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




The development of archaeological conservation in Britain appears to stem from British archaeology's strong interest in method and techniques and the creative input of certain archaeologists, conservation chemists, and conservators at crucial stages during the late 1800s through the mid-20th century. Other individuals then influenced the development of conservation as a specialized discipline, separate from archaeology, as conservation became more organized worldwide. Unlike American archaeologists, British workers realized early the importance of chemical and physical knowledge for successful treatments.


W. M. Flinders Petrie did much of his work on sites in the Middle East, especially Palestine and Egypt. The huge sites in this geographic area produce masses of material that often exhibit amazingly good preservation. During his excavations he acquired a great interest in the development of techniques to conserve his fragile finds. He developed and published many techniques for preservation of objects as early as 1888. While it is unclear what contact Petrie may have had with those first German conservators, the Germans certainly knew of his techniques (Rathgen 1905). Alfred Lucas, a chemist who worked in the Egyptian Department of Antiquities and the author of another early text (1932), must also have had professional contact with Petrie.

Petrie's skill and expertise continued to grow, as shown by his chapter “Preservation of Objects,” in which he discussed deterioration and preservation of material in the field (1904). The materials he devised treatment for include stone, pottery, textiles, wood, ivory, papyri, beadwork, stucco, gold, silver, copper, bronze, lead, and iron. The next chapter in that volume, titled “Packing,” describes techniques for packing excavated material so it could be safely transported from the field to the museum. These techniques presage the concerns of later conservators working in the field. This chapter might be considered an early version of the more recent handbooks written by conservators for field archaeologists (Dowman 1970; Leigh et al. 1972, 1978; Watkinson 1987; Sease 1992).

Petrie expressed a modern perspective on the requirements for an individual specializing in conservation. Although he noted the need for “some familiarity with chemistry and physics and properties of materials,” (1888, 85), he gave the responsibility of preservation to the excavator, not to a separate expert. His attitudes coincide with the development of the preservation (versus restoration) ethic developing toward many different materials (Caldararo 1987). However, Petrie's great experience made him a very practical field conservator:

In all this we are stating field practice only, and not dealing with museum methods, which differ by having far more command of resources, and by not having to deal with any of the troublesome cases which do not survive to reach a museum (1904, 85–86).

Other archaeologists working at the same time in the same area of the world had very different ideas about the importance of preserving fragile material or lacked the techniques to preserve them. Petrie noted that the excavator Clermont-Ganneau had never heard of using paraffin wax as a consolidant/support (which Petrie commonly used) and so was not able to preserve bead coverings on the sacred rams at Elephantine (n.d., 99). He also raged against the lack of care given to the objects after they had been removed to a museum in the local country or back in Britain: “The perils of discoveries are by no means over when they reach a museum. Thing after thing has been spoilt, lost or thrown away after it seemed safely housed” (n.d., 576).

Petrie also had quite strong opinions about the quality and quantity of restoration work that could be found on material in museums such as the Louvre around the turn of the century. “One is irritated by the great quantity of restoration; so frequent are they that nearly every label has a long list of them, which one needs to read through before one can begin to consider the statue. Everything, chronology, subject and style, is made subservient to effect and appearance” (n.d., 26).

A variety of opinion about the aesthetics of preservation and restoration of archaeological material still exists. Some museums, considering some antiquities as art objects, go to great lengths in their restoration (Williams 1989). Other conservators, more concerned with the archaeological significance of artifacts, may only clean part of them, also leaving some information (such as clues to the burial environment) encased in the remaining deterioration products (Edwards 1989).

When discussing the future of systematic archaeology, Petrie gave prominence to the importance of developing the role of conservation:

During the last century there has been a gradual growth of archaeological perception; and in place of only caring for beautiful and striking objects there has arisen some interest in whatever can throw light on past civilizations. But unhappily the ideas of conservation have not kept pace with the work of discovery (n.d., 130).

Several British institutions were established to apply scientific techniques to the preservation and analysis of archaeological material. The first, the British Museum Research Laboratory, was founded in 1922 to investigate the rapid deterioration of artifacts during their storage in subway stations during World War I, using Rathgen's work as the basis for the original research (Oddy 1990). Alexander Scott was appointed as a consultant to the museum by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and published three monographs of his work (1921, 1923, 1926). This laboratory, under Harold Plenderleith, was involved in conservation and analysis of material from major excavations of sites like Ur and the tomb of Tutankhamen as well as British sites and material already in the British Museum collection. In 1950, the Ancient Monuments Laboratory was established to deal with conservation of the finds and scientific interpretation of material excavated under the control of the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments.

British and European conservators developed several texts for archaeologists and museum technicians (IMO 1940; Rathgen 1905; Scott 1921, 1923, 1926; Plenderleith 1934). These texts would have helped to advertise the role and usefulness of early scientific conservation to European archaeologists.


R.E.M. Wheeler (fig. 2) established the University of London Institute of Archaeology in 1936. He envisioned this new educational institution as “first and foremost an effective medium for the enlargement of technical understanding” (1955, 112). Petrie supported Wheeler's new institute by donating his collection of Palestinian material. One aspect of the training given at the institute was the cleaning and restoration of the archaeological artifacts. Ione Gedye, a student of Petrie's, was one of the original staff members in the technical department at the institute. Students did coursework with these teachers, learning how to restore pottery and clean metals.

Fig. 2. Dr. R.E.M. Wheeler, founder of the University of London Institute of Archaeology. (Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology, University College London)

Originally, the techniques used in the technical department were the same as those developed by archaeologists on a trial-and-error basis. However, the staff was soon introduced to H. J. Plenderleith at the nearby British Museum Research Laboratory. He helped them begin to develop an understanding of the scientific principles underlying treatments he and others had published (Plenderleith 1934). Ione Gedye also visited the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire du Cinquantenaire in Brussels to gain more experience in conservation techniques. Henry M. W. Hodges joined the staff of the department in 1957. In the 1958–59 academic year, soon after the institute was moved to its present quarters in Gordon Square, London, the technical department was renamed the conservation department. The name change signified a shift in the curriculum from training in technical skills to a sounder theoretical understanding of technology, deterioration, and archaeology (Hodges 1987b).

In 1974, Nigel J. Seeley, a chemist by training, succeeded Henry Hodges and then became head of the department in 1976. In 1977, the conservation department was renamed again as the department of archaeological conservation and materials science. The curriculum for conservation students has continued to become more scientifically and analytically based. Postgraduate students began to be accepted in 1975.

The institute training has greatly influenced the development of archaeological conservation in Britain and the United States. The two other British programs in conservation, located in archaeology departments at Cardiff and Durham, were started by institute graduates in 1974 and 1976, respectively. About 10% of those listed as archaeological conservators in the AIC 1993 Directory were trained at these institutions.

Rescue archaeology in Britain (known as salvage archaeology in the United States) has supported much of the most recent development in conservation (Foley 1989). Most archaeological conservators have been trained since 1974 (Cameron et al. 1988), coinciding with the rise of rescue archaeology. Archaeological conservation for rescue excavations is carried out by such institutions as the Ancient Monuments Laboratory. Both staff and contract conservators work out of this laboratory and other laboratories around Britain on material excavated by archaeological projects funded by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission (English Heritage). Conservators in local laboratories, such as the Conservation Centre at Salisbury, spend part of their time dealing with material from developer-funded excavations carried out by private companies. These laboratories work actively with the archaeologists in the planning stages of the projects, on-site during the excavations, and back at the laboratory, where they continue conservation as necessary.

This review is just a brief examination of the development of archaeological conservation in Britain. It would be interesting to investigate how Petrie developed his great support for preservation and to compare his work to that of others, such as Sir Arthur Evans, who employed local restorers. An in-depth look at the origins of individual conservation labs in Britain could suggest how to develop greater conservation support for North American anthropological collections.

Copyright © 1993 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works