JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 3, Article 4 (pp. 249 to 269)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 3, Article 4 (pp. 249 to 269)




In Britain, because of the early awareness of the importance of scientific understanding in conservation and the efforts of several key individuals and institutions, archaeological conservation developed a separate identity with close ties to archaeology. To quote a British archaeologist, “As an indication of the importance attached to it [conservation of objects] by archaeologists, it is enough to say that the Gold Medal of the Society of Antiquaries, the most cherished award in English archaeology, was this year [1964] given to Dr. Plenderleith, formerly Keeper of the Research Laboratory of the British Museum” (Gilyard-Beer 1964, 161).

In the United States, while conservation has been involved in projects with humanities-based classical archaeology, it has had little contact with anthropological archaeology. American archaeological conservation is generally less established and more disorganized in its goals and methods than British conservation. For instance, the Archaeology Section of the UKIC is the oldest and largest specialized group within the society. In the United States, however, archaeological conservation is just beginning to develop an identity separate from objects conservation. For example, a new journal, the Archaeological Conservation Newsletter, only began publication in 1988. The British and American literature compared here supports the idea that there are basic differences in the role and responsibilities of archaeological conservation in these two countries.

One observation that has been made repeatedly during research for this essay is that archaeologists (and other professionals concerned with archaeological materials, such as curators and museum directors) become aware and supportive of the need for conservation when faced with objects that have deteriorated noticeably in a short period of time. Where deterioration is slow or caused by inappropriate past treatments, archaeologists have been less willing to take responsibility for the preservation of their excavated materials. This problem is especially apparent in the United States. Preservation problems have been left for later generations (Lindsay and Williams-Dean 1980). While few archaeologists would publicly admit to not caring for the objects they recover, they continue to use treatments known by conservators to cause immediate or eventual damage.

American conservators also share the responsibility for the continued use of improper treatments. Art historians and the museum community generally have been more educated about the importance of scientific conservation and how it can contribute to their research and professional concerns. In the same way, archaeologists must be taught the importance of proper care of excavated artifacts using safe, stable materials and techniques and planning for conservation from the beginning of a project. They also need to understand that interaction with conservators can gain them additional information about materials and techniques as well as deterioration and formation processes. Conservators must begin to publish their information and ideas in the archaeological literature and continue to push for conservation education of archaeologists from the undergraduate level at field schools and in the classroom. Additional funding for conservation could become available if prehistoric archaeologists come to understand the reasoning behind conservation requirements. Instead of being at the end of the archaeological process, spending time fixing mistakes, conservators must become more a part of the archaeological profession, with its greater academic and monetary resources.

Research in archaeological conservation has been identified as a priority by both American and British conservators (NIC 1984; UKIC 1989). However, it is noteworthy that only in Britain has funding been specifically set aside for archaeological conservation. Significantly, this support comes from the Science-Based Archaeology Committee (SBAC), which also funds development of analytical methods. New World archaeologists have had little trouble accepting techniques that help to answer their specific questions, such as dating (car-bon-14, dendrochronology), materials sourcing (petrography), and diet (trace element analysis). However, they have rarely critically examined the techniques concerned with the preservation of data contained within artifacts, seeing preservation as a battery of well-developed, known techniques for saving morphology (Hester et al. 1975).

While many American and British archaeologists have been concerned with the development of a stronger theoretical foundation for archaeology in recent decades, it has also become apparent that this theory must be based on strong data recovered using highly developed methodologies. According to Meltzer et al. (1986, 16):

The primary problem facing the [archaeological] field today is a methodological one; our ways and means of knowing the past are weak. Scientific explanation is a product of a dialectical interchange between the observational/empirical and the rational/theoretical realms. Our methods (the means of obtaining knowledge about the past) provide the critical linkage across the abyss separating the observational and rational realms. Until the unsolved methodological problems are squarely faced and resolved, the construction of archaeological theory will remain a dream.

Conservators in Britain and the United States, trained specifically in careful observation and empirical methods for archaeological materials, can play a major role in developing and identifying methods for investigating the archaeological record while preserving it for the future.


This is a revision of a paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of B.Sc. in archaeological conservation at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. As well as repeating my thanks to the numerous individuals who assisted me with that dissertation, I would especially like to thank Niccolo Caldararo, Claire Dean, Paul Goldberg, Alfred E. Johnson, and Nancy Odegaard for their opinions and advice on this article. This is publication no. N.S. 70 of the Texas Memorial Museum.

Copyright 1993 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works