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Unraveling a Mystery

March 23rd, 2015
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Unraveling a Mystery

 Kristi Brantley

The mystery of the Roanoke Island Lost Colony has fascinated people for the past 425 years. American school children are taught during elementary school that the only clue left by the colonists was the word “Croatoan” etched on a post. Numerous books and articles have been written and a visit to Manteo, North Carolina, will allow an opportunity to attend an outdoor play about the Lost Colonists and their disappearance.

In 1587 Sir Walter Raleigh sent a group of men, women, and children from England to the New World to create a colony. Led by John White, this group of people settled on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks. Governor John White returned to England for supplies, but was unable to rejoin the colony in a timely manner because of England’s war with Spain. He finally returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, but found that the colonists had disappeared. Unable to locate the colonists, he sailed back to England.

Recently new evidence, in the form of an old map, has been discovered. This evidence points to the relocation of the colonists to Bertie County, North Carolina, at the mouth of the Chowan River.

The history of the map is an interesting story in itself. Governor John White created a series of watercolors during his five voyages in the late sixteenth century that depicted the people, animals, plants, and maps of the New World. The purpose of these watercolors was to encourage financial support for colonization of the New World.   It is unknown what initially happened to this set, but in 1788 the Earl of Charlemont purchased seventy-five of White’s watercolors mounted in an album. In 1865, the Charlemont family decided to sell the collection through Sotheby’s in London. Unfortunately, a fire broke out in the warehouse next to the auction house and the collection incurred water damage. The damage did not deter potential buyers and the collection was sold to Henry Stevens.   Stevens had the watercolors rebound and then sold the collection to the British Museum in 1866. The collection still remains in the hands of British Museum (Ambers et al. 2012, 47.)

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“La Virginea Pars”, map of the east coast of North America (c. 1585-°©‐87) produced by the Elizabethan artist and gentleman, John White. (P&D 1906,0509.1.3), © Trustees of the British Museum

 

 

The British Museum’s website, britishmuseum.org, gives a fascinating history of this collection that includes conservation treatments and past exhibit locations. For instance, the collection was on loan to the North Carolina Museum of History in 1965, 1985, and 2007. Descriptions of conservation treatment that the watercolors received in 2003 are also summarized:

“Lifted from mount by slitting guards with a scalpel. Debris, adhesive and, where necessary old repairs, removed from edges of verso by applying a poultice of Culminal (nonionic cellulose ether), scraping with a Teflon spatula and swabbing with cotton wool moistened with tap water. Paper debris removed from recto with a scalpel. Tears repaired, skinned areas supported and losses infilled using Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. (Misaligned tear repositioned.) Infills retouched on recto using Winsor and Newton artist’s watercolours (organic,inorganic pigments,gum arabic). Humidified over capillary matting and Gore-Tex in a chamber. Pressed.”

Source: (http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=753203&partId=1 ).

During the conservation process of this collection, the conservators not only had to take into consideration the age of the collection, the material that was used in creating the watercolors, and the water damage from the 1865 fire, but also the “unknown” of the first two hundred years of its existence. These professionals could only guess at the possible scenarios that may have housed these watercolors during their first two centuries. These factors reinforced the reasoning behind using minimum intervention methods to conserve an artifact. Because of both the known and unknown deterioration factors, the conservators had to be careful not to use any methods that would further damage the pieces or prevent them from being analyzed by future scholars. It is because of the professionalism and education of previous conservators in treating White’s watercolors, that one of the pieces was able to be analyzed and possibly lead scholars to solving the mystery of the Lost Colony.

 

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A transmitted light image of the symbol underlying the northern patch on “La Virginea Pars” by John White, produced by lighting it from below. (P&D 1906,0509.1.3 (detail), © Trustees of the British Museum

The First Colony Foundation (FCF), an organization created in 2004 to research the Roanoke Colonies, has been working with the British Museum to study the John White watercolors. In 2012, University of North Carolina professor and FCF scholar, Brent Lane was examining the La Virginea Pars, one of John White’s maps.   White’s La Virginea Pars depicted the area from the Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout and had two patches adhered to it. Lane was curious about the area underneath the patches. Two conservators with the British Museum placed a light box under the map and it revealed some changes to the coastline and a distinct red and blue fort symbol. Using non-contact and non-destructive techniques, a team of conservators further examined the map. Microscopes, X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and Raman spectroscopy, determined that the spot under the second patch was the possible location of the Lost Colony (Ambers et al. 2012, 47.)

The 350th anniversary of the establishment of the Roanoke Colony was held on August 18, 1937, on Roanoke Island. President F.D. Roosevelt attended the celebration and made a prediction that “someday someone would find evidence of the Lost Colony’s fate” (LaVere, 265).  It is exciting to think that because of careful conservation practices of an old map, Roosevelt’s prediction, almost eighty years ago, may be realized during our generation.

 

References

Ambers, Janet, Joanna Russell, David Saunders, and Kim Sloan. 2012 “Hidden History?:

Examination of Two Patches on John White’s Map of ‘Virginia.’” The British Museum

Technical Research Bulletin. 6: 47-54.

 

British Museum Collection Database.  “1906,0509.1.3” www.britishmuseum.org/collection

British Museum. Accessed 18/02/2015.

 

Lane, Brent. 2012. “Hidden Images Revealed on Elizabethan Map of America.” First Colony

Foundation. Last modified May 3, 2012. http://www.firstcolonyfoundation.org/news/2012_white_map.aspx

 

LaVere, David. 2009. “ The 1937 Chowan River “Dare Stone”: A Re-evaluation.” North

Carolina Historical Review. 86 (3): 251-281.

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Conservation: Using Others Mistakes to Avoid Our Own

February 14th, 2013

Conservation: Using Others Mistakes to Avoid Our Own

Kate Clothier

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

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

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

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

 

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