Posts Tagged ‘archaeology’

A Brief Analysis of Conservation Disparities in Italian Heritage Sites

November 22nd, 2015
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A Brief Analysis of Conservation Disparities in Italian Heritage Sites

Mia S. Willis 

During the early hours of the morning on Saturday, November 6, 2010, the House of the Gladiators – a building thought to have been used to train men in gladiatorial fighting tactics – at the ancient city of Pompeii collapsed into rubble. The collapse of the structure came on the heels of accusations by field professionals that the Pompeii site was being mismanaged; Antonio Varone, the site’s director of excavations, claimed that the damage was caused by faulty restorations conducted in the 1950s which were compounded with the heavy rain in the area at the time. However, many site officials were of the belief that the lack of funding for excavation and conservation was to blame. Culture Minister Sandro Bondi released an indignant statement to address this claim, stating that “I stand by the work that has been done here”, and if there was evidence to support his responsibility for the collapse, he would gladly resign. He did survive a no-confidence vote against him based on accusations of neglect and mismanagement in January 2010, but resigned from his position in March of the same year (Belenky, 2010).

Decades of neglect have contributed to Pompeii’s disrepair; frescoes are marked with graffiti, plant life overtakes walls and permeates buildings, and many of the most famous attractions are marked “lavori in corso” – “work in progress”. Even the plaster casts of ancient Romans who were preserved by the hot ash and pumice of Mount Vesuvius are encased in filthy glass with rust legged platforms. While there are a multitude of factors that contributed to the House of Gladiators’ ultimate destruction, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to cut heritage funding was likely the spark which set the archaeological world ablaze. Between 2007 and 2009, the funds allotted to care for Italy’s cultural sites dropped from 30 million euros to 19 million, a deficit that the 20 million euros made in revenue cannot absorb without great strain on resources. This wide margin, however, does not appear to impact the procedures of Herculaneum, Pompeii’s sister Roman city that was also destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (Belenky, 2010).

In fact, in January of 2015, it was announced that a set of ancient scrolls incinerated in the eruption could be read and studied for the first time in almost 2,000 years due to a new X-ray technique. The documents were recovered 260 years ago in the ruins of a large domus believed to be that of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, who was consul of Rome in 15 BC. The scrolls were burned black by a surge of superheated gas during the eruption and, similarly to the collection found at Qumran, were initially presumed to be unreadable as any attempt to unroll the fragile papyri would cause irreparable damage.

However, due new advancements in imaging technology, the first lines of two previously indecipherable scrolls are being analyzed by scientists in Naples, Italy. The X-rays are reportedly so powerful that researchers were able to conduct handwriting analysis in order to discern its author, leading to the attribution of one of the scrolls to Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher at the time. The results of the process were detailed in scientific journal Nature. “It holds out the promise that many philosophical works form the library of the ‘Villa dei Papiri’, the contents of which have so far remained unknown, may in future be deciphered without damaging the papyrus in any way” (Jaggard, 2015).

The conservation disparities within the Italian material culture is driven by monetary gain. Herculaneum generates a larger amount of revenue for the Italian government, therefore securing the site’s access to resources and advancements in research within the archaeological community. Pompeii, however, is larger in surface area (40% of the remains at Pompeii have yet to be examined) and requires enormous sums of capital that it does not recuperate in crowd traffic. The site fell into disrepair because it was not as profitable for Italy as it was previously anticipated; in 2007, a state of emergency was declared for Pompeii, and two years of extra funds and special measures still did not return the site to its desired integrity. The cyclical nature of neglect in the prominent archaeological sites in Italy should be cause for concern all over the globe. As respected periodical Corriere della Sera stated in its editorial regarding the issues of Pompeii, “this archeological area, which is unique in the world, is unfortunately the symbol of all the sloppiness and inefficiencies of a country that has lost its good sense and has not managed to recover it” (October 2010).



Belenky, S. (2010, November 7). “Pompeii’s ‘House Of The Gladiators’ Collapses, Italy’s Government Accused Of Neglecting World Heritage Site”. Retrieved November 19, 2015.

Jaggard, V. (2015, January 20). “Ancient Scrolls Blackened by Vesuvius Are Readable at Last”. Retrieved November 19, 2015.

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What’s it Worth Part 3: Cultural Value

March 23rd, 2015
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What’s it Worth Part 3: Cultural Value

William Fleming

Last time, I discussed the monetary value of artifacts, and the various effects that particular number can have associated with it. While monetary value is typically the first (and often the only) concern when artifacts are considered for recovery or conservation, it is definitely not the only value that should be taken into account. Cultural value is another important aspect of an artifact’s worth, and one that can be quite complex.

The cultural value of an artifact is, as the name somewhat implies, the value placed on an artifact by a specific culture. Often times, this can be intertwined with the monetary value of the artifact, as artifacts bearing a greater significance to a society tend to be worth more money to that society or even others. Indeed, cultural value often mirrors the cyclical nature of monetary value, and is rather subjective. An excellent example of this can be seen in the tombs of Egypt. Built thousands of years ago during the reigns of the various pharaohs, the tombs contain artifacts of great significance. It was believed that the men and women buried within these tombs would require these items in the afterlife, and while some of the items may seem rather mundane (jars, plates, etc.) they would not have been chosen by the Egyptians if they were not culturally important. From that period, flash-forward to the nineteenth century and the birth of modern Egyptology, and the cultural value of these artifacts seems to have dwindled among the Egyptian people. However, their significance has greatly increased to foreign explorers, particularly the leading academics of British culture. During this time the artifacts, while displayed in the British Museum, were not only a symbol of ancient Egypt and the mystery it held to modern society, but they also served as a symbol of Britain’s heritage and colonial power (Tuan 1980). Now, if we jump forward again to the past few decades, we see a resurgence of the artifact’s importance to the Egyptian people. Egyptian leaders constantly call for artifacts to be returned to their country from the British Museum, such as the Rosetta Stone. This example holds true for many other countries, as well, not just Egypt; Greece, Nigeria, and China are among several other nations with claims to artifacts within the British Museum collection. It is clear, then, that cultural value can vary widely depending on the object and who claims its ownership, and that is why it often gets overlooked. It is much easier for a nation or society to place a price tag on an object, thereby creating an argument that they can afford to retain and conserve the artifact, while others cannot. Or, even worse, these countries can demand compensation or a fair value trade from other countries claiming ownership in order to hand it over (Henry 2013). Many of the claiming countries are under-developed or in dire economic straits and cannot “afford” the ransoms demanded (not to mention the ethical quagmire of overriding cultural value to make a profit).

Due to this generally capitalistic nature of society today, the notion of cultural value has essentially (and unfortunately) become impractical and outdated. It is important, however, that professional archaeologists and conservators continue to keep cultural value in mind when working with artifacts. Artifacts are the remaining vestiges of past civilizations and can tell us so much about the people and their values. When it comes down to preserving these artifacts, conservators must carefully decide which artifacts are worth their time and effort. Is a common household spoon, of which there are thousands of examples, worth conserving as opposed to a temple deity figurine, of which of a few are known? Both have cultural value, but to different degrees and regarding different information. In any event, conserving and studying an artifact is the best way to learn about a culture and share their values (Brumfiel 2003).



Brumfiel, E. M. 2003. “It’s A Material World: History, Artifacts, and Anthropology.” Annual review of Anthropology 32:205-223.

Henry, R., T. Otto, and M. Wood. 2013. “Ethnographic artifacts and value transformations.” Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(2):33-51.

Tuan, Y. 1980. “The Significance of the Artifact.” Geographical

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

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

Lori Kay Gross

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

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

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

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

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



Whale Bone Club 2


Wood and Whale Bone Fishing Hook

 Photos courtesy of


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

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

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


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


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


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


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Why Archaeologists need Conservators and Conservation Training

February 26th, 2015
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Why Archaeologists need Conservators and Conservation Training

Kathryn Parker

When an archaeologist designs a new field project, they juggle multiple needs and requirements: what is the research objective of the project and how will it be achieved, permitting, transportation, number of volunteers/students, number of staff and specialties and which staff members are needed at the field site. The list seems to go on into eternity. Perhaps one of the most overriding issues faced by all projects, whether purely academic in nature or the ubiquitous “Phase 1 survey” in advance of a construction project, is funding. As all projects have limited funding, all principle investigators (commonly referred to as PIs) must weigh the choices they make in terms of its importance:

  • After permitting, what money is left?
  • How much of this should be used to bring various staff members to the field site and which staff members should only be hired on in a laboratory facility?
  • Can more workers be hired or more students brought in order to excavate a larger area or does the project need to stay smaller?
  • How deep should excavation go and what equipment will be used for this?

One issue that many archaeologists likely consider but may quickly place at the “bottom” of their priorities is the hiring of a conservator. While no archaeologist wants their artifacts to degrade, go unrepaired, or even uncleaned, there are many aspects that they may think make a conservator out of their reach.

The main issue is frequently cost, and many PIs may assume that hiring a trained conservator is out of their reach. While as Siguroardottir (2006) notes that some countries require that a conservator be, at minimum, consulted with, this is not the case in around the world. As a result, many archaeologists must train themselves “on the fly,” when they make a remarkable find, or alternatively call a conservator in a frenzy of excitement and worry. To add to this, few archaeologists receive training in even basic conservation principles. Of twenty-two universities in England and Scandinavia contacted by Siguroardottir (2006), four offered courses in collections, and eight in field conservation techniques. Only one offered a full “unit” at the undergraduate level, another at the postgraduate level, and another offered field conservation as part of a unit at the postgraduate level. Many archaeologists begin professional work after their undergraduate degrees are completed, and may still never learn basic conservation if they continue on to postgraduate work, making this lack of training all the more problematic. The expansion of this training will be slow even if professional organizations such as the American Institute for Conservation were to get behind it with full support, though this expansion is obviously needed. Pearson (1980) was calling for this expansion three decades ago as an essential aspect of training for maritime archaeologists. Despite this, expansion of training has obviously not gone at a rate at which would make this training accessible. As such, archaeologists should at least attempt to consult with a conservator about the expected finds of a site so as to know the possible costs involved of conserving important artifacts.

However, as all archaeologists know, something unplanned always occurs in the course fieldwork. If working at a new site, the PI may have an idea of what artifacts will be found, but with no previous excavation they have a range of possible artifacts to expect. If working at previously documented site, the PI may have anywhere from in depth knowledge of previously excavated artifacts to knowledge only of the location of the site and the estimated time period based on limited finds. This abundance or lack of information can make it difficult to determine the significance of site, or just part of a site, and what might be found in the course of the project. Even sites that we think we know all basic information about can throw a curveball. Unexpected finds can range due to the discovery of a midden full of ritual artifacts to a well-preserved wicker basket in waterlogged site. Through discussion with a trained conservator, the archaeologist can discuss the significance of the item, particularly in the manner that Nason (1987) describes. This can help both the archaeologist and conservator to know which objects are most in need of conservation, and which should have priority. While a rare, ritually important goblet may be fascinating and fit into Nason’s (1987) “inherent significance” (49), wherein the object has an inherent value due to its rarity or raw material, a woven basket of a frequently found type may take priority in its need for conservation, particularly if it is in especially good state of preservation or if other examples have decayed past the point that a conservator could preserve the artifact. Through discussion with the conservator, the archaeologist can prioritize items and the conservator can make known which artifacts would need more intensive treatment, even if its significance is not as intellectually stimulating as another. This process can help to prioritize the funds available for the conservation of the artifacts.

Of course, the best option would be to hire a conservator that comes to the field site for the duration of the project. However, due not only to limited funding, but to the limited number of conservators in the world, this is not possible at all times. Though conservation of an object as soon as it is excavated would be the best option, this is not always possible either. As such, as mentioned before, archaeologists should receive basic training in conservation; particularly how to handle artifacts as they are excavated and how to transport them back to the field house, storage site, or lab. This first step is something that could be taught to trained archaeologists in a seminar setting, either face-to-face with hands on examples, or simply a webinar with visual examples. This would help to ensure that archaeologists can properly store their excavated artifacts, rather than watching them degrade due to preventable causes.

Artifacts found during excavation present archaeologists with intellectual, technical, and financial problems. But with a little extra training, archaeologists can be part of the solution to the preservation of cultural heritage.



Nason, J., 1987. “The Determination of Significance.” In Material Anthropology, pp. 47-51.


Siguroardottir, K., 2006. “Challenges in Conserving Archaeological Collections.” In Of the Past, for the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, Proceedings of the Conservation Theme at the 5th World Archaeological Congress, Washington, D.C., 22-26 June 2003, edited by Neville Agnew and Janet Bridgland. Getty Conservation Institute Symposium Proceedings Series. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute. 220-223


Pearson, C. 1980. “Conservation and maritime archaeology.” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, 9(2): 147-150.


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Conservation Among the Stars: In Situ Extraterrestrial Conservation

February 26th, 2015
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Conservation Among the Stars: In Situ Extraterrestrial Conservation

Ian Hazel

            Space has been famously referred to as the final frontier; the last realm of human exploration. However, while in many ways human forays into space are only in their fledgling form, it is time to begin considering the ramifications that must come from the preservation of early space exploration materials. In some cases, these objects have returned to Earth either under human power or via gravity — the Apollo command modules are an excellent example. They have historical and archaeological relevance, are clear museum pieces, and hold substantial interest for academics and the populace alike. With that in mind, there are considerable resources still in space or on other planets that deserve consideration for conservation (Space Archaeology 2015). Some archaeologists have started to call for this form of conservation, but it is still a burgeoning field of interest (David 2013).

There are currently two possible relevant areas of human-made space artifacts. The first is terrestrial archaeology on other worlds. These sites would include the Apollo lunar landing craft and the Mars rovers. The other artifacts encompass those currently adrift in space, such as the Voyager craft — one of which has likely passed the heliopause and has concordantly left the solar system. Positing that these constructs may someday be reached, they are important artifacts in the most modern form of human exploration, and thus would merit conservation for the future generations of humanity. While there are artifacts that may come from non-human sources and many have advocated for searching for those, that is not the focus of this blog post (Freitas 1983).

It is also important to consider the methodology of conservation for these valuable artifacts. Some are likely to remain in situ, similar to the explorers’ huts in Antarctica. This will allow retention of the historical value of the site while avoiding disrupting the environment that it is in. Some artifacts, however, mostly encompassing the items currently in orbit or floating progressively farther away from Earth, cannot be conserved in situ. If they remain in their current environs, they are on a trajectory toward eventual destruction, probably collision with an object of not-insignificant mass, such as a planet or sun. Thus, any attempt to conserve such objects must involve removing them from their current environment and placing them into a new one. This is unlikely to be a destructive act, but it would require committing significant resources to hauling artifacts back to Earth or some other terrestrial environment for conservation. In some cases, this might require trained conservators to be part of the retrieval crew, which would necessitate their instruction as astronauts. Such training takes years in each field, and would commit considerable resources to be qualified in both areas. The proposition of conserving space resources that are not terrestrial is a ludicrously expensive venture.

Extraterrestrial conservation is certainly cost-prohibitive at this point, and entirely unfeasible as humans have not been on the moon since 1972, nor on any other extraterrestrial body at any point. The issue, however, is almost certain to come up at some point, and is such a difficult task that conservators and archaeologists should begin thinking about what actions to take.



David, Leonard

2013     Space Archaeologists Call for Preserving Off-Earth Artifacts,, <> Accessed 3 February 2015.


Freitas, Robert A.

1983     The Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts (SETA), The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 36:501-506 <> Accessed 3 February 2015.


Space Archaeology

2015   Space Archaeology, “our future is in ruins,” <> Accessed 3 February 2015.

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Conservation and Indigenous Peoples

February 26th, 2015
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Conservation and Indigenous Peoples

Kate Thomas


The 1991 passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act put in motion a way for archaeologists and native peoples to deal with the ownership of native artifacts. This had been a decades long battle, with the disenfranchised Native Americans desiring input into their own history, and archaeologists arguing that this was information for everyone. The politics of being an archaeologist dealing with indigenous groups have been a longstanding debate, but what about being a conservator for indigenous groups? Do conservators offer a side that archaeologists alone cannot?

The major criticism of archaeology by indigenous peoples, at least in the United States, has been that archaeologists tend to view their methodology as the ‘truth’ and ignore the input of Native histories (Deloria Jr. 1969). This, along with Red Power movement and the justified criticisms of the American government’s policy towards Native Americans led to the creation of NAGPRA. This law has allowed for legal proceedings regarding the repatriation of Native artifacts, the most famous of which has been Kennewick Man (Bruning 2006). Although legal battles have been heated, a large section of archaeology’s response is to embrace NAGPRA and attempt to change the archaeological process. This is even truer for the archaeologists who started studying archaeology after the implementation of NAGPRA, as for us it is not a change but rather the norm. An example of this is in Janet Spector’s “What this Awl Means” in which she involves the local community of indigenous peoples in order to better understand awls at a Dakota site in Minnesota (Spector 1993).

NAGPRA, and the debates preceding and proceeding it, is focused mainly on archaeology. However, conservation is a vital portion of this discussion. One of the major portions of NAGPRA is that all federally funded depositories had to inventory and repatriate human and cultural remains to the appropriate federally recognized tribe. Some of these item have already been conserved, could have been in the process of being conserved, or need to be conserved. The other portion of the law is that archaeological excavations must be approved and overseen by a tribal member, often times the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer or THPO. The tribe can then choose to repatriate their cultural items if they so desire. In both instances conservators are not mentioned directly in the law, but can be involved in the process.

If archaeologists can work with indigenous groups to interpret material remains, conservators should have an ethical duty to work with indigenous groups to ensure their cultural heritage is not destroyed. Archaeology has had to change its focus to being advocates for the disenfranchised, and conservators should follow suit. This, however, brings in another set of problems. The major criticisms of the involvement of archaeologists in native heritage has been overriding native input and the disturbance of Native American artifacts. This holds true for conservators as well. At the Arizona State Museum, conservators have been dealing with NAGPRA compliance in relation to their pottery collection. Their methodology has included consulting tribal representatives for every aspect of conservation, from treatments to the artifacts to artifact storage (Moreno et al 2009). This has been an ongoing process, and could provide a model for conservators to work with indigenous peoples towards the conservation of their cultural heritage.

Archaeologists and conservators alike often speak of the power of holding a tangible connection to the past in your own hands. Preventing the destruction of indigenous artifacts is beneficial to the community in this way. Perhaps even more importantly, having tangible historical evidence is an important tool in the battle for public recognition. Too often historical erasure is an important tool in subjugation and disenfranchisement, and conservation holds a unique position to prevent this from happening.




Bruning, Susan B. 2006 Complex Legal Legacies: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Scientific Study, and Kennewick Man. Society for American Archaeology 71(3): 501-521

Deloria Jr., Vine 1969 Custer Died for Your Sins. New York, New York: MacMillian

Moreno, Teresa Chris White, Alyce Sadongei, and Nancy Odegaard. 2009 Integration of Tribal Consulations to Help Facilitate Conservation and Collections Management at the Arizona State Museum. The SAA Archaeological Record 9(2): 36-40.

Spector, Janet D. 1993 What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press




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“What is eating the Titanic?”

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

James Kinsella

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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Archaeology and Conservation, An Uphill Battle Against Human Nature

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

Will Creech

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



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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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



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


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

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

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








Works Cited


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



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



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



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Public Conservation

February 4th, 2015

Public Conservation

Kate Thomas

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

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

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

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

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




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



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


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


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

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Ethics in Conservation and Archaeology

February 4th, 2015

Ethics in Conservation and Archaeology

Kathryn Parker

 Ethics, a concept of recommending right and wrong, is essential to all fields of study. In the United States, a standardized set of ethics has been published for both conservators and archaeologists by their respective professional bodies (American Institute of Conservation and Society for American Archaeology). While Conservation in the United States began with an archaeologist, few American archaeologists have worked frequently with conservators. As a student of both fields, it is important to understand where the two codes are similar and different.

From the start, there is a difference in the length of both: the Principles of Archaeological Ethics adopted in 1996 by the SAA Executive Board has eight Principals, while the Code of Ethics published by AIC in May 1994, has thirteen codes. However, do these ethics significantly diverge?

In short, the answer is no. The SAA’s first principal, Stewardship, underlies multiple of the AIC’s codes, and the SAA’s Stewardship principle even calls for “long-term conservation and protection of the archaeological record” (Society for American Archaeology 1996). This principle of Stewardship can be seen in II, III, and IV. Code II calls for an “an informed respect for the cultural property, its unique character and significance, and the people or person who created it,” code III calls for conservators to recognize society’s right to the use of the cultural heritage, but for conservators to also advocate for the preservation of cultural property, and code four calls for practice within “personal competence and education” (American Institute for Conservation 1994). The Principle of Stewardship also calls for archaeologists to advocate for the archaeological record, the use of specialized knowledge, and long term preservation.

Principal No. 4 of the SAA Principles of Ethics, and Code IX of AIC’s Code of Ethics. This places an emphasis on educating the public about modern methods of archaeology and conservation, but also staying in contact with the “owners” of the cultural property or heritage, whether that be the general public, the owner a of specific artifact, the owner of a farm which contains an important site, the Native American tribe that can be traced back to the archaeological site, or any other entity. Activities can also extend to “promoting awareness” (American Institute for Conservation 1994).This could be as simple as an educational talk open to the public, to a blog post about conserving a Civil War-era rifle.

The SAA’s Principle No. 6 overlaps with AIC’s Code VII, as both call for documentation of the process undertaken by the professional. However, while the SAA Principles explicitly call for publication of these records in “an accessible form,” the AIC Code does not go this far. AIC’s Code X could be interpreted to also overlap her, as it calls for contribution “to the evolution and growth of the profession…adding to the profession’s written body of knowledge…” (American Institute for Conservation 1994). Additionally, the SAA calls for the publication to be available to “as wide a range of interested publics as possible” (Society for American Archaeology 1996), though how this is to be done and how often it is fully followed through on continues to be hotly debated. The SAA’s Principal No. 7 also overlaps here, as it calls for the recording of the archaeological record, and for other students and professionals of the field to make use of it. This also allows future archaeologists to know what has already occurred at a site, just as documentation of the process undertaken by the conservator is preserved for a future conservator, should the need arise for more preservation of the object.

Both professional organizations also call for education and training of their members, Principle No. 8 and Codes I, IV, X, XI. This calls for the members to assure not only that they have proper, up-to-date education on methods, techniques, and the science of the field. The SAA also explicitly calls for “other support necessary to conduct any program of research,” often interpreted as calling for archaeologists to hire the correct professional for the job (such as a zooarcaheologist, bioarchaeologists, or conservator). While the AIC implies this with multiple statements telling their members to practice within “professional competence,” it does not say to hire someone else.

There are additional Codes put forth by AIC not found in the SAA’s Principles. This is due to the nature of the professions. Conservators must work with many different groups of people in multiple facets, as well as with other conservators. Additionally, conservators do work with dangerous chemicals, and Code XII calls for a minimization of “personal risks and hazards to co-workers, the public, and the environment” (American Institute for Conservation 1994). Code IX also states in very clear language how to conduct professional relationships, something not found in the SAA’s Principles. Code V from the AIC also deals with the realities of conservators being hired by anyone, be they a woman trying to preserve her grandmothers wedding dress to a museum in charge of the preservation of a thousand piece shoe collection. As such, Code V calls for the quality of a conservators work to not change with the amount of resources provided by those who hired the professional.

These published ethics guide both professions today. While extremely similar documents, they both have some ethics that are particular to their profession, especially conservation. Of all the declared codes and principles, it is helpfully to remember that the concept of stewardship can be seen to underlie the majority, if not all, of the ethics. As professionals who work in close contact with cultural heritage it is important to remember this, and to always take this into account when beginning a new research program or conservation process. As Hamilakis (2009) notes, all archaeologists must critical of their own cultures history and how they define “archaeological material” past.




American Institute for Conservation

1992 Code of Ethics. Electronic Document,, accessed January 20, 2015.


Hamilakis, Yannis

2009 The “War on Terror” and the Military-Arcaheology Complex: Iraq, Ethics, and Neo-Colonism. Arcaehologies 5:1):36-65


Society for American Archaeology

1996 Principles of Archaeological Ethics. Electronic Document,, accessed January 20, 2015.


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Field Conservation Methods and the Impact on Organic Residue Analysis

April 3rd, 2014

Field Conservation Methods and the Impact on Organic Residue Analysis

 Sophia Carman

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

Image 1

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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Considerations in Conserving Wooden Ships

April 3rd, 2014

Considerations in Conserving Wooden Ships

Michell Gilman

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology

February 19th, 2014

Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology

 Alex Garcia-Putnam

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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


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Challenges of Human Skeletal Remains

February 12th, 2014

Challenges of Human Skeletal Remains

 Allison Miller

The study and care of human skeletal remains continues to provide challenges to archaeologists and conservators, as the cultural implications of the remains often supersede their scientific implications. Many of the cultural and legal aspects of working with skeletal remains, however, can be mitigated if archaeologists and conservators remain vigilant about treating the remains of the individuals and their potential ancestors with the proper respect. While certain laws, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), exist to prevent the study of remains in deference to religious and cultural beliefs, they do not broadly hinder the study of human remains, as there continue to be many other remains to be examined. Conservators working with human remains should both be knowledgeable about conservation of bones and be concerned with the remains as a person.

Though the conservation of skeletal remains often lies outside of the scope of study of conservators, they are regularly called upon to assist in the best care of such remains (McGowan and LaRoche 1996). Considering the regularity with which conservators are asked to assist in the care of skeletal remains, it is prudent that dissemination of information on proper care practices for bones be provided through educational courses and publication of studies. “The treatment of human remains is an evolving topic, subject to updated and revised philosophies” (McGowan and LaRoche 1996:112), of which publication would help conservators keep abreast of the most current care practices. Though it is as true as with any other material, no one practice would prove best for all situations, knowledge of the variety of treatments and storage available would provide conservators with the greatest ability to continue the preservation of the remains.

In handling skeletal remains, their dual scientific and cultural value must be remembered at all times. Archaeologists and conservators must remember not to separate themselves from the remains they are handling; they must always remember that those remains were once, too, a whole person, an individual, with a personality and a life story. The cultural background of the individual should also be remembered, as it can provide a basis for the treatment and storage options that are most culturally acceptable; sometimes reburial may even be best practice. Care for individuals whose identity and therefore cultural background is unknown, though case dependent, should often include reburial in a condition relatively unaltered from first recovery (Ubelaker and Grant 1989).

Proper storage is likely to be the primary concern of conservators working with skeletal remains, as many conservation techniques used elsewhere may prevent further study of the remains. This study is often fraught with complications, as well, since they can damage the physical characteristics of the bone, though new, less invasive methods are being developed (Bolnick et al. 2012). Too often, bones are improperly stored at the excavation site, which then becomes long-term storage. Sound conservation practices should ensure that skeletal remains are properly stored in acid-free materials with environmental controls and correct cataloging of the remains. “The proper storage and treatment of human remains serve the interests of both an engaged descendant community and the scientific community” (McGowan and LaRoche 1996:116).

Working with human remains can be a sensitive subject, as it highlights many spiritual and philosophical belief systems. Concern for the proper scientific analyses and conservation practices of skeletal remains can communicate the respect shown for the individuals and help allay the concerns of descendant cultures.



Bolnick, Deborah A., Holly M. Bonine, Jaime Mata-Miguez, Brian M. Kemp, Meradeth H. Snow, and Steven A. LeBlanc, 2012, Nondestructive sampling of human skeletal remains yields ancient nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 147(2):293—300.

McGowan, Gary S. and Cheryl T. LaRoche, 1996, The Ethical Dilemma Facing Conservation: Care and Treatment of Human Skeletal Remains and Mortuary Objects. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35(2):109—121.

Ubelaker, Douglas H. and Lauryn Guttenlan Grant, 1989, Human Skeletal Remains: Preservation or Reburial? Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 32:249—287.

Ethics and Theory , , , , , , ,

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

February 12th, 2014

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

Michell Gilman

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

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

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

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

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



Archaeological Conservation, General Conservation, Museum Studies , , , ,

Preservation at Pompeii

February 6th, 2014

Preservation at Pompeii

Sophia Carman

Image 1

Image 1: Map of the Bay of Naples, Italy. Image from:

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

Image 2: Archaeological plan of Pompeii. Image from:

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

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.



Bruschini, Stefano

1991 Imaging Pompeii. In Archaeology. 44(2):32-35.

Slayman, Andrew L.

1997 Picking Up the Pieces. In Archaeology. 50(6):34-36.


General Conservation, Public Outreach , , ,

An Ode to Fieldwork

August 26th, 2013

An Ode to Fieldwork

Taryn Ricciardelli

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


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

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


 Photograph 2. The Mediterranean as seen from Ashqelon

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

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

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


Photograph 4. The Negev Desert

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


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


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

Archaeological Conservation , , , , ,

Preservation in Israel-Summer Abroad

August 12th, 2013

Preservation in Israel-Summer Abroad

Chelsea Freeland        

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.

Untitle d 1

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?

 Untitled 2

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.”

 Untitled 3

Caesarea Harbor.

(Photo by author)

General Conservation , , ,

Conservation Conversation: Conservation Within the Discipline of Anthropology

February 4th, 2013

Conservation Conversation: Conservation Within the Discipline of Anthropology

Taryn Ricciardelli

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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

Archaeological Conservation, Ethics and Theory ,

Is Conservation its own field or a subfield of Archaeology?

February 4th, 2013

Is Conservation its own field or a subfield of Archaeology?

Hannah Piner 

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

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

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

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

Archaeological Conservation ,

The Appreciation of an Artefact and the Different Lenses of Value

January 30th, 2013

The Appreciation of an Artefact and the Different Lenses of Value

Kelci Martinsen

               When working with material culture, it is important to consider the various values that can be placed on artefacts, both by professionals and the public. The meaning an artefact has to someone can be based on many different factors including the object’s economic value, historical value, and artistic value. The value of an object is very subjective and one object is able to have many different meanings to various people. Professionals such as archaeologists and conservators strive to understand the importance an artefact had to a culture. But, conservators and archaeologists often need to balance their own values that they place on an object with the cultural reasons for valuing the same object.

               The public and professionals that work with artefacts, such as conservators and archaeologists, tend to value objects in different ways. The public is more likely to place an emotional value on an artefact than a conservator. Emotional values are based on sentiment and memories and objects that are given an emotional value evoke feelings from the viewer. An heirloom is an example of an object with emotional value. Those members of the public that decide to have an artefact conserved based on the object’s emotional value are often attempting to protect their own cultural history.  In contrast, as Elizabeth Pye (2000) in Caring for the Past, suggests, conservators often value objects for their material heritage which includes historic values, artistic values, scientific values, cultural values as well as values based on condition. Conservators also value an object based on the artefact’s authenticity. The authenticity of an object is very important because it determines whether an object is able to be used to make conclusions about the culture that produced the artefact. Art conservators value an artefact for the skills and techniques that were used to produce an object. Finally, archaeologists and conservators also base their appreciation of an object on its age and rarity and both of these factors can be used later to determine which artefacts are placed on display in museums.

                Additionally, artefacts are appreciated for their worth by both the public and conservators. Although, these separate groups focus on an object’s economic value for very different reasons. The public appreciates an artefact’s economic value for the sheer monetary worth of the object as well as the status that comes with owning an expensive artifact. However, archaeologists and conservators often deem the economic value of an artifact necessary in order to obtain insurance for the object. The public also determines the worth of an object based on the artefact’s utility.  Those artefacts that are no longer useful lose their value to a member of the public. In contrast, conservators and archaeologists often value objects that have been disposed of and therefore, do not base their appreciation of an object on its use.

                Most often, the interpretation of value is translated though exhibition and display of the material culture. Artefacts, which represent aspects that were valued by the culture of origin, should be selected for display. If a professional were to choose an object based on his or her own valuation system, the display would not properly educate the public.  Professionals need to extremely careful when displaying artefacts because when an artefact is displayed improperly, the public develops incorrect assumptions about the artefact’s culture.

References Cited

Pye, E. (2000). Caring for the Past: Issues in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums. London: Maney Publishing.

Ethics and Theory , , , ,

Skeletons in the Closet

January 30th, 2013

Skeletons in the Closet:

A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community

Eva Falls

I was shocked that when I visited the AIC (American Institute for Conservation) website’s ethics page, there was hardly any mention of the complex and sensitive concerns that surround the treatment of human remains.  Just a call for conservators to obey applicable laws:

“The conservation professional should be cognizant of laws and regulations that may have a bearing on professional activity. Among these laws and regulations are those concerning the rights of artists and their estates, occupational health and safety, sacred and religious material, excavated objects, endangered species, human remains, and stolen property.” (AIC 1994)

This four part series will discuss the conservator’s role in the treatment and storage of human remains in museum and archaeological settings, as well as the ethical implications.  This is also a call for the AIC to use stronger language and address the treatment of human remains specifically in their code of ethics.

“Laying Down the Law”

             In order to discuss how conservators should approach human remains in accordance with the AIC’s code of ethics, it is important to be aware of the laws and regulations already in place in the United States.  The most influential piece of legislation that has affected the treatment of human remains would have to be NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) that was passed in 1990 (McGowan and LaRoche 1996).  This law was passed in response to Native American activist groups that demanded the return of their ancestors’ remains that were being stored in universities and museums across the country.  NAGPRA forces these institutions to catalog their collections and determine whether they are affiliated with a recognized tribe (Owsley and Jantz 2001).  That tribe can then determine the fate of the remains, most choosing reburial.

            This law was initially met with serious criticism by some members of the academic community, especially physical anthropologists that believed they were being robbed of valuable research.  It has politicized osteology and led to lengthy and expensive court battles (Rose et al. 1996).  The law does not protect African American cemeteries and other minority groups, nor does it protect Native American groups that have not been federally recognized (McGowan and LaRoche 1996).  Sometimes anthropologists cannot determine the tribal affiliation in cases such as Kennewick Man where the remains are extremely old.  This can and has led to contentious court battles over these remains (Owsley and Jantz 2001).

            Of course, this law has not actually led to the end of the world in the academic community.  NAGPRA has had some positive results and contributions.  It has provided funding and jobs for physical anthropologists to analyze collections, as well as funding for better storage facilities. Collections that have not been looked at in decades are now being closely examined using new techniques.  It has actually led collaboration and a new level of trust between academia and many Native American groups.  Anthropologists now have access to oral traditions, and Native Americans are participating in more archaeological projects than ever before. (Rose et al. 1996)

           Of course, the big question is: what has this to do with conservation?  Conservators should be assisting archaeologists and physical anthropologists in determining the proper care, handling, and storage of human remains as ethically as possible (which I will visit in the next installment).  They can add their expertise to the interdisciplinary teams that work with human remains in collections across the country.  Conservators can be advocates for the remains themselves.


Works Cited

AIC. 1994. Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.\ColdFusion9\verity\Data\dummy.txt. (Accessed 01/21/2013).

McGowan, Gary S. and Cheryl J. LaRoche. 1996. The Ethical Dilemma Facing Conservation: Care and Treatment of Human Skeletal Remains and Mortuary Objects. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35(2): 109-121.

Owsley, Douglas W. and Richard L. Jantz. 2001. Archaeological Politics and Public Interest in Paleoamerican Studies: Lessons from Gordon Creek and Kennewick Man. American Antiquity 66(4):565-575.

Rose, Jerome C., Thomas J. Green, and Victoria D. Green. 1996. NAGPRA:  Osteology and the Repatriation of Skeletons. Annual Review of Anthropology 25: 81-103.


Ethics and Theory , , , , , , ,

Question of Salvaged Artifacts

January 30th, 2013

Question of Salvaged Artifacts

Sara Kerfoot 

            The first mention of salvagers in a room full of conservators and archaeologists is sure to bring scowls due to their unethical methods of excavating archaeological sites. Salvagers destroy the context, integrity, and potential that an artifact has to offer to trained professionals; they are more persuaded by what an artifact’s monetary value is on the market than an artifact’s potential to tell about the past. The academic world shuns talk of salvagers in hopes of stamping out the potential allure to budding academics. This piece in no way condones what salvagers do. The reality of the situation is that they destroy numerous sites in search for a couple high profile artifacts; however, they are still part of a site’s history.

            On occasion, salvagers donate a collection to a museum. Some museums reject the offer, while others take the items and put them in museum storage facilities to collect dust. Charlotte Andrews is a museum curator in Bermuda and advocates for collaboration between archaeologists and salvage divers (Andrews 2007). Salvagers in Bermuda are attempting to get rich off Bermuda’s cultural heritage. Museum curators are trying to display a site’s story for the public. These two groups have opposite goals, though there is an opportunity for them to work together for the public and site’s interest. If salvagers choose to donate their collection to a museum, the museum should consider it an opportunity to educate the public (Andrews 2007). Salvagers should be prepared to tell curators and conservators everything they know about the collection donated and curators should do their best in compiling a display of the salvaged items to be viewed close to, but separate from the artifacts ethically recovered by archaeologists.             Salvagers have a chance to share part of a site’s history and the museum has an opportunity to make the salvaged items be viewed separately from the ethically recovered artifacts. In the salvage display, there is ample opportunity to explain how salvaged items are part of a site’s history but can never be as telling as artifacts found in context. The exhibit may go on to explain how information found from salvaged artifacts can only be speculative because a complete record was not obtained while it was first being excavated. Curators can go on to explain how in order to find “tantalizing” artifacts, salvagers destroy numerous sites in the process. This is the perfect way to explain that salvaging is destructive to impressionable children while still allowing all parts of a site’s history to be seen.

            Salvaging is an unfortunate part of many site’s history and while it is considered a “dirty” word by professional archaeologists, that does not mean it should be ignored. Museums come in contact with salvaged collections; since public outreach is goal of museums, they should take salvaged collections as an opportunity to educate the public. Salvagers and archaeologists have occasionally excavated on the same sites. The site’s collections should be divided between ethically recovered and salvaged artifacts. If the public can understand why archaeologists and conservators view salvaging as taboo, maybe then salvagers will lose their public support.


 Andrews, C., 2007. Tricky Listening: Museological Inclusion of Archaeologically Alternate Identities relating to Bermuda’s Underwater Cultural Heritage. In: Museological Review 12, pp.17-43.


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Context in Conservation

January 30th, 2013

Context in Conservation

Hannah Smith

            In a world with changing views of the past, ownership, and best practices for the preservation and conservation of archaeological artifacts, conservation has been facing new challenges regarding how to handle the conservation of objects belonging to indigenous groups. With a greater interest in and cooperation with indigenous groups in the United States and elsewhere, museums and conservators are faced with new and different requests. These include repatriation, loans for continued use, and culturally sensitive storage and display in museums (Clavir 1996). In some countries, access to objects is restricted based upon ceremonial beliefs. There are also photography bans within some exhibits to show respect for the culture that created the objects. Similar trends are appearing within the field of conservation. As a result, it is necessary to balance the wishes of the group that created the object with the professional and ethical concerns of today’s conservators.

            There are several ways that conservators can work with indigenous groups to create treatments that serve the needs of the object’s cultural source, the needs of the institution that is housing the object, and the needs of the object itself. When working with indigenous groups, the values of all involved are important. At times, however, the values of the originating culture can conflict with the values espoused by conservation (Clavir 1996). Navigating these differences requires open communication. Therefore, consulting with the group that created the object allows for the needs of all involved to be addressed as completely as possible. This consultation occurs at the beginning of the conservation process in New Zealand, and it would be beneficial to apply this practice elsewhere (Clavir 1996). By communicating with indigenous groups, the conservator may be able to learn important aspects of the object’s construction, which can help determine the best treatment methods. It also allows the conservator to explain why a certain treatment is necessary, while also allows concerns to be express about proposed treatment methods. Through communication, it is possible to balance need for “conceptual integrity” with the object’s physical integrity (Clavir 1996). For example, if the group wants the item to be returned for use in rituals and ceremonies, it may be possible to determine treatments that limit the risk to the object, one of the conservator’s concerns, while preserving the ability of the indigenous group to continue using the object.

            Another concern for all involved is change in the object itself. Conservation attempts to stop, or at least slow, the deterioration of an object, which does not always account for the intangible aspects of that object. Without culturally determined care, the intangible aspects of an item can decay, even as its physical form does not change. As a result of this change in focus, Clavir (1996) states that “conservators are being asked not only to value the less tangible attributes of an object but also to realize the acceptability of continuing process and the validity of a more abstract, shifting context than is usually found in conservation”. This suggests that there may be room for some culturally mandated care, either by a member of the indigenous community or the conservator, to be included in the care of objects, as long as it is not too harmful (Clavir 1996). This could also allow the continued use of the object by the originating group. Conservators are being asked to allow change in the state of an object in some cases. But what is allowable should be judged based on each individual situation, rather than trying to apply a blanket statement to all conservation situations (Clavir 1996). Clavir (1996) cites museums that have “touchable” collections, as well as practices for lending out “sturdier” items for use by the originating group as examples of ways to allow a changing context for objects.  By allowing people to continue interacting with objects, these contextual changes allow for people to continue being interested in, and understanding of, their and other cultures. And, by allowing for changes over time, less invasive conservation methods may be developed or applied more frequently.

            Accepting and working with changing contexts through open communication is key to keeping conservation, and the past that the field attempts to protect, viable into the future. While we should not throw existing ethics out in attempts to address the changing needs of museums and the public that they serve, it is necessary to adapt our ethics to changing times.



Clavir, M. 1996. Reflections on changes in museums and the conservation of collections from indigenous peoples. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35(2): 99-107.

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When Conservation is not the Answer

January 28th, 2013

When Conservation is not the Answer

Lucas Simonds

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

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

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

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

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

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

possibilities (Dalglish 2012, 338).

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

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


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


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