Posts Tagged ‘General Conservation’

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 , , , ,

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 , , ,

Israel Summer Study Abroad: A Blog of Beginnings

September 8th, 2013

Israel Summer Study Abroad: A Blog of Beginnings

 Emily Holley

                  The summer program in Israel was an adventure full of firsts for me. Aside from the trips I was too young to remember, this was the first time I’ve ever been out of the country. The international terminal at my airport was a mystery until now, the flights to Paris and Istanbul were nothing but a distant wish. This trip to Israel was an amazing experience and everything a first-time traveler could have hoped for. We saw so many important historical and cultural sites and artifacts. As a student of anthropology and history and a Christian, all of the places we visited and all of the things we saw had an impact on me at a personal level as well.

The most memorable of all the many things we did for me was the tour of the holy sites in Jerusalem. As a religious person, those places were mind-boggling. To think that entire basis of my religion was centered on this rock, this altar, this place, and I get to see it and touch it. It made a lot of the theoretical and intangible aspects of my faith real and alive. That is something you only get to experience once in your life.

Untitled (Photo by the author)

                  Scientifically, the trip was more than educational, it was enlightening. We took tours of the conservation labs in famous facilities like the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Observing and working with conservators in their element gave me just a taste of what it would actually be like to do this kind of work. We were set up in a field lab on a Kibbutz that revealed the real world conditions and obstacles that conservators are faced with. These are important things to learn and understand about the field and they are things I will take with me on my next steps toward my education and career.

Untitled 2(Photo by Susanne Grieve)

                  While this trip was brimming with huge learning experiences and deep personal revelations, a lot of the things that made this trip what it was, were simple and mundane. Tasting an authentic Israeli falafel, or getting a movie ticket and fortune cookie written in Hebrew, or even just seeing the sun set from over the Mediterranean were all just as important experiences. They are experiences I am grateful to have had the chance to feel and will stay with me always.

Untitled 3(Photo by the author)

General Conservation , , , ,

Welcome to the ECU Maritime Conservation Lab Blog!

November 20th, 2009

Welcome to the new Maritime Conservation Lab (MCL) blog! The blog will allow students to share their thoughts and ideas on conservation related topics. They will share what they are learning about in class and discuss how conservation relates to their main field of study.

General Conservation