Saving Time: Conservation as a Means for Preserving and Advancing Archaeological Context

Posted on January 22, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

Modern conservation practices and analytical techniques offer an array of information for building archaeological understanding and interpretation. Conservation can be an integral part of archaeological practice, creating informed strategies for proactive research, and to this end can be used as a tool for preserving and furthering archaeological context with appreciable outcomes. Employing experimental methods that advance both real world and theoretical frameworks, archaeological conservators are increasingly being utilised as on-site material scientists, instrumentation authorities, and micro- and macro-excavation specialists. A continuing dialogue between conservators and archaeologists serves to further advance contextual theory while balancing the pragmatic needs of archaeology. This session looks to explore the ways in which conservation can benefit archaeological practice and provide insight before, during, and after excavations. We welcome proposals that include, but are not limited to, the following topics:

• Reflective practice within archaeological conservation

• Digital preservation and documentation

• Innovations in analytical equipment and their use in the field

• Collaborative projects between conservators and archaeologists

Organisers: Ashley Lingle (Cardiff University) and Jerrod Seifert (Cardiff University)


Torque of the Town: Conserving the world’s largest Iron Age coin hoard

Recording methods in archaeology are crucial in the construction of the final archive, allowing the preservation and continued analysis of the archaeological context. The Le Catillon II project uses innovative recording methods in the micro-excavation of the world’s largest Iron Age coin hoard. A six axis metrology arm fitted with scanning laser and point probe heads produced both laser scans of the hoard’s surface and 3D maps of coin and object position of within the hoard. These models allow the preservation of the original context in a digital format, which gives us significant scope to use the hoard in new and innovative ways. This technology has not only proved to be crucial in the conservation of the hoard but has impacted our understanding of the archaeological context. By considering the hoard as a micro-excavation in itself, the dual scanning techniques enable us to retain information regarding the context of each aspect of the removal process which enables a deeper understanding of the nature of the hoard’s construction. The ability to combine the scans and collection management system, as well as the decision to leave a percentage of coins and artefacts uncleaned has provided a backdrop for future research.

Neil Mahrer (Jersey Heritage), Georgia Kelly (Jersey Heritage) and Viki Le Quelenec (University of Central Lancashire)

The paintings from Neolithic Çatalhöyük and the Delicate Balance Between Archaeological Research and Conservation

Conserving prehistoric architectural paintings presents a number of challenges. On the one hand, their consolidation is made difficult by the fragility and fast decay of their earthen supports once exposed during archaeological excavation. On the other hand, paintings often show complex sequences of superimposed plastering and painting events, demanding a delicate negotiation between the needs of conservation and those of archaeological research. While the consolidation of painted plasters enhances the durability of the physical objects therefore enabling their presentation to the public, it also ‘freezes’ paintings at one moment in time, rendering static and durable something that is archaeologically understood as highly dynamic and everchanging. This paper discusses ways of balancing research and conservation in archaeological practice with a focus on the architectural paintings from the Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk (Turkey). In particular, it will discuss methods of archaeological research that enable investigation of the complex morphology and temporal transformation of the paintings while minimizing the destructive impact of traditional archaeological methods. A major focus of this paper will be on block plaster sampling, small-scale targeted excavation, and digital methods such as 3D modelling and Reflectance Transformation Imaging.

Gesualdo Busacca (Stanford University)

Conservation of Saruq Al Hadid (UAE): Objects as a Key for Archaeological Interpretation

The aim of this paper is to highlight the relevance of the Conservator to the archaeological process, from the excavation of an artefact to its interpretation. At Saruq al Hadid, an Iron Age site in the United Arab Emirates, conservation has contributed to the decades of archaeological excavation and study which has revealed tens of thousands of objects including copper alloy axes, arrowheads, knives, incense burners, bowls, and iron swords. Due to the specific burial conditions of the site and the resulting corrosion processes, the surfaces of the metal artefacts are almost completely obscured by carbonates and corrosion products. The conservation team has chosen to apply a minimal intervention approach using appropriate cleaning techniques, informed by the results of previous analysis. This approach has allowed conservators to reveal decoration and which was not previously detected by archaeologists or investigative techniques. In addition to decoration, Artfix Conservation’s work has revealed evidence of manufacturing processes, repairs and even possible intentional destruction. This paper will demonstrate how hours of meticulous conservation has revealed evidence of objects which have been burnt, pierced, hammered, bent, and repaired. This information could influence the archaeological interpretation of an object, a context, or even the entire site.

J. Cowey, L. Gutierrez, A. Monreal, M.D. Murillo, Y. Al Ali and A. Mahmoud (Artfix Conservation& Dubai Municipality)

Losing Context: Does context change impact our phenomenological experience and ability to create agency?

How does the context of cultural heritage affect our perception of heritage today? Does a change of context fundamentally change our phenomenological experience, our ability to form a connection with the monument? Take for example stone monuments, found across the United Kingdom from Stonehenge to the Cenotaph, they hold a unique place in society. They are focal points where people have and will come together (e.g. Remembrance Sunday). We create agency with these monuments, they reflect our human identity. Context is key to these monuments; the landscape setting is a key component of their context. Many stone monuments are however at risk; from environmental exposure, vandalism and social changes (e.g. the closure of churches). As a result, some monuments are placed in protective environments, museum galleries and storage. Is this removal from the historical landscape, breaking down the context? Is it affecting how the public view our heritage today? Is there a loss of connection between our heritage and the public? Are we, as we try to preserve the physical monument, causing the systematic decay of the intangible? Do we need more informed conversations and co-operation between archaeologists and conservators to preserve our intangible and tangible heritage?

William Tregaskes

Articulating Discovery: Experience from the Neolithic site of Drenovac

As argued by Matt Edgeworth, among many, the excavation is where archaeologist comes into direct physical contact with unfolding material evidence that has power to question and change ideas about the past and how we perceive it in present. As discipline, archaeology is in the heart of interplay between those two worlds, since it produces knowledge about the past with the authority that none other disciplines has. This multilayered relationship is inevitably closely connected to conservation practices that simultaneously shape and determine the final image of the past. Therefore, material remains, site structures and findings, through conservation activities, ought to justify and ‘fix’ applied concepts and models about what happened in distant time. But different disciplinary histories and configurations led to different understandings of relationship and role of archaeology and conservation, consequently diverse perceptions of presentation approaches and authenticity matter. Drawing on the wide range experiences of ethnography of archaeological and conservation practice, this paper describes how archaeological discovery is being articulated during the site investigation process. Specifically, this research aims to shed light on intertwined practices of archaeology and conservation and how they influence interpretation imagining on Neolithic site Drenovac in Serbia.

Natalija Ćosić (Central Institute for Conservation in Belgrade)

3D Digital Documentation in Archaeological Conservation: Revolution or evolution?

Hardware and software for rapid 3D digital imaging using techniques such as photogrammetry, laser and white light scanning have recently become more accessible than ever before, leading to increasing adoption of these techniques as standard practice in both archaeological and conservation recording. The benefits of 3D modelling for visualization, dissemination and outreach are often cited. How can these techniques be applied to significantly enrich information on objects and sites gathered by conservators, and how can conservation perspectives on digital 3D recording add to archaeological datasets?

Eric Nordgren (Historic England) and Ashley Lingle (Cardiff University)

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