ARCHAEOLOGISTS ON CONSERVATION: HOW CODES OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL ETHICS AND PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS TREAT CONSERVATION
SUSAN I. ROTROFF
5 PAST, PRESENT, AND A SUGGESTION FOR THE FUTURE
The codified statements about conservation summarized above provide an overview of the attitude of the archaeological profession to conservation. It is difficult to generalize, however, about the effect of those codes on archaeological practice. In place of generalization, therefore, I offer an account of changes on one excavation with which I am familiar, and speculation about what brought those changes about.
At the Agora Excavations, 30 years ago, there was a “mending room,” labeled with the Greek word synkoleterion (literally, “the place where things are glued together”), which pretty much sums up its role. It was run by Spyros Spyropoulos, a remarkable and highly intelligent man who was blessed with ingenuity, curiosity, manual dexterity, and practical ability but who had no formal training beyond an apprenticeship in carpentry. Nonetheless, he was widely consulted in Greece for his practical knowledge of the repair and preservation of artifacts. Major changes began in 1980, with the appointment of the first full-time, professional conservator. Now the excavation has a well-equipped conservation laboratory, currently staffed by two conservators and a variable number of interns who play a vital role in both excavation and the management of the collection.
Many factors contributed to the earlier situation and to the subsequent change. The overwhelming majority of the objects found at the Agora are of ceramic or stone, materials that seemed, in the early years of excavation (the 1930s), to require little treatment beyond mending and filling. Organic material was almost never encountered, and even metals were relatively rare among the objects recovered; expert advice on the stabilization and reconstruction of such objects could be sought elsewhere if the need arose. As the collection aged, however, it became clear that these objects were not as stable as the archaeologists had imagined. It also emerged that some of the storage and treatment decisions that had been made in the past were having deleterious effects upon the objects. The fact that this was a long-running excavation and that the objects remained accessible and were frequently consulted by scholars (so that the conservation problems were highly visible) contributed to awareness of the need for a professional conservation program for the collection and therefore for the excavation as well. In addition, the late 1960s saw a change in leadership, with the appointment, for the first time, of a director who had not been a member of the team since the first years of excavation and who was eager to introduce significant innovations. These changes, in short, did not come about as a result of the codification of standards described above. Rather, both phenomena— improved conservation on individual excavations and the concern for conservation that the codes express—grew out of profound changes in the attitude of archaeologists toward the objects of their study: a sharper awareness of their fragile nature and of our responsibility, and ability, through collaboration with conservators, to take decisive action to pass these objects on to future generations intact.
These changes are also part of a more general development within the academy and the world at large. The explosion of knowledge in every field has spawned increased specialization, which in turn creates a need for enhanced cooperation and collaboration on projects of even modest scale. Collaboration does not always come easily, however, and greater strides could be made in this direction. The difficulties inherent in confronting a different approach to a problem, the use of unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary, and loss of complete control can turn people away from the enterprise. While archaeologists and conservators are part of the same excavation staffs, all too often they work side by side but not together. Smaller and truly collaborative projects leading to joint publications by archaeologists and conservators, in journals devoted to both professions, would highlight the complementary contributions that both bring to archaeological research and draw attention to the fact that both are partners in a coordinated effort to rescue the past from obscurity and save it for the future.