Posts Tagged ‘culture’

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 , , , , , , , , , ,

What Can be Learned from the Swedish Heritage Conservation Model

February 24th, 2014

What Can be Learned from the Swedish Heritage Conservation Model

 Allison Miller

            Kristin Huld Sigurdardottir’s article (2003) on the conservation-education challenges facing archaeologists and conservators today, led to an exploration of the laws governing archaeological finds and excavations in the Scandinavian countries. In her article, Sigurdardottir stated that the five Scandinavian countries all have well-developed laws governing archaeological heritage management with strong systems of enforcement in place. In a broader statement, she claimed that within these countries “all excavated objects are the property of the nation” (2003:221), which sounds like an ideal environment to deter treasure hunters and salvers, both on land and sea, especially with an effective penalization system in place. The investigation into these Scandinavian laws and what archaeologists and conservators might learn from them began with Sweden.

In Sweden, cultural environment and cultural heritage sites are overseen by the National Heritage Board, which in turn answers to the Ministry of Culture. The current legislation stems from the Heritage Conservation Act of 1988 (Europae Archaeologiae Consilium 2011:1). Chapter 1, Section 1 of the Act begins with, “The care and preservation of our cultural environment is a matter of national concern” (Swedish National Heritage Board [SNHB] 1988:1). This is a telling statement, which many countries, particularly America, could take a lesson from.

Recognizing the cultural heritage that belongs to people as individuals and as a nation should be at the forefront of the minds of archaeologists and conservators as they seek to protect the sites and artifacts that can be used to learn about the past. The support of the government and politicians is crucial in assisting with this effort. Without adequate laws and the enforcement of them to prevent the destruction and looting of archaeological sites, and to protect those sites and artifacts that have been properly excavated, archaeologists and conservators are fighting a losing battle. There will always be individuals who seek to gain from the selling of artifacts , but minimalizing their effects would provide a more solid foundation on which to develop our views of the past.

Sweden’s Heritage Conservation Act helps to prevent such looting and selling of artifacts by providing reimbursement to individuals who report their finds to the state (SNHB 1988). Though some information may be lost from the artifact not being found in context and with its provenience, it is not without value of its own. The practice of paying for such artifacts may encourage individuals to report their finds to the state, rather than selling them illicitly. The Act outlines measures against such illicit trade activities as well, detailing fines and punishment for various offenses, including the exportation of Swedish cultural goods from the country. Unfortunately, these laws do not protect against the trade of cultural goods from other nations, and such trade, particularly in Chinese artifacts, is quite rampant throughout the country (Lunden 2004).

In conclusion, though the Swedish heritage conservation model is not without its flaws, it has taken many progressive steps towards providing archaeologists and conservators with a well-structured legal guideline in which to work. The National Heritage Board details who is to care for archaeological sites and finds, and cooperates with several other state authorities to protect these sites.  These established avenues serve to protect the sites and finds, as well as the valuable work of archaeologists and conservators.


Europae Archaeologiae Consilium

2011    Archaeological heritage management in Sweden. Archaeological Heritage Management in Europe, Europae Archaeologiae Consilium <>. Accessed 10 February 2014.


Lunden, Staffan

2004    The Scholar and the Market. De nasjonale forskningsetiske komiteene <>. Accessed 10 February 2014.


Sigurdardottir, Kristin Huld

2003    Challenges in Conserving Archaeological Collections. In Of the Past, For the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, Neville Agnew and Janet Bridgland, editors, pp.220-223. Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, CA.


Swedish National Heritage Board

1988    Heritage Conservation Act (1988:950). UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws  < 1998_engtno.pdf>. Accessed 10 February 2014.

Archaeological Conservation, Ethics and Theory, General Conservation , , , , , , , , ,

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.

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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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