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 first American publication relating to archaeological and anthropological conservation was Forrest E. Clements's article in American Antiquity in 1936 (excepting the brief instructions of Holmes and Mason, 1902). It was basically a summary of Leechman's earlier work in the context of Clements's own experience. It was not until Keel published his work in 1964 that American archaeology had a comprehensive manual designed especially for American collections in museum and university storage conditions. Still, Keel, like Leechman, dealt mainly with museum artifacts. His work was inspired by Plenderleith's 1956 edition of The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art to which he devotes almost the entirety of his introduction, summarizing the earlier publication.

With the introduction of scientific methodology, emerging technology of the day was quickly applied to pressing problems which threatened disastrous results if unchecked (e.g. see Howie, 1984). For example, Leechman advised the use of celluloid dissolved in acetone as a consolidant for a wide variety of materials. He also sprayed gasoline on artifacts to fumigate them (Leechman, 1931:129, and passim). However, this new tendency toward general use of chemical treatments was questioned quite early by Gettens (1933:41-1), who suggested that Lucas's use of celluloid solution and paraffin was inappropriate for some objects.

In the last 20 years we have seen a vast array of synthetic products utilized for conservation and restoration. A rather informal process of introduction developed8 as the discipline of conservation matured. Rapid aging tests were occasionally applied prior to general introduction. Yet as time has passed it has become evident that the aging of these treatments in real time and the effects of varying conditions may produce unexpected results.9 In this vein we have the recent problems upon aging developed by soluble nylon (Sease, 1981) and the effect of light on plastics and thermoplastics in particular (Lightbody and Roberts, 1954; Pappas and Winslow, 1981).

It is certain that, since the founding of the Institute of Archaeology by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1937 at the University of London, scientific attitudes have greatly aided the archaeologist in site retrieval of artifacts and in laboratory procedures for their preservation. This has become most apparent in underwater and marine archaeology, where retrieval is increasingly dependent on systems developed by conservators (Bourque, Brooke, Kelly and Morris, 1980). Recent literature contains examples of archaeologists who recognize the need for and utility of the expertise of conservators (South, 1976), though Clark (1954) and Wheeler (1954) set early foundations.

Perhaps the bulk of innovations in technology along with new materials applied to archaeological retrieval and laboratory work occurred without the intervention of conservators over the last 200 years. This process was generally haphazard and makeshift, with treatments applied with whatever materials were handy and without prior experiment on long-term effects, which often resulted in disastrous losses (e.g. Wheeler, 1954: 168). It is obvious, however, from the published literature of conservation scientists, researchers of the British Museum and the Institute of Archaeology, as well as that of archaeologists, that many innovations were introduced either by way of scientific experimentation and practice applied in museums or through collaboration of conservators, archaeologists, and consulted scientists (cf. Plenderleith and Werner, 1971 ed.; Organ, 1968; McCawley, 1977; Howie, 1984).

The archaeologist often requires microanalysis of materials for chemical content or trace elements, etc., and has historically gone to the research scientists of the museum conservation laboratories (as well as to university scientists) for aid (e.g. Gettens, 1933). At this point the scientist is engaged in archaeometry. Archaeologists have learned much about ancient technologies by the detailed analysis of artifacts and their components. This process of analysis when uncovering the materials used as well as the techniques of manufacture can involve restoration of the object (Woolley, 1934:70). (Previously, reconstruction had been done either by archaeologists, departmental employees, graduate students, or by specialized museum craftsmen called preparators, the “Jimmy Valentines” of science as Stucker (1977:201) describes their paleontological counterparts, who often executed the exhibition of objects.)

Copyright 1987 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works