13 June 2018




Grab your gear, because we're heading back to the dig site! This article discusses my favourite part of archaeological conservation: Cleaning artifacts!

The best way to protect a newly excavated object is to stabilize it on site, before shipping it off to the museum. This means we need to get out our toothbrushes, and make that hunk of dirty pottery squeaky clean!

Step 1: Don't Touch It (Yet).

Before removing an object from the ground, make sure that you've cleaned around it as best as you can without dislodging it.
  • Level the trench. Use brushes and dust pans to clean the area around the artifact, so that the ground is smooth. When the surrounding are is flat, then it is easier to see how the object is resting inside the ground, which helps you decide how to remove it safely!
  • Careful where you step! Avoid getting really close to the artifact, or using water and heavier tools (like trowels) around the object. These will disrupt the integrity of the dirt layers under the artifact, which can cause your object to move unexpectedly, and puts it at risk for breaking!
Tip: When you remove an artifact from the dirt, all the elements that supported it and allowed it to survive all these years, will also be removed. This is why conservationists focus on preserving an object's original state for as long as possible.

Step 2: GENTLY Scrub Away Dirt

Do you need to buy fancy tools and clean the objects vigorously? Absolutely not!

  • Get tools that are easy to carry. Archaeologists rely on sponges, soft toothbrushes, paintbrushes, and toothpicks, because they're efficient and light-weight. I once cleaned an ancient Roman's teeth with thread instead of floss, and it worked really well!
  • No need to scrub very hard. Hold the object firmly in your hand, or place it on a clean, soft surface (like a table covered in cardboard). Then, use circular motions and water (when possible) to remove stubborn dirt as best as you can. Deeper cleaning will happen at the lab.
Tip: No matter what your tools are, they should have only ever been used to clean excavated objects (i.e. Please, don't get toothpaste from a personal toothbrush on a two-thousand-year-old shard of Greek pottery).

Step 3: Summon Your Inner Paparazzi.

Most archaeologists still do an artist's sketch of the artifacts when they uncover it. These days, a regular digital camera is sufficient to capture the artifact at every stage of its life, from trench to museum display.
  • Create more evidence. Photos help track the changes you've made during the conservation treatment, and the effects of your methods. Take photos of the object from all sides, and use a ruler to scale its size.
  • Work that camera! Don't hold back, and take lots of photos. Think of the conservator like a friend that couldn't go on vacation with you; conservators can't always be at the site during the moment of discovery, so archaeologists use photos as a reliable way to retell the story in detail.
Tip: If the object wasn't cleaned properly in the previous stage, then this will show up in the photograph. Proper cleaning allows the archaeologist to clearly see if the artifact has any weak points that may cause the object to break in storage or in transport.

That's it for this article, and thank you for reading! My final summer article will be posted this July.

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1 comment:

  1. A very nice reading, full of information. thank you!