By Katherine Hodge, Interim Project Archaeology Program Lead
There are many different parts of the archaeological process. Researching, mapping, and digging are important steps for gaining material to study. However, ensuring that material lasts as long as possible for future generations is just as important. Conservation is the action of helping preserve an archaeological site or artifact. This is usually achieved by stabilizing it and then doing work to prevent further damage. Conservation can look very different depending on what kind of artifact it is, like the material it’s made of, how old it is, and from what kind of environment it came.
At its core, conservation is a complex scientific field that has seen a great deal of development and improvement over the past decades.
It may seem like a strange thing to list, but reversibility is a huge innovation in conservation science. Early in archaeology and conservation, scientists would use materials to stabilize the artifact that were permanent. This means that was extremely difficult to undo the conservation work, and that an attempt to undo it would result in further damage. In some cases, conservation work like labels cannot be taken off, glue cannot be dissolved, and sometimes artifacts were permanently placed within their exhibit space and cannot be moved. At the time, this was seen as a normal and good practice, but today it is something a conservator would never do.
A new innovation in the field came with the idea of ensuring that all conservation practices were reversible, which means they could be removed or taken off if necessary. For example, when artifacts are given accession numbers, a small tag can be painted on with glues and inks that are safe for the object, meaning it will not corrode, damage, or off gas anything harmful. These glues and inks can also easily be taken off if the artifact needs a new number, if photos need to be taken without the tag, or if it obscures a point of study. This is especially important because as our understanding of the past improves, archaeologists may need to focus in on a different angle or feature that prior scientists did not think were important. The ability to safely remove or undo any type of conservation work allows archaeologists to study whatever they are interested in without impediment.
This idea of using materials that can be taken off also allows for mistakes. Though conservators do their best to use well-researched and well-known products, sometimes it is later found out that the material chosen can do harm to the object. Additionally, conservators could also potentially find an even better material to use. Reversibility allows for normal human error in a way that prevents damage to the object and promotes flexibility.
Making it last
In addition to ensuring treatments are reversible, it is also important to make the treatments that are done as effectively as possible so they will never need to be reversed. There are
now scanners that allow conservators to scan an artifact to understand the exact materials within the artifact. This allows them to tailor a treatment and methodology to the materials present. Modern technology has also helped with the overall sustainability of these artifacts.
Conservators have an excellent understanding of humidity and light levels, and modern technology has helped to custom create levels that are the best for each object. For example, at the Field Museum in Chicago, there are digital tables that allow visitors to closely look at intricate objects, like painted scrolls. This allows the object to be safely displayed in a case that is temperature and humidity controlled rather than be completely unrolled or kept away in storage. These tables allow visitors to zoom in and gain more information. Another innovation is with lighting. At the Field Museum, there is a brightly colored and beautifully-made robe in the Cyrus Tang Hall of China. If it was displayed with constant light, the colors would quickly fade and the integrity of the fabric would weaken. Thanks to motion-sensitive lights, the case is only illuminated when a visitor is close. This conservation work allows the artifact to be on display far longer and helps preserve it.
In recent years, accessibility to collections has become increasingly important, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when travel was impossible but research had to continue. Thanks to modern technology, access to collection items is easier than ever before. Digitizing artifacts, notebooks, and other pieces of information allow anyone to see and study the objects. There are even digitized maps thanks to ArcGIS that allow a site’s dig to be digitally captured, rendered, and displayed.
Though accessibility may not sound like a kind of conservation work, it is crucial to the overall mission of longevity. Digitizing an object and recording all of its information in a database truly ensures that future generations can appreciate and learn from the artifact, no matter what happens to it physically.
Through the past several decades, there have been exciting new methodologies within the field of conservation science. These innovations help ancient pieces of our past to survive well into the future, and also help us all to better understand and appreciate our past, shared human history.