Posts Tagged ‘material culture’

Warbirds, etc., Part II

February 26th, 2015
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Warbirds, etc., Part II

James Pruitt

            Last blog, I examined the case of two PB2Y Coronado aircraft, and their very different methods of preservation. Both belonged to the US Navy, and the handling of both was legal as defined by the SMCA. Although the restored Coronado at the National Naval Aviation Museum brought up questions about whether it is “right” to erase years of history by restoring an object to like-new condition, the decision to restore it was carefully considered and the restoration expertly completed, and can thus be described as ethical. This post, I will examine the cases of two B-29 Superfortress bombers, and where they fall in the ethical spectrum.

First, however, it is worthwhile discussing restoration as it applies to aircraft. Much like automobiles, restoration of aircraft (especially to flyable condition) is generally undertaken by mechanics as opposed to conservators. A quick internet search for aircraft restoration returns dozens of companies specializing in aircraft repair, maintenance, and restoration. The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) website does not list any conservators with the specialty of “aircraft” (AIC 2015). This leaves the conservation and restoration of aircraft in a gray area—those people who work on aircraft do not seem to be registered with conservation-oriented professional societies (although likely registered with professional societies related to aircraft repair or engineering), and thus may not share the same ethical code we do. This situation is not universal; the United Kingdom-based Institute of Conservation (ICON) Conservation Register lists three companies In the UK that have “professionally qualified conservator-restorers” specializing in aircraft (ICON 2015).

Figure 1_FIFI

Figure 1. B-29 Superfortress FIFI.


            FIFI (Figure 1), the only flying Boeing B-29 Superfortress, is owned and operated by the Commemorative Air Force (CAF, formerly the Confederate Air Force) (CAF Airpower History Tour 2015). The US Air Force, and former Army Air Force, enforces the SMCA quite differently than the US Navy. The USAF declared, “aircraft that crashed before 19 November 1961, and that remain wholly or partially unrecovered, are considered formally abandoned. The AF neither maintains title to, nor has property interest in, these aircraft” (AFI 23-101 2013: 165). This means that groups like the CAF can legally recover or purchase former USAF aircraft. Is the restoration of them ethical, though? FIFI was recovered from the US Navy Proving Ground at China Lake, where it was being used as a missile target (CAF Airpower History Tour 2015). The restoration of this aircraft, and subsequent display through tours and flying shows, certainly brought greater exposure to this rare aircraft. Further, the airshows “allow you to honor the sacrifices of countless men and women who fought and died for our freedoms” (CAF Bombers 2014). This sounds like an honorable, and ethical, cause, and the CAF is chartered as a nonprofit organization (CAF Mission and History 2014). However, they also offer rides in their aircraft at airshows—for a price (ranging from $600 to $1600 for a ride in FIFI). This seems unethical. How can a NPO ethically charge that amount of money to experience something listed as an objective in their charter? Moreover, how is that ethically different than performing conservation work on the Mona Lisa (for which the Louvre Museum charges admission)?

Figure 2_KeeBirdBefore

Figure 2. Kee Bird before recovery efforts, in situ.


            While the case of “rescuing” and restoring FIFI raises ethical concerns about conserving objects that will be used later to raise money, the case of Kee Bird is very different. Kee Bird, another B-29 Superfortress, crash-landed on the Greenland icecap in 1947 after getting lost on a mission (Figure 2). Forgotten to time, a team of mechanics, test pilots, and adventurers set out in 1994 to repair the aircraft in situ to flying condition, fly it out, and later completely restore the plane for a client (PBS Nova 2015). They completely replaced the engines, propellers, and much of the electrical system, making the plane flyable. Then they crashed it (Figure 3). The efforts to recover and restore what would have been the second flyable B-29 in the world resulted in its complete destruction. Ethically, this was a disaster, made more poignant by the fact that it was made by adventurers and warbird hunters. Looking at it in perspective, though, brings up interesting questions. Artifacts are occasionally destroyed by accident on archaeological sites, and not through malice or malpractice by the archaeologists and conservators. Is this different, then? Can all artifacts be successfully recovered, 100% of the time? With great risk comes great reward, but when is the risk of recovering and restoring an artifact greater than the reward?

Ruins of Kee Bird

Figure 3. Kee Bird after recovery efforts.


            These two B-29s highlighted cases that were legal, yet unethical. As conservators, the use of restored items for profit, and the complete destruction of an object through recovery and restoration efforts, seem unacceptable. Are these cases different because those responsible for the restoration were not necessarily conservators but rather mechanics? Is it a difference in fields? Or are they obvious to us because the objects in question, aircraft, are normally outside of the purview of our work; perhaps using examples of artworks, or historical artifacts, would change our viewpoints?



American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

2015 AIC. Find a Conservator. Accessed 3 February 2014.


Commemorative Air Force

2014 CAF Bombers. Accessed 4 February 2015.

2014 CAF Mission and History. Accessed 4 February 2015.

2015 CAF Airpower History Tour.!history/c66t. Accessed 4 February 2015.


Institute of Conservation

2015 ICON Conservation Register. Find a Conservator. Accessed 3 February 2015.


PBS Nova

2015 B-29: Frozen in Time. Accessed 3 February 2015.


United States Air Force

2013 Air Force Instruction 23-101. Accessed 3 February 2014.


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Conservation Challenges for Museums: Tactile displays for the Visually Impaired Patron

February 26th, 2015
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Conservation Challenges for Museums: Tactile displays for the Visually Impaired Patron

Lori K. Gross


While visiting museums I’ve often wondered how it would be possible for persons with disabilities, specifically visually impaired individuals to have the same opportunity to ‘experience’ the artifacts that are displayed. For instance, at the Field Museum of Natural History and the Art Institute in Chicago they have elaborate collections of artifacts on display but they are encased in glass surrounded by velvet ropes or labeled ‘Do Not Touch’. For those of us that have the gift of sight these barriers are rarely questioned and it is understood, on some level, that the items displayed are rare, valuable or irreplaceable and their safe keeping is important to ensure that others can enjoy them as well. During my visits I have observed visually impaired patrons accompanied by another person who describes the displayed items, often in great detail, but I have to wonder – is that enough?

While researching this topic I found out I’m not alone. Museums have begun to recognize the need for a more interactive experience for visually impaired patrons. Tactile interactions are becoming more popular at museums in an effort to provide enriched opportunities to these individuals. One of these museums is The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts that has incorporated a guided tour allowing blind patrons to touch a select group of ‘contemporary’ sculptures. Utilizing cotton gloves individuals can experience the art form ‘first hand’ feeling the fine details and recreating its shape in their mind (Plamondon 2014). After reading this article I was glad that there was some effort being made towards tactile displays but it seemed limited to those items that were easily recreated, identified as popular and held little diversity. No ancient artifacts were included, which led me to think – “Are conservators too conservative – is there another way?”

Basic conservation techniques of artifacts recognize that merely touching an artifact can begin a destructive process through the transfer of oils, salts, moisture, bacteria etc. from a human hand. These concerns must be addressed when the conversation turns to tactile displays with ‘ancient’ artifacts. Professional conservators understand that it is a far more complicated process to maintain the vast collections displayed in museums. Lighting, humidity, acidity and even bacteria can damage an object that appears to the lay person as ‘just sitting on a shelf’. Most patrons have no idea of the hours of conservation treatments, techniques and decisions required to merely display the artifact let alone the actual handling. However, if museums and conservators are dedicated to the education and enrichment of every individual then they must overcome these challenges.

The Penn Museum is also taking an important step to address the issue of how to provide vision impaired guests with meaningful experiences in museums, where touching the objects has been traditionally discouraged. The conservators and curators of the museum launched an initiative called the ‘Touch Tour’ a two hour guided and innovative approach to dealing with issues of vision and accessibility in the museum context. A program called Insights into Ancient Egypt” combines education and gallery tours where patrons are invited to explore replicas of smaller ancient Egyptian artifacts and enhance the experience with tactile diagrams and opportunities to smell some of the oils used in mummification: frankincense, myrrh, and cedar oil. The experience evokes a range of senses that are often neglected in museum experiences. In the gallery portion of the tour the patrons experience through touch, ancient artifacts that include Egyptian stone artifacts, including a seated statue of Ramesses II, the Goddess Sekhmet, and two sarcophagus lids.   To mitigate the impact on the artifacts, each participant utilizes hand sanitizers to remove dirt and oils (Alton 2015).


“Not many people, either sighted or visually impaired, would ever have the opportunity to place their hands where craftsmen’s hands toiled thousands of years ago” (Alton 2015).



Museum programs with interactive and tactile approaches will continue to bring new challenges to the professional conservator. However, if our goal is to educate, inspire and enrich the lives of the museum patrons, then it is a challenge that conservators must embrace.



Alton, Elizabeth. “Touch Tours: The Penn Museum Offers Hands On Programs for Blind Visitors”. Entertainment Designer, January 3, 2014.

Plamondon, Judith. “Hands on art for blind at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts”. London Free Press, January 11, 2015.

Image credits: Daily Herald,


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Shaving a Beard? How Tourism Hurt the Boy King

February 26th, 2015
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Shaving a Beard? How Tourism Hurt the Boy King

Stephanie Byrd

           Tourism can bring an added economic boost to a country that has a national treasure. However, this can also affect conservation efforts for these national treasures. This is the case with many famous artifacts in Egypt with the latest being the beard of King Tutankhamen. This has not been the first issue between conservation and public display; much of the Egyptian past was exported during the Victorian age and the spread of British colonialism. One of the biggest issues facing conservators is that the process of conservation can take time to do the job properly, which presides over the wants, need, and desire of the public and sometimes the museum for a faster turnaround time.

In a recent cleaning disaster, the beard of King Tutankhamen’s funeral mask was bumped and broken (Cascone 2015). An epoxy was used to reattach the beard to the mask but in doing a fast job, the epoxy was visible between the beard and mask. Part of the mask also had epoxy found dried on the surface and this was scraped off leaving a mark on the mask. There has been conflicting remarks as to whether the epoxy is reversible but there is a larger issue here (Cascone 2015). The issue becomes when public interest scrutinizes the work of conservators and can witness and put pressure on conservator. Conservators feeling pressure to return items for public viewing or working in the view of the public can increase the likelihood of errors and rushed jobs. This shows just how much power the public has over on going conservation projects.

One example of a site that draws a lot of public interest is the tomb of King Tutankhamen, where in 2012, a replica of the tomb had to be made due to the damage seen by tourism. Since first being discovered, humans have done more damage in less than 100 years than thousands of years of forgotten time (Beach 2012). Additions include stairs, handrails, and lights all to show the public what was meant as a sacred tomb. Tombs were meant to be sealed and left in the dark but have become modified to hold modern technology and human traffic, all of which increase the rate of deterioration (Getty 2013). While some of the technology has damaged the artifacts alternatively, some technology is used to monitor the climate of the museums and tombs to help keep a stable environment (Getty 2013). The ongoing issue with the Egyptian artifacts comes down to finding a balance between the need to preserve the past and serve the public who wants to see the artifacts. The making of the replica tomb is a start but acting hastily in repairing the mask shows that the balance is a work in progress. As for now the mask is in a low light display, said to minimize the noticeable damage to the mask (al-Mahmoud 2015), but with the public knowledge of the damage this low light method seems to be a little too late to stop the public from criticizing the museum for a poor repair job.

The hope with this latest, and very public repair job, is that it can show how the public needs to be made aware of the time and energy that are required for a good conservation process. Once something is in a museum it does not place the artifact in a vacuum, and demonstrates that damage from human traffic and cleaning can affect the life of an artifact. The museum is needed to show that the public can trust that the conservation work completed with all artifacts is up to ethical standards, but being honest with the public can be one way to grow a relationship between public and professional groups regarding conservation projects moving forward.



Al-Mahmoud, Husam. “King Tut’s Death Mask Glued Together in Botched Repair.” Alaraby. January 22, 2015. Accessed February 3, 2015.

Beach, Alastair. “How Tourism Cursed Tomb of King Tut.” The Independent. November 4, 2012. Accessed February 4, 2015.

Cascone, Sarah. “King Tut Damaged in Botched Repair Attempt.” January 22, 2015. Accessed February 3, 2015.

“Conservation and Management of the Tomb of Tutankhamen.” Conservation and Management of the Tomb of Tutankhamen. March 1, 2013. Accessed February 3, 2015.

“Egypt: Preserving King Tut’s Tomb.” : Campbell Datalogger Controls Monitoring of Conditions at Tutankhamen Site. Accessed February 3, 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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Should Auschwitz-Birkenau be preserved, and can it?

February 4th, 2015

Should Auschwitz-Birkenau be preserved, and can it?

Chelsea Head

            Concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau played a large role in the Final Solution implemented by the Third Reich during World War II. Auschwitz-Birkenau is located in the south of Poland, and was built in the year 1940. With the end of the war in 1945, the Nazis tried to destroy everything that would link them to the horrors of the Second World War, including burning records and buildings in the camps. Despite their destruction, a large portion of the camp is left today, but with over 1 million visitors a year, there has been a considerable amount of damage and decay to the remaining structures[1]. The site has been maintained by the Polish Government as a museum and memorial since 1947, with large efforts to conserve and preserve the site[2].

One of the problems with Auschwitz is that it was never meant to last this long. Yes, the Nazi regime believed that the Third Reich would be long-lasting, but the concentration camps were never meant to last the supposed entire Nazi reign. Concentration camps were vital to the Nazis’ Final Solution and Hitler’s Aryan regime, but they were not built to last.  The type of materials that were used to build Auschwitz are difficult to conserve and preserve for future generations. With the amount of visitors each year, it is demanding to keep up with the amount of decay and deterioration throughout the site. The camp is a large and demanding conservation effort with, “The Auschwitz camp itself covers 50 acres and comprises 46 historical buildings, including two-story red brick barracks, a kitchen, a crematorium and several brick and concrete administration buildings. In addition, Birkenau, a satellite camp about two miles away, sprawls over more than 400 acres and has 30 low-slung brick barracks and 20 wooden structures, railroad tracks and the remains of four gas chambers and crematoria. In total [the staff] monitor 150 buildings and more than 300 ruins at the two sites”.[3]

The amount of Holocaust and Auschwitz survivors is rapidly dwindling, which makes the preservation of the camp a priority of the museum, to preserve the history for younger generations who know nothing of the Holocaust. With the amount of work and money involved in the conservation of the camp, there have been some comments on whether Auschwitz should be left to deteriorate. Architect Eric Kahn believes that the camp should be memorialized in a way that doesn’t continue to rapidly deteriorate the camp, but still brings focus to the event and tragedy that occurred there.[4] By letting Birkenau disintegrate naturally, visitors will have to find new ways to tackle the topic of the Holocaust and the horrors of Auschwitz without seeing the remains of the camp. But, many survivors believe that Auschwitz-Birkenau should continue to be preserved for future generations. Survivors faced many unthinkable horrors in Auschwitz, and the world needs to remember the camp and the tragedy.

The conservators at Auschwitz-Birkenau work on the many buildings and remains of the camp, as well as the substantial amount of objects in the site’s museum, such as shoes, suitcases, kitchenware, eyeglasses, clothing, art, human remains (hair, teeth, etc.), and records.[5] The conservation effort at Auschwitz is one of the largest in the world, with many conservators working to preserve the camp and artifacts. I believe that preserving the camp is the only viable option for the future of Holocaust memorialization. It will take a considerable amount of work, and money, but it is doable with the right type of people and conservation efforts. The memory of the Holocaust needs to be kept alive at Auschwitz-Birkenau for future generations.

[1]  Ryan E. Smith, “Preserving Auschwitz,” Jewish Journal. 30 January 2013. Accessed 19 January 2015. http://  

[2] Andrew Curry, “Can Auschwitz be Saved?” Smithsonian Magazine. Feb. 2010. Accessed 19 Jan. 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Smith, “Preserving Auschwitz”.

[5] “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau. Accessed January 19, 2015.

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What’s it Worth?

February 4th, 2015

What’s it Worth?

William Fleming

Every object has some sort of value to someone, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. In general,
the value of an object is the highest right after it is produced, though some objects (such as
family heirlooms) can increase in value over time, especially if they stay in excellent condition
through the generations. However, while the value of the object can increase or decrease, it can
also change from one form to another. There are three principle forms of value an object can
hold: monetary, cultural, and personal. This post will provide a general overview of these values,
but each type will be examined in more detail in the coming weeks.

Monetary Value
Monetary value is usually the first thing that comes to mind when someone asks “What is
this item worth?” In fact, archaeologists are often presented artifacts by the general public and
asked to appraise them. However, monetary value should be the least important form of value
placed on an object, and true archaeologists should know that to place such a value on any item
is considered unethical within the field. That being said, monetary value does end up playing a
significant role in the history of an artifact. monetary value generally depreciates over time, but
certain factors can make this value increase. Historic artifacts in excellent condition, such as
family heirlooms handled appropriately through the generations, or well-preserved
archaeological discoveries, can be worth thousands of dollars to collectors, despite their initial
cost after production (Read 2009:280). Also, as other examples of the same artifact disappear,
increasing the rarity of the artifact, the monetary values increase as well. Finally, as an artifact
continues to change hands, the monetary value increases as each successive collector must sell
the artifact at a higher price in order to make a profit.Regardless of how this value increases, it
becomes harder for archaeologists and conservators to acquire artifacts, as the lack of funding
(and the greed of humanity) keeps artifacts out of reach.

Cultural Value
Another type of value applied to artifacts is cultural value. Cultural value is the value
placed on an object by a society. This society can be the one that created the artifact, or an
entirely separate one that finds the artifact. An excellent example of cultural value are the tombs
of Egypt; the ancient Egyptians held these people and artifacts in high regard at the time they
were buried, and when they were later exhumed by British archaeologists, they became
significantly important to the British people. The problem here is that conflicts can (and very
often do) arise as to who such artifacts belong, and who has the right to display or conserve them
(Henry et. al. 2013:43-45).

Personal Value
The final type of value applied to artifacts is personal value. Personal value, obviously,
varies between individuals, and is purely subjective. The same object can mean everything to one
person, and absolutely nothing to a different person. The most interesting aspect of personal
value is that it can easily influence the design and use of the artifact, which later affects the other
types of values (Fleming 1997:64). This can have varying effects on the preservation of artifacts,
as some people want their treasures preserved professionally and will willingly donate them to
museums, while others can be cautious or over-protective and unwilling to let the artifacts go.

Three forms of value can be placed on any object. These values are monetary, cultural,
and personal, and the three are inter-related. This is especially true when it comes to preserving
and displaying artifacts; the three values discussed all affect the ease with which artifacts can be
acquired by professionals, as well as who those professionals are and the importance with which
the artifacts must be treated when put on display. Unfortunately, the monetary value of an
artifact is typically the defining factor in the display of an artifact. More valuable artifacts must
be placed in more secure displays, separated and protected from the public.

Fleming, D. (1997). Learning to link artifact and value: The arguments of student designers.
Language and learning across the disciplines, 2(1), 58-84.

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

Read, D.W. (2009). Artifact Classification: A conceptual and methodological approach. Walnut
Creek, CA. Left Coast Press.

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Placing a Value on the Past

April 6th, 2014

Placing a Value on the Past

Alex Garcia-Putnam 

As archaeologists we place certain values on the objects we work with; these values often differ with those placed on artifacts by the public.  Archaeologists and conservators do not place monetary value on artifacts and objects, instead, we value objects from the past based on the information we can gain from them about the people who used them.  The public often values objects from the past based on their monetary value. Examples of this can be seen on popular television programs across numerous networks.  Many of these programs ‘dig’ for artifacts and give dollar amounts to the objects they remove, with little to no regard for the valuable data that can be gained by the less glamorous analysis involved in the archaeological and conservation process.

As previously discussed in my blog “Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology”, the Society for Historical Archaeology sets out a number of ethical principles to guide its members.  One of the critical components of this document is Principle Six, which states that archaeologists must not profit monetarily from the sale or trade of artifacts, and should discourage the placing of financial values on archaeological specimens (Ethics Statement, SHA 2007).  We have a duty to protect the past, and placing financial values on artifacts could easily contribute to the illicit antiquities trade. Archaeologists and conservators desire to learn about past cultures through an analysis of the material remains they left behind.  We value artifacts not for their rarity or beauty, but for their ability to better inform our interpretations of the past.

Contrary to reality, television shows and films portray archaeology as a financially driven hunt for artifacts, skewing the public’s perspective of what professionals do. This extends back to the founding of archaeology in popular culture: Indian Jones, where he is shown as essentially a glorified looter, plundering ancient sites for treasure to put in a museum (Hall 2004).  This trend is upsetting, and made tougher to stomach by current programs that follow television personalities with metal detectors that hunt for artifacts.  Inserting a measure of true archaeology into these programs, although not as glamorous, could really help alter the public’s evaluation of archaeological sites and specimens.

All that being said, these programs do provide a crucial service to archaeology: public awareness.  That value cannot be overlooked.  The public is at least being made aware of archaeology, even if it is a skewed version.  Archaeologists and conservators should strive to work with these programs to insert as much actual archaeology into them as possible, while maintaining viewership and interest.  In this way we can attempt to alter the public’s interpretation of archaeology, and potentially get our values all in line: to help understand and preserve the past.

Work Cited

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

Hall, M.A., 2004. “Romancing the Stones: Archaeology in Popular Cinema” in European Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 7(2): 159–176.

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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.

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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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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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