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


With the application of new scientific techniques and procedures, new information can be discovered about formerly restored artifacts (Scott, 1926: 39–40; Greene, 1979). To this end the teaching of archaeological conservation at the Institute of Archaeology of London University has been likened to that of a physician's education: the practitioner must make a diagnosis of an object's condition and propose treatment (Gedye & Hodges, 1964: 84–7). However, given the above context, both student and archaeologist will encounter some difficulty in acquiring information concerning past and present conservation treatments and procedures. Although the Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts cross-reference published articles relating to conservation, the amount of information in print on archaeological and anthropological conservation is comparatively small in relation to other fields of conservation or the body of anthropological literature.

With the rapid increase in technological apparatus and complex analytical procedures in archaeometry and conservation, specialist scientists have become more prevalent. As Werner turned more toward ethnographic conservation, especially that of fragile organic objects, another scientist at the Research Laboratory, Robert M. Organ, began specializing in treatment and storage of metals and wood.10 Organ published the practical but highly technical Design for Scientific Conservation of Antiquities in 1968. Garry Thomson, scientific advisor to the National Gallery, London, came to specialize in environmental concerns in museums, (such as air conditioning and the effects of air pollution on works of art). His 1978 publication, The Museum Environment, is a concise description of environmental problems, their causes and prevention. W. A. Oddy, another British Museum Research Laboratory scientist, concentrated his studies on metals and stone: corrosion and deterioration prevention and treatment (e.g. Oddy & Hughes, 1970; Oddy, 1977).

A similar trend has developed among continental European conservation scientists. The French11 had been filling the pages of Mouseion from its inception, as well as Studies in Conservation(France-Lord, 1962; Weil, 1958) with detailed reports of their work, most notably in the conservation and analysis of archaeological metals. Italian contributions ranged from site prospecting (Lerici, 1961) to the treatment of wooden objects (Augusti, 1959) to Torraca's substantial aid to the field in the application of solvents to problems in conservation (Torraca, 1975). In Poland, Jedrzejewska (1962; 1963–64) and in Czechoslovakia, Pelikan (1964; 1966) reported on progress in the treatment of archaeological artifacts, especially metals.

Other European scientists in collaboration have published works on specific subjects. An example is the work by Mühlethaler, a Swiss Scientist, Bachman, (Swedish), and Noack (German), Conservation of Waterlogged Wood and Wet Leather, published in 1973. Mühlethaler also produced a comprehensive text on conservation (1967), while Stambolov published a major work on the methods of preparation and restoration of skin objects (1969) from his Amsterdam laboratory. Significant research and experimentation were undertaken in Scandinavia. In the area of textile conservation, the first conservation studio conceived to operate under “scholarly control” was organized by two Stockholm museum directors under the leadership of Agnes Branting in 1908. Here scientific research and analysis were applied to the conservation of all types of textiles, in cluding archaeological textiles (Geijer & Franzen, 1975:7). Excavation of archaeological shipwrecks such as the “Wasa” and a long list of other excavated wrecks by Scandinavian conservators and archaeologists developed conservation techniques on a wide range of objects (Patoharju, 1975:183–187;Rosenqvist, 1959). Finally, Christensen (1952;1956) made substantial advances in the conservation of water-logged wood in Denmark.

The subject of conservation in excavation was never the subject of a comprehensive work, although Plenderleith's chapter in the IMO Manual (1940) was an early yet brief attempt. This may, however, reflect the youth of the field of conservation, as there have been few generally accepted text books produced as opposed to those available in an older discipline such as archaeology, no less technical or complex, which has a wide selection of up-to-date basic texts produced regularly. Dowman's Conservation in Field Archaeology, published in 1970, was as Oddy (1973:44) stated, “ …the first (work) to describe in simple form, treatments which may safely be carried out on archaeological finds in the field.” Dowman's work is an excellent compendium of field techniques, treatments both for rescue operations and field laboratories as well as storage directions and therefore a partial exception to the above generalization, extending care into the museum or university laboratory. For Dowman, aside from being out of print and containing some poor science (Oddy, 1973:45), has provided a much needed focus on materials, conditions, soils and methods of treatment specifically for the archaeologist. Some of Dowman's deficiencies are covered in a 1984 IC-CROM publication edited by Stanley-Price (1984), but although it includes many references, this publication fails to address other areas such as the role of conservation in post-excavation analysis.

A number of archaeological textbooks contain chapters or short sections which describe in more or less detail the authors' practices in the field and laboratory with regard to conservation (e.g. Wheeler, 1954; Brennen, 1973: 151 and 161; Robbins, 1965: 173;88). Most of these are simply outlines of practice or lists of suggested procedures, chemicals and apparatus. Both of Heizer's Guides fall into this category (Heizer, 1958; Heizer and Graham, 1967). The best of these texts give examples of procedures with lists of materials as well as some cautionary remarks and suggested alternatives, developed in some detail, differing from the former group in the specifics provided and the background sketched to help deter possible problems. Examples of these are Hume 1968 and Joukowsky, 1980. With the exception of Joukowsky, none of these provides a thorough reading list or bibliography upon conservation. None presents a conservation paradigm in a manner as complete as a workbook or a descriptive narrative as does Dowman, 1970.

A recent article by Katherine R. Singley (1981) falls between Joukowsky and Dowman in descriptive effectiveness of directives. It is an excellent outline of what should be done in the field for the care of artifacts after excavation. “Outline” must be stressed, for this is a very brief work; useful as this paper is it does not touch on ecofactual remains, which make up a large part of many collections and excavation materials.

Rescue publications of the Department of Archaeology of the University of Southhampton, especially Leigh (1978), give clear directions for field work but are generally limited to packing and storage. There are also several articles by Australians on conservation. Ambrose (1968) produced a practical summary of field conditions in Australia and appropriate treatments, and McCarthy (1970) edited a volume containing several works on a variety of problems.

Although there are professional guidelines in the field of conservation (AIC, 1980), there is no standard view of treatment in every case. There is a wide variation in what is regarded as the proper treatment for any particular object or whether there should be any treatment at all (Beck, 1982). Plenderleith admonished in 1940 (IMO, 1940:143), that the archaeologist must not leave objects in the hands of the conservator and give him carte blanche. The archaeologist must have a clear understanding of what can be done in the field, with those items left in situ as well as those recovered, and what can be treated in the museum or university laboratory. In practice, the archaeologist should have specific objectives which will dictate the type of conservation. However, in my experience these objectives are often short-sighted with respect to the survival of the majority of objects, and the most often described treatments are cosmetic or are so concerned with the immediate survival of the object for analysis that long-term treatments for survivability cannot be assured.

Communication between archaeologist and conservator must be an ongoing process to update what works in the field and to clarify the long-term effects of all treatments including those that may hinder research or analysis. Research and experimentation must be facilitated for the successful recovery and preservation of artifacts.

The retrieval of fragile fragments or of impressions of objects and the detection of trace elements or information concerning the former existence of structures or objects (Biek, 1963:60–65) is the meridian between the role of the conservator and that of the analytical scientist. Still, with all the technical skill of the scientists and the increasing specialization among conservators, it is the training of the excavators which is of utmost importance. It is with their ability and awareness that the successful recovery of an object begins.

For historical collections one may also mention Guldbeck (1972), published by the American Association for State and Local History, Waterer's 1972 work on leather which touches on archaeological and ethnographic materials, and Lewis's Manual for Museums (1976) which contains information derived from the work of the United States National Park Service centralized laboratories set up in the 1930s by Carl P. Russell. While most of the efforts of these laboratories have been oriented toward storage and exhibition as it is reflected in the content of this volume, there has been a long tradition of preservation treatments established by Park Service workers. Lewis's work follows on that by Ned J. Burns (1941); both were written for curators, to provide guidance to practical solutions for collections. The impact of Burns's work, however, is problematic as even Keel (1963) hardly mentions Burns's work and then only that concerning the treatment of skin. Nevertheless, Burns's work was very detailed and his audience, being the Park Service personnel under whose care were many thousands of objects, probably gave his suggestions on treatments and care a very wide application. However, with reference to this skin material, the work of Burns and that of Waterer mentioned above are of less value to archaeologists and anthropologists than the comprehensive work of Reed (1972).

Rowe (1953), in his summary of technical aids in anthropology mentions Rathgen (1905), Rosenberg (1917), Plenderleith (1934) and Leechman (1931) as the comprehensive texts in restoration. He mentions Lucas (1924) for chemical identification and analysis and Gettens (1950) and Fink (1933) for specific applications. The appearance of an article such as that by Velich (1965) in a journal of the professional caliber of Curator perhaps belies the actual effect of much of this work described above. While Velich's description of his treatments of skin artifacts of American Indians were not entirely unacceptable in the context of the time, they are extremely pedestrian in retrospect and must indicate a lack of familiarity with earlier published work, most specifically in his restorative efforts with ballpoint pen.

Copyright © 1987 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works