Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Archaeological Conservation in the Museum








Today at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, we are working on artifacts for our next special exhibition, “Pearls of Wisdom: the Arts of Islam at the University of Michigan.” It features art and artifacts from the ancient Islamic world. In the conservation lab, we’re examining the artifacts to document their physical condition as well as details of their construction and decoration.

In these photos, Kelsey conservator Caroline Roberts is examining filters from the (broken) necks of Fatimid-period jars. The decorative filter designs were carved while the clay was still a bit wet, before firing. Many of the designs show animals, like this lion (below), and would only have been visible to the person pouring liquid into or out of the vessel. We like archaeological conservation because every day we’re looking at daily life artifacts and thinking about how people lived in the ancient world. As conservators, we look at artifacts in an especially technical way, looking closely for details of manufacture, evidence of use, and subsequent deterioration.

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Archaeological Conservation at the Kelsey Museum

At the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, my colleague Claudia and I provide conservation for the Museum’s daily activities as well as for two of its excavations. Today we’re working on objects from Karanis, a Graeco-Roman farming town in Egypt, where the University of Michigan excavated in the 1920’s.

These objects will be shown in an upcoming exhibition here at the Kelsey Museum, Karanis Revealed, and they are currently undergoing conservation.

Two of these objects, the knife and the inkwell (top), will need conservation treatment before they’re exhibited. The knife blade, made of iron, has active corrosion that could get worse during the exhibition. The inkwell, made of faience, has cracks and areas where the surface needs to stabilized. The painted bone on the lower right just needs extra TLC; low light to protect the paint from fading, and special handling since the paint is powdery and comes off easily when the bone is touched.

The research and examination undertaken by conservators can help archaeologists understand the materials they excavate, but the primary goal of archaeological conservation is to preserve excavated artifacts. It would be sad if something that’s survived for 2,000 years fell apart after excavation for lack of care!