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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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How much is it worth?

April 9th, 2015
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How much is it worth?

Amy Dubis

Objects have always been assigned a value, but that value can vary depending on where, when, and who you are. Value can mean a number of things, but some of the more common meanings the general public assign to the word relate to money, cultural heritage, or a certain event or place. Everyone has heard the English proverb “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” which sums up the view that value is subjective. A person’s education, gender, cultural and ethnic background, and even general morals can influence how they view an item’s value. There are several examples one can use to demonstrate how an object can mean many different things to many different people. One of the most notable is an old family quilt example.

Let’s say this quilt was made by a great-grandmother during the Great Depression. To her, this quilt represents a way to keep herself and her family warm. To her daughter, this quilt represents her mother’s strength and how she was able to cope with the hardships during that time, as well as a material connection to her mother after she has died. The great-grandchildren, a couple of generations removed from the realities of the Great Depression, also identify this quilt with the great-grandmother, but not as strongly as their mother did. When they need some extra money to pay for bills, the great-grandchildren consider selling the quilt, because they don’t place the same family value on the quilt as their mother. One of these great-grandchildren volunteers at a museum and refuses to let his siblings sell the quilt, assigning a more historic value to it. Even though the quilt is saved from being sold, the main reason for keeping the quilt in the family has changed from utilitarian use to identifying with family to connecting to a past event. People outside the family might assign a cultural value to the quilt, as the great-grandmother was from Ireland, or they might appreciate the design of the quilt itself. To conservators, the quilt would most likely be associated with a relatable connection to the past, surviving the Great Depression.

The viewpoints of the general public are often times very different from those of archaeologists and conservators. Archaeologists tend to connect artifacts to the site they came from and the people who lived in the area. The public generally views artifacts based on their most well-known association(s). Conservators often provide a way for bridging these differing values by giving the public a little of what they want while still conveying artifacts are more than one-dimensional timepieces. Sometimes an easy mediation is not possible. Museum politics play a large role in determining what the museum should spend its resources conserving and how those objects are displayed to the public (Malkogeorgou 2012). The conservator must balance their own conservator moral with the museum’s requests and still maintain a respect for the culture and procurer of the artifact. With all of these competing variables, conservators can fail to maintain the integrity of the object in question. An example of this is the treatment of the painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III. The material the restorer used to repair the painting was discovered to not be safely removable, which meant he had not followed conservation protocols to safeguard artifacts in order to fix the painting (Adelman 1994).

The varying views of value between the public, archaeologists, and conservators has a great impact on how objects are displayed. Each group wants to display artifacts in a way that emphasizes their particular values. It is important that displays attempt to portray more than one viewpoint of artifacts so that there are many ways to relate to them. Sometimes, it might even be necessary to focus on different aspects of artifacts through multiple exhibits or tours (Saunders 2014). By providing multiple interpretations, communities can have a greater sense of unity through a shared material culture.


Works Cited

Adelman, Peter. 1994. “Conservator Overreaching and the Art Owner: Contractual Protections against the Overzealous Restoration of Fine Art.” Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal 12: 521-544.


Breneman, Judy Anne. 2010. “Hanna Balster’s Quilts.” (accessed 2/15/15).


Malkogeorgou, Titika. 2012. “Everything Judged on Its Own Merit? Object Conservation and the Secular Museum.” Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 10(2): 1-7.


Saunders, Jill. 2014. “Conservation in Museums and Inclusion of the Non-Professional.” Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 12(1): 1-13.

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation, Museum Studies , ,

Conservation Issues

April 9th, 2015
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Conservation Issues

James Kinsella

During the summer of 2014, I was invited to participate in an Underwater Archaeology field school. Out of several applications from across the country only twelve students were chosen to participate, so I was honored to have been selected. This was a four week intense program which focused on scientific diver training as well as proper survey and excavation techniques while underwater. The program also gave the students an introduction to a few archaeological sub-disciplines such as remote sensing and conservation.

I found the entire program very interesting and was very impressed with the way everything was presented. We were very fortunate to have been able to work closely with the principal investigator as well as the organizations conservator. Each day that we went to the site, the conservator came out with us, and provided her expertise and input on the project. The learning experience was great; however I was left with quite a few questions and concerns on the conservation side of things.

During my introduction to the conservation team this past summer, I noticed that the conservation lab was very small. The entire organizations conservation lab was a room that was only about 15’x10’. I also noticed that they had a severe back-log of artifacts waiting to be conserved. Many of these artifacts were stored in old paint buckets or old kitty litter containers. They were all filled with ocean water from where the artifacts and concretions were found but they were stored on shelves outside the facility which is very concerning.

All of these concerns are part of a much larger concern, which is the lack of funding allocated to conservation. Unfortunately this is a trend in archaeology where there is limited funding for conservation of artifacts. This is a big problem if the artifacts are excavated during the project and there is no money to conserve. One cause of deterioration of archaeological sites was attributed to lack of funds and inadequate conservation techniques (Nardi 2010). In other cases, the lack of funding has shut down conservation labs as seen with the USS Monitor conservation lab. The USS Monitor wet lab where the turret is being conserved in a 90,000-gallon water tank will close to the public due to budget constraints and a lack of federal funding (AIA 2014).

Interestingly, there are emerging programs that are lending support to help this issue. One group that is helping is called Conservators Without Borders. This is a volunteer program that provides support to archaeological projects where insufficient funding does not allow for conservation activity (Smirniou 2008). It is great that there are groups and programs that are volunteering to help with this issue. I hope that the organization that I worked with can get some assistance with their conservation issues.

Luckily during the project I created an opportunity for myself to gain more experience with archaeological conservation. I was invited back for the upcoming summer to work one on one with the conservation team. Hopefully by the time I return, the funding situation with the organization I worked with will have improved. I also hope that I can provide a helping hand to get them caught up with their back log of artifacts that need conservation work.



“Lack of Funding Closes USS Monitor Conservation Lab.” Archaeology. January 14, 2014. Accessed March 4, 2015.

Nardi, R. 2010. “Conservation in Archaeology: Case Studies in the Mediterranean Region.” Archaeological Institute of America. November 16, 2010. Accessed March 4, 2015.

Smirniou, M., Pohl, C., and D’Arcangelo, D. 2008. “Conservators Without Borders: An International Archaeological Conservation and Outreach Initiative.” Objects Specialty Group Postprints 15: 147-164. Retrieved from American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. Accessed on March 4, 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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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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