American Institute

A Day in an Archaeological Conservation Program

I’m a Conservation Specialist for the UCLA/Getty Conservation Program, a graduate conservation training program specializing in the conservation of archaeological and ethnographic materials.  In our 3 year course, we train students in the methods and techniques used for the examination and preservation of objects and have them understand the properties of materials, how they deteriorate and ways to slow down or prevent further deterioration.

In a typical day our students attend lectures in the morning on various aspects of conservation and then follow that in the afternoon with work in the lab.  We just had an intake of a new class in the Fall of 2011 and they spent their first year learning about and working on materials such as archaeological ceramics, glass, metals, and  textiles.

In one course they learned about the deterioration of archaeological ceramics and the damage caused by soluble salts. Students then determined how to identify the salts and remove them. Here a student is taking a conductivity reading of wash water as she desalinates a small ceramic vessel.


Archaeological Conservation in Northern Highland Ecuador

I spent this summer working as a conservator for the Pambamarca Archaeological Project (PAP), located in northern highland Ecuador, near the town of Cangahua.  As the conservator on the project, my job was to examine and conserve the finds excavated to ensure their long term preservation and to aid in archaeological research.  Most of the work taking place here is focusing on sites and fortresses located on various hilltops in the region.  The research hopes to understand the indigenous cultures known as the Cayambes, that lived here before the Inca conquered this area in the 1500’s, and also to look at the interactions between the groups after that conquest.

Most of my work is based in the lab and focuses on processing the finds that come in each day.  This can be something as simple as washing some sherds to something more complicated like reconstructing an entire ceramic vessel.  I also sometimes work on site helping archaeologists excavate and lift fragile artifacts.  This is my second year working on the project and here are some of the things I do during a typical work day:

Area where we work


The site of Quitoloma, one of the hilltop fortresses excavated by PAP.


Finds that come in, such as pottery sherds in bulk, need to be washed daily.


When enough of a ceramic vessel is preserved, we reconstruct it. Here I am starting to reconstruct the neck and rim of an aribalo, a vessel form used to hold liquids.


This a painted aribalo that was reconstructed. The rim and neck are missing.


Because of the missing upper section of the vessel, some of the joins are not well supported. This fragment only attaches on one side and needs extra support. Conservators sometimes do something called “gap-filling” to fill missing areas to keep certain fragments in place. The red arrow points to an area where a fill was placed (made up of a mixture of a resin known as Paraloid B-72 mixed with a material called glass microballoons to make it thicker) to fill the gap below the sherd to support it.


Sometimes conservators are called to the site to help archaeologists excavate and lift fragile material. Here I am preparing to lift a fragment of a burnt reed mat.


Here is a section of the burnt mat in situ. It was found on the floor of an Incan store room with a thick layer of burnt corn on top. Organic materials don’t often preserve well, but luckily this mat was burnt allowing it to survive this long in the soil.


The mat was very fragile and in a lot of pieces so it could not easily be excavated and lifted.  I needed to do something called block lifting where you excavate around the object and then lift it out in a block of soil. Here is the mat after a facing of Japanese tissue and a reversible resin are applied on the exposed surface. This helps to hold all the fragile fragments together during lifting.


Once lifted and back in the lab, the mat could be carefully excavated from the soil and consolidated with a dilute resin when needed to strengthen it.


Here is the mat after treatment. It can now be examined and studied to identify the materials and methods used in its construction.


Not all of our work is just treating artifacts. Conservators spend a lot of time documenting and recording the treatments they undertake on artifacts. Here a student helps to enter data about artifacts excavated into the project database.


We also spent time labeling the artifacts in the lab. We used a barrier coat of Paraloid B-72 applied to a discrete area of the artifact to write the catalog number on using an archival ink pen. This would allow the artifact to be linked to its catalog number, and the archaeological information in the database, in case it ever got disassociated from the label in the bag it was packed in.


Since the excavation is run as a field school, it means that students are on the project as part of a course to learn about archaeolgy and archaeological field methods. This gives me an opportunity to teach students about conservation and have them help me in the lab if they are interested. Here a student helps me find joins for a vessel I was reconstructing.


So as you can see, archaeological conservators are kept really busy on excavations doing a wide range of activities.  If you are interested in learning more about conservation and what conservators do, or think you might be interested in pursuing studies in conservation, you can check out the website for the American Institute for Conservation or the International Institute for Conservation for more information.



Burials & the Last Day on Site

Who are we?

Irish Archaeology Field School is a research project and teaching dig based in the Boyne Valley in Co. Meath, Ireland. We have three sites, one at Blackfriary in Trim, a C13th Dominican abbey, one in Rossnaree, near Slane, a multi-period site, and one at Bective Abbey, a C12th Cistercian Abbey. Blackfriary is a community archaeology initiative with support from the Department of Arts, Heritage & Local Government, the local authority, and the American Institute of Archaeology Site Preservation Fund. The sites at Rossnaree and Bective are being excavated by our research partners, with funding from the Royal Irish Academy.

Blackfriary: A day in the life:

Blackfriary Abbey in Trim, Co. Meath is the site of the abbey has lain abandoned for decades and been surrounded by the expanding town. The abbey walls have largely been robbed out and the site is mostly under grass.

The current season’s research programme was designed explore the interface between the church and the cloister, which is situated immediately to the north of the church. The first month of excavation revealed lots of loose stone, evidence of the deliberate destruction of the abbey walls (the stone was likely reused elsewhere) and it is only in the last few weeks that we are finally accessing the base of the walls with foundations and stone work in situ. We are only using hand tools to excavate so there is a lot of mattocking and shovelling involved, to move a lot of material:

Plate 1: Melissa Clarke wields a mattock

While the cloister wall was found reasonably quickly, the north wall of the church was heavily robbed out, and we are also reaching levels that contain f burials, both disturbed and undisturbed.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries in C16th, the abbey was no longer officially a religious centre. However people still considered the site as sacred and such sites were often used as graveyards in the centuries following. The abbey graveyard, lies to the south west of the church. There are also burials within the church. As yet we have found no conclusive diagnostic material to date them – we may have to wait for radio-carbon dates. What we do know is that we have 3 distinct burials, but we at least 6 individuals are represented by the skeletal remains recovered so far.

When a burial is uncovered, we first try to find a grave cut – that is the evidence that might remain of the grave that was dug for the burial. We then photograph it, to add to the record. The photo board notes the site registration number, the number assigned to this burial, area of the site in which it occurs, the date, and the initials of the photographer:

Plate 2: Malika Hays photographs Burial 3 prior to excavation

Burial 3 is that of a young child or infant; the remains are in reasonable condition however the bones are fragile and are particularly difficult to recover. The tools of an archaeologist include a standard trowel, and a leaf trowel for intricate or delicate work but is this instance we improvise with some wooden skewers; these are useful for precision and because the point is softer.

Plate 3: Malika excavating: using a wooden skewer for precision

Excavation of material this delicate is slow work: the soil must be cleaned off each fragment of bone and stored for sieving, and each bone fragment lifted and placed in a specific box for that burial. Given the age of the individual when he or she died, the bones are small and delicate, only partially fused in some instances. Some bones are so small they may not be identifiable during excavation and may only be recovered from the sieved material. We had barely made any progress on the excavation of this burial by the end of the day so the burial has been carefully packed with bubble wrap and covered to protect it and keep it from drying out overnight.

Rossnaree – today was a day of logistics:

The dig at Rossnaree finished up today. The site is in a rapeseed field and with the harvesters on the way, the heat was on to backfill the excavations, to ensure that all the recording of the archaeological features is complete and that every detail has been noted.

Behind the scenes though is the inevitable demobilisation of the site. At Rossnaree, there was a small crew of 8-10 people for most of the four week excavation. The contents of their site cabin fitting into the back of our small van:

Plate 4: Mattocks and sieves – tools of the trade

After loading up all the equipment, finds, samples, registers, plans and notebooks, all that’s left to do is close the gate behind us…. until next year!

Plate 5: The laneway to Rossnaree archaeological site, located in the Boyne Valley – Knowth passage tomb is just out of view behind the trees on the right.