CONSERVATION AND ARCHAEOLOGY IN GREAT BRITAIN AND THE UNITED STATES: A COMPARISON
JESSICA S. JOHNSON
4 EUROPEAN PREHISTORIC ARCHAEOLOGY AND CONSERVATION
Archaeological conservation as a distinct field has not grown out of classical, humanistic archaeology, as might be expected, but out of European prehistoric archaeology. Often termed scientific archaeology, this field allied itself with history, natural sciences, and geology in the late 1800s (Daniel 1975). Daniel traces the development of preservation and excavation techniques in British archaeology to excavation during the mid-19th century of spectacularly preserved tree-coffin sites like Gristhorpe in England and the Swiss lake dwellings. These techniques and others were then developed by British excavators like W. M. Flinders Petrie and Sir Leonard Woolley in western Asia and Egypt. “Archaeology had to develop a technique of excavation and preservation all its own; [it was realized] that careful excavation of specially preserved sites would yield the most detailed knowledge of the way of life of early man” (Daniel 1975, 161).
In Britain, and in Europe more generally, prehistoric archaeology is viewed as an extension of European history back into prehistoric times (Trigger 1978). A major interest of British prehistoric archaeology since the late 1800s has been the development of “systematic archaeological techniques of excavation, field survey, conservation and protection” (Daniel 1975, 152). Preservation and conservation techniques have been considered an important part of archaeological investigations.
British archaeologists were influenced in their techniques by the German excavations of such individuals as E. Curtius at Olympia and Hubert Schmidt of the Berlin Museum für Volkerkunde at Anau in Turkestan (Daniel 1975, 228–89). Later, other German excavators like G. Bersu, a refugee from Nazi Germany in the 1930s who excavated at Little Woodbury in Wiltshire, continued to actively influence British archaeology (Evans 1989).
In addition to being early innovators in excavation techniques, the Germans were innovators of scientific archaeological conservation in the museum. Friedrich Rathgen, first director of the Chemical Laboratory of the Royal Museums of Berlin, has been called the “father of modern archaeological conservation” (Gilberg 1987). A chemist by training, from 1888 he developed treatments for artifacts based on a scientific approach rather than on traditional, empirical, craft-based skills (Gilberg 1987). Many of his methods form the basis of techniques still used on archaeological materials today.