JAIC 1987, Volume 26, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 85 to 104)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1987, Volume 26, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 85 to 104)


Niccolo Leo Caldararo


The specifics of a history of archaeological and anthropological conservation remain vague and only fitfully illuminated in the literature. Although some archaeologists have written notes on the conservation and restoration techniques which they applied in the field and laboratory, the great majority have not. Fewer still have included these notes in their reports. One of the few sources of such information is the Society for American Archaeology Notebook (SAA-N). This informal publication issued from 1939 to late 1942 provided a forum for archaeologists to describe new treatments in the field and museum lab and to ponder common problems. Museum Work, published by the American Association of Museums, Curator, and Museum News in America, and the Museums Journal in England, have provided a similar outlet for archaeologists and anthropologists in museum settings. In 1933 the Fogg Museum began the publication of a periodical of a scientific approach as applied to art and archaeology, Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts.

Of the publications pertaining to artifact conservation, it is remarkable to note the similarity in organization and subjects covered they reveal on comparison. Some similarity is due to the nature of the objects studied. From Rathgen (1905) to Dowman (1970) knowledge of the environment, soil conditions, changes in conditions which an object would go through, and an awareness of the limitations of the available materials for treatment have been a consistent thread.

The first two works5 detailing the use of scientific techniques applied to the restoration and conservation of artifacts appeared in Germany just before the turn of the twentieth century. They were produced in response to the need to preserve objects of Egyptian origin in Northern European museums. The publication by Voss, appearing in 1888, was prepared at the request of the German government (Rathgen, 1905, ed.:v). Rathgen's work was published in German and then translated into English in 1905 (Otto, 1979:47). It stands out from the general literature of conservation in that it was more of a critical summary of the work of European conservators and scientists with whom he and Voss corresponded and whose work they knew through reports in publications and of the experiences of collectors as well. Generally, Rathgen outlined the works of others and criticized it in terms of his own and colleagues' work. Both books may be said to have resulted from problems produced by the extensive collecting of artifacts in Egypt by Lepsius and other German archaeologists in the nineteenth century. The work of Voss and Rathgen has been carried on by German conservators publishing their results in the pages of Der Präparator and Maltechnick-Restauro and other publications.

In the United Kingdom, Alexander Scott published three reports in 1921, 1923, and 1926 on treatments done in the British Museum. Lucas published a comprehensive text of his conservation treatments in its original form in 1924, the result of his work on the artifacts from the Tomb of Tutankh-Amen and his earlier studies as the Director of the Egyptian Chemical Department (Anon., 1924). At about the same time he set up a laboratory at the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. The impact of this European work on American archaeologists and museum workers came with the publication of Douglas Leechman's [application of Lucas's and other European practitioners'] techniques and procedures to the conservation of North American artifacts (1931). Leechman explains in his introduction that, at the time, there were only three books on the subject of preservation of museum specimens that were of any use and that one of these was the “out-of-date” translation of Rathgen. He states that the three were principally concerned with archaeological materials, particularly those from Egypt.

Much of Leechman's philosophy and methodological procedure6 in conservation has stood the test of time, with the exception of some vague introductory phrases in which he cautions against changing the appearance of an object “…except, in some cases, very much for the better,” and promotes cleaning to return a specimen to “…the condition in which its original owner or maker would have kept it.” Even if we had ethnographic information detailed enough to tell us in every case how a “typical” owner might keep a particular artifact, by modern professional standards returning it to this state would be a questionable and subjective exercise. Artifacts are found (i.e. collected from living users or archaeologically) containing traces of food, showing wear, or possessing examples of repairs done in aboriginal settings which provide information about the people, their technology, diet and the attitudes they held toward the artifacts.

Conservators are often faced with the problem of determining what is an aboriginal repair and what is a repair executed by a collector or dealer. Fried (1981:229–45) has discussed this problem in detail as it affects scholarship. We have also some to realize since Leechman's time, that “cleaned” and “restored” or “conserved” have further implications which can compromise the objects conceptually (Wolf & Mibach, 1983).

This is especially a problem with museum objects7 where articles of use, practical or spiritual, may be transformed into (isolated into) objects for aesthetic contemplation only. With archaeological materials, we have the added problem of the possible compromise of analysis, where the potential for trace element analysis and dating can be altered or destroyed even by simple washing and handling (Brothwell, 1965; Geidel, 1982; Loy, 1983; Janaway, 1983). An excellent example of the dangers involved is the case in which Colin Fink cleaned an Egyptian Old Kingdom ewer and basin by electrolytic reduction and then decided after his examination of the objects that the Egyptians had had a chemical method of plating antimony on copper (1934). Forbes (1950:264) pointed out after a subsequent analysis that the antimony plating was due to the electrolytic reduction of the copper objects by Fink.

In the 1930s the series of conferences sponsored by the International Office of Museums (IMO) brought together archaeologists, scientists and scholars from all over the world. At these conferences discussions of archaeological excavation, restoration and museology, and a desire to standardize practice led to several publications. A journal, Mouseion, published by the IMO allowed results of work to be spread to colleagues who could not meet. Another IMO publication which resulted from conference discussions was the Manual on the Technique of Archaeological Excavations (1940). Among the members of the editorial committee which produced the Manual was H. J. Plenderleith, then Professor of Chemistry, Royal Academy of Arts, and Keeper of the Research Laboratory at the British Museum, London. The Manual was planned as a standardized guide to excavation work anywhere in the world. It contained a chapter on field conservation which drew on the recently published works of Plenderleith (1934), Rosenberg (1934), Sana Ullah (1934)S and that earlier of Rhoussopoulos (1911–12), among others.

Plenderleith published a summary of his work (1956) which he intended as a handbook or workshop guide much like the works which had preceded it (Rathgen, Lucas, etc.). The book, revised with the help of Werner in 1971, has been of immense importance in both the general field of conservation and in archaeology. Their work, like that of those who preceded them, was directed at introducing scientific methodology into a field which had previously been dominated by craftsmen. Both Plenderleith's 1956 edition, and his 1971 edition produced with Werner, are major contributions to the field of conservation and touch on field conservation techniques. Both editions are generally concerned with treatments of objects once they are in the museum. Some archaeological conservators have criticised their lack of detail in certain areas, for example Hodges (1975:37); with respect to ceramics.

Copyright © 1987 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works