Here I explain for laypersons the concept of archaeological investigative conservation. Investigative conservation adopt scientific methods to enhance the recording and interpretation of the artifact.

Let´s cook up a story as an example. There is a field next to a new MRT Station which was a cemetery 1000 years ago. The cemetery is from an unknown tribe. Nobody in the modern world has a real connection to it, so nobody from the residents are indignant that the cemetery has to go for a new shopping mall. The investor of the shopping mall is a very sensitive and culture enthusiastic person, so he and the Heritage Board make a plan to excavate the cemetery before house building.

Immediately the archaeological excavation is in full swing. As soon as all the artifacts are removed from their context within the earth, the related information is destroyed forever. The work of the archaeologist is to keep all this information through detailed documentation during excavation.

There are around hundred graves and in every of them the archaeologist finds an average of 20 artifacts. During excavation all the artifacts are going immediately to the conservation lab with the aim to be preserved. That means the factors of ongoing and further deterioration will be eliminated or slowed down as much as possible. That’s the meaning of archaeological conservation. Investigative conservation goes one stage further by adopting scientific methods to enhance the recording and interpretation of an artifact. By combining these two conservation approaches it is possible to use small groups of excavated material to answer a large number of research questions.1

Let´s give another example in our story. In most of the burials the archaeologists found a belt buckle in the pelvic area. The current interests of archaeology is the provenience, because its a unknown tribe, so we want to find some influences and connections (or differences) to cultures which are more investigated. So the archaeologist comes to the conservator and asks for the shapes and for all the ornaments on the around 90 buckles. The buckles are all made of iron, so there is a thick layer of concretion covering the artifact. The concretion is made of sand, iron corrosion and everything else what was next to the buckle. That includes organic parts from the buckle, textiles from the garment, the feathers from the burial and even the pupae from the insects who where nesting in the corpse. Over the last 1000 years it grows together to this thick layer.

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Picture above: Iron belt buckle after desalination and before exposing from concretions

Before the conservator treats the artifacts in any way she makes x-ray photographs of all the iron artifacts for reporting purpose and to know about the condition of them. When an artifact comes to the conservator its quite similar when a patient comes to a doctor. The doctor as the conservator too need to ask about the circumstances, need to watch the (material) condition, find out what is “hurting most at the moment” and develop a long term plan for stabilization.

As in a clinic the conservator makes some check ups with quite the same tools, like an x-ray machine. Besides the importance for the check on the conditions of an artifact an x-ray image shows mostly much more. Just as in the belt buckle example before it shows the original dimension and a very significant embellishment.

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Picture above: X- ray picture of the iron belt buckle. It shows damascene ornaments and four rivets made from a different metal than iron.

Let´s carry the story a bit further… The archaeologist showed the shopping mall investor the x-ray images and both are very excited of this wonderful damascene ornaments from this unexplored culture. They plan to show the first results to the public through an exhibition at the community center.

For the exhibition some representative graves should be restored. Archaeological artifact restoration means, that the conservator prepares an artifact in a way that an observer can ascertain the artifact more easily. Every archaeological artifact has their own unique history and can tell the observer much more than the defined object name, like “I am a pottery, knife, belt buckle,…”. Every archaeological artifact contains their context and this context can give us a unique statement. This statement is defined by the archaeologist and is strongly influenced by the information which should be communicated at the exhibition.

Before restoration the conservator looked precise under microscope on the belt buckle. Inside the unsightly concretion layer, the belt buckle was full of organic remains. Now it was time to identify and collate them. The investigative conservation highlighted different textiles from different fibers of the costume, feathers from the bedding of the grave, pigskin leather from the belt and wooden remains from sticks from a mounting. There have been also many insect pupae, which have been an evidence for a lie in state of the corpse at least for several days. They could find out a lot about the costumes and about craft techniques of this time through investigative conservation.

After that the statement of these artifacts were different. It was not only a belt buckle with a nice ornament with silver inlays. The organic remains gave a lot of evidence for the habit of this tribe. The belt buckle is representing a skilled manufactured costume for a man from an unknown tribe, buried 1000 years ago.

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Picture above: Iron belt buckle with mineralised textile and other organic remains after investigative conservation and restoration.

This shows the importance of investigative conservation within this fictional story. A small amount of artifacts and a little more efforts in investigation can bring a big amount of results and knowledge in archaeology. 

If you want more examples from investigative conservation see the blog article “The recovered infant”.

1Jones,David M; Investigative Conservation, Guidelines on how the detailed examination of artefacts from archaeological sites can shed light on their manufacture and use, English Heritage 2008