Collections of objects housed in museums and in private ownership are normally referred to as ‘archaeological’ if they have been found buried in the ground or recovered from under water. They can be of any age, from Stone or Bronze-Age axes to Egyptian ceramics and figurines; Greek or Roman antiquities to cannon-shot and other objects from historic shipwrecks. Community Archaeology and the popular hobby of metal-detecting are also producing collections of metal and other ‘finds’, and mainstream archaeological excavations and investigations produce thousands of artefacts of many material types every year.
Archaeological objects are collected for different reasons, for their intrinsic interest, age, beauty or value, or because they are clues to the past and have relevance to the place where they were made, used or found. All these objects have some value within society and deserve to be treated with the level of care necessary to conserve them in as unaltered a way as possible. This helps realise their potential to inform, educate and please, both now and in the future.
Hardly anything that has lain buried in the ground or on the seabed will have survived unaltered in some way - a combination of physical, chemical and biological factors will have been at work. Organic objects will rot, metals and glass corrode, and salts may build up inside ceramics, stone and other porous materials. An object that appears in good condition may in fact be very fragile; delicate decorated surfaces may be obscured by hard corrosion or concretions; and the ‘chemistry’ within the object can often cause continued deterioration if not checked in some way.
Your object may have been “treated” in the past – this can be a direct cause of new problems. Using inappropriate chemical cleaners can strip off too much dirt and corrosion, destroying the original surface of the object in the process. Unless it is used in a controlled way and carefully removed after use, a cleaning material can go on acting on an object far into the future. Similarly, the application of oils, waxes and lacquers can do more harm than good by attracting dirt and airborne pollutants to the object’s surface, and by sealing in other chemically-active by-products.
Poor handling and inappropriate packaging present the most common threats to objects, often causing breakage and other physical damage. However, by far the greatest threat is long-term neglect. If unchecked, the effects of a combination of poor environment, inadequate physical protection and chemically unstable packaging materials gradually take their toll. The resulting damage may go unnoticed over a long period of time.
Most of the actions you need to take to protect your valued objects are comparatively simple, but require a little bit of knowledge. A conservator can give you advice and there are a number of publications and web-based sources that will give you simple instructions (e.g. the Portable Antiquities Scheme, http://www.finds.org.uk/conservation). One of the most important steps towards collections care is to assess the condition of your objects as fully as possible, through examination and observation, and to keep a check on them on a regular basis. This will alert you to changes in their condition so you can take corrective action. Here are some basic do’s and don’ts:
Accredited archaeological conservators are highly trained and experienced professionals with the skills and knowledge to assess the needs of any particular artefact or collection and carry out a conservation strategy within a strict code of practice and to a high standard. If you are responsible for the care of an important collection or treasured antiquity, you will find the input of a conservator invaluable in assessing, investigating and treating your artefacts - and providing the necessary levels of care to protect, preserve and enhance the collection.
Use the Conservation Register to Find a conservator.
© Icon, the Institute of Conservation 2011.
This article offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for the professional advice of an accredited conservator. The views expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Conservation. The Institute of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.
The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge the support of The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 in the production of this guidance information. Further information on The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and its work is available at www.royalcommission1851.org.uk.