Document, document, document. That is the conservator’s mantra.
Often, documentation takes the form of before and after treatment photos, and/or staging images that describe active intervention. However, in the early decades of the profession, documentation was not a carefully followed tenant.
Where early records exist, they often are cursory and limited to brief paper notes. Therefore, it is the unexpected inclusion of active preservation in films digitised through Filming Antiquity which makes them extraordinary. In addition to documenting all aspects of archaeology, these films provide a snapshot of conservation and preservation of archaeological artefacts as practised in the field and laboratory between the 1930s and the 1960s.
Conservation in the field
Conservation activities including field consolidation (strengthening material by filling in pores), packing artefacts for transport and ceramic reconstruction are also recorded, highlighting the importance of preservation in archaeological enquiry. In this first sequence from “Lachish – City of Judah” a woman carefully applies molten wax to faunal remains (while smoking!) in order to preserve “these fragile bones for transport to England”.
Wax consolidation, a common practise in the field to aid transport of fragile archaeological remains, is well documented in early publications (e.g. Petrie 1904; Rathgen 1905; Droop 1915; Lucas 1924, Delougaz 1933; Plenderleith 1934). While invaluable during this early period, as supplies and chemicals were frequently impossible to procure in the field, wax causes staining and is difficult to remove, particularly when applied at excessively high temperatures.
Ione Gedye, founder of the Repair Department at the Institute of Archaeology (IoA), University of London, taught conservation from 1937 until her retirement in 1975. She discusses the use of wax and some of these very issues in the 1947 notes she prepared for Institute of Archaeology students on the treatment of archaeological artefacts in the field and laboratory.
Gedye (1947: 10) writes, “in the field paraffin wax is often used to strengthen bones … in some cases the wax was put on too hot and penetrated so deeply that it could only be removed with difficulty”; she concludes “it is best to avoid the use of wax for bones, though an exception may be made in the case of paraffin wax bandages”. As conservators, we often find remnants of these treatments, but much more rarely can rely on photographic or written documentation describing the materials used for stabilisation.
The film also documents reconstruction of ceramics recovered at Tell-ed Duweir. In the second sequence, a woman applies thick, dark adhesive to sherds allowing them to dry by propping them up and using gravity to aid tight joins – a technique I and many other conservators continue to use during fieldwork. After the vessel is completely reconstructed and adhesive dried, we see her making plaster fills to fill losses.
Despite not being able to see her face, it is likely that this is Olive Starkey, sister of James and sister-in-law of Marjorie. Olive was responsible for much of the restoration of finds on site and in London and she is directly thanked by Olga and colleagues for her work in the “repair and reconstruction of pottery since 1933” (Tufnell et al. 1940: 12). This practice was not uncommon; many wives and other female relations of archaeologists worked at “mending”, “sticking” and “restoring” artefacts in the field during this early period. The IoA hired Olive Starkey to work in the Repair Department in December 1945. In this capacity, she and Gedye taught students how to conserve recently excavated artefacts from Tell-ed Duweir as well as other sites.
The animation is followed by a clip of Ione Gedye herself demonstrating this technique on iron artefacts in the laboratory. Critically, students are advised to control the treatment process by monitoring the presence of chlorides in soak water.
Work is conducted in an open laboratory and without personal protective equipment such as gloves. As with the Lachish films, health and safety in the handling of chemicals is not a priority. While some steps utilise harsher chemicals and tools than we may use now, the approach as demonstrated is not very different from electrolytic methods used to treat metals today.
Professional photographer Maurice Cookson, former director of the IoA Photographic Department and author of the ground-breaking Photography for Archaeologists (1954), and Sheppard Frere, Professor of Archaeology of the Roman Empire at University of London created the film “Lifting a Mosaic Pavement” in 1957 to document the removal of an in situ mosaic and its subsequent treatment. The mosaic was recovered in Building 3 of Insula XXVII at Verulamium, a Roman site in St. Albans, Hertfordshire.
The film is interesting in that it documents the reflexive practice of conservation where process is assessed in real time and modified to better influence results. This is clear in the titles state that the use of solvent in removing the PVC adhesive was not as successful as removal without solvent.
We are fortunate that the mosaic lifting and backing procedure is further described in publication (Frere 1958) with specific information regarding the intervention materials using the lifting and backing processes including cement mortar recipes.
As Frere states (158: 116), discovery of the mosaic offered those involved the opportunity to develop a new method in collaboration with chemists working in industry. Treatments of this type are very destructive, and not as commonly utilised, but remain attractive to archaeologists interested in recovering coins and pottery in order to date the mosaic, as well as stratigraphic layers from earlier occupations.
However, the technique continues to have a place in salvage and rescue archaeology. For example, conservators and archaeologists used a similar approach (though with more stable conservation materials) to recover numerous Roman mosaics from Zeugma, located near Gaziantepe, Turkey, following the construction of the Birecik Dam on the Eurphrates River (Nardi & Schneider 2013).
These films offer an extraordinary glimpse into archaeological conservation as practised in the field and laboratory from the 1930s through to the 1960s. They connect the published literature and its translation into actual practice and are amazing documents of the field’s early history.
I hope you have found these films as incredible as I have. I would love to hear from anyone who participated in filming during this period at the IoA, or saw these films while studying or working at the Institute. Please get in touch to share your perspective and memories!
*The film is referenced in an IoA annual report from 1956 (IoA 1956: 7).
Delougaz, P. 1915. The Treatment of Clay Tablets in the Field. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, no. 7, ed. James Henry Breasted, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 39-57.
Droop, J.P. 1915. Archaeological Excavation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Frere, S. 1958. Lifting Mosaics. Antiquity 32 (126): 116-119.
Gedye, I. 1947. Notes on the Treatment of Archaeological Objects in the Field & the Laboratory. For the Use of Students of the Institute – Not For Publication. Unpublished course notes. University of London, Institute of Archaeology.
Gedye, I. 1953. Report of the Technical Department. In Ninth Annual Report. London University of London Institute of Archaeology, pp. 6.
Lucas, A. 1924. Antiques - Their Restoration and Preservation. London: E. Arnold & Co.
Nardi, R. and Schneider, K. 2013. Site Conservation during the Rescue Excavations. In Excavations at Zeugma. Ed. W. Aylward. Los Altos, California: The Packard Humanities Institute, pp. 55-70.
O’Grady, C.R. expected 2017. Gentlewomen in the Field and Museum: Unacknowledged Pioneers in the Development of Conservation as both Profession and University Discipline – the London Case. In Engaging Conservation: Collaboration Across Disciplines. Eds. Lynn Grant, Julia Lawson, Nina Owczarek. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum.
Petrie, W.M.F. 1904. Methods & Aims in Archaeology. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited (New York: The Macmillan Company).
Plenderleith, H.J. 1934. The Preservation of Antiquities. London: The Museums Association.
Rathgen, F. 1905. The Preservation of Antiquities – A Handbook for Curators. trans. George A. Auden and Harold A. Auden, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tufnell, O., Inge, C.H, and Harding, L. 1940. Lachish II (Tell ed Duweir). The Fosse Temple. London: Oxford University Press.
University of London Institute of Archaeology. 1956. Report of the Photographic Department. Twelfth Annual Report. London: University of London Institute of Archaeology pp 7.
University of London Institute of Archaeology. 1959. Report of the Director for the Session 1957-58. Fifteenth Annual Report. Bulletin of the Institute of Archaeology 2: 72-84.