Conservation as a Research Tool
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In the course of treating artifacts, conservators frequently reveal information about them. Knowledgeable about early technology and manufacturing techniques, object conservators often uncover details of how an artifact was made or used. Years of experience looking at and working with a variety of materials and artifacts from different time periods and locations help conservators to recognize and identify materials. Conservators are also trained to recognize seeds, grain, textiles and other organic materials that may be preserved in the corrosion surrounding a metal artifact. Not generally found on excavations, these materials can provide valuable information about the climate when the site was inhabited, what its inhabitants were growing or eating, or the types of technology they used. By revealing this kind of information, conservators can make important contributions to archaeological research.

Conservators also uncover information that helps us to understand how materials deteriorate over time and under different conditions, information that can be used to develop better ways to treat and preserve specimens.

On an excavation, the conservator is responsible for cleaning and repairing artifacts as they come out of the ground so that they can be recorded, photographed and interpreted by archaeologists. Any information revealed by the conservator can be helpful in the interpretation process. The conservator is often called on to remove or lift artifacts out of the ground to ensure their safe handling. Preventive conservation is also practiced on site in the proper packing of artifacts for transport to local or regional museums and long-term storage.

This coin from a site in Jordan was unrecognizable before cleaning (above) and is clearly identifiable afterward (below). Once identified, a coin can help archaeologists date a feature in a site, a level or period of a site, or indeed sometimes the site itself.

The scabbard of this Anglo-Saxon sword was once made of wood. While buried, the wood was replaced with iron corrosion products that form a perfect replica of the long-gone wood. This replacement is called a pseudomorph. Careful cleaning by a conservator can reveal pseudomorphs, increasing our knowledge about artifacts.

Textiles generally do not survive when buried in the ground, and therefore are rarely foundon archeological sites. When buried next to metals, however, textile fragments are often preserved, as seen on this fragment of a gold alloy ornament from South America. Enough of the textile remains
to enable specialists to identify technological details of the cloth, such as the type of fibers used, the kind of spin to the yarn, and the pattern of weave.

This detail of a Tibetan silver earring shows an unusual form of silver corrosion, known as filiform corrosion, the fine lines of fuzzy black crystals seen here all over the surface. Before Senior Conservator Sease found this corrosion, it had never been reported on museum objects or on silver.

This corrosion occurs on metals that are covered with a coating that has tiny imperfections. Routinely, metal artifacts are coated after treatment in the belief that this will protect the vulnerable metal surfaces. The results of this research have led conservators to reconsider whether or not metal artifacts routinely should be coated after being treated.