AIC 2011 in Philadelphia: Archaeology!

Cool checklist of supplies to take in the field, find it on the ADG website!

This was a good conference for those of us involved in archaeological conservation.  The Objects Specialty Group and Archaeological Discussion Group gave a two-hour group luncheon, sponsored by Kremer Pigmente, with a panel discussion: “Ethical Issues in Archaeological Field Conservation.”  Whose idea was this??  Brilliant!  Nancy Odegaard, Rae Beaubien, , and Eric Nordgren each got up and gave their take on several questions that each had been given beforehand.  Angelyn Bass Rivera discussed site management for the Laetoli Hominid Trackway in Northern Tanzania, Maya wall paintings in San Bartolo Guatemala, and the Frijoles Canyon Cavates in Bandolier National Monument, New Mexico.  Tourism to see these sites is a powerful factor that conservation is trying to balance with methods like masonry support of tunnels in Guatemala that double as barriers to close access but still allow photographs, or solar powered environmental monitors.  Rae Beaubien talked about interfacing with archaeologists…how they can be empowered to do certain activities like block lifting, but it is helpful to have an understanding beforehand about the parameters of “fragile.”  She also discussed how we might better position ourselves as part of the research team in grants they write, and how we can help them meet the stewardship goals in the AIA code.  There was also discussion about being vigilant about not enhancing the market value of the material that is being excavated.  Rae has been asked by the Department of Homeland Security to help “authenticate” things that may be trafficked illicitly, but of course the term “authenticate” is tricky ethically for those of us in the museum world.  Resources museum have in conservation expertise, however, is helpful for law enforcement.  There are problems these days with illicit archaeological material coming into the US through Canada, and problems are compounded by the fact the US has not signed some of the conventions that would require objects to be sent back to source countries.   Eric Nordgren highlighted some of the issues faced in conservation of maritime material.  Cast iron, for example, is notorious for being permanently weakened by the corrosion process known as “graphitization” and may require considerable care and support after treatment.  Sometimes it cannot support its own weight anymore.  Treatment of maritime artifacts is often part of a shipwreck recovery, and the project can be really big…20 years is not uncommon…and it is crucial that someone is devoted to seeing it through to the end.  There is a lot of well-intentioned public interest in the field, and this needs to be leveraged ethically to help preserve the resources.  It is not ethical to recover material that cannot be cared for, including post treatment storage and display.  I asked later about the divide between conservators trained in AIC ethics and those trained in the Texas A&M and Eastern Carolina University programs.  Erik (and others I spoke to at the conference) felt that the culture is changing with the new generation, and the old divide is gradually disappearing.  Nancy Odegaard discussed some of the delicate aspects of human remains.  She was never seeking to do this kind of work, but has been pulled into it by circumstance.  Early in her education, conservators used to be asked to do reconstruction for measurements and other such intervention.  Now conservators are contacted more often for issues involving condition, documentation, expertise about preventing contamination, or preservation of associated material.  Did you know that Hollinger Metal Edge  now sells a partitioned archival human remains box?  Catalog number HBR-1 sells for $27.50 each. 

In another case, the Kennewick Man, she was asked to monitor any change in condition with study of the remains.  With 300-400 pieces, the solution was to design a custom box with individual cavities for the pieces and to monitor the debris and soiling between study sessions.  Part of the discussions in the Q&A was about interfacing with State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs).  On a state-by-state basis, there has been some success in building those connections.  Virginia and Maryland, for example, and things are really going in a good direction here in Alaska thanks to Judy Bittner and Dave McMahan.  Apparently on the national level, the agency that coordinates SHPOs has not been terribly responsive to overtures from the AIC.  Looks like for the time being, going state-by-state will get the most momentum. 

Thanks, Kremer Pigmente, for sponsoring the OSG/ADG Joint Luncheon!

After lunch, Donna Strahan gave a talk, “Beyond the Field Lab: Emergency Conservation in the Granicus River Valley of Northwestern Turkey.”  Donna works in the conservation lab at the Bronze Age site of Troy (a German excavation) and they are often called upon to help with emergency treatment of looted tombs in the wider geographic area.  In order to still cover the bases at Troy, they’ve begun rotating teams of conservators to help with these incidents as they arise.  In one case, a drippy stain on the exterior of an alabaster vessel turned out to be swipe marks from ribbons dipped in murex purple pigment from mollusks as part of a funerary ceremony.  Details of a sarcophagus, including a chiseled off damnatio memoriae distinct from the looter’s tool marks (from Wikipedia: Damnatio memoriae is the Latin phrase literally meaning “condemnation of memory” in the sense of a judgment that a person must not be remembered. It was a form of dishonor that could be passed by the Roman senate upon traitors or others who brought discredit to the Roman State.  The result is to erase someone from history.”)  There seems to be thread running through some of these archaeological talks that conservators are valued as much for their interpretive and research skills as their bench skills.

Next was “Recovering Painted Organic Objects from Ancient Mesoamerica: Strategic Considerations in the Field and Lab.” by Rae Beaubien.  She’s dealt with many deposits that are confused through collapse, decay, and seismic disturbance.  Examining the fragments as well as ethnohistoric information and the persistence of traditional techniques in contemporary art gives an idea of the materials used and their properties.  For example, sometimes an organic substrate is painted on both sides (a bowl, perhaps) or there can be impressions of the lost organic material remaining in the stucco ground.  “Articulated lifting” is one technique that joins groups of fragments before lifting.  Selective use of methylcellulose/ Japanese tissue versus B-72 allows flexibility in the reversing of one adhesive and not the other in the lab.  Mylar sheets can help separate layers in the deposit as well as prevent seeping of adhesive where it is not desired.  Block lifting can buy time and keep fragments in the original position, but decisions need to made as to which adhesives are used how, and whether it should be dealt with top-down or bottom-up.

I was very eager to hear Emily Williams’ talk, “Deep Storage, Reburial as a Conservation Tool.”  There was some discussion of this at the 2010 WOAM conference regarding underwater material, and it seems that work in Marstrand, Sweden might be part of the vanguard, actually.  This reminded me of the curation crisis discussed at the 2011 Alaska Anthropological Association meeting…36 CFR 79 establishes standards for archaeological repositories, but there is not enough space for everything that gets excavated.  At Colonial Williamsburg, there are 60 million artifacts, and another million or so is excavated each year.  Only half the historic area has been excavated so far.  Emily’s  section was recently given some 50 pallets of excavated architectural material that plugged up 45% of their new storage growth space.  They opted for reburial of non-diagnostic pieces in the cellar of a current excavation on the Colonial Williamsburg property.  They divided the crates by site (used the old pine boxes but would have preferred to use HDPE crates), divided the material into brick/ stone less than 4”/ stone greater than 4”, bagged the material and labeled it with Tyvek tags and both Sharpie and pencil, filled around the crates with engineering sand and then backfilled the cellar.  The needs of this poorly documented architectural collection was out of balance with the needs of the collections as a whole.  I liked the quote about their approach, “holisitic rather than particularistic.”  In order to do this kind of reburial, access to undeveloped and protected land is necessary.

Suzanne Davis and Claudia Chemello gave some great data on the business end of things in “Get Your Fieldwork for Nothing and Your Sherds for Free: Compensation for Archaeological Field Conservation.”  The results of a survey!  66% of this data involves folks doing fieldwork outside the US, mostly the ancient Mediterranean and near East.  Salary data was optional in order to get more responses, and there were 116 usable responses that were analyzed from conservators who had done fieldwork in the past 10 years.  Less than half gave salary info.  Among the more interesting tidbits: 78% had a graduate degree, but 44% had been working in conservation for 5 years or less.  68% were on site for 1-2 months at a time.  All respondents had done terrestrial sites, only 13% had experience with underwater sites.  Most of the work done involved artifact processing, documentation, training, and consultation.  Almost a quarter, however, wrote no final report.  82% who gave salary data were paid a salary separate from travel and lodging.  That salary amount, however, varied a lot…from $58 per week to $8000 per week!  On average the typical figure was about $1000 per week.  69% reported they worked at reduced rates or volunteered.   Satisfaction rate was only about 41%.  Data does not reveal how many field conservators there are out there, and at this point AIC does not collect that information, either.  It is interesting that since the majority of conservators who do fieldwork have been in the profession less than 5 years, they cannot be listed on AIC’s Find-A-Conservator service.

Susanne Grieve, a pivotal person in the world between conservators and archaeologists, presented “Archaeologists and Avocational Conservators: Compromising Principles or Increasing Awareness?”  For me, this talk was HOTLY anticipated.  I’ve been treading these delicate waters in Alaska myself.  As I write this, there are bits of wood and historic sailcloth in PEG in collaborative treatments between non-conservators and the Alaska State Museum.  Suzanne described an avocational underwater club in Namibia along the Skeleton Coast who are passionate about preserving the heritage from the diamond mining era at very remote sites.  They were using outdated techniques and commercial products.  Suzanne provided guidance on the ethics of conservation and attempted to channel the huge pride they have in preserving their heritage into constructive activities, but described her concerns in trying to prevent harm from coming to the artifacts without encouraging aggressive interventive treatments in a place where access to conservation literature and supplies is scarce.

Noon on Thursday was the Archaeological Discussion Group business session, well attended by at least 25 people.  The group, founded at the 1998 Arlington Virginia AIC meeting, is trying to refine its mission statement and goals.  Someone told me Jeff Maish also led an AIC archaeological discussion group of some kind back in the late 1980’s?  That was before my time in the profession.  Wonder what happed that time around?  A lot of the focus right now is on outreach.  The Archaeological Discussion Group  now has a page on the AIC website.   Have you seen the FAQ they wrote about conservation for the SHA website?  It’s really good!  There is a Facebook page, too, but it’s a little bit sleepy.  There has been sporadic intense work on a “position paper” about unprovenanced material.  Vanessa Muros told us about Day of Archaeology July 29, an opportunity for anyone involved in archaeology to post to a weblog .  On another front, the ADG is working on having “booth swaps” between archaeological organizations and AIC.  Kent Severson worked hard to get an AIA booth swap.  More insights on the care of newly excavated material: archaeologists at Old World sites have limited time to do research on artifacts before they go into storage in national repositories and are harder to access.  This influences the decision to have conservators on site in order to process and assemble artifacts for study in a limited timeframe.  Also, many countries will not issue a permit without a conservator on board.  In the US, a conservator is more likely to be on board if they can contribute to the research goals and any planned publications.  Another angle is the repository contracts, which stipulate how artifacts have to be delivered in order to be accepted.  Check out the silica gel conditioning gadget Rachael Perkins Arenstein brought to the meeting! has a cool little unit for conditioning silica gel. Rachael Perkins Arenstein did a demo at the Archaeological Discussion Group.  The one she shows in the following photos can condition about 3kg of silica gel to a specific RH in about 36 hours.  There is also a bigger trunk-sized version.  I guess the bucket-sized unit costs a few hundred dollars, but as Rachael said, “that may well be the price of sanity.”


2 Responses to AIC 2011 in Philadelphia: Archaeology!

  1. […] focus of the meeting was archaeology , which has been also a focus of mine this spring.  I was excited to hear the discussion of […]

  2. Thank you so much for sharing for those of us that could not be there!

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