Posts Tagged ‘context’

What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

April 3rd, 2014

What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

Melissa Price


Which is more valuable?

We see them everywhere behind glass in museums, in a dim room with a spotlight on them, a guard standing around telling you not to touch: historical objects and artifacts on display for our viewing pleasure. To a museum visitor, the objects may be nice to look at or learn about from the brief informational placards. To a conservator or archaeologist, the objects may be a key to unlocking information about our human past and need to be preserved for future study. Different people view historical objects in various ways, and sometimes this can cause problems, especially when objects are seen for their monetary value only.

To an archaeologist, the context of an object is just as important as the object itself. After all, one can only learn so much about a single ceramic pot. If that pot, however, is found within a burial an archaeologist can make interpretations about the culture that made the pot: ritualistic behaviors, societal hierarchies, and the function of the pot can all be gleaned from its context.

The general public is less likely to understand the importance of context. This is understandable since most of their interactions with historical objects occur when they are standing in front of a glass case in a museum. They see the object at the end of its journey: after it has been removed from the field and been cleaned, preserved, and placed on display. The public sees these objects as valuable: they know they are behind glass cases for a reason and that museums pay (sometimes large) amounts of money for certain objects. The very circumstances surrounding museums place value on the object alone, rather than historical context (especially since accompanying informational text is brief).

In line with this concept is the idea that mundane or common objects are less worthy of being studied, collected, or placed on display in museums, which creates a bias of what is seen behind glass cases, as Caple mentions in “Reasons for Preserving the Past” (2003, 21). Unique, famous, rare, or beautiful objects are prized over everyday objects and are sought after for their monetary value. They are also more likely to be displayed in a museum in the hopes of attracting more visitors.

One example of highly sought after objects are those classical artworks such as Greek or Roman marble statues and vases. The modern aesthetics of these types of objects is sometimes seen as more highly prized than the object’s original context. The objects, according to Sarah Scott in “Art and Archaeology,” are displayed “as art rather than archaeology” (2006, 629). This has caused, and is still causing, looting or damage to archaeological sites as people try to find and sell such objects (628). They know there is a market for them and market value is given more importance than contextual detail (629). Archaeologists should stress the importance of context lest looting occur. Placing a high value on objects can lead to the “continued prioritization of a select range of objects, most notably classical sculpture” (636). Our modern view of what is considered “art,” such as classical statues, causes them to be considered as commodities to be bought and sold, rather than ancient objects that can lend information about the past societies in which they existed.

In conclusion, keeping objects in their original context, rather than applying value and aesthetics to them, is ideal. Archaeologists and conservators alike have a responsibility to make the acquirement of objects without context unacceptable both academically and socially. For example, archaeologists can refuse to help treasure hunters or salvors with excavation. Similarly, conservators can refuse to work on objects that have been obtained through less desirable means. Museums must be very careful when buying objects and place an importance upon integrity of objects. Finally, placing significance upon the study of seemingly mundane or common objects also helps to decrease the mindset of historical objects as commodities. 

Photo credits




References Cited

Caple, C. 2003. Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.

Scott, Sarah. 2006. Art and the Archaeologist. World Archaeology 38(4): 628-643.

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation, Museum Studies, Public Outreach , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Archaeological Conservation, Research and Experiments, Science , , , ,

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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