Shake your Money Maker: Human Remains on Display

February 28th, 2013

Skeletons in the Closet:

A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community

“Shake your Money Maker:  Human Remains on Display”

Eva Falls

            Museums face challenging concerns everyday such as: ‘How do we keep the doors open and the lights on?’  ‘How do we keep people coming here?’  ‘How can we compete with amusement parks and roller coasters?’  A time tested crowd pleaser (in the western world) since the Enlightenment has been the display of complete or partial human remains.  Everyone loves an Egyptian mummy, right?  Human remains can be political symbols, personal connections to the past, high price commodities, religious relics, research materials, and the list goes on.  Problems arise when cultural approaches to human remains differ.  There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to displaying human remains.  Museum curators, exhibit designers, and conservators have to be extremely careful and sensitive when deciding what should or should not be on display for the public.

The display of human remains in a museum setting, as we think of it, is closely tied to the scientific revolution and colonial exploration.  People were fascinated by people and things that were different than the ‘known’ plants, animals, and people.  Museum displays were for the strange, the macabre, and the exotic.  In the scientific community, doctors were discovering the way the body and diseases worked and demanded bodies for their research.  Bodies became commodities used for profit.  This way of thinking led to larger establishments curating large collections of human remains from around the world.  Over the years more marginable groups’ wishes have been acknowledged (ex. NAGPRA), but there is still an obvious power dynamic.  Who actually owns the body?  Should the wishes of the individual take precedent or the wishes of the family, the group, or the public?  These are all challenges faced by conservators. (Cassman, Odegaard, and Powell 2007)

Most bodies in museums are presented as objects for study.  The western way of thinking linearly and secularly helps distance people from the remains they are viewing, temporally and geographically.  People are separated physically and sensually from the remains by glass cases.  At the same time, thinking of bodies as objects can be seen as separating the viewer from acknowledging our own mortality.  One way some institutions help the public connect to remains as individuals is by naming them. Some places also do reconstructions (though highly interpretive) of skeletal remains, so it is easier for the public to acknowledge the humanity of the remains.  (Cassman, Odegaard, and Powell 2007)

Today, museums and conservators have become more culturally sensitive to the wishes of more marginal groups and the various interests surrounding bodies in their collections.  It is an effective way to encourage interest in exhibits and connect the public to their own past.  Conservators in particular should assist museums that choose to have human remains on display presenting them in safe, lasting, yet emotionally accessible ways.

 Works Cited

Cassman, Vicki, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell ed. 2007. Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. AltaMira Press. Lanham: 261-283.

General Conservation

Tricky Situations: The Role of a Conservator during Ownership Battles

February 26th, 2013

Tricky Situations: The Role of a Conservator during Ownership Battles

 Sara Kerfoot

            Since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990, the dynamic between Native Americans and archaeologists has changed drastically. “NAGPRA provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items — human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony — to lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations” (NPS 2012).  The majority of the public agrees in appropriate treatment of the dead; this thought extends to Native American ancestors (McManamon 1994). Therefore, scrutiny after excavation, without permission, has fallen out of favor. It is Federal law that all Federal agencies and private museums that have been funded by Federal dollars must comply with NAGPRA. The pressing issue is not archaeologists refusing to comply with the law, but the action those conservators and archaeologists must take when multiple Nations are declaring ownership of excavated human remains and funerary goods. The conservators have to make a choice on what actions they should or should not take while waiting for legal battles to be solved.

            NAGPRA ensures that a greater amount of respect is shown towards Native American groups. This Federal law has required that greater amounts of communication transpire between American Indians, all Federal Museums, and government archaeologists. Museums must create inventories for all cultural items that are subject to NAGPRA; after the inventory has been made, they must be sent to all potential lineal decedents and Indian tribes (McManamon 1994).

            There are complications. Human remains and grave goods that have been found today do not necessary have a direct connection to today’s contemporary tribes. This is an issue because ancient nations do not all exist; many tribes have changed and integrated into other nations. At one point, there may have been one prehistoric American Indian group, but with time, people moved and dispersed across the country. This is an issue because when Federal agencies release inventory lists, multiple groups may lay claim to a single artifact. An example of this can be seen in Arizona, specifically at Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot, and Montezuma Well. There are various grave goods and human remains that are originally from the Sinagua people. However, there are no Sinagua people today; it is best inferred that they integrated with Hopi and Yavapai peoples (NPS 2013). This leads to battles in who is allowed rights to the funerary remains.

            Today’s archaeologists must adhere to strict rules when dealing with all potential burials, however, archaeologists of the past had very few guidelines and many of them brought up anything that caught their interest. Burials are not as likely to be excavated today from professional archaeologists; however, today there are many cultural items in museum collections that are in the process of being returned.

            Conservators and curators have a duty to hold on to artifacts and human remains until the legal issues have been sorted. There are a variety of materials that can be associated with burials, ranging from linens, ceramics, food remains, and bones. Since each Nation wants a different outcome for the cultural items, it can be hard for conservators to know what to do This could be a tricky situation depending on the mentality of the Nation; some may be interested in preserving an artifact, while others may be more interested in reburying it. This could become complicated for the conservator, who of course, is interested in the life history of the artifact and has a time window when an artifact may be preserved or begin to deteriorate. A conservator may not know if they are solely supposed to stabilize an artifact from further deterioration or if they should begin to mechanically clean an artifact and slowly reveal some of the artifact’s basic characteristics. Some nations feel violated when their past is uncovered by people not of their heritage, whereas others enjoying seeing a physical connection to their own ancestry regardless of who discovered it. It can also be difficult if a collection has been broken up in multiple museums (Iverson 2008). Ceramics found in the desert are fairly easy to conserve but organics, such as cotton and yucca woven cloth needs to be preserved in a stable environment. An issue is that many Nations do not want these specific cultural items to be preserved; yet they do not want them to deteriorate until they have had the items returned to them for reburial.

            The best action for conservators to take that are faced with the shifting ownership of cultural items is to have open communication. There needs to be an agreement between Federal agencies and various American Indians tribes so that no group becomes alienated with the conservation practices while the court discussions proceed.

            Conservators are obviously interested in preserving the past in order to uncover the story of humans, however just because they have the ability to discover the facts does not mean they should uncover the past. This is easier said than done, at least from a curious person’s perspective, and admittedly, conservators and archaeologists are curious people. To not analyze artifacts that hold answers to the past that have been left in front of them can be very difficult. The best way to deal with this situation is to work with tribes in order to find a happy medium for all groups. American Indians understand that burials and grave goods have information about the past that the public is interested in their story. It is possible to have a compromise, such as the conservator continuing treatment of the artifacts, so long the artifacts remain in a stable condition and all actions done to the artifact are non-invasive and reversible. There can be workable scenarios, such as photographing all artifacts and human remains for further study. These photos would have the caveat of not being seen by the public and solely used for research purposes. 

            In order to have good working relationships between Federal agencies and American Indians, many cultural collections may be repatriated. To date, 38,671 individuals, 998,731 associated funerary objects, 144,163 unassociated funerary objects, 4,303 sacred objects, 948 objects of cultural patrimony and 822 objects that are both sacred and patrimonial have been repatriated since the passage of NAGPRA (NPS 2012). This has been hard for archaeologists and conservators but it has created better relationships with American Indian groups because it shows that researchers are doing their best to respect Native American practices. Better relationships have the potential to allow for more research to occur in the future.

            Conservators are knowledgeable on the deterioration of various organics and inorganics. This knowledge allows them the insight in how they should proceed in attempting to preserve artifacts. Conservators today have to be concerned with more than artifact conservation; they must be updated on current events and artifact ethics before they proceed with any work done to an artifact. Today, the popular trend in conservation is preservation, not restoration. This allows the artifact to keep more of its original integrity. This mentality has the potential to forge better relations with American Indian groups since their cultural collections are not being manipulated in a way that was unintended.

            While various groups battle over human remains and grave goods in court, conservators must forge open communication so people can benefit from the past’s insights. They must do their best to not alter the artifacts original substance while trying to conserve it and if they lose their cultural collection in court, they must be willing to accept that as a respectable decision. 


Iverson, Anne, 2008. Tuzigoot National Monument: NAGPRA Report. In: Western Archaeological and Conservation Center. <>. Accessed 17 February 2013.

McManamon, Francis P., 1994. Changing Relationships Between Native Americans and Archaeologists. In: Forum Journal March/April Vol. 8. No. 2. National Trust for Historic Preservation. <>. Accessed 17 February 2013.

National Park Service, 2012. Frequently Asked Questions. In: National NAGPRA. U.S. Department of the Interior. <>. Accessed 17 February 2013.

National Park Service, 2013. Montezuma Castle National Monument Arizona. In: Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary. National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior. <>. Accessed 17 February 2013.


General Conservation

The Role of Context in Conservation

February 21st, 2013

The Role of Context in Conservation

 Emily Holley

            Context in archaeology is defined as the physical position and the surrounding set of objects and physical attributes that affect the interpretation and meaning of the object in question (SAA, 1996) . An artifact’s context is usually determined in reference to three primary attributes. It consists of its immediate matrix, which is the material surrounding the artifact, its provenience, the horizontal or vertical position, and its association with other artifacts and materials in the same matrix. Context is extremely important to the archaeological process for determining the significance of every object recovered. But what does context mean to conservators?

            Context, to the conservator, has the same value that it does to the archaeologist. Keeping an object in its original environment as much as possible, helps to retain its meaning and value. Once the significance is established, the conservator can judge how best to proceed with treatment of the material. For example, the discovery of a Native American projectile point is fairly common, but the context of the object can help to interpret more about the artifact. If the projectile point was found embedded in the rib bone of a bison, one can infer more about the scenario that brought the point there. Context can help a conservator to tell more of the object’s story and determine where to go from there.

            The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) has a code of ethics and guidelines for professional conservators. More than a few points in the code of ethics are in regard to respecting the integrity and cultural significance of an object. Context is a major aspect of determining its integrity. Without knowing the context of an artifact, an archaeologist or a conservator cannot know the truth of the object. The guidelines state, “All actions of the conservation professional must be governed by an informed respect for the cultural property, its unique character and significance, and the people or person who created it.” (AIC, 1994). It is through the context of the object that this respect is even possible.

AIC. 1994. Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. (Accessed January 26, 2013).

SAA. 1996. What is Archaeology? (Accessed February 12, 2013).


General Conservation

Past as Propaganda, Part Two: Archaeological Cleansing in Athens

February 19th, 2013

Past as Propaganda, Part Two: Archaeological Cleansing in Athens

Chelsea  Freeland

 Athens is a model city for the study of Classical antiquity.  Its whitewashed marble overwhelms the casual visitor in the bright Mediterranean sunlight.  Athenian tourism caters to those craving the beauty and classical design from the height of Greco-Roman culture.  Athens, however, exists in a bubble that tends to exclude its other 2,000 years of history.  Where are the Byzantine and Ottoman structures?  What about Greece’s history as a German-occupied state in World War II?  This history takes a back seat to the power and prestige afforded to Athens by the dominance of the Classical Age.

The Acropolis, the main focal point of Athenian tourism, changed dramatically in the years following Greek independence.  Nationalist archaeologists removed its Ottoman character and scrubbed it down its 5th century BCE roots (Athanassopoulou 2002: 273-274).  Athanassopoulou states that “archaeology plays an important role in establishing national identities and creating collective memories or imagined communities” (2002: 276).  This assessment goes a long way in explaining why the “archaeological cleansing of the Acropolis” occurred during the years immediately following the war of Greek independence in the 1830s; Greece was creating a national identity by building on its Periclean heritage.

The decision to emphasize Classical roots over Ottoman heritage no doubt springs from the wave of Philhellenism that became prevalent in 19th century Europe.  Greece was not only building a foundation for itself, but for all of Western Civilization (Athanassopoulou 2002: 291).  Is it right to ignore these other foundations of Greek history?  To clear the Parthenon of its Ottoman Mosque?  To pretend that it never happened?  The answer is no.

The Acropolis hill contains two Roman monuments; the rest of the buildings and statues date from the height of Athenian power in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.  That Roman history is important as well.  There was a mosque inside the Parthenon under the Ottomans (Athanassopoulou 2002: 278).  There are Byzantine churches scattered throughout Athens, but you won’t find any in the city center.  The Venetians used the Acropolis as a fortress when they took control of Athens in 1684.  These pieces of history should have been preserved as well, but they are noticeably absent from the cultural landscape of Athens.

Athens has a rich cultural history: the original melting pot of people and ideas.  It is a shame that a visitor to the city will most likely not be exposed to the wide range of uses that the Parthenon had, or even be able to see Byzantine and Ottoman artifacts or monuments.  It is a testament to Greek pride in its Classical roots that this history has been given top billing to the exclusion of others.  This is not to say there aren’t museums in the city that can shed some light on this, or that you won’t find any trace of the Ottoman legacy in this European capital.  It does mean that you won’t see any on the Acropolis, and this “alternative history” will always be shown as less important in the overall scheme of the Greek story: a spot that it has been relegated to, but does not deserve.

 Athanassopoulou, Effie K. 2002. An “Ancient” Landscape: European Ideals, Archaeology, and Nation Building in Early Modern Greece. In: Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol 20, pp. 273-305.

General Conservation

Artefacts from Mars and others from Venus: The Affect of Gender Roles in Conservation

February 19th, 2013

Artefacts from Mars and others from Venus: The Affect of Gender Roles in Conservation

 Kelci Martinsen

 This week’s conservation blog will continue to analyze factors that may affect the understanding of an artefact by exploring the significance of gender roles in a society. Gender roles are incredibly important to the organization of a civilization or culture because they help to define the customs that are upheld by a society. The customs of a culture influence the function and production of that culture’s artefacts. Therefore, through proper investigation, objects are able to reflect the gender roles of a society.          

The job of a conservator can be extremely difficult at times because a conservator is required to be objective in the treatment of each and every artefact. This means the conservator cannot let his or her own cultural customs influence the way the artefact is documented and understood. There are many diverse cultures that have very different gender roles from those belonging to Western culture. Gender roles include not just female or male but also androgyne, a presence of both genders, as well as agender, neither male nor female.  If a conservator does not take the gender roles belonging to the society that produced the artefact into account, the conservator may misinterpret the function of the object and this, in turn, could negatively affect the treatment used on the object.

The gender roles of the object’s owner can also affect the treatment of the artefact. Many cultures determine the significance of the object based on the standing of the object’s owner and therefore, it is extremely important that an artefact is treated in a way that respects the customs of the object’s culture. For example, if an artefact originally belonged to a woman and was primarily used by women, some cultures would prefer a woman conservator to work on the object even if her techniques may not be as proficient as her male colleague.  This could severely affect the treatment of the artefact but the customs of the society should be respected. In order to remedy the solution, a different, more skillful female conservator could perform the conservation of the object.

Overall, gender roles can have a significant affect on the conservation of an object and conservators should not let it interfere with the wellbeing of the artefact. However, A conservator does need to recognize and respect the gender roles of the artefact’s society in order for that object to be fully understood and, consequently, displayed properly to the public.

Work Cited

The British Museum. (n.d.). Gender Identity. Retrieved 02 04, 2013, from British Museum:

General Conservation

Handle with Care

February 18th, 2013


Skeletons in the Closet

A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community

“Handle with Care”

Eva Falls

            A conservator works with a variety of materials from metals, to paintings, to books, to ceramics, to textiles, but skeletal remains are in a category of their own.  They can hold a variety of meanings to the various groups interacting with them.  To scientists, they are a window into the past.  They tell a story about how people moved across the landscape, interacted with the environment around them, and help trace diseases.  For descendent communities, they tell the story of their ancestors and can carry the spirit of the deceased.  The conservator is put in a very delicate position.  Often there are several groups that may have extremely different stances on proper handling and care of human remains.  Finding that middle ground and compromising with interested parties is one of the most challenging issues facing conservators. (Weiss 2008)

Some important rules for conservators when handling skeletal remains:

-Avoid invasive or destructive techniques.  Invasive techniques can include pesticides, adhesives, consolidation, cleaning, screws, and wires.  It is easy for conservators to think they are being helpful, but some of these can be extremely destructive.  REVERSIBILITY should always be the goal.

-Documentation is crucial.  Everything that is done to the remains should be properly documented.

-Finally, always handle the remains with the utmost care, as gently as possible.  Conservators should be in a mental state, acknowledging they are handling the remains of conscious individuals.  (Cassman, Odegaard, and Powell 2007).

Everyone can agree human remains are different than other artifacts and should be treated with respect.  How that translates to the actual physical handling is a whole other matter.  Conservators should be culturally conscience at all times.  At the same time, conservators have to take into consideration their own knowledge of what is best for the long term treatment of remains, and the legal ramifications of their actions- a delicate dance on the ethical tightrope.


Cassman, Vicki, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell ed. 2007. Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. AltaMira Press. Lanham: 77-81.

Weiss, Elizabeth. 2008. Reburying the Past:  The Effects of Repatriation and Reburial on Scientific Inquiry. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. New York: 49-83.

General Conservation

Preservation, Restoration, and the “Authentic” Meaning of Archaeological Material

February 18th, 2013

Preservation, Restoration, and the “Authentic” Meaning of Archaeological Material

 Jeremy Borrelli

A fundamental issue at the heart of heritage management is the debate between restoration, preservation, and the authenticity of objects from the past. This topic is broad and can be applied to a range of materials, so for the purpose of this discussion I will focus specifically on archaeological artifacts recovered during excavation. What happens to artifacts after they are brought up from the ground or from the sea floor, including where and how those artifacts are to be conserved and ultimately displayed for public use is an important facet of any research design. Once excavations have been completed, the archaeologist must work with conservators and curators to decide what to do with the recovered material. One problem these professionals must answer is whether or not to preserve the artifacts as they are or to restore them to what they might have originally been? This brings in questions of authenticity and what it means to be “authentic” when it comes to archaeological material?

            To begin it is necessary to define preservation and restoration when it comes to cultural heritage. The office of the Secretary of the Interior defines the preservation of historic architecture as “the act or process of applying measures to sustain the existing form, integrity, and material of a building or structure…” (Murtagh 1997, 19). When applied to archaeological artifacts this definition essentially remains the same: to sustain the existing form of the object, as it was when recovered. However, it is often the case that historic sites or building are “restored” rather than preserved. This term indicates the recovery of the form and details of a site or artifact as it appeared at a particular period of time by either adding or removing earlier or later work done to the artifact throughout the course of its life (1997, 20). This would include such acts as the replacement of broken features on a recovered statue or ceramic. What links restoration and preservation is the desire for authenticity; for something to be real, or true. The “authentic” has been the focus of much debate for over 50 years among heritage managers around the world (Starn 2002). What exactly is authentic will vary person-to-person depending on the context of recovery, their personal background, and what the artifact might be.

As an archaeologist, however, it is important to recognize “the value of historical truth” (Muñoz Viñas 2005, 190). Whatever state the artifact is in at the moment it was recovered, whether it is damaged, broken, etc. is all a consequence of the life history of that artifact. Archaeologists are not generally concerned with the restoration of an artifact to anything approaching its original appearance because they can tell more about an object if it is worn, well used, and broken, than if it is in pristine condition (Rodgers 2004, 7). The historical evolution or process of events that culminated in the artifact appearing in a given way is illustrative of how that artifact was used, who used it, why they used it, and what values they placed on it. Restoration hides the true nature of an object, in fact, masking its authenticity and real historical value. Conservators often employ minimum intervention, where the conservation process “consists of the least amount of intervention required to achieve its goals” (Muñoz Viñas 2005, 189). This idea implies that conservators should essentially strive to freeze the artifact in its current state, therefore allowing the natural evolution of the artifact to come to the fore, rather than restoring it by utilizing modern interpretations of how the object might have been used. Ultimately what is important is the story of the artifact and the people that used it. By emphasizing preservation over restoration for archaeological material, archaeologists allow that story to come to life.


Muñoz Viñas, S. Contemporary Theory of Conservation. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Murtagh, W. 1997. The Language of Preservation. In Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons. 15-24.

Rodgers, B. 2004. Archaeologist’s Manual for Conservation : A Guide to Non-toxic, Minimal Intervention Artifact Stabilization. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Starn, R. Authenticity and Historic Preservation: Towards an Authentic History. History of the Human Sciences 15(1): 1-16.

General Conservation

Can’t Buy Me Love

February 18th, 2013

Can’t Buy Me Love: Tourism Dollars, Cultural Property Management, and Activism

Jeneva Wright

On my first trip to Paris, I decided to visit the catacombs. As a claustrophobe with a vivid imagination, the winding underground tunnels were challenging, but manageable. The careful stacks of remains displayed more macabre market appeal than educational interpretation, but they caused me no distress—until I watched a group of American tourists grab several human skulls. After playing around with the bones, one man nonchalantly dropped them to the ground. I do not know what appalled me more: the desecration of human remains or ancient history, but I ran for the exit, revolted.

Cultural heritage needs people. National parks, landmarks, and museums all compete for audiences, frantically trying to get people in their doors, vying against the magnetic pull that alternate entertainment sources assert on our society. Even when an individual opts to prioritize intellectual engagement over the mindless buzz of sitcom shows, museums still must compete for that person’s attention—after all, they can visit the Louvre online, watch a documentary from their computer, or download a book to read on their tablet. Even if they get off their couch, the museumgoer still has their pick of which venue to choose and which collection to support. In many ways, our museums, deposits of cultural heritage artifacts, are just like every other for-profit business: reliant on money, marketing, and superb collections to keep their doors open.

            It remains also that the use of capitalistic formulas (more traffic=more money=successful museum) can also have disastrous consequences. The prioritization of public approval can influence which pieces are accessioned, lead to dramatized exhibits derailing academic integrity, and can endanger the artifacts themselves. As Caple succinctly states, “Those who care for historic buildings and artefacts have a love-hate relationship with visitors” (2003:22). The finances associated with visitor management are an inescapable reality for cultural heritage managers. There is yet another element, however, the primary reason for cultural heritage’s significance: its ability to teach people about their past. 

            If those tourists had been educated about the significance of the human beings who lined the Paris catacomb walls, would they have shown respect or interest, and thus acted like more civilized human beings? If education has the potential to improve the human condition, then we must consider conservation to be a form of activism. This concept conceivably strengthens the case for public education and outreach beyond its financial benefits, even when weighed against the evident threats that such interactions pose to artifacts. Perhaps that is why UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, denotes cultural heritage as a fundamental human right (UNESCO). We as conservators have an obligation to try, to the best of our abilities, to convey that heritage and preserve an object’s integrity, so that we might continue to educate the public—and just maybe, better our species in the process.


Caple, C., 2003, Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 22.

Logan, W., 2012, “Cultural Diversity, Cultural Heritage and Human Rights: Towards heritage management as human rights-based cultural practice.” International Journal of Heritage Studies. 18. no. 3, pp. 231-44.



General Conservation

Conservation Conversation

February 18th, 2013

Conservation Conversation: Heritage Sites and Identity, A Review of Theoretical Approaches


Taryn Ricciardelli

             I recently read an intriguing article from 1994, written by Rghei and Nelson, entitled “The Conservation and use of the walled city of Triopli”. In this article, Rghei and Nelson argue that a change in a conservator’s theoretical perspective can help save heritage sites which are slowly decaying because of cultural change (in this example, Tripoli), and can also give structures a productive use-life in order to boost cultural connection to the site.

            In the past, the Madina ofTripoli was the center of cultural events and had an incredible amount of historical and social significance. However, as Rghei and Nelson explain, businesses have recently shifted away from using heritage sites as event centers, and many structures have become part of low-income housing which do not have the resources to keep the site in repair. In fact, many of these historic areas do not have proper drainage or sewage; this has largely taken place since the wealthy have stopped patronizing cultural centers, and moved outwards to larger cities.

            Rghei and Nelson explain that when North American and European historic sites are in danger of becoming isolated, policies are created to conserve and preserve historic areas. However, most sites in North America and Europe are truly saved by what Rghei and Nelson call a “culture-dependent approach”. This perspective sees heritage sites not as museum exhibits, but as actual living entities, which should be completely incorporated within a culture’s identity. Rghei and Nelson offer solutions to the “selective approaches” some traditional Islamic cities have taken, in which sites are seen as part of a distant past, not as an integral piece to present cultural affiliations. These solutions range from economic incentives to live and work in historic sites to efforts from the government to encourage conservation and conservation education.

            I personally commend the culture-dependent approach, in which sites become more than just objects and a presentation of the past. I believe archaeological and historical sites in North America can be much more than just exhibits; they can be teaching tools, connections with the distinct cultures and social groups essential to American history, and as sites for future research questions. I think Rghei and Nelson were a bit premature in praising North America and Europe for using cultural heritage sites as more than exhibits, but recognizing the need for growth and development is not always negative. America should embrace the idea of truly interactive site-conservation, in which even subregions can find a deeper connection with the artifacts that form a major part of their identity.


Courtesy of Nader Al-Gadi

Works Cited

 Rghei, Amer S. and J.G. Nelson. 1994. The Conservation and use of the walled city of Tripoli. The Geogrpahical Journal 160(2): 143-158

General Conservation

Controversial Conservation

February 18th, 2013

Controversial Conservation

 Kara Fox

            There is currently a deadlock between cultural heritage advocates and commercial entities in the field of maritime archaeology. This deadlock exists in response to the ethical problems relating to the means and motive behind treasure-hunting operations and commercial involvement. While this conflict obviously affects archaeological policies, it also extends to the field of conservation. As stewards of historical and cultural heritage, should conservators be expected to uphold the same ethical policies as archaeologists? Do the different objectives of these fields influence their ethical obligations? Is the responsibility of the conservator owed to the artifact at hand, or to the field in which they are assisting?

            Over the last ten years, the field of maritime archaeology has struggled with the problem of treasure hunting and salvage. This problem has stemmed from unscientific excavation methods destroying archaeological evidence and commercial entities selling priceless artifacts to the highest bidder. As a public entity, museums have been the forefront of archaeological policies such as accession, exhibitions, and conservation. In the article “The Archaeology Bylaw and Associated Considerations,” Dr. Paul Johnston fervently stands up against the display of salvaged artifacts in maritime museums. He discusses the bylaw history, which resulted in the adoption of this ethical statement by the Council of American Maritime Museums,

“CAMM member institutions shall adhere to archaeological standards consistent with those of the American Association of Museums/International Congress Museums (AAM/ICOM), and shall not knowingly acquire or exhibit artifacts which have been stolen, illegally exported from their country of origin, illegally salvaged or removed from commercially exploited archaeological or historic sites” (Johnston, CAMM, The Archaeology Bylaw and Associated Considerations).

However, according to the American Institute for Conservation, “The primary goal of conservation professionals, individuals with extensive training and special expertise, is the preservation of cultural property.” This goal brings up an obvious question, should the primary concern of a conservator differ from that of an archaeologist? Personally, I am undecided on this issue. As cultural and historical stewards, archaeologists and conservators ought to be preserving the authenticity of the past. Is accurate stewardship possible when “tainted” or unethical artifacts are discounted? Is history only valid and acceptable when acquired through ethical means?

            These questions are difficult to answer, which is why this controversial matter has yet to be resolved. However, the answer to unethical archaeology and conservation is not passively sitting by and ignoring the situation. All history should be recognized, recorded, and studied regardless of its nature, origin, or method of discovery. And as stewards of the past, we should do everything in our power to accomplish this.  



Johnston, Paul. “CAMM, The Archaeology Bylaw and Associated Considerations.” CAMM Archaeology Committee. Date unknown.

“Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.” About AIC, accessed February 4, 2013.



General Conservation

Conservation and Maritime Artifacts: Is It Worth It?

February 18th, 2013

Conservation and Maritime Artifacts: Is It Worth It?

Caitlin Zant

             The conservation of maritime artifacts has become an increasingly important part of the growing field of Maritime Archaeology. Unlike terrestrial sites, maritime archaeological sites are usually much more dynamic and require additional consideration when attempting to conserve artifacts. When the field of Maritime Archaeology first began, the common archaeological method used was a complete excavation of the ship and all artifacts. This process left archaeologists and conservators the arduous duty of figuring out what to do with waterlogged artifacts. Artifacts that have been underwater have been exposed to currents, and in the case of oceanic sites, have been saturated with salts. Upon bringing these objects to the surface, the archaeologists and conservators have had to discover different ways of desalinating artifacts and gradually removing water so they do not shrink and crack upon drying. This potentially long and expensive process has still not been perfected, specifically for waterlogged wood.

            Polyethylene glycol (PEG) has been the preferred method of conserving waterlogged wood, but now, conservators and archaeologists are beginning to find that PEG is not necessarily the best method of conservation. An expensive process, PEG soaking can take years of work in order to saturate the waterlogged wood, and recently, conservators have been noticing the limits of PEG, including microbial growth on the surface of PEG saturated wood have been discovered (Björdal and Nilsson, 2001). With the expense and difficulty of conserving and preserving waterlogged wood on land, archaeologists have begun to favor in situ preservation of maritime sites and artifacts. While this is a much less expensive and simpler alternative to full excavation, what does this mean for conservators and public outreach concerning maritime heritage?

            One of the most well known instances of PEG in conservation is the conservation of Vasa in Sweden. It took conservators working on Vasa nineteen years to soak the ship in PEG and another nine years to dry the wood to prevent any shrinking or cracking. Despite this, the glycol still has not fully saturated the wood. This only adds to other issues with the conservation of Vasa, including the buildup of sulfur in the timbers (Hocker, 2010). Although this is an important part of Swedish maritime heritage, the cost of continued conservation continues to increase, as does the amount of effort it takes to preserve the ship. This brings up the question, is all of this work really worth it? This question truly addresses the core issue behind gaining more funding for conservation projects; is the result worth the cost and effort to conserve?       


The hull of Vasa

Credit: Karolina  Kristensen

            Conservators at work on the Mary Rose have run into a similar issue. After years of soaking the ship in PEG and carefully regulating the relative humidity of its storage, sulfur is beginning to accumulate in the timbers of the warship (Damian, Fors, Jones, and Sandström, 2005). Conservators are fighting a continuing battle to discover the source of these sulfates and to discover ways to combat it for the conservation of this important piece of English maritime heritage.

 mary rose

The hull of Mary Rose         

Credit: The Mary Rose Trust


mary rose 2

 A conservator working on Mary Rose  

Credit: The Mary Rose Trust

            In situ preservation is beginning to be used more and more in place of excavating entire sites, but what does this do to museum collections? If objects are studied, recorded and left on the ocean floor, they are being preserved, but they remain out of reach of the public. Public outreach is a major topic in the field of maritime archaeology, but I believe that this topic must be addressed in the field of archaeological conservation, especially with the conservation of maritime artifacts. This type of preservation has a direct impact on the work of conservators and the idea of preserving the past for the public to see. With most artifacts remaining underwater, this leaves them out of reach to a majority of the public. So how does this effect conservation? How do you preserve cultural heritage for the public and gain public interest when the artifacts cannot be seen? Although this does not answer these questions, bringing them up as something that needs further discussion is an important part of the future of the conservation of maritime artifacts.



Björdal, C. G. and T. Nilsson. 2001. “Observations on Microbial Growth during Conservation Treatment of Waterlogged Archaeological Wood” In “Studies in Conservation”, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 211-220.

Damian, E., Fors, Y., Jones, M. and Sandström, M., 2005. “Sulfur Accumulation in the Timbers of King Henry VIII’s Warship Mary Rose: A Pathway in the Sulfur Cycle of Conservation Concern”. In: “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America”, Vol. 102, No. 40, pp. 14165-14170.

 Hocker, E., 2010. “Maintaining a Stable Environment: “Vasa'”s New Climate-Control System”. In: “APT Bulletin”, Vol. 41, No. 2/3, pp. 3-9.

 Photo Sources

 Kristensen, K.,  Swedish National  Maritime  Museums.

The Mary Rose Trust.




General Conservation

Customs and Conservation: Totem Poles

February 18th, 2013

Customs and Conservation:  Totem Poles

Alyssa Reisner

            Western cultural ideals seem to favor the preservation and maintenance of material culture, yet other cultures may favor the natural decay or intentional destruction of certain types of cultural material as influenced by their own customs and traditions. Other aspects of material culture may not be able to be properly represented in a museum, as their significance seems to come from not only being preserved, but from being in a certain location. Some types of totem poles exemplify this positional significance. Totem poles are sculptures carved from trees, often by the people of indigenous North American cultures. There are different types of totem poles, each having their own significance. Some of these poles include house frontal poles, house portal poles, memorial poles, mortuary poles, and shame poles (Stewart 1993).  Though preserving totem poles in museums certainly seems beneficial as it allows future generations to view and learn about important aspects of other cultures, there is a question of whether it can be considered worth the loss of the significance held by the actual location and intended use of the original totem pole.

            One example of this sort of complication can be shown through the shame pole. The shame pole “was carved for a chief who wished to ridicule or shame another—often his rival” (Stewart 1993:25).  The pole stood to bring attention to some long-standing unpaid debt or misdeed that was thought to be worthy of ridicule or scorn, and when restitution was made, the pole would be taken down (Stewart 1993). These poles are now thought to “exist only in museums” (Stewart 1993:25).  Shame poles were not meant to stand forever, as they were taken down once the conflict was settled; so, is the preservation of a pole meant for this purpose necessarily ethical?

            There seemingly are at least two different ways to answer such a question. No one solution appears to be necessarily better than another, but all viewpoints should be considered. It is important for future generations of other cultures to learn about this type of totem pole, and from this point of view, the preservation of shame poles seems to be beneficial and significant. Though, if the culture that initially created the shame pole does not think that it should still be standing, it could be more beneficial not to preserve the pole. It is always possible, however, that future generations of the culture that created the totem pole could want the shame poles to be preserved in order to have a link to their heritage. The preservation of objects that were not initially meant to be saved or maintained is a complex subject that requires extra consideration. If the totem poles are preserved in a setting such as a museum, the public, perhaps along with the people of the culture in question, are due additional explanation. 


Stewart, Hilary. Looking at Totem Poles. Vancouver, British Columbia: Douglas & McIntyre, 1993.

General Conservation

A King is Revealed. What Happens Next?

February 18th, 2013

A King is Revealed.  What Happens Next?

William Sassorossi

           A University of Leicester (United Kingdom) archaeological team recently released results indicating the recovery of the late King Richard III, who passed away in battle in the late 15th century.  The skeletal remains were located using historical archival research of primary battle and burial accounts along with maps from the time period.  Using these tools, doctors using mitochondrial DNA from the skeletal remains were able to compare results with surviving family descendants to make a positive identification (Levine, 2013).  Prior to this testing, marks including scars from knives and larger weapons, indicating a violent death, were found on parts of the skeleton.  Also, a defined curvature of the spine all help identify the skeleton as King Richard III.

            To keep within the higher ethical standards archaeologists must adhere to, this information must be published and peer reviewed.  At this moment, this is still in the process.  Once completed, if the evidence holds true, a very interesting chapter in English history will be competed.  But what do future plans hold for the King?  Will there be work to conserve his remains for display for tourists or will there be a proper burial and interment?  At this moment, it seems the later will be the course, the remains currently in the care of the Leicester Cathedral.

            But consider the alternative.  A piece of English history has been uncovered and a great deal of information could be gleaned from the remains.  With the enormous financial undertaking already spent on this project, it could be useful for future endeavors to possibly profit from the discovery.  Creating a museum, to include other artifacts from this period for display, would both increase public knowledge of King Richard III as well as possibly fund future research projects.  The conservation of the bones as well as other artifacts found could greatly increase public awareness to a subject that many seem not to understand.

            Ethical treatment of the remains is a given. What is done with the remains may have lasting impacts on considerations for future projects.  A display of King Richard III’s remains may be considered unethical by some, but given the history of his gruesome demise, it could also be a nobler resting place among those interested in seeing him.  Donations and museum ticket sales would increase revenue for future projects at the University of Leicester, and the continuation of increasing the knowledge base of the public should be a primary goal of all those involved.

Levine, Alden Maler. 2013. “Skeletal Sleuthing Team Uncovered Royal Remains and the Story Behind Them,”, Accessed February 4, 2013.

General Conservation

What is worth conserving: Preventative conservation today or Conservation tomorrow

February 14th, 2013

What is worth conserving: Preventative conservation today or Conservation tomorrow

 Hannah Piner

There are two types of preservation methods that can be applied to objects: interventive, which interacts with and potentially changes the artifact in conserving it; or preventative, meaning conserving artifacts by doing everything but interacting with it, mostly by changing its environment. Both have their benefits and their failures, but, once the object becomes historically or archaeologically relative, which one is better suited for future analysis of the artifact using science and for future historical interpretation?

Cost becomes a problem no matter when the object is conserved; if it is conserved using preventative measures there are upkeep costs, if the treatment is interventive then there is the cost of time and treatment. Which of these is more cost efficient depends on the condition of the artifact and the financial state of the museum or patron. It is initially less expensive to use preventative conservation, because the artifact does not have to be handled, cleaned, or otherwise tampered with. If the artifact is in bad condition (i.e. is cracking, corroding, or flaking away), however, the cost of interventive conservation will only increase with the degradation of the objects condition.

Another part of preventative conservation is keeping objects from today, that are in good condition, so that they can be used as teaching tools and artifacts for future generations. This way a museum would have a concrete history of the object and could keep it in working order, however, we do not know significance of every object in use today and deciding what is significant enough to keep is subjective. There also needs to be a large storage area to house the objects that are in this limbo period of use and historical significance.

Preventative conservation is also popular because so many scientific methods are destructive to the artifact; with more advancements in the field come new and better ways to study artifacts that have not been tampered with.

This is contrasted with interventive conservation, where artifacts have survived and (in most cases) outlived their technological descendants. These artifacts are relevant upon discovery, and can be n a variety of conditions, from excellent to poor. These objects have had years to interact with their environmental surroundings uninhibited and unprotected. They are rotted, corroded, disintegrated, and in pieces. The conservator must spend time and money to restore this artifact to a stable condition. Unfortunately, stability and aesthetic authenticity are not always the same. Often times an artifact will look very different after burial or submersion. The object will, also, most likely never be able to be used for its original and intended purpose again.  This makes the artifact an excellent teaching tool, but takes away its functionality.

I would argue that interventive conservation is more logical overall. This allows the artifacts more immediate stability, which in turn provides the object  a longer life and provides researchers with easier access, because it is more accepted for people to access and touch stable artifacts. Preventative conservation, on the other hand, should be used on artifacts that are originally in excellent condition and are low risk for becoming unstable. This is also a decent option for organizations that do not have the money to interventively conserve an artifact right away.

The view on preventative conservation is changing. The more the field grows and the more advanced science becomes the more it is accepted to leave artifacts like they are, but interventive conservation is still the most accepted and practiced form of conservation.

 Caple, Chris. Conservation Skills: Judgment, Methods, and Decision Making. New York: Routlege; 2000.


Ethics and Theory, Museum Studies

Out of the Ivory Towers and Into the Field: A Glowing Example of Public Conservation at Montezuma Well

February 14th, 2013

Out of the Ivory Towers and Into the Field: A Glowing Example of Public Conservation at Montezuma Well

 Sara Kerfoot

            Conservation is a science. There are specific consequences if conservation is done poorly; a lack of knowledge can be devastating to artifacts and sites. Not everyone has the opportunity to go through training that would adequately prepare an individual to properly handle and preserve artifacts from future deterioration, but not all conservation work needs to be done in a lab. There are certain aspects of conservation that the public has an opportunity to take part in given the right direction. Montezuma Well is an exemplary case of when public outreach and conservation can work together to create an ongoing example of cultural heritage. Montezuma Well National Monument has an active thousand-year-old irrigation system and uses the public to help maintain it.

            One of the National Park Service’s main goals is to preserve cultural heritage for future generations. Conservation is the act of preserving nomenclatural resources; conservators are not always conserving pieces of waterlogged wood and broken ceramics, they are stewards to heritage and in some cases that heritage is still active. Montezuma Well National Monument in Camp Verde, Arizona is a huge sinkhole; human modification can be seen in cliff dwellings and an active thousand-year-old irrigation ditch (National Park Service 2013). The ingenious Sinagua people of the Verde Valley created this canal; it pumps 1.5 million gallons of water from the sinkhole (Montezuma Well) every day at a constant 74 degrees Fahrenheit (National Park Service 2013). The site, as a whole, is protected and preserved by the park service. The maintenance crew, the park archaeologists, and park rangers work together to survey this ancient ditch on a daily basis; the maintenance crew preserves the site by ensuring the water flow is not obstructed by flora and fauna, they also patch leaky areas. Professionals preserve the integrity of the irrigation canal, but it is not limited to them.

montezumas well Irrigation System at Montezuma Well (Credit: Author)

              Since the irrigation system is still active and brings water to residents in the Verde Valley, each year this ancient water supply is re-directed to the river during winter. During winter, plants and debris encroach upon the area where flowing water runs during the spring and summer months. It takes hundreds of hours to clear out the rooted plants and debris before re-directing the canal back to its original path. One of the ways the park manages this huge feat is by enlisting volunteers to help with the project. Since 2004, the Volunteers of Outdoor Arizona (VOAz) hold an event where they clear weeds and remove calcium and travertine deposits from the ditch. Each year around mid-April, for one weekend, these volunteers help anywhere between 300 to 500 working hours (VOAz 2012). Their dedication and effort, with the park’s assistance, is a valuable component to the park’s goal of preserving cultural heritage. In order for the public to understand conservation, they need to have opportunities to get involved with conservation. Programs that allow for an interested public to participate in conservation work are integral for creating a learning environment. Public outreach is necessary for the discipline of conservation to thrive.

            Archaeologists and conservators are uncovering a story. But if the story is still going, professionals have a duty to not put a “no touch” sign on it and bar it from public access. There are multiple cases when conservators must protect an artifact so it survives, however, that is not the case for everything re-discovered. As tempting as it is to allow conservators to preserve all aspects of cultural heritage, that is not a feasible task. And in some cases, it may not be a desired role for a conservator. Where the public can play a role in conservation, they should. It allows for the public’s knowledge to grow and for them to create a connection enough to have care and concern for a site. The only way to safely do this is to create a link between the public and conservators.  As long as there is a strong enough connection to cultural heritage, it will continue to be preserved.


 National Park Service, 2013. Exploring Montezuma Well. In: Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona. National Park Service. <>. Accessed February 2, 2013.

 Volunteers of Outdoor Arizona, 2012. Montezuma Castle Conservation Work. In Volunteers of Outdoor Arizona. <>. Accessed February 2, 2013.

Public Outreach

The Conservation of Heavily Visited Cultural Heritage Sites

February 14th, 2013

The Conservation of Heavily Visited Cultural Heritage Sites

Lucas Simonds

             While visiting the site of Butrint in Albania over the summer, I was disappointed to discover that one of its most stunning features, a mosaic pavement on the floor of a Byzantine period baptistery, was being kept out of sight due to conservation concerns. Like many heavily visited sites, the baptistery pavement would be prone to the wear and tear of thousands of tourist’s feet, and for the sake of preservation, the Butrint management had resorted to the rather inelegant solution of covering over the mosaic with sand. While I was upset at the thought of only seeing the mosaic through a faded picture on a nearby sign, I was reminded also of the ever present danger to such works of art, as a young couple jumped over the fence surrounding the mosaic area to have their picture taken among the columns of the baptistery.

At Butrint, as at many other heavily visited cultural heritage sites, conservators have to walk the fine line between preserving cultural heritage and displaying it to the public, for whom it is being preserved. In situations such as this it is difficult to devise a single best practice, as each site has not only different deterioration factors, but different amounts of funding available for preservation work. While the sand covering the mosaic at Butrint certainly serves as a functional barrier to the effects of trampling tourists, sites with more available funding are able to employ more labor intensive methods. At the Lascaux caves in France for instance, where carbon dioxide produced by visitors had begun to degrade the cave paintings within ten years of their opening to the public, a replica of the original caves has been made nearby to allow tourists to experience the cultural heritage without damaging the fragile original work (Dupont et al. 2007, 526). Similarly, at Pompeii in Italy the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great has been removed to the museum in nearby Naples, and replaced by an exact replica on-site. These replica solutions allow for greater access to cultural heritage by tourists while also protecting them from both those, like the couple I saw in Pompeii, who ignore barriers and trample over ancient floors without a thought, and from the inadvertent damage caused merely by the presence of tourists, such as the situation in the Lascaux caves. Although this is an effective method for both presenting and preserving cultural heritage to the general public, it also removes the key element of genuineness from the experience. While the lack of genuineness may not be a concern of the average tourist, I personally felt its absence when viewing the Alexander mosaic, and I am sure informed visitors to most sites would have a similar experience.  

            Unfortunately, authenticity is only one of the many factors which weave into the complex web of the conservation of cultural heritage on heavily trafficked sites. While the experience of the visitor must be taken into account, as it is for them that our heritage is being preserved, the preservation of the object has to take precedence, as without that, the site would not be worth visiting. Yet, as mentioned, the replacement of fragile artifacts with replicas only serves to lessen the experience for a large portion of the visitors. Even worse, however, are the simple solutions, such as that employed at Butrint, which eliminate any sort of personal encounter with cultural heritage, and are bad for all types of visitors. What then, should be done to preserve cultural heritage, while also allowing it to be viewed by as many as is reasonable?

            In an article on the conservation of rock art, Janette Deacon stresses both the complex nature of conservation on heavily visited sites, and the need for detailed management plans for such sites, which encompass all of the intricacies involved. This would include assessments of the advisable visitor capacities for each area of the sites, as well as considerations of more natural deterioration factors. More importantly, however, she advises the use of tour guides to prevent the many sorts of damage that can result from tourists interacting with the site (Deacon, 2006). While this may again cut into the enjoyableness of the experience; I certainly would have found a guide at Pompeii to be a damper to my exploration; the fact remains that staff on the ground near sensitive areas will the most effective control of visitors in that area by far. Signs can be ignored and barriers can be jumped, but an employee will be able to stop any reasonable visitor from doing something that they should not.

            As mentioned, the preservation of cultural heritage in highly visited sites is far from being a straightforward or simple issue. Natural deterioration factors such as weathering must be taken into account, and sometimes the only solution may be to remove an object, such as a mosaic, to a more controlled environment. Whenever possible, however, I believe it would be best to leave original objects on site. Of course this still exposes our heritage to the damage, both intentional and unintentional, caused by tourists, but strategic placement of staff or mandatory tour guides, can stop any reasonable visitor from touching things they shouldn’t. While this may be a more expensive solution, the fact that it can allow for genuine artifacts to remain on site makes it worthwhile when possible.


Deacon, Janette. 2006. Rock Art Conservation and Tourism. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13(4): 379-399.

Dupont, Joelle, Claire Jacquet, Bruno Dennetiere, Sandrine Lacoste, Faisl Bousta, Genevieve Orial, Corinne Cruaud, Arnaud Couloux, and Marie-France Roquebert. 2007. Invasion of the French Paleolithic Painted Cave of Lascaux by Members of the Fusarium solani Species Complex. Mycologia 99(4): 526-533.

Ethics and Theory ,

Working Together in the Field: Compromise and Communication between Conservators and Archaeologists

February 14th, 2013

Working Together in the Field: Compromise and Communication between Conservators and Archaeologists

 Hannah Smith

            Having the split personality that I do as a student of both archaeology and conservation, I’ve seen the unintentional divide that exists between conservators and archaeologists. In so many cases, this divide is due to a lack of understanding of what a conservator really does, as well as how to communicate what would be the best course of action to preserve a collection. That process encompasses the entire time from the moment the artifact leaves the ground to when it leaves the conservation lab. As a result, better communication is needed – on both sides – so that the history that is embodied by excavated artifacts can be preserved in the best way possible. Part of this communication needs to include demystifying what a conservator does, as well as how archaeologists can work with conservators to make both sides’ jobs easier.

            Much of the work conservators do takes place in an environment that is very different from where archaeologists work. The equipment needed and the vocabulary used to describe conservation can also prove to be a gap in a non-conservator’s knowledge. Once someone understands how and why a certain treatment is done and what the terms used to describe it are, it’s no longer so foreign. To that end, conservators should make an effort to show archaeologists more of what they do, while still cautioning that treatment shouldn’t be undertaken without proper training.

Because artifacts deteriorate so quickly, care must be taken from the very moment that the artifacts are uncovered on the site. Of course, the ideal situation includes a conservator working with the archaeologist before the excavations begin, and continuing through until everything is cleaned, stabilized, and safely stored or displayed (Singley 1981). But rarely does the ideal situation become reality. More often, artifacts sit in storage for a long time before a conservator can assess and treat them. Therefore, it is necessary for conservators to keep an open line of communication with the archaeologists in the field as to how best to clean, package and store their artifacts (Singley 1981). This means that there needs to be more information available to those outside of the field of conservation as to how to manage the basic needs of artifacts – those of stability and protection. While there are plenty of sources of information and supplies available, we need to bring those sources to the attention of archaeologists. We also need to account for the fact that not every project will have unlimited funds, so less expensive, but still appropriate, options for collection management should also be explained to our colleagues.

            Before an artifact can be stored, however, it needs to be cleaned, and each type of material has different needs. The cleaning methods needed for ceramics, for example, are different than those for metals (Singley 1981). A basic understanding of these methods will greatly improve the conditions that artifacts are in after excavation. Dirt left behind can provide an environment that allows decay to begin or continue, especially if the environment the artifact is housed in is unstable (Cronyn 1990). And while many archaeologists know the basics of cleaning artifacts, changes in best practices may have occurred since they were in school. By communicating well, conservators can keep archaeologists abreast of the changes that are occurring in our field, which will help collections survive to provide more information to future generations of conservators and archaeologists alike.

 Cronyn, J. M. 1990. Elements of Archaeological Conservation. New York, New York: Routledge.

 Singley, Katherine A. 1981 Caring for Artifacts After Excavation – Some Advice for Archaeologists.  Historical Archaeology 15(1): 36-48.

Archaeological Conservation

Conservation: Using Others Mistakes to Avoid Our Own

February 14th, 2013

Conservation: Using Others Mistakes to Avoid Our Own

Kate Clothier

Conservation involves multiple fields coming together in order to better protect and understand artifacts. A combination of archaeology, chemistry, even biology can all be called upon at the same time by the conservator whilst they are working on the said object. Since conservation efforts require so many different fields of knowledge, the conservator must be aware of what is going on in other fields. By expanding their gaze, information can flow easier and benefit their effort. The information that can be gained from other fields is not limited strictly to data concerning decay or material makeup, but it can also involve ethical questions.

One such question is where to draw the line at examining artifacts. What is meant by this is how much of an object are we willing to remove and potentially destroy in order to gain information.  Conservators must walk a fine line in determining what is acceptable to “sacrifice” for the good of the entire collection. For example, taking a few coins from a collection of over a thousand and then breaking them down (as in removing a section of it or cutting into the coin) to better understand their process of decay. However, once those coins are broken down, they can no longer be part of the collection.  How is it decided what is ok to take away from the collection since it will no longer be available for future use? In conservation the size of the collection and the potential benefits of ‘sacrificing’ the object are weighed out before anything irreversible is done. This helps to ensure that what is lost is not more than what will be gained.

A prime example of the damage that can be done if the cost vs benefit ratio is not properly followed is highlighted in a University of Arizona Environmental department article concerning the Prometheus Bristlecone pine. A geology researcher eager to get results concerning glacial features decided rather than taking a small sample from the Bristlecone pines to gather his information he would cut an entire plant down for more immediate results. Soon after he cut down one of the Bristle cone pines, it was learned that the plant selected was the oldest tree alive, dating nearly 5000 years old (UA Communications, 2013. “Keepers of Prometheus: The World’s Oldest Tree.” University of Arizona Research & Discovery in Environment & Sustainability, Accessed: Web. 5 Feb. 2013). The article explains that the same results could have been gathered from the plant, dubbed Prometheus, if the researcher had followed the approved methods of dendrochronology by taking small samples of the core, which would not have hurt the plant. This would have allowed future researches the chance to monitor and learn more about the plant survival strategy in addition to the plant yielding the needed information for the geologist in his glacial research, but there was no way to undo what had been done.

This same concept can be applied to the conservation world. The conservator must be careful in what they select to break down and examine in an irreversible way. If the object is one of a kind then it cannot be treated in the same manner that something like a large collection of coins would be treated, or else future information can be lost, similar to what happened with the Prometheus Bristlecone pine.  Taking small core samples can yield useful information without damaging the entire collection. It can explain the material makeup of the object, why or why not it is decaying, what type of decay is happening, and what the best method to protect the object would be. Looking into other fields and the mistakes they have made can help emphasize why conservators need to be so diligent and practical in their art. The information and materials they work with is one of a kind.


Ethics and Theory, Science ,

A Fine Balance: Presenting Conservation to the Public

February 6th, 2013

A Fine Balance: Presenting Conservation to the Public

Stephanie Croatt


            In the conservation field’s struggle to become more visible and better understood by the general public, there exist some difficulties in how to present the profession to the layperson. It seems that museums may be the key to this dilemma. Museums are often viewed as places for learning and offer the perfect venue for seeing the end results of conservation. Examples of museums that have made attempts to give visitors a glimpse of how conservators stabilize and prepare objects for display and how the museum environment is specially designed and maintained to ensure the objects’ well-being include:



The discussions of conservation in each of the museums above exhibit a variety of methods of attracting the public’s attention and eliciting thought about conservation. It seems that the three most effective devices by which museums can present conservation to the public are making the information accessible to the viewer, offering concrete and hands-on examples, and cutting romantic stereotypes of the field.


            That conservation is a very technical field with its own extensive set of jargon is undeniable, and presenting the key concepts and techniques to the layperson in an intelligible way is a sizeable task. Nonetheless, museums should strive to unpack the language and ideas for the average person. Adding layers of information that go from simple to more complex might be a good way of adding detail and complexity for viewers who want more information or detail about a certain idea or technique. Having trained “facilitators” that can discuss elements of the exhibit in more detail or give out bibliographies for further research might also be an effective way of deepening the subject for those that are interested and not overwhelming those who are not interested in more detail (Podany and Maish 1993, 102).


            In addition to making the ideas easy to understand, having concrete examples and hands-on activities may help to reinforce the main message of a certain part of the exhibit, as well as engage visitors who are otherwise not attracted to reading. In their exhibition, entitled Preserving the Past, Jerry Podany and Susan Lansing Maish included interactive opportunities for visitors. One such hands-on activity invited visitors to reassemble broken pottery sherds and then identify the vessel from a chart of Greek vessel shapes (Podany and Maish 1993, 104). Such interactive opportunities allow the public to experience some of the techniques used in conservation, and may excite the interest of more visitors.


            Hands-on opportunities that allow the viewer to follow the step by step procedure to conserving artifacts may also work to dispel unrealistic and romantic perceptions of conservation. Indeed, simplifying language for the layperson sometimes leads the exhibit creator to draw analogies between the conservator and the noble doctor, or present before and after photographs that may give the public a false notion about the realities of conservation (Podany and Maish 1993, 105). While sometimes attractive, the romantic view of conservation tends to lead the public to think that the conservator’s job is to swoop in and permanently save objects from certain deterioration. This perception tends to lead discourse away from the sometimes mundane reality of the field and the ideas of reversibility and minimal intervention, which are the main tenets of conservation.  


            Although it may seem that any public education about conservation is good, there are certainly pitfalls that can lead the public to misunderstand the field. Pitfalls may be avoided by making information accessible to the visitor, offering hands-on activities, and by dispensing of romantic notions of conservation. While these extra steps may increase the expense of creating and running exhibitions focusing on conservation, it is well worth the cost because a public that is better informed about the importance and realities of conservation is a public that is better prepared and more willing to fund conservation projects in the future.




Podany, J.C. and S.L. Maish. 1993. Can the Complex Be Made Simple? Informing the Public about Conservation through Museum Exhibits. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 32(2): 101-108.

Ethics and Theory, Museum Studies , , ,

Study Abroad-Israel 2013

February 6th, 2013

Summer Abroad 2013

Program Itinerary and Academic Schedule

July 7-July 27, 2013

Ever wondered what it would be like to travel to the Middle East? Curious to see first-hand the sights described in the Bible? Maybe you are interested in gaining valuable field experience in archaeological conservation? Join us as we travel through Israel to Tel-Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel-el Hesi, Ashkelon, and Ashdod. Our 20-day journey will take us to active archaeological excavations, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and several local and national museums.


Title: Preservation of Cultural Heritage in Israel

Program Location: Tel-Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel-el Hesi, Ashkelon, Ashdod

Program Overview: The preservation of cultural heritage is critical to societies internationally in order to retain personal identity, cultural history, and experiences of the past for the future. This process includes the conservation of built heritage, archaeological sites, material culture, and artworks that are inherent in modern society. This study abroad experience allows students to visit historic and archaeological sites that are critical to our understanding of culture within the human race. Students will gain real world experience in archaeological site preservation techniques by visiting active sites and gain insight into the preservation challenges that archaeologists are facing with material culture from a maritime and terrestrial environment. Israel offers a diverse range of cultural experiences that will enrich student’s exposure to Middle Eastern cultures and experience a variety of lifestyles and customs that are unique to the area. Students will work closely with local conservators and gain hands on experience in field conservation techniques that benefit site interpretation.


Credit Hours Possible: 9 CH


Graduate Courses Offered:

HIST6992: Directed Studies in History, 3CH

HIST5005: Field Methods in Archaeological and Museum Artifact Conservation, 6CH


Undergraduate Courses Offered:

HIST4533: Directed Studies in History, 3CH

HIST5005: Field Methods in Archaeological and Museum Artifact Conservation, 6CH


Primary Faculty Director:

Susanne Grieve

Director of Conservation

East Carolina University



Cost: $3721.20 (w/out airfare)


For More Information on ECU Summer Abroad Programs, visit:


Frequently Asked Questions: (Currently Being Updated):

1) Do I need a visa to travel to Israel?

2) What paperwork do I need to have for traveling?

  • A valid passport that doesn’t expire within 2013.
  • Complete the STEP form.

3) Is it safe to drink the water?

4) What kind of food is there? What if I have a specific dietary concern?

  • Please let the trip leader know if you have any allergies or dietary needs. Most restaurants and eateries have a variety of food options including vegetarian. It is important that you are open to a variety of food options as they can be limited while working in the field. Israel is a melting pot of food. The trip leader is a vegetarian and can attest that the food across the country is delicious! For more ideas on food, check out Israel Food Guide or Wikipedia.

5) Is is safe to travel to the Middle East?

  • While there is conflict occurring in Middle Eastern countries, Israel can be considered relatively safe to travel in. The trip will be canceled in the event of conflicts escalating in Israel to the point that it is no longer safe for Americans. This decision will not based on news headlines or popular media commentary, but rather travel advisories by the Department of State. Please review the current information on Israel for updated information: Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

6) Will we be near any of the current conflicts?

  • Israel is located between Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon which have experienced recent conflicts. The Gaza strip and West Bank area are also known to have associations with armed conflict and it is important to be diligent in your awareness of current events and personal safety. We will not be traveling into these areas. The closest we will travel to the West Bank will be Jerusalem for three days and the furthest South we will go is Ruhama.

7) What kind of clothes should I bring?

  • We will be continually on the move, so it is important to wear clothes that are comfortable and easily transported. While we are working in the field, its important that you have clothes that can get dirty and that also protect you from the sun. In July, temperatures reach 75F to 95F during the day with anywhere from 70-90% humidity. The sun is very strong in Israel and you should bring clothes that keep you cool, but also protect you from sunburn. Good places to buy one or two good key pieces are at REI or other outdoor shops which can also give you advice on clothing. Also, bring your swimsuit!

8) What will the temperature be like?

  • Israel is part of a Mediterranean environment. Averages temps can be found at The Weather Channel. It can easily reach 100+F when working in the field.

9) Is this a religious tour?

  • No, this program is for those interested in material culture that has been produced by prehistoric and historical societies. We will be visiting the sites that are described in the Bible which is interesting for those who are both religious and non-religious. Attendees on this trip absolutely must be open to other viewpoints and religions.

10) My parents are concerned about my safety, what should they know about traveling there?

  • It is understandable that you or your family would be concerned about traveling in Israel and the Middle East. Parents are welcome to contact the trip leader if they have any specific questions. We will cancel the trip if we feel that the attendees will be in any possible danger. There is always some degree of risk when traveling overseas, but we will do everything we can to minimize that risk. With that said, it is important that students can take personal responsibility and be able to take direction.

11) What experience does the trip leader have?

  • Susanne has been traveling internationally since she was 12 years old. She has visited, both individually and in groups, Alaska, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, Canada, Virgin Islands, Haiti, Bahamas, Costa Rica, Mexico, England, Scotland, Amsterdam, Cyprus, Israel, Namibia, and South Africa, She participated in leading a group of graduate and undergraduate students around South Africa in conjunction with other faculty. The other professionals that we will interact with on the program also have extensive experience in leading groups in Israel.

12) Is it expensive to purchase food or othr items in Israel?

  • Much like other countries, it will depend on what cities you are in. Food will be covered in the study abroad fees, and will be of similar quality that you would have while traveling (sandwiches for lunch and hot meals for dinner). There are lots of great areas for shopping and opportunities to indulge in the local culture. For an idea of costs, check out Numbeo.

13) Do I need to be an ECU student to attend?

  • No, students from other universities can enroll as well. Please contact the ECU Study Abroad office for more details.

14) What is the itinerary?

  • Specific sites to be visited are still being confirmed. More details will be provided here. Some of the activities will depend on the desires and experience of the attendees.

15) What is expected from me as far as coursework?

  • Students will be expected to actively participate in discussions as well as provide a research paper at the end of the semester. This paper will directly contribute to the sites we visit or conduct conservation treatments with. Students will also give presentations on a specific aspect of Israel before departing. More details will be provided.

16) Can I take more than one Directed Study?

  • Yes, please refer to your advisor for more information on how these courses will fit into your curriculum.

17) Does the recent activity in Israel and Gaza affect the program?

  • At this point, we are not canceling the trip due to the fact that events change very quickly in this area. It is important to stay up to date on the events in Israel and we will be watching for new develoments closely. A great deal of the activity could be due to upcoming elections in January. We will make a final determination in the Spring.

18) Will I recieve a refund if the trip is cancelled?

  • Yes, you will recieve a full refund if the trip is cancelled.

19) What kind of housing will we be in?

Since we will be traveling across the country side, we will stay in variety of housing options including hotels and hostels. The excavation site we will visit in Ruhama will use a kibbutz as a base. See their website for images and more:

General Conservation, Research and Experiments , ,

Displaying the Dead: Disrespecting or Honoring the Past?

February 4th, 2013

Displaying the Dead: Disrespecting or Honoring the Past?

Kate Clothier

Going to museums has always brought me happiness. After spending countless hours lost in their different exhibits I would come out feeling more connected to the past cultures and curious to learn about the different societies on display. This interest led me to become an avid history reader and museum patron. When I was older I was shocked to learn that there was one specific controversial issue surrounding museum exhibits internationally. The ethics of displaying human bodies. Should museums be able to put the deceased on display for the public and who has the rights to the bodies once they are discovered?

I was always torn on the answer to these questions. For me, the people on display spurred reverence and curiosity, for others the displays served as symbols of disrespect to our ancestral heritage. This division of thinking persists today and was even the subject of ethical debate at the 2010 conference of the International Council of Museums (ICOM)- Committee for Conservation conference. Large nationally recognized organizations are facing the ethics of displaying the deceased in attempt to find common ground but the debate rages on. There is no ‘cure all’ for the questions at hand.

It has been suggested that the direct descendants should get the finally say on whether the bodies should be on display, but what if there are no direct descendants? Who then has the right to decide? Where is the quest for information on the human past to stop and, would we dig up cemeteries for knowledge? To me, the best solution is to stick to the ethical guidelines created by organizations like the ICOM in reference to past societies and what they left behind (Brajer, I. 2010. “Human Remains in Museums.” International Council of Museums- Theory and History of Conservation Working Group, Accessed: Web. 21 Jan. 2013). These bodies can offer us insight to the past that would otherwise be unknown and can even spark interest the societies themselves, as was the case for me. I believe the bodies should be treated with upmost respect and if a direct link to a current society is found or known of, those people should get the final say in whether the body can be displayed or not. The ethics surrounding human remains being put on display is sure to persist for many years to come and museums will continue to be at the forefront of this debate.



Ethics and Theory, Museum Studies , , ,

Conservation Conversation: Conservation Within the Discipline of Anthropology

February 4th, 2013

Conservation Conversation: Conservation Within the Discipline of Anthropology

Taryn Ricciardelli

Archaeologists have always been a problem for the field of anthropology. They are crass and red-faced, most of them, dirty, but, if we want to be frank, archaeologists travel, drink, and crunch numbers with the best of them. They are scientists and theorists as much as they are shovel-bums; sinking into labwork just as quickly as they hurry into the field. In essence, archaeologists fall in love with past societies and imaginary individuals. They can start from the most basic material remains and uncover the beautiful, complex connections that make human beings so fascinating. But as archaeology continues to expand, recognize new specialties, and delve into even more intricate forms of questioning, the conservation of artifacts, both on-site and off, becomes an essential part of the discipline. I sense that soon there will be discussions similar to the debate surrounding archaeology since the rise of processualism: is conservation a subspecialty or its own discipline? Should archaeological conservation become part of the discipline of anthropology? Is archaeological conservation directly related to the study of people and how people behave? My argument would be that, yes, the conservation of artifacts can tell an important diachronic, and truly cultural, story about the people behind the objects.

Marcel Mauss wrote in The Gift that objects possess the spirit of the maker, which is then manifested in different ways through the acts of giving and receiving. As a distinguished cultural anthropologist writing about egalitarian societies, Mauss invested strong social value into all human-made objects. Although the context is different in archaeology, I still find that Mauss gives a lot of credence to why archaeologists do what they do. They find objects in order to understand the people associated with them, to highlight humanity, finding (or disproving) patterns on a larger scale. Conservators are not solely focused on the object, either. The intrinsic spirit of the object is what drives the conservator to conserve, and it is that intrinsic spirit which comes from the maker of the object, the culture surrounding the artifact, and the life history of the object (conditioned by the conservator’s culture) after it has been excavated.

Some archaeologists might argue that conservators are constantly in labs, tucked away from the field, pouring over chemical analysis and not worrying about the larger social and cultural implications of the objects they are saving. However, this accusation largely arises from a lack of communication between archaeologists and conservators, which, in my opinion, should end immediately. As Singley (1981) acknowledges, misinformation on either the archaeologists’ or conservators’ part (about the other) can lead to inherent problems in the object’s long-term survival and also in the analysis of the culture of the artifact. If archaeological conservation were part of the anthropological discipline, much of this misinformation could be avoided. Archaeologists would be required to learn at least the basics of conservation, and conservators would be required to learn some archaeological methods supplemented by some anthropological theory. Although I can hear the groans and the indignant outbursts from the scientists in the room, anthropological theory is largely underrated in the sciences, yet it offers a unique perspective that is beneficial to developing research questions and understanding artifact patterns, excavation techniques, and, hopefully soon, conservation techniques. All in all, conservation is about humanity. (Now whether more conservators or anthropologists disagree with this statement, I am not sure, but the comments section is below.) Whether or not conservation ends up in anthropology, it is the cooperation and understanding of conservation and archaeology that is most beneficial to the progress of anthropological academic research.


Works Cited

Mauss, Marcel. 2000. The Gift. W.W. Norton & Company.

Singley, Katherine R. 1981. Caring for Artifacts after Exacavation— Some Advice to Archaeologists. Historical Archaeology 15(1): 36-58.

Archaeological Conservation, Ethics and Theory ,

Is Conservation its own field or a subfield of Archaeology?

February 4th, 2013

Is Conservation its own field or a subfield of Archaeology?

Hannah Piner 

            Conservation sprung from the need to protect and conserve our past; it is hard to say that conservation came from archaeology, or any other major discipline specifically. It is the daughter of art, history, archaeology, architecture, and museum studies, just to name some of the influential fields. With advances in technology, artifacts come from a wider variety of places (family homes, private collections, archaeological sites) and with advances in science there are new ways to study these artifacts.  Virtually every advance made creates a new subfield of conservation in the American Institute for Conservation: object, wood, paper, painting, etc.

Even if one eliminates many of the subfields of conservation, and focuses solely on object conservation, it is hard to say that object conservation is merely a subfield of archaeology. Often, conservators do not work in the field with the archaeologists which eliminates the conservator from a majority of an archaeologists work. Instead the conservator spends most of their time in the lab after the artifacts are brought out of the site. Archaeologists may employ the conservator, but conservators are still left out of the process until the archaeologist has gathered all possible visible information and has to call on the conservator to preserve or reveal data that has become hidden by concretion and dirt. This puts a wedge between the two fields and, purposely or accidentally, separates two fields that should work very closely together.

The conservator also has to deal with the wants and needs of other museum professionals.  The reasoning and logic of a museum curator (for example) will be very different from the reasoning and logic of an archaeologist. The archaeologist wants to collect data and research what the artifacts mean. The museum curator, on the other hand, is more interested in using artifacts to demonstrate to the public information about the past. Curators are looking for aesthetic or educational qualities that may not be in the forefront of the archaeologists mind. An objects conservator has the difficult task of balancing these two goals. Their goal is to use the artifact for research and educate the public. The conservator has a responsibility to take an object and stabilize it while keeping the integrity and originality of the artifact for the continuing education of future generations, while answering research questions.

When working with archaeological materials, none of these three fields could survive alone. They work together and must rely on the research and knowledge of each other to gain the most information. Archaeologists have to carefully excavate the artifacts out of the ground. Museums and curators present these findings to the public. And conservators bridge these two, add research and data, and conserve and preserve the artifacts for future generations.

Archaeological Conservation ,

Cultural Heritage: A Reasonable Right?

February 4th, 2013

Cultural Heritage:  A Reasonable Right?

Alyssa Reisner

When one is asked to think of what qualifies as a human right, images of necessary means of survival, such as water, food, and shelter, are often conjured.  However, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that cultural heritage qualifies as “an essential human right” (Logan 2012).  This may seem like a simple declaration, but it actually carries larger implications. To further explore this assertion, one must consider what exactly qualifies as “cultural heritage.”  UNESCO also states that cultural heritage has changed meanings throughout time. It once only referred to “monumental remains of cultures,” but the definition has now been expanded to include different categories, such as ethnographic, intangible, and industrial heritage (UNESCO 2008). The concept of intangible heritage has been paid special attention, as it includes languages, traditional music, dramatic arts, and philosophical and spiritual systems that are the base of creations.

The concept that our cultural heritage, including intangible heritage, is a human right may seem simple enough and therefore acceptable to many people. This heritage may be the way that certain cultures identify themselves; it could be the foundation upon which they build their beliefs, lifestyles, and infrastructure. However, one could also find problems related with the sort of unwavering stability that these pillars of culture imply.

Maintaining a collective cultural heritage is indeed important, as a group often needs to maintain a sense of identity and cohesiveness. These aspects are important for a society to survive and prosper. However, if these feelings are overly or solely emphasized, it can lead to a sense of xenophobia or ethnocentrism. As a species, all humans have certain aspects in common, and, while it is important for a group to be cohesive and have a strong identity, it can become counterproductive when these different cultural groups with strong individual cultural heritages clash. While it is important to recognize and learn from the past, it is also important to move forward and not only focus on the differences but the vast similarities between groups of people. Overly idolizing the past can create a barrier to moving forward if not seen from an open-minded point of view. While certain disciplines may focus more on learning about and from tribalism of past and more traditional times, the future involves more globalization and therefore more cohesiveness between different cultures and groups of people, so it is important to not only focus on the past but also on the present and future.

Another important aspect to consider is that material or intangible aspects of past cultural heritage cannot be understood in the present in the same manner as the original producers intended. Sociological theorist Fredric Jameson refers to a loss of historicity in postmodernity; he claims that “we cannot know the past” and that “all we have access to are texts about the past, and all we can do is produce yet other texts about that topic” (Goodman, Ritzer 2004:475). He claims that this leads to the “random cannibalization of all styles of the past” (Goodman, Ritzer 2004:475). Though this view may seem somewhat extreme, it is still worth consideration. While knowledge of the past is undeniably valuable, with this sort of distortion due to modern interpretation should it necessarily be considered a right?

A contrasting opinion in this debate could argue that cultural heritage is so important for people to feel solidarity in a group and grounded with their identity that it should be considered a right and that great measures should be taken to preserve and / or conserve all types of cultural heritage. Author C.S. Lewis stated that “friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival” (Lewis 1960). Could cultural heritage be one of those things that might not be necessary for living yet give meaning to having life? The question about whether cultural heritage should be considered a human right seems impossible to clearly answer. The best answer is one that balances both points of view, a compromise between the extremes. While overemphasizing the importance of cultural heritage could lead to undesired outcomes, conservation of cultural heritage has significance. Though it is important to consider all viewpoints and disadvantages concerning the topic, people desire and deserve to have a connection to their past, culture, and identity, and preserving cultural heritage in its many forms is one means to achieve this sort of stability.



Goodman, Douglas, and George Ritzer. Modern Sociological Theory. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1960.

Logan, William. “Cultural Diversity, Cultural Heritage and Human Rights: Towards heritage management as human rights-based cultural practice.” International Journal of Heritage Studies. 18. no. 3 (2012): 231-44.

UNESCO. 2008. Culture. (accessed 01/19/13).

Ethics and Theory ,

Come Fly Away

January 30th, 2013

Come Fly Away

 Katie Parrish

            Something that is very important to me and my background is the military.  I was raised as a military brat and have moved all over the world at times.  So naturally, I would want to do a blog post that would reflect that kind of life style that I have come to call normal.  One topic that I have come to know since being a military brat is that of airplanes. My dad was in the Air Force for 24 years and could tell you pretty much whatever you wanted to know about any kind of military plane out there.  The topic of my post today is what happens to the planes since the time that they had been used in our military when they become too old for actual military combat.  Where do these retired planes go when they are no longer being flown?  Are these planes being taken care of when they are not being used?  Is the military trying to preserve their military culture by keeping these planes preserved?

            From the conversations that I had with my dad, not many planes that have retired,  make it past retirement (Parrish, 2013, private conversation/interview).  Typically when a military grade plane is no longer active in service, it would be placed in an air plane graveyard.  Some of the planes could be stripped down for parts for other planes, or they could even be placed into museums like the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.  There are also other cases when the military will take away all the militaristic components to the planes and then sell them for the public and sometimes overseas (Treadway, 2013, private conversation).  Other planes that have since been retired, they can be maintained to go to different air shows around the country; those that are used in these kinds of air shows would have to be maintained to the same standards as planes that are still in service only if they are planned to be flown, otherwise, they are mostly used for show purposes for the public to come in and see the planes.  Some of the more interesting planes that have been retired in the most recent years are:

  • P-51 Mustang: World War II
  • B-52: Mostly flown in Vietnam, a revised form of this plane can be seen being flown for the military today, but it is not the same.
  • SR-71: A Cold War era spy plane.
  • F-117: one of the military’s first stealth spy planes.

Conservators at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum have recently tried to conserve a H Ix V3, known as the batwing, which proved to be difficult.  It had been degraded over time and had a very delicate body which made it time sensitive to try and keep it safe( Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, 2011, Preserving and Displaying the ‘Bat-Wing Ship’).  This example is just something of what a conservator would have to go through to conserve a beaten up military plane.

            If you were to drive onto an Air Force base today you are more than likely to see  models of planes, new or retired, displayed all around the base. I suppose that this would be a form of preserving a great deal of the military’s material culture.  The preservation of many of these retired planes can be very interesting, and they are a great teaching tool for the future to see how technology has changed and affected different kinds of warfare. 


  Image 1: B-52


  Image 2: F-117


  Image 3: P-51 Mustang


  Image 4: SR- 71


General Conservation

Ownership and the Reasons for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage

January 30th, 2013

Ownership and the Reasons for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage

 Jeremy Borrelli

            One of the most frequently asked questions I receive from family and friends is why do archaeologists do what they do? This is a central theoretical question all members of the field inevitably ask themselves and leads to much debate within the discipline. The most useful answer describes members of the anthropological community as stewards or ‘interpreters’ of culture and cultural heritage. But what about the people whose culture is being ‘interpreted’?

In an article discussing the politics of cultural heritage management in Australia, Smith (2000) argued that as scientific experts, archaeologists were often seen by governments as the `rightful’ body of people to act as stewards for heritage, disregarding Aboriginal and other interest groups (311). Aboriginal control of their own heritage was dismissed by policy makers in favor of a body of ‘experts’ who made claims to objectivity and the production of value-free knowledge. In this case the author leads the reader to question the role archaeologists play in management strategies for cultural heritage, and how stakeholders have been incorporated into those strategies.

            This issue plays into the managerial debate between governments, stakeholders and international organizations like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that recognizes cultural heritage as an essential human right (Logan 2012:235). Archaeologists and the conservators who maintain and preserve cultural heritage are needed to play a key role in the management of cultural heritage as they are trained to manage that material for a broader audience. It is important not to overlook the reasons why these people are employed, which is to serve as the intermediary between different cultures. To own one’s cultural heritage is a human right, and it is part of the ethical guidelines for all people who make their living dealing with culture to respect those rights of the people whose culture is being displayed or examined. The role of the archaeologist is then to find the balance between respecting the rights of cultural heritage and interpreting or presenting that heritage in a way that makes sense to others while maintaining minimal deviations from what that culture means to those who participate in it. Archaeologists, conservators, and all who deal in culture are trained experts in managing this balance and should be used to do so. Therefore, the use of these professionals by governments or international organizations is justified so long as the archaeologist remembers their role as mediators between cultures and adheres to the ethical principles that govern the discipline.

Ethics and Theory

Past as Propaganda, Part One: Nazi Artifacts in Museums

January 30th, 2013

Past as Propaganda, Part One: Nazi Artifacts in Museums

Chelsea Freeland

             Christopher Caple briefly discusses the inclusion of Nazi war memorabilia in his book, Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method and Decision Making.  He uses the notion as an example of the dangers of using the past as propaganda, asking if the artifacts “celebrate their views or remind of the dangers of a totalitarian regime” (20). 

             When I visited the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna, I was struck by the images of Nazi propaganda throughout the World War II hall: not because I felt they didn’t belong there, but because I had never seen anything like them before.  As a war museum, rather than a history museum, the Heeresgeschichtliches has less of responsibility to the overall history of Austria and Vienna, instead focusing on the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, and the two World Wars.  In this context, Nazi propaganda greatly explains how and why Austria came under German rule early in the conflict, making it an integral part of Austrian war history.

             What about other places in Europe, or even across the world?  Is it important to include Nazi propaganda in a museum of a country that did not experience the Holocaust, or does it detract valuable time and energy away from a more tragic chapter in world history?  Caple asks two questions in his book:

  1. Should they [Nazi artifacts] be collected and preserved as a record of the period and what happened at that time?
  2. Should they be displayed and brought to the attention of people? (2003: 20)

These are difficult questions, particularly for museums in Europe.  Coming from a background in history, I would argue that collecting and preserving artifacts for future generations, regardless of their sensitive nature, is an important job of museums in general.  Whether or not they place those artifacts on display, is another question entirely.

            For countries in Europe, particularly those directly affected by Nazi occupation, these artifacts are a part of their country’s heritage.  They form an integral part of the story of World War II that many people forget, or choose to ignore, giving precedence instead to the tragedy of the Holocaust.  An interesting point to make is that Nazi artifacts and memorabilia are part of the story of the Holocaust as well. 

            For me, the jury is still out on what priority these artifacts should have in a museum.  Should museums withhold limited resources from these types of sensitive artifacts, simply because of their nature?  How do curators decide what percentage of their museum to use for these artifacts?   Are they less important to display because they represent a chapter in history the world would like to forget?  Genocide memorials and exhibits across the world speak to this last question.

            As a world traveler, I remember being shocked that the first, and last, place I saw that much Nazi memorabilia was in Austria.  There were posters, plaques, journals, clothing, and pamphlets: all painstakingly preserved to show part of the story.  I will tell you that they made a huge impact on how I viewed the German conquest of Austria and the subsequent events of World War II.  I believe that is the goal of the museum: to expose the public to things they have never seen or thought about before, and in doing so, give them a broader historical experience.


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


Ethics and Theory , , , , , , ,

The Appreciation of an Artefact and the Different Lenses of Value

January 30th, 2013

The Appreciation of an Artefact and the Different Lenses of Value

Kelci Martinsen

               When working with material culture, it is important to consider the various values that can be placed on artefacts, both by professionals and the public. The meaning an artefact has to someone can be based on many different factors including the object’s economic value, historical value, and artistic value. The value of an object is very subjective and one object is able to have many different meanings to various people. Professionals such as archaeologists and conservators strive to understand the importance an artefact had to a culture. But, conservators and archaeologists often need to balance their own values that they place on an object with the cultural reasons for valuing the same object.

               The public and professionals that work with artefacts, such as conservators and archaeologists, tend to value objects in different ways. The public is more likely to place an emotional value on an artefact than a conservator. Emotional values are based on sentiment and memories and objects that are given an emotional value evoke feelings from the viewer. An heirloom is an example of an object with emotional value. Those members of the public that decide to have an artefact conserved based on the object’s emotional value are often attempting to protect their own cultural history.  In contrast, as Elizabeth Pye (2000) in Caring for the Past, suggests, conservators often value objects for their material heritage which includes historic values, artistic values, scientific values, cultural values as well as values based on condition. Conservators also value an object based on the artefact’s authenticity. The authenticity of an object is very important because it determines whether an object is able to be used to make conclusions about the culture that produced the artefact. Art conservators value an artefact for the skills and techniques that were used to produce an object. Finally, archaeologists and conservators also base their appreciation of an object on its age and rarity and both of these factors can be used later to determine which artefacts are placed on display in museums.

                Additionally, artefacts are appreciated for their worth by both the public and conservators. Although, these separate groups focus on an object’s economic value for very different reasons. The public appreciates an artefact’s economic value for the sheer monetary worth of the object as well as the status that comes with owning an expensive artifact. However, archaeologists and conservators often deem the economic value of an artifact necessary in order to obtain insurance for the object. The public also determines the worth of an object based on the artefact’s utility.  Those artefacts that are no longer useful lose their value to a member of the public. In contrast, conservators and archaeologists often value objects that have been disposed of and therefore, do not base their appreciation of an object on its use.

                Most often, the interpretation of value is translated though exhibition and display of the material culture. Artefacts, which represent aspects that were valued by the culture of origin, should be selected for display. If a professional were to choose an object based on his or her own valuation system, the display would not properly educate the public.  Professionals need to extremely careful when displaying artefacts because when an artefact is displayed improperly, the public develops incorrect assumptions about the artefact’s culture.

References Cited

Pye, E. (2000). Caring for the Past: Issues in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums. London: Maney Publishing.

Ethics and Theory , , , ,

Skeletons in the Closet

January 30th, 2013

Skeletons in the Closet:

A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community

Eva Falls

I was shocked that when I visited the AIC (American Institute for Conservation) website’s ethics page, there was hardly any mention of the complex and sensitive concerns that surround the treatment of human remains.  Just a call for conservators to obey applicable laws:

“The conservation professional should be cognizant of laws and regulations that may have a bearing on professional activity. Among these laws and regulations are those concerning the rights of artists and their estates, occupational health and safety, sacred and religious material, excavated objects, endangered species, human remains, and stolen property.” (AIC 1994)

This four part series will discuss the conservator’s role in the treatment and storage of human remains in museum and archaeological settings, as well as the ethical implications.  This is also a call for the AIC to use stronger language and address the treatment of human remains specifically in their code of ethics.

“Laying Down the Law”

             In order to discuss how conservators should approach human remains in accordance with the AIC’s code of ethics, it is important to be aware of the laws and regulations already in place in the United States.  The most influential piece of legislation that has affected the treatment of human remains would have to be NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) that was passed in 1990 (McGowan and LaRoche 1996).  This law was passed in response to Native American activist groups that demanded the return of their ancestors’ remains that were being stored in universities and museums across the country.  NAGPRA forces these institutions to catalog their collections and determine whether they are affiliated with a recognized tribe (Owsley and Jantz 2001).  That tribe can then determine the fate of the remains, most choosing reburial.

            This law was initially met with serious criticism by some members of the academic community, especially physical anthropologists that believed they were being robbed of valuable research.  It has politicized osteology and led to lengthy and expensive court battles (Rose et al. 1996).  The law does not protect African American cemeteries and other minority groups, nor does it protect Native American groups that have not been federally recognized (McGowan and LaRoche 1996).  Sometimes anthropologists cannot determine the tribal affiliation in cases such as Kennewick Man where the remains are extremely old.  This can and has led to contentious court battles over these remains (Owsley and Jantz 2001).

            Of course, this law has not actually led to the end of the world in the academic community.  NAGPRA has had some positive results and contributions.  It has provided funding and jobs for physical anthropologists to analyze collections, as well as funding for better storage facilities. Collections that have not been looked at in decades are now being closely examined using new techniques.  It has actually led collaboration and a new level of trust between academia and many Native American groups.  Anthropologists now have access to oral traditions, and Native Americans are participating in more archaeological projects than ever before. (Rose et al. 1996)

           Of course, the big question is: what has this to do with conservation?  Conservators should be assisting archaeologists and physical anthropologists in determining the proper care, handling, and storage of human remains as ethically as possible (which I will visit in the next installment).  They can add their expertise to the interdisciplinary teams that work with human remains in collections across the country.  Conservators can be advocates for the remains themselves.


Works Cited

AIC. 1994. Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.\ColdFusion9\verity\Data\dummy.txt. (Accessed 01/21/2013).

McGowan, Gary S. and Cheryl J. 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.

Owsley, Douglas W. and Richard L. Jantz. 2001. Archaeological Politics and Public Interest in Paleoamerican Studies: Lessons from Gordon Creek and Kennewick Man. American Antiquity 66(4):565-575.

Rose, Jerome C., Thomas J. Green, and Victoria D. Green. 1996. NAGPRA:  Osteology and the Repatriation of Skeletons. Annual Review of Anthropology 25: 81-103.


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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.


Ethics and Theory , , , , ,

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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Archaeologists as Conservators: Promoting an Interdisciplinary Approach to Archaeology

January 30th, 2013

Archaeologists as Conservators: Promoting an Interdisciplinary Approach to Archaeology

Caitlin Zant

            Preserving archaeological materials uncovered during excavation has always been a concern of field archaeologists, but the proper handling and storage of such materials is something that has been foreign to many field archaeologists. The theory and practice of the archaeological field have not largely focused on concerns for conservation, but in recent years, these two fields are being increasingly integrated. The importance of knowledge of conservation in the field of archaeology cannot be overstated. Though these two disciplines require the expertise of the other, there has been a struggle to find a balance between the importance of each field.

            Recently, the archaeological community has begun to implement conservation and preservation into its code of ethics, indicating an understanding of the essential bond between conversation and archaeology (Agnew and Bridgland, 2006). In the past, archaeologists have been blamed for the improper handling and storage of recovered artifacts before conservation. Before conservation in the field became an integral part of the archaeological process, many archaeologists did not understand the consequences of certain actions involving recovered artifacts. Following the implementation of conservators on site in the field, at first glance, it would seem most of these issues would be solved. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Though many archaeological sites employ conservation technicians, archaeologists are still the first people to encounter the artifacts. Without some extent of conservation knowledge, these archaeologists have no way of understanding the proper handling of objects (Sigurðardóttir, 2006).

            It seems that there is a general lack of interdisciplinary training for archaeologists. Although the primary goal of undergraduate and graduate programs in archaeology should focus on the theory and methods for archaeological research, a basic knowledge of conservation should be implemented in these programs. While some have noted that, only an introductory class in conservation is not enough to ensure archaeologists obtain adequate knowledge of proper conservation techniques (Sigurðardóttir, 2006), it is not possible to implement a more rigorous conservation curriculum into all archaeology programs. That being said, I believe all archaeologists should have a basic knowledge of conservation theories and techniques so that proper care of artifacts can begin as soon as they are uncovered. Since field conservators are becoming increasingly implemented on archaeological excavations, archaeologists should be trained enough to be able to uncover artifacts and safely transport them to the project’s conservator.

            In archaeological programs, it is important for a student to have the basic knowledge of conservation techniques so that, as an archaeologist, they can be more prepared going into the field. Even if an archaeologist never has to use their conservation training, they can have an understanding and appreciation for the processes involved in conservation. If objects and artifacts are recovered and not cared for properly it can become more difficult for archaeological interpretations. Artifacts are one of the most useful sources of information from an archaeological site. The field of conservation is inherently interdisciplinary, since conservation covers such a wide variety of objects and materials. With the increasing integration of conservation into the field of archaeology, it is imperative for archaeologists to share this interdisciplinary understanding. This is also important in terms of determining an object’s significance. With more interdisciplinary training, archaeologists can gain an understanding of an object’s potential importance, even if deemed unimportant to the archaeological work at hand.

            With these issues in mind, the border between conservation and archaeology can become more fluid, and a common cause between both disciplines can begin to be attained. This way, a more comprehensive understanding of sites and objects can be reached in the hopes of better understanding and preserving cultural heritage. 



Agnew, N. and Bridgland, J., 2006, “Introduction”. In: Of the Past, For the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, pp. 1-4.

 Siguroardottir, K., 2006, “Challenges in Conserving Archaeological Collections”. In: Of the Past, For the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, pp. 220-223.

General Conservation

A Dual Identity: Public Outreach in Archaeological Conservation

January 29th, 2013

A Dual Identity: Public Outreach in Archaeological Conservation

Jeneva Wright

The role of archaeologist is often debated, especially when juxtaposed against the rising call for public outreach in cultural property management. Some archaeologists describe the gulf between public interaction and resource protection as irreconcilable. “When an archaeologist has finished his report, the physical remains are often found in zip-lock baggies, and the product is a report. [Historic preservationists] focus on providing sustainable public access, not on preserving archaeological data” (Hannahs 2003:8-9). While many individuals in the field recognize the importance of public engagement, it remains that there is a gap between archaeology and outreach. What is the best methodology to pursue public interpretation, and who is responsible in this endeavor? Is it really important, and is it in the best interest of the resource? Are members of the public really capable of providing stewardship for cultural property? A scientist, after all, is not necessarily an educator, much less a public relations manager. In the face of this veritable Venn’s diagram of priorities, responsibilities, and aptitudes between the archaeologist and the resource manager, it seems to me that the elements of research, outreach, and resource protection are strengthened by the field of conservation.

The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) Code of Ethics spotlights the simultaneous importance of both resource protection and public involvement and awareness, thus displaying the conservator’s dual role in cultural property management. The conservator preserves artifacts for display or future research, stabilizes and protects them against deterioration, and can even restore them to original appearance. The motivation for doing so is at the core of conservation’s potential role as segue between archaeology and public outreach. Artifacts are not conserved for their own sake, as a scientifically-enhanced antiquarianism, but rather for their ability to present a greater range of information for current study, preserve their qualities for future research, and present a tangible material culture for appreciation by scientific and public audiences. The ultimate goal of conservation is to protect these artifacts’ abilities to share their stories and to convey historical information. If artifact interpretation is considered an integral component of cultural resource management, conservation seems well-situated to enhance both archaeological understanding and public education to mutual benefit.

 AIC. 1994. Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.

 Hannahs, T. 2003. Underwater Parks Versus Preserves: Data or Access. In: Spirek, J. and Scott-Ireton, D. (eds.) Submerged Cultural Resource Management: Preserving and Interpreting Our Sunken Maritime Heritage, pp. 8-9.



General Conservation

Is the actual damage of an object considered part of its historical evidence?

January 29th, 2013

Is the actual damage of an object considered part of its historical evidence?

William Sassorossi

A precious piece of sculpture is housed in a building about to be bombed by an oncoming invader.  The building in which it is housed is almost completely leveled by these bombs, yet somehow, most of the object remains intact.  Sadly, a piece of the arm and leg are both destroyed, but the majority remains the same.  What remains is then scooped up and taken away, until some years later it is revisited, and decisions for the possible restoration are considered.  It is important that this part of the sculptures history is considered during the decision making process for its conservation.  “Repairing the damage means that the historical evidence that the damage itself conveys will not be available to future users of the object.  Restoration always has this deleterious effect: it hides or transforms the true nature of an object – it works against historical truth by destroying its evidence,” (Munoz-Vinas, 2005).  The decision in this case is to either restore the object back to its original state, with its true intent, or, leave it as is with the scars of war.  Both options provide positives and negatives.

            To restore the object, for argument’s sake, to its original state prior to the bombing of the building could be considered the correct choice.  The public expects to see objects, like sculptures, in as complete a physical state as possible.  By restoring the sculpture to its original state the true meaning of the object can once again shine through.  This would also allow for all recovered pieces to be kept together, without a threat of losing pieces or further damage done to the sculpture.  Some would consider this a positive development.  Conversely, by making the necessary changes to restore the sculpture, all history of the trauma gone through is completely lost forever.  However upsetting this destruction may be, it is now part of the sculptures history and can be told along with the other information it contains.  The recovered pieces that had been damaged can just as easily be displayed, thus depicting this chapter in the sculptures history.

            With the progression of time comes the progression of deterioration on material culture.  Some are expected, as in deterioration of ink on paper, while others are not, as in this outside destructive force upon our sculpture.  War, unfortunately, is a common occurrence and objects are continually threatened, but this has to be included as part of each objects historical record.  Considering the role of the conservator, every piece of historical evidence must be represented in this case.  Stabilization of the sculpture, after the destruction it went through, is how it should be conserved and presented to the public.  Include all pieces from the sculpture that can be recovered, stabilize their condition along with the main sculpture, and include all pieces in the presentation for the exhibit.  The narrative of the sculpture will include this unfortunate instance, but it is a necessary story to tell.  Everything which can be documented for this object should be presented to better inform the observers as well as to not shy away from the past.  History can be upsetting, but as conservators, it is not our place to pick and choose which history to display.


Munoz-Vinas, S. 2005. Contemporary Theory of Conservation. London:Butterworth-Heinemann.


General Conservation

Conservation as a Subfield of Archaeology?

January 29th, 2013

Conservation as a Subfield of Archaeology?

Kara Fox

Being a student in the small and relatively new field of maritime archaeology, I was not prepared for the multidisciplinary involvement that came with the territory. Maritime archaeology is naturally dubbed as the study of human interaction with marine environments. To research, study, and preserve the past, maritime archaeology requires assistance from an assortment of fields. These fields can often include conservation, chemistry, geology, oceanography, and resource management. When referring to these fields and how they assist archaeological endeavors, one could suggest that they are merely “subfields” of archaeology, particularly with conservation. As a student in the field of maritime archaeology I find myself craving the skills of a conservator, therefore selfishly wanting to include the field of conservation as a subfield under archaeology. The skills associated with conservation are essential for the field of archaeology and are widely desired for potential jobs. But when I step back and acknowledge the breadth of knowledge, training, and special experience that accompanies the field of conservation, it is beyond a “subfield.” Years of experience and training would be required to fully understand the life of an artifact, recognize the deterioration, identify methods of stabilizing an object and apply the correct treatments.

To assign a demeaning subfield title on an intricate and complicated field such as conservation is absurd! On the contrary, some archaeologists disagree, “Conservation, therefore, is a critical tool within archaeology, a tool that becomes less meaningful if it is isolated, or seen as merely a technical skill that can be farmed out to the “hard sciences (Rodgers, 1).” This viewpoint is not universal. It is apparent through the concerns over “the very meaning of what it is to be a conservator, the viability of our core documents, the strength of our literature, and the effectiveness of peer review,” that the status and credentialing of the field of conservation is a complex and controversial topic (“Beyond the Certification Vote,” 2013). I am certain if I asked a group of conservators if they felt they were “less meaningful” when disconnected from archaeology they would have a much different answer. It cannot be denied that conservation plays a huge role in the field of archaeology, but the debate of its status as an independent, credentialed field that stands alone has yet to be fully accepted.

 “Beyond the Certification Vote.” Certification Information, accessed January 28, 2013.

 Rodgers, Bradley. The archaeologist’s manual for conservation: A guide to non-toxic, minimal intervention artifact stabilization. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers: New York,        1987.



General Conservation

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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“Ethnographic Conservation?”: Public Participation in Conservation Decisions

January 28th, 2013

“Ethnographic Conservation?”: Public Participation in Conservation Decisions

Stephanie Croatt

            When considering working with ethnographic materials, one should consider, should conservators take non-technical expertise into consideration while preserving objects for a community or ethnic group? Some in the conservation field argue that “opening the door to non-professional participants may erode professional authority, and can lead to decisions that contradict conservation principles such as honoring artists’ intent and other versions of a settled ‘historic’ value” (Wharton 2008, 170). But successful attempts at gathering community input on communal objects have demonstrated that the practice is, in fact, a wonderfully effective tool at not only educating the public about conservation and its importance, but also facilitating the community’s investment in the continued maintenance of the objects, which would almost ensure the object’s stability and safety in the future.

One example of a successful “ethnographic conservation” project is Glen Wharton’s conservation of the Kamehameha I sculpture in North Kohala, Hawaii. During the course of this project, Wharton solicited public opinions about whether the brass sculpture should be gilded or painted. There was also community discussion about what colors to paint the statue’s clothing and skin. During the course of this project, Wharton effectively opened up community discourse that allowed the public to think about the conservation project and what impact their decisions might have on the outcome. Wharton was also able to share what steps he was taking to stabilize the statue and prepare it to be finished with gilding or paint (Wharton 2008).

Through the community’s involvement, Wharton was able to respect the significance the object held for the community. Furthermore, because Wharton did not hide the conservation process from the public, the community was able to see how important proper conservation was for the statue and the important symbolism it held.  This not only made conservation visible to the public, it also gave the community a sense of ownership of the process. This in turn would make the continued maintenance of the statue an important priority for the community.

From the success of Wharton’s project, it is clear that projects that take into consideration an object’s importance to the community from which it comes, and seeks to include the community in the decision making process (if at all possible) enriches the field of conservation. No doubt, adding this facet to conservation decision making raises concerns about who in heterogeneous communities should make the decisions presented to the conservator, and what should be done if the community does not want the object conserved or makes demands of the conservator that would run counter to the object’s benefit. These difficulties, however, should not be shied away from. Although this particular approach may be costly and require more time on the conservator’s part, it goes a long way to ensuring the continued stability of the objects for generations to come.


Wharton, G. 2008. Dynamics of Participatory Conservation: The Kamehameha I Sculpture Project. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 47(3): 159-173.

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Field Trip to the Conservation Lab at Raleigh’s Museum of Art

April 25th, 2011

Field Trip to the Conservation Lab at Raleigh’s Museum of Art

 Erin Burnette

On Friday April 15th, we traveled to Raleigh to have a personal tour of the Conservation Lab at the Museum of Art along with the Virginia Conservation Association.  The tour began in the loading bay that was especially built for largest art pieces to come in and out of the museum. The tour then went to the actual Conservation Lab itself. We came into a large open room with tables situated in the middle of the room and offices set up to the right. The tables, we learned, were specially made work tables that could be used as light tables. A member of the Conservation team, Bill Brown, showed us the current projects that were being conserved. The first painting was by Sir Peter Lely, a Dutch transplant to England. The painting was a portrait of Barbara Palmer, the Duchess of Cleveland. It was being cleaned and was half finished which can be seen in the pictures attached. The second painting was a Spanish religious scene from the 15th-16th centuries. This painting depicted Jesus with his disciples. An interesting fact that we found out from Bill Brown was that over the centuries, the owners of the painting had saw fit to clean the face of Jesus, so much so, that when fully cleaned by the conservation staff, no paint will be left on the face and restorative painting will have to be done to repair it. The faces of the other figures in the painting are in perfect condition because they were not revered like the figure of Jesus, and therefore not cleaned. A third painting being cleaned was an Italian Renaissance era portrait of an important man. The fourth painting being cleaned was in the style of Pieter Brueghel, a 15th century Flemish painter, and depicted a feast scene.

After looking at the paintings being cleaned, the rest of the tour was of the rest of the Conservation Lab. We were shown the framing studio, where a master framer reproduced and fixed the broken or scratched antique frames. We were also shown the x-ray room where the paintings are x-rayed to see the pencil lines of the artist and repaintings of some areas. From there, we left the Conservation Lab and took a massive elevator to the main museum gallery. We filed into the main gallery where Roman statues and Greek vases were displayed. There, we received a talk on the importance of lighting in the museum. The Raleigh Museum of Art has two sets of lighting called track one and two. Track one stays on for the whole day, while track two automatically comes on when the sensors depict low light or cloud cover. The museum also has special skylights that have shades built in. These shades are darker in the areas of the museum that house the more susceptible artifacts. The museum also uses curtains that are controlled by remote control to keep the light down in the galleries.

After the discussion on lights in the museum, we were free to look around the museum. The Museum had a collection of Egyptian artifacts, including a sarcophagus. They also had Greek and Roman collections. The Museum also had a large collection of paintings. Some of my favorite ones were by Monet, and one of Lucrezia de Medici in the Italian collection. I also liked the Rodin sculptures, especially The Kiss and The Thinker.

raleighartmuseum 001

 Conservator, Perry Hurt, describes some of the projects he has participated in.

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Painting undergoing restoration.

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Rodan sculpture on display.

 raleighartmuseum 074

The paintings gallery in the new museum.

General Conservation

The Conservation of Iron Objects and the Iron Lab

April 22nd, 2011

The Conservation of Iron Objects and the Iron Lab

Nicole Silverblatt

The overall process of treating an iron artifact begins with documentation and continues through wet storage (if found in a maritime environment), mechanical cleaning, chemical cleaning, desalination (if found in a salt-water environment), drying, coating, and finally dry storage. The method by which an iron object is conserved is determined by the overall composition of the artifact (whether or not it has been combined with other organic or non-organic materials) and the burial environment (terrestrial, salt water, or fresh water) in which it was been found.  The specific tools and chemicals used for mechanical and chemical cleaning, desalination, and coating vary by object, available funding, and the accessibility of materials.

Between March 24 and April 3, 2011, the Introduction to Conservation class had the opportunity to assist in the conservation of iron artifacts recovered from the Foscue Plantation in Pollocksville, North Carolina. The artifacts for presented for conservation included a variety of iron nails and door hinges retrieved from the plantation burial vault. Each student in the class was responsible for the conservation of between 8 and 10 small nails or a combination of nails and door hinges.


Nails Before Treatment

The students began by recording the condition of each artifact (color, size, composition, and types and placement of deterioration) and then sketched and photographed each artifact. The students then mechanically cleaned the artifacts with pointed bamboo sticks, dental tools, scalpels, toothbrushes, and a pneumatic air scribe to remove the surface corrosion products. Once the artifacts had been mechanically cleaned, they were then chemically cleaned with a non-water solution to remove any remaining loose sediment and prepare the surface of the artifact for coating. The final stage of the treatment was the application of a corrosion inhibitor followed by a coating of renaissance wax to further protect the artifact from future deterioration.


Nails After Treatment

(The aforementioned treatment of the Foscue Plantation artifacts represents only one of many treatment options available that may be used in the conservation of iron artifacts.)

General Conservation

Repairing Family Treasures

April 22nd, 2011

Repairing Family Treasures

Chris Caynor

In the spring semester of 2011, I decided to take on an extra conservation project outside of class.  Last Christmas, as we do every year, my mother and I decorated the tree with a collection of glass ornaments assembled over my parents’ 35+ year marriage.  A snowflake, composed of clear and red tinted blades of glass, fell and broke into three distinct shards on the wooden floor.  At the end of the season, as we cleaned up and put everything away, a cardinal, which I believed to be glass, that sits on the edge of a glass bowl fell and broke along the supporting edge that holds it to the bowl.


Thankfully, in conservation we discussed the use of an optical barrier to repair breaks in glass and create a nearly seamless line.  Using a mixture of a solvent and an archival acrylic resin which acted as an optical barrier, I cemented the broken edges of these objects back together.  The snowflake readily took to the treatment and after a 24-hour cure, had hardened to near its original strength.  The only notable visual evidence of damage is from missing glass that I chose not to fill in with additional resin.

 untitled B

This was not as true for the apparent glass bird.  I quickly found that the solvent mixture ate away at the surface and created sticky red goo.  I believe this to reveal that the bird is actually constructed from some form of acrylic or hard plastic.  Luckily, the surface set back into a solid state as the resin hardened and the break is now repaired.  Interestingly enough, there are now bubbles in material surrounding the repaired break that suggest some form of chemical reaction.  Thanks to my time in conservation and some great advice and help from Ms. Grieve, this Christmas I will be able to return both of these ornaments to my mother.

General Conservation

Walking Under the Bay

April 22nd, 2011

Walking Under the Bay

Chelsea Hauck

The UNESCO supported proposal to build an underwater museum in the East Harbor of Alexandria, Egypt will provide an exciting new way to experience the past.  This museum will offer exhibits both on land and underwater with the hope of allowing museum goers to feel the excitement archaeologists have upon discovering a treasure trove of artifacts.  The museum designers plan on building long fiberglass tubes that will serve as a walkway by the myriad of artifacts from the legendary sites such as the Pharos Lighthouse, Cleopatra’s Palace and a few ship wrecks in the bustling Great Harbor.  This design also complies with the UNESCO 2001 Convention on Preserving Cultural Heritage, which specifies that sunken artifacts should remain on the sea floor for contextual value and possible conservation properties the water offers the objects.

Within the safety of the harbor lies a diverse range of artifacts, each containing important historical and contextual information; each worthy of inclusion in the examination of the artifacts that need to be protected.    There is an assortment of 2,500 stone artifacts, ranging from large statuary and monuments to supporting structures, dispersed throughout the Pharos archaeological sites alone.  Twenty-eight sphinxes have been found in this part of the harbor, ranging in dates from the nineteenth through sixth century B.C.  Each sphinx bears the insignia of a Pharaoh from that time period.  There are also four obelisks and fragments of five colossal stone statues.  Many of these monumental artifacts are made out of more prestigious stones such as granite and marble.  Further, there are hundreds of columns, the majority of which are pink granite from Aswan or marble that would have been part of the Pharos Lighthouse.  These artifacts are the types of artifacts that would be prominently put on display both above and below the water in the proposed museum. 

The water in the Alexandria Harbor is full of pollutants that are often stirred up in violent storms that plague the area.  Both pollution and wave action have been very detrimental to the artifacts on the seabed.  There have been a number of suggestions as to the best ways of protecting the artifacts, including placing the artifacts in large self contained boxes that would provide a stable environment and protection to the artifacts.  To create and maintain a system such as this would be almost impossible.  Each artifact would have to go through a slow process of desalination then kept in an environmentally controlled box, which would have to have the water changed periodically to maintain low levels of salinity and pollution.  A better option, in my opinion, would be to systematically clean the water in the harbor, by removing the sewage output vents, this process would create a clean and stable environment that the artifacts could stay in and would be much more cost effective over the long term.  For protection against sand erosion from storms, the artifacts could have protective cases put over them, but these would have some circulation holes so they are open to the environment.  This would create a sustainable and stable environment for the artifacts and museum goers alike. 

General Conservation

April 18th, 2011

Volunteering in Conservation


Charles Bowdoin

             With summer quickly approaching there are a plethora of volunteer opportunities for students who wish to increase their knowledge of conservation through a more hands-on styled approach. Many students will be interning or simply volunteering their time in everything from field projects to full on museum work. The limited amount of time that can be spent learning in this manner demands that a volunteer should come prepared not just for physical and mental tasks, but also with a professional mindset as well. While there are a multitude of volunteer opportunity types within conservation there seems to be two main approaches to how a volunteer is expected to do their duties. One approach is usually associated with short-term projects where volunteers are forced to learn techniques and methods immediately on the job. The other approach would be that of a long-term project, or perhaps one with a smaller amount of volunteers that allows for more in depth one-on-one training for what is expected.

            To get more information on what is expected of first time volunteers two different conservators were contacted and asked what they would like volunteers to know before their first day of “work.” The first was Dr. Odile Madden, a research scientist of the Museum Conservation Institute within the Smithsonian. Dr. Madden had a few comments on basic things volunteers should know before their first day:

 1.        I wish interns, volunteers, visitors, administrators, and even conservators would avoid touching artifacts.  I remember being told as a kid that, “you see with your eyes, not with your hands.”  You would be amazed how often people walk into conservation labs, see an artifact on a table, and touch it.   Sometimes it’s in the course of conversation about the artifact.  Instead of describing a part of it or pointing, they put their fingers on it.  Ditto for picking things up and turning them over repeatedly.  All contact with the artifact should be considered a big deal and avoided when possible.  Hands off, people.

 2.       Another great conservation tip is to have your process and route planned when moving an artifact.  Clear the path of obstructions.  Prop open any doors you’ll need to pass through.  Have a place ready to put the artifact.  Then put the object on a cart, if appropriate, and move it.  Minimizes the risk of accidents.

 3.       No nail polish.  Even dry, it can make marks on surfaces you swipe with your hand.  If you don’t believe me, try swiping a red-nailed hand across a sheet of white paper on a table.  Also, many conservation treatments use solvents, like ethanol and acetone, which will dissolve the nail polish and get it all over the place.  Paint your toes instead.

             Another kind of project a volunteer may come across is one in which they will have more one-on-one time with a project lead, professor, etc. to get more in depth training. One such example of this style of project is the Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) Shipwreck project in conjuncture with East Carolina University. In regards to this project, the QAR Lab Director Sarah Watkins-Kenney was contacted and asked what volunteers should expect on their first day. Rather than simply “diving head first” into their work, volunteers are given an info sheet and an application. After that the following transpires:

 After reading the info sheet if they are still interested and submit the application form, the next step is that we arrange a time for them to come to the lab for an informal interview – for them to see the lab and meet us, and for the QAR staff to meet them. I also discuss with them what would be involved in volunteering at the lab, their interests and experience, the opportunities and limitations of volunteering. Another important part of this discussion is availability – their time schedules and ours. If there is a match then we set a start date. Prior to their first day I usually send them an email reminding about things such as parking permits, wearing closed shoes and long pants, and bringing their lunch! During the first week there is orientation and H&S training depending on the type of task the volunteer is doing. So as you see there has already been a lot of interaction and discussion before a volunteers’ first day.

While these are two examples of what is expected of volunteers within conservation there are certain to be more varieties of what a volunteer might come across during summer opportunities. As long as that volunteer approaches their project with a manner of professionalism, listens to and is respectful of their project leads, and utilizes some common sense their summer experience is sure to be both fun and educational.


General Conservation

Conservation Field School… Or, what I did on my spring break

March 31st, 2011

Conservation Field School… Or, what I did on my spring break—

 by Laurel Seaborn

(all text and photos)

I learned about tannic acid. It may stain but it does the job in conservation!

Let me start at the beginning. Though my friends invited me to go diving in the Keys, I decided to go to Fort Fisher at Kure Beach, NC, to do a conservation field school. Our task, to examine artifacts from the shipwreck of the blockade runner Modern Greece. We survived it and may I say we were even applauded for our efforts under our fearless leader, ECU conservator Susanne Grieve.

 The newspapers published several articles about the details, but so far none of us students has come forward to tell the inside story of our task. Until now… All I can say is if you have an aversion to dirt and grime, read no further! Luckily, our team leaders thought of the important things when they loaded up the trailer of supplies: boxes and boxes of blue nitrile gloves.


Emily Powell keeping the artifacts wet (note gloves).

Though navy divers recovered the artifacts from the shipwreck in the 1960s, conservators chose only a few of the more presentable pieces for conservation to allow for museum display. Since the 1970s, most of the objects remained in their tanks filled with water and organic materials, which seems to have created a stable environment for the waterlogged materials. This bath of muck and leaves transformed to a tannic acid and became a preservation method in itself. Now we needed to disturb them, and help them on their way to further conservation, analysis, or use as teaching tools depending on their condition.

 In order to do a good job of this project Susanne, and the team leaders Nicole Wittig, Emily Powell, and Kate Schnitzer, sorted us into an efficient machine each with our designated motions to keep it all flowing. Handlers would get the artifacts, Photographers took the pictures, Recorders catalogued and determine the condition of the object, and the Taggers/Baggers attached the tag and assisted in transporting the objects to new tanks of water.


First you pick it up, put it on the plywood, spray spray…

We set up in a small courtyard on a concrete pad, with numerous tables for laptop computers and other electronics like cameras that needed to stay dry and clean. We spread out our instruments of documentation: pens, white boards, rule sticks, zip ties, all that we needed to coordinate the efforts. We were ready to dig in.

And yes, that tannic muck got everywhere, but mostly on the Handlers. They were warned to bring their rubber boots! The Handlers groped about in the tanks wearing gloves that came up to the armpits, assisted by lead conservator Nathan Henry. They pulled out the artifacts, placed them on plywood to allow for a rinse down with a sprinkler-headed hose, and carried them to the next station. , as they removed the artifacts the tank level lowered, until it required climbing into the depths about four feet down to lift the objects out.


Nathan Henry and BJ Howard examining some bits and pieces.

I worked as a Photographer, placing the object on a white plastic sheet, writing the catalog number on the white board and standing on a ladder over the table or distant ground to get the angle for the shot. Civil war rifles, gun boxes, chisels, knives, spoons, hoes, and picks, all set out next to the measuring rule to show some scale. In the rhythm of artifact after artifact, I lost track of time except as passing shadows through the tree branches above us. Until lunch…


The little ladder to stand on (Wittig and LK Schnitzer).

The generosity of our hosts extended to large quantities of food, coffee break snacks, pizza, and sandwiches. They also arranged for us to stay nearby in quaint cottages, ours was painted coral between the pastel pinks and blues and greens. Next morning, I walked the beach to get to Fort Fisher, though I admit the physical work of the day before ached in many a muscle.


Pick a pick, any pick… (Valerie Rissel)

While photographing the artifact, the Recorders assign a catalog number, take down the details, and assess each object or clump of them. Is it one gun or two concreted together? Does it need immediate attention? Is that coral growth or a sailor’s palm? All this updated information became part of the documentation of the collection.

After all this, the Tagger/Baggers, put on a Mylar tag, and took the object to a trailer for the short drive to the new tanks. The conservator readied two tanks, which we soon filled, and then added a third plus several buckets to ensure more objects could make the transfer to their new temporary home.


Jones and Schnitzer loading Civil war rifles.

With all the large objects removed from the first tank, I volunteered to climb into the bottom to rake through the black slurry. The water pump chugged away the remainder of the liquid as I used a pitchfork to lift out the leaves and anything possibly hidden in them. Periodically, the leaves clogged the sieve on the pump intake until I scooped them away. Mostly I found acorns and pebbles, but occasionally a clink brought up a metal object.

Finally, I donned the to-the-armpit gloves and bent down to feel through the muck. Dang my aching back (and knees and shoulders), nothing would stop me. With my face that close to the surface I gagged on the smell of rotting leaves, but managed to complete my search pattern finding one more bit of knife blade.

Pulling off my gloves, I found a hole. My right pointer finger was completely black, and despite scrubbing in soap and water, it stayed that way for the rest of the day. My jeans after washing remain well ingrained with tannic acid splotches. One student commented that it would be best to burn her clothes on returning home, but I see it as another experiment in the preservative properties of tannic acid. I hypothesize that my jeans will decay and only the stains will remain.

07-DirtyPantsThe dirtiest jeans! (center leg is Grieve)

So all in all the work on the spring conservation field school did nothing that a good hot bath and a massage couldn’t cure, and I have memories of the Civil War artifacts from the wreck of Modern Greece that far outweigh minor inconveniences like a stained finger.

General Conservation

What nature preserves, man easily takes away

February 21st, 2011

What nature preserves, man easily takes away.

Gregory Stratton

              In Dr. Babits’ shipwreck archaeology class (HIST 3005), we recently covered the wrecks of the Hamilton and Scourge.  One of the presentations showed just how much modern man can destroy what a maritime environment at its best can preserve.  Both ships were stationed on the great lakes as part of the fledgling United States Navy during the war of 1812.  In a running battle with the British on August 8th 1813, a sudden squall enveloped both ships and capsized them.  Only a small percentage of the sailors were rescued, but their narrations of what happened along with the logs of the other ships involved, assisted in the future search of the ships.  In 1971, the searches started for the wrecks using magnetometers and side scan sonar. In 1973 a likely target was found and in 1975 a more advanced form of side scan sonar was used and confirmed the wrecks sitting upright in 290 feet of water.  The first pictures to emerge from a Remote Operated Vehicle were amazing.  After sitting in the water for 162 years, the ships looked like they could be raised, rigged with sails and sailed away.  They were beautifully preserved in the cold, non-saline water of the great lakes.  The details of the figureheads on the prows and catheads were perfect.  It was a very pristine environment.

1812-LogoButtonImage Source:

 The next set of surveys, completed in 1988 is where the destruction is seen.  At some point between the surveys, quagga mussels had begun growing on the wrecks, covering them.  These are small invasive mussels that are not native to the great lakes, but which can grow in great enough quantities that they will completely cover any surface that they are growing on.  Speculation follows that a freighter brought them in and inadvertently allowed them to be dropped into the lake.  Since the survey in 1988 the Canadian national trust has tried to keep track of the progress of the mussels and how they are affecting the wrecks.  As of the 2008 survey, you could barely recognize what they were originally.  This does not even address what destruction that divers have done to the site.  It is a very sad fact that modern man can and will destroy what time has preserved.

scourge 2008 2

Image Source:

General Conservation

SHA Conference 2011

January 8th, 2011

2011 Society for Historical Archaeology Conference

January 8, 2011

Susanne Grieve, Director of Conservation 

For the past week, faculty and students have been visiting the fun and entertaining city of Austin, Texas to attend the annual Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) conference. The dozens of sessions and forums were devoted to the discussion of historical archaeology on both terrestrial and underwater sites with several subfields also represented, such as conservation. As with any conference, there were also a lot of fantastic events surrounding the conference including a book room, technology demonstrations, drink socials, awards dinners, and a pub crawl to see Austin’s best bars and restaurants.

While there were lots of interactions to mention, this blog will highlight my experience and some of the sessions I attended. The conference started on Wednesday evening with an opening general session that set the stage for the conference theme and allowed the Texas hosts to showcase some of their historical highlights.

My Thursday started with attending the curation, collections management, and conservation committee where current objectives for the group were discussed including archiving materials both physically and digitally. The morning underwater symposium was about treasure hunting, archaeology, and the law. All of the presentations were thought provoking and were conducted by many different policy makers and government representatives which made for an interesting discussion based on their many years of experience. The symposium began with a general introduction to some of the shipwreck cases that have involved treasure hunters and how archaeologists have interacted with the salvage companies. The next paper outlined the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) and gave some suggestions for a revised terminology. Vic Mastone gave a great presentation on his experiences as the Chief Archaeologist for the state of Massachusetts. Representatives from NOAA then discussed the evolution of the USS Monitor project detailing many of the lessons learned during planning. The ECU group then spent time preparing for their presentations in the afternoon detailed below.

The afternoon sessions I attended included a forum “Into the Cloud: Archaeology and Media in the Borderless Information World”. The panel introduced the projects they have been working on and discussed some of the tools archaeologists can use to reach out to the public. Following the forum, I headed for the ECU underwater symposium on “Diamonds, Whaling, and Mercantilism” which detailed the work that was done by faculty and students on the summer abroad in Namibia, Africa. Dr. Lynn Harris gave a wonderful introduction on the current state of archaeological research in Namibia and outlined some the vessels we worked on. Danny Bera then discussed the work we did during the Fall 2010 field school in Charleston, South Carolina. Jennifer Jones gave a great presentation on the sites in Meob Bay, particularly the surf boats that we recorded and documented. Kate Schnitzer and Tom Horn presented together on the fascinating history and documentation of the Eduard Bolen wreck in the Namib Desert. Kate and I then gave a presentation on some of the conservation challenges we faced while working in remote environments. Theresa Hicks finished the session with her presentation on her thesis topic of the Bowling Farm sight and the relation of historic wharfs to plantations. The ECU session was very successful and allowed students to showcase their research interests and practice presenting to an audience of their peers.

Friday morning began with a really fantastic session on the Vasa project. Dr. Fred Hocker started the morning by introducing the history of the project, outlining the session ahead. Magnus Olofsson discussed how the climate surrounding the Vasa was causing concerns and the steps that were taken to mitigate the problems. Dr. Hocker continued by detailing the support structure of the hull. Nat Howe, an ECU graduate student, discussed the success of the total station mapping projects including details on methods. This was followed by Dr. Kroum Batchvarov’s talk on recording the frame of the Vasa which gave archeologists a better understanding of the methods of construction. Kelby Rose talked about the naval architecture of the ship and future work that he hopes to conduct on the vessel. Another fantastic student at ECU, Stephanie Gandulla, gave a presentation on her thesis studying the treenware, or wooden tableware, from the Vasa collection. John Radcliffe, also an ECU graduate student, presented his information on the casks from the Vasa. Very fascinating! Dr. Hocker then presented a brief paper on the interpretation of the carved heads on the Vasa. Midshipman Howell then discussed the US Naval Academies use of GIS to analyze the location of artifacts on the Vasa’s gun decks. This session ended with a great discussion on the success of the Vasa project.

While there were many great underwater sessions, I headed for the Ghost Ship session in the afternoon, which turned out to be very rewarding. The Ghost Ship is a fascinating discovery in the Baltic Sea by Deep Sea Productions/MMT. This deep water survey led to a plethora of information on this unique wreck site. Check out the website for more information:  My last forum for the day was on teaching historical archaeology. This panel discussion was an invigorating exchange on the past methods of teaching archaeology and future methods that should be implemented. I am always interested in learning what other professionals are teaching and what the students would like to learn. I also want to express the importance of including conservation courses in the curriculums for historical archaeology. The last day of the conference included a morning working session on collections, curation, and stewardship. I found this discussion to be very beneficial personally and helped provide some ideas for formulating good collections policies and conservation planning procedures. The afternoon session I attended was on the use of X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) for archaeology and conservation. I also caught some of the University of West Florida (UWF) student’s presentations on current research they are conducting.

The final session attended was the one that I was anticipating for the entire conference. George Schwartz hosted a great session on archaeological conservation that showcased a lot of the projects currently being undertaken at Texas A and M, and of the graduates of the conservation program that have gone on to other positions. Jim Jobling outlined the importance of conservation through several case studies of objects that have been treated at the Texas A and M labs. Peter Fix then detailed the planning and design of the support for the La Belle vessel. George then outlined the activities of the Submerged Cultural Resources Center which include a variety of responsibilities. Among these is conservation of objects from shipwreck sites. Also with the Submerged Cultural Resources Center is Alexis Catsambis who detailed their use of a laser scanner for documenting artifacts. Brennan Bajdek then discussed the conservation of two carronades from the USS Shark. The process was amazing to see unfold. Bill Utley then showed us how he has used XRF on artillery shells from the USS Tulip (love that name!). Shanna Daniel from the Queen Anne’s Revenge lab also discussed her use of XRF for analysis on their objects. We hope to purchase an XRF unit in the near future to increase our ability to perform research on historical objects. Chris Sabick did a fascinating presentation on PCB contaminated archaeological wood. The final presentation was by Doug Inglis on preservation concerns with sunken watercraft. The world will surely keep a close eye on the research by Texas A and M into this growing area of concern.

Donny Hamilton was a final discussant for the session and he gave a great summary of conservation at Texas A and M. Donny is one of the founding fathers of waterlogged archaeological conservation in the US and noted he has been teaching conservation for 40 years. Overall, the conference was a fantastic experience and really showcased Texas history and archaeology. While I was formally trained at University of West Florida and the University College London, my mentor, Dr. John Bratten was a graduate of Texas A and M. Without his mentoring and exposing me to conservation, I would have never had the experiences in conservation that I have had in my career. The influence and reach of the conservation classes at Texas A and M is undeniable and is a testament to the value that the program offers to the field!

General Conservation

Summer 2010 Internship: Turkey

October 1st, 2010

Summer 2010 Internship: Institute of Nautical Archaeology’s Bodrum Research Center, Turkey

Nicole Wittig


In southwestern Turkey located on the Aegean Sea, is Bodrum.  The city literally vibrates to techno beats form local clubs and restaurants, while wooden yachts called gullets anchor in the harbor waiting to take European tourists on an island hopping adventure.  Amidst all of this summertime European tourism culture stands the castle of St. Peter, a 15th century relic.  Within the castle walls is the museum of underwater archaeology, displaying artifacts from some of the most memorable underwater archaeological sites.  Glassware from Serce Liman and amphoras  from Cape Gelidonya are not only artifacts from Byzantine culture but also from the birth of the underwater archaeology discipline.

But my work takes place half a mile outside of the city center on a sparse hillside.  This is where the Institute of Nautical Archaeology’s (INA) research facility sits perched above the peninsula.  I am here to complete a conservation internship in fulfillment of department requirements for the conservation track.  The program’s track in conservation of waterlogged artifacts requires two courses, introduction to and advanced conservation, an internship in an exterior lab, as well as dedicating 40% of your thesis to the topic of conservation.  I spent four weeks in INA’s conservation lab gaining practical conservation skills.

The INA’s lab is a repository for artifacts and finds from field excavations in Turkey.  Strewn throughout the lab are ceramic sherds from several underwater Turkish sites.  Currently the remains of amphoras, or storage vessels, from Pabuç Burun are being reconstructed in the lab.  The process is painstaking to say the least as thousands of sherds are refitted into their original form.   However, my task is not to piece back together amphoras but to recreate an artifact from dust.  I am working with concretions from the Boz Burun wreck excavated in the late 1990s.  These concretions are calcium deposits which form around solid objects.   The iron deteriorates until only a black residue remains trapped in the concretion.  By X-raying the formless concretions, you can detect whether or not an object existed.  An artifact, or the ghost of the artifact will appear as a void or space on the x-ray.  Sometimes this space is so well defined you can actually guess at what the artifact once was.

Once all proper documentation is done then the concretion is ready to be cast.  The cavity left behind by the deteriorated iron is cleaned, paying close attention not to damage the original surface.  Then an epoxy is added very slowly.  If added to quickly, air bubbles form weakening the cast.  After casting, the concretion must dry for at least 24 hours.  After drying, an airscribe removes the concretion to reveal the cast of the artifact within.  Airscribing is by far the dirtiest part of the process and must be done with the utmost care not to damage the epoxy cast below the concretion.  The final step is to clean the cast of airscribe dust and conduct the proper post-documentation, including photos and notes.  Casting is a fantastic exercise to save artifacts otherwise lost.  During my internship I cast ship’s fasteners that may seem mundane but could potentially add a wealth of data to ideas about Byzantine ship construction.

 Adding Epoxy

Figure 1: Adding epoxy to the cleaned concretions.

 Epoxy Setting

Figure 2: Epoxy setting within the prepared concretion.

Removing Concretion

Figure 3: Mechanically cleaning concretions from ceramics.

General Conservation

Conservation Kegger

February 23rd, 2010

Kate Cleaning a Barrel






As some of you may have seen on our   Facebook page, Susanne, Kate, and Nicole have just finished conservation of a Civil War torpedo keg on loan from the Savannah History Museum.  Underwater torpedoes were used extensively during the Civil War for coastal defense.  Keg style torpedoes proved especially effective.  They were constructed from wooden barrels or recycled beer kegs and fitted with conical reinforcing pieces secured over the barrel heads.  Metal fuses containing combustible chemicals were mounted in the staves and the barrels were filled with powder.  The torpedoes were then weighted and set adrift in waterways.  Collision with a passing ship would cause the fuse to ignite the powder and explode.

This particular torpedo was converted from an oaken beer keg.  The name Constance Brewery is still legible on the barrel heads.  The torpedo was found in 1996 in a riverbank outside of Savannah, Georgia.  Shortly thereafter it was brought to the ECU Maritime Conservation Lab for its first treatment.  The wooden components were treated with sucrose but the copper alloy fuses were in good condition and left untreated.  After conservation was completed the torpedo was transported to Georgia and displayed at the Savannah History Museum.  Over time the fuses were exposed to sulfate reducing bacteria in the air and developed an unsightly black patina.  In 2009 the torpedo was brought back to the ECU Lab for follow-up treatment.

It has been more than 12 years since the artifact’s initial conservation.  In addition to the black patina on the fuses, the wooden components of the barrel showed patches of mold growth.  The follow-up treatment began with a gentle mechanical cleaning using paintbrushes and a vacuum to remove loose particulate matter.  The wood was then wet cleaned with acetone and cotton swabs to remove the moldy film growing on it.  The copper alloy fuses were treated with citric acid to remove the black sulfide staining and a corrosion inhibitor and wax coating were then applied to help prevent future deterioration.  All components received a final mechanical cleaning to remove any remaining cotton fibers.   The torpedo keg is once again ready for display!

During Treatment

During Treatment

General Conservation

Wrinkles and Missing Teeth

February 12th, 2010

Wrinkles and Missing Teeth: An Exciting Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I under Closer Inspection

Nicole Wittig

February 12, 2010 a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I arrived at Joyner Library.  Dr. Tise of East Carolina University’s History Department and  Horace Whitfield executive director of Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, North Carolina initiated a cooperative project to determine the origin of this portrait after speculation arose that it could date to the late 1500s.


Figure I: Dr. Tise and Horace Whitfield with the queen’s portrait.

The piece is an oil painting on wood paneling.  It is mounted in a heavy frame, potentially the original, painted black.  The artist depicted the queen at an advanced age.  Her skin is wrinkled, and according to physical anthropologists, she would have been missing teeth from the left side of her jaw.  Surprisingly the painting exists, because the queen did not typically allow unflattering images of her to survive.


Figure II: Ultraviolet light inspection.

An early benefactor of Elizabethan Gardens purchased the painting in the early 1950s for a grand sum between 50 and 100 dollars.  On display in the gatehouse for the next fifty years, the painting was exposed to fluctuating temperature and humidity while thousands of visitors passed by.  Two years ago the painting was placed in storage after speculation of its early origin dated it to the 16th century.  Today through cooperation with East Carolina University and other resources in eastern North Carolina, the painting will be examined to determine its true age.


Figure III: Susanne Grieve getting a closer look with a head loupe.

 Susanne Grieve, conservator and instructor for the Program in Maritime Studies, made a preliminary assessment of the painting.  Using simple tools including loupes and an ultraviolet light, Ms. Grieve postulated that the portrait exhibits trademarks of an older painting.  The veneer exhibits cracking, an indicator of advanced aging.  Pigments in the paint did not react to the ultraviolet light, a possible indication that the paint used is not of a modern era.  Further analysis using infrared technologies will lead to more in-depth analysis.


Figure IV: Examining the frame.

For more information consult the Virginia-Pilot April 12th 2008 for a newspaper article detailing the paintings history from studio to present.

 Also visit Elizabethan Gardens website at

General Conservation

Disaster Relief Workshop

February 2nd, 2010

Disaster Relief Workshop

Nicole Wittig

MA Student, Program in Maritime Studies

Members of the Conservation & Preservation Department in Joyner Library are organizing a disaster relief workshop.  The workshop details the steps that must be taken when there is water damage to a library’s collection including books, papers, and photographs.  For those of you at home, here are some basic steps to take if your personal collection of books are damaged. 

Step 1:  Lay some bath towels down on the surface where you will dry the books.  Librarians will use blotting paper, but who has that laying around!

Step 2:  Find absorbant materials around your house, the Brawny Man will do just fine!  If the book is only partial wetted then interlace just a few paper towels throughout, but if fully wetted then add more trying not to over stuff the book and damage the spine.  Be careful when pulling apart the pages, they will be more apt to tearing or sticking together when wet. 

Step 3:  Get a household fan and have that positioned to circulate air around the books. 

Step 4:  Monitor the paper towels, when they become damp remove the old and replace with new ones.

These steps should help minimize the growth of mold, warping and staining of your book’s pages.  The book will not be pristine again, but hopefully readable.

General Conservation

Advanced Conservation!

January 26th, 2010

Dr. Rodgers has started the advanced conservation class this semster with an exciting exercise in wood identification. Here are some images of the students during class:


Kate measuring the specific gravity of her wood sample.


Maddie researching wood types during class.


Nicole examining a sample using a loupe.


Emily calculating her wood weights.

General Conservation