can find a deeper connection with the artifacts that form a major part of their identity.
Courtesy of Nader Al-Gadi
Rghei, Amer S. and J.G. Nelson. 1994. The Conservation and use of the walled city of Tripoli. The Geogrpahical Journal 160(2): 143-158
There is currently a deadlock between cultural heritage advocates and commercial entities in the field of maritime archaeology. This deadlock exists in response to the ethical problems relating to the means and motive behind treasure-hunting operations and commercial involvement. While this conflict obviously affects archaeological policies, it also extends to the field of conservation. As stewards of historical and cultural heritage, should conservators be expected to uphold the same ethical policies as archaeologists? Do the different objectives of these fields influence their ethical obligations? Is the responsibility of the conservator owed to the artifact at hand, or to the field in which they are assisting?
Over the last ten years, the field of maritime archaeology has struggled with the problem of treasure hunting and salvage. This problem has stemmed from unscientific excavation methods destroying archaeological evidence and commercial entities selling priceless artifacts to the highest bidder. As a public entity, museums have been the forefront of archaeological policies such as accession, exhibitions, and conservation. In the article “The Archaeology Bylaw and Associated Considerations,” Dr. Paul Johnston fervently stands up against the display of salvaged artifacts in maritime museums. He discusses the bylaw history, which resulted in the adoption of this ethical statement by the Council of American Maritime Museums,
“CAMM member institutions shall adhere to archaeological standards consistent with those of the American Association of Museums/International Congress Museums (AAM/ICOM), and shall not knowingly acquire or exhibit artifacts which have been stolen, illegally exported from their country of origin, illegally salvaged or removed from commercially exploited archaeological or historic sites” (Johnston, CAMM, The Archaeology Bylaw and Associated Considerations).
However, according to the American Institute for Conservation, “The primary goal of conservation professionals, individuals with extensive training and special expertise, is the preservation of cultural property.” This goal brings up an obvious question, should the primary concern of a conservator differ from that of an archaeologist? Personally, I am undecided on this issue. As cultural and historical stewards, archaeologists and conservators ought to be preserving the authenticity of the past. Is accurate stewardship possible when “tainted” or unethical artifacts are discounted? Is history only valid and acceptable when acquired through ethical means?
These questions are difficult to answer, which is why this controversial matter has yet to be resolved. However, the answer to unethical archaeology and conservation is not passively sitting by and ignoring the situation. All history should be recognized, recorded, and studied regardless of its nature, origin, or method of discovery. And as stewards of the past, we should do everything in our power to accomplish this.
Johnston, Paul. “CAMM, The Archaeology Bylaw and Associated Considerations.” CAMM Archaeology Committee. Date unknown.
“Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.” About AIC, accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.conservation-us.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewPage&pageID=858&nodeID=1
Conservation and Maritime Artifacts: Is It Worth It?
The conservation of maritime artifacts has become an increasingly important part of the growing field of Maritime Archaeology. Unlike terrestrial sites, maritime archaeological sites are usually much more dynamic and require additional consideration when attempting to conserve artifacts. When the field of Maritime Archaeology first began, the common archaeological method used was a complete excavation of the ship and all artifacts. This process left archaeologists and conservators the arduous duty of figuring out what to do with waterlogged artifacts. Artifacts that have been underwater have been exposed to currents, and in the case of oceanic sites, have been saturated with salts. Upon bringing these objects to the surface, the archaeologists and conservators have had to discover different ways of desalinating artifacts and gradually removing water so they do not shrink and crack upon drying. This potentially long and expensive process has still not been perfected, specifically for waterlogged wood.
Polyethylene glycol (PEG) has been the preferred method of conserving waterlogged wood, but now, conservators and archaeologists are beginning to find that PEG is not necessarily the best method of conservation. An expensive process, PEG soaking can take years of work in order to saturate the waterlogged wood, and recently, conservators have been noticing the limits of PEG, including microbial growth on the surface of PEG saturated wood have been discovered (Björdal and Nilsson, 2001). With the expense and difficulty of conserving and preserving waterlogged wood on land, archaeologists have begun to favor in situ preservation of maritime sites and artifacts. While this is a much less expensive and simpler alternative to full excavation, what does this mean for conservators and public outreach concerning maritime heritage?
One of the most well known instances of PEG in conservation is the conservation of Vasa in Sweden. It took conservators working on Vasa nineteen years to soak the ship in PEG and another nine years to dry the wood to prevent any shrinking or cracking. Despite this, the glycol still has not fully saturated the wood. This only adds to other issues with the conservation of Vasa, including the buildup of sulfur in the timbers (Hocker, 2010). Although this is an important part of Swedish maritime heritage, the cost of continued conservation continues to increase, as does the amount of effort it takes to preserve the ship. This brings up the question, is all of this work really worth it? This question truly addresses the core issue behind gaining more funding for conservation projects; is the result worth the cost and effort to conserve?
The hull of Vasa
Credit: Karolina Kristensen
Conservators at work on the Mary Rose have run into a similar issue. After years of soaking the ship in PEG and carefully regulating the relative humidity of its storage, sulfur is beginning to accumulate in the timbers of the warship (Damian, Fors, Jones, and Sandström, 2005). Conservators are fighting a continuing battle to discover the source of these sulfates and to discover ways to combat it for the conservation of this important piece of English maritime heritage.
The hull of Mary Rose
In situ preservation is beginning to be used more and more in place of excavating entire sites, but what does this do to museum collections? If objects are studied, recorded and left on the ocean floor, they are being preserved, but they remain out of reach of the public. Public outreach is a major topic in the field of maritime archaeology, but I believe that this topic must be addressed in the field of archaeological conservation, especially with the conservation of maritime artifacts. This type of preservation has a direct impact on the work of conservators and the idea of preserving the past for the public to see. With most artifacts remaining underwater, this leaves them out of reach to a majority of the public. So how does this effect conservation? How do you preserve cultural heritage for the public and gain public interest when the artifacts cannot be seen? Although this does not answer these questions, bringing them up as something that needs further discussion is an important part of the future of the conservation of maritime artifacts.
Björdal, C. G. and T. Nilsson. 2001. “Observations on Microbial Growth during Conservation Treatment of Waterlogged Archaeological Wood” In “Studies in Conservation”, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 211-220.
Damian, E., Fors, Y., Jones, M. and Sandström, M., 2005. “Sulfur Accumulation in the Timbers of King Henry VIII’s Warship Mary Rose: A Pathway in the Sulfur Cycle of Conservation Concern”. In: “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America”, Vol. 102, No. 40, pp. 14165-14170.
Hocker, E., 2010. “Maintaining a Stable Environment: “Vasa'”s New Climate-Control System”. In: “APT Bulletin”, Vol. 41, No. 2/3, pp. 3-9.
Kristensen, K., Swedish National Maritime Museums.
The Mary Rose Trust.
Customs and Conservation: Totem Poles
Western cultural ideals seem to favor the preservation and maintenance of material culture, yet other cultures may favor the natural decay or intentional destruction of certain types of cultural material as influenced by their own customs and traditions. Other aspects of material culture may not be able to be properly represented in a museum, as their significance seems to come from not only being preserved, but from being in a certain location. Some types of totem poles exemplify this positional significance. Totem poles are sculptures carved from trees, often by the people of indigenous North American cultures. There are different types of totem poles, each having their own significance. Some of these poles include house frontal poles, house portal poles, memorial poles, mortuary poles, and shame poles (Stewart 1993). Though preserving totem poles in museums certainly seems beneficial as it allows future generations to view and learn about important aspects of other cultures, there is a question of whether it can be considered worth the loss of the significance held by the actual location and intended use of the original totem pole.
One example of this sort of complication can be shown through the shame pole. The shame pole “was carved for a chief who wished to ridicule or shame another—often his rival” (Stewart 1993:25). The pole stood to bring attention to some long-standing unpaid debt or misdeed that was thought to be worthy of ridicule or scorn, and when restitution was made, the pole would be taken down (Stewart 1993). These poles are now thought to “exist only in museums” (Stewart 1993:25). Shame poles were not meant to stand forever, as they were taken down once the conflict was settled; so, is the preservation of a pole meant for this purpose necessarily ethical?
There seemingly are at least two different ways to answer such a question. No one solution appears to be necessarily better than another, but all viewpoints should be considered. It is important for future generations of other cultures to learn about this type of totem pole, and from this point of view, the preservation of shame poles seems to be beneficial and significant. Though, if the culture that initially created the shame pole does not think that it should still be standing, it could be more beneficial not to preserve the pole. It is always possible, however, that future generations of the culture that created the totem pole could want the shame poles to be preserved in order to have a link to their heritage. The preservation of objects that were not initially meant to be saved or maintained is a complex subject that requires extra consideration. If the totem poles are preserved in a setting such as a museum, the public, perhaps along with the people of the culture in question, are due additional explanation.
Stewart, Hilary. Looking at Totem Poles. Vancouver, British Columbia: Douglas & McIntyre, 1993.