Alaskan Archaeological Conservation at the University of Aberdeen

Think Alaska, flat open tundra contrasting with mountains and the sea – setting the background to an old frozen village buried for 500 years. Think climate change, melting permafrost, the Bering Sea and its storms eroding the coast – and artefacts leaching out onto the beach. Think Prehistoric times, grass turned into ropes and baskets, leather into garments and pouches, precious foods stored in vessels…

Julie Masson-MacLean, archaeological conservator, is working for the University of Aberdeen Archaeology Department on the grass, leather/fur and ceramic artefacts from the site of Nunalleq (XVe-XVIIe c), Southwest Alaska. The site represents the remains of a pre-contact Yup’ik Eskimo village of sod houses that collapsed quickly on themselves, sealing everything in situ. In 2009, after a severe storm local people from the nearby village of Quinhagak found large quantities of artefacts spilling from the site onto the beach. Concerned that part of their heritage was disappearing, they contacted archaeologist Dr. Rick Knecht, senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, who set up a rescue excavation. The loss of coastline due to erosion has been so severe, at an average rate of 1m/year, that the 2009 and 2010 excavation trenches have now gone.

The edge of the site with the eroding coast

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A view of the excavation

An astonishing collection of over 50000 artefacts has been unearthed including approximately 2000 pieces of grass basketry and 200 of leather/fur. The assemblage is in a remarkable state of preservation due to its burial in permafrost and waterlogged soils. Furthermore, the presence of sphagnum moss may also have contributed as it has recognised antimicrobial properties. Ivory, antler and wood artefacts are so well preserved that they resemble their ethnographic counterparts, while leather and grass artefacts require more care, though well-preserved features are observed such as boot sole pleating or basketry twining patterns. Pottery can be in poor condition comprising broken and crumbly, delaminated sherds; this is probably related to its manufacture as the coarse clay is low-fired and tempered with coarse sand, pebbles and hair/fur. However, the deeper the excavation goes the better the artefacts are preserved.

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Dr. Rick Knecht and Julie Masson-MacLean with a sample of the Nunalleq artefacts.

When Julie started working on the collection at the end of 2015, Nunalleq had already yielded an unexpected quantity of significant artefacts. This collection is unique coming from a region where little archaeological research has been conducted, and as a result, some artefacts are unidentified yet.

Wet and muddy, the finds need stabilisation by means of appropriate cleaning and drying. Typically, objects are cleaned with tweezers to remove dirt and pebbles, then washed on a support with distilled water. Grass artefacts are currently controlled-dried in fridges. It has been found that braided ropes made of roots are strong and dry easily while large flat baskets or long bundles made of grass leaves/strands are much trickier. The information available on wet archaeological grass is scarce so Julie is investigating polyethylene glycol (PEG) treatments as initial tests provided encouraging results. Large basketry is being packed in cut-to shape corefoam trays allowing for the safe handling of these fragile finds for cataloguing, study and adequate storage.

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A basket before conservation…

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… and after conservation, with a little braided fragment on its right side.

Leather artefacts are cleaned with a squeeze bottle, brushes and small tools, and an airbrush for well-preserved fragments. Their shape is recorded and then they are PEG-impregnated and atmospheric freeze-dried. Atmospheric freeze-drying is cost-effective but has a longer drying time – which is, in this case, feasible for the project as the leather collection is yet to be investigated.

An atmospheric freeze-dried leather boot showing two types of stitches: a running stitch with paired holes in the pleated front area and an overcast stitch along the sides.



A leather boot with a grass insole before cleaning…

…and after cleaning. It is currently undergoing atmospheric freeze-drying.

A fur clothing fragment showing possible decorative triangle pattern on the left

The fragment showing sewing on the right

With coarse arctic pottery, washing followed by quick air-drying can trigger further breakage as the cracks open and the clay splits following the large inclusions. To avoid this potential consolidation problem, the sherds were blocked-lifted when possible and then slow-dried, with gentle cleaning undertaken during the process. Several vessels were reconstructed and to quote R. Knecht it is like reconstructing a potato from … crisps! For one large pot (see photo below), missing areas were filled with Plaster of Paris and retouched for an aesthetic appearance while remaining distinguishable from the original sherds.

Large pot after restoration (left) from fragile sherds sensitive to splitting due to the use of coarse temper (right).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slow-drying proved very successful and allowed for an excellent drying of two complete clay lamps, where previously, such finds would have crumbled away. The lamps and numerous sherds are being packed by prospective conservation student Sandra Toloczko in foam trays carved to shape and acid-free paper. Sandra is also being trained to clean sherds, small grass fragments and to treat wood.

Two complete lamps: after slow-drying…

…and in an acid-free paper nest inserted in a carved foam tray

This project interweaves archaeological conservation with actuality: on the one hand, the community in Quinhagak is committed to preserving its Heritage as it underpins Yupiit culture. On the other hand, the current work performed on the Nunalleq grass artefacts could help conservation at future well-preserved Arctic sites threatened by increased coastal erosion and melting permafrost due to global warming.

All the finds belong to the village and are due to return to Quinhagak in Spring 2018 to be stored and displayed at the Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center.

Julie graduated from Paris I University-Panthéon Sorbonne with a Master’s degree in Archaeological Conservation after completing her internships at The British Museum and the Canadian Conservation Institute where she worked on artefacts from the Canadian Arctic. She now works as a freelance conservator for the University of Aberdeen among other institutions.

 

 

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Icon Conference 2016: Scotland Tour

Due to popular demand, we are hosting a one-day event in which we return to some of the themes and presentations given in the Scotland Group, and Care of Collections Group sessions at last year’s Icon conference.

The day will consist of ten presentations from speakers from all over the UK on a wide range of subjects, and plenty of time for networking. Refreshments and lunch are also provided. Join us for what will surely be a popular event!

  • Date: Friday, 27 October 2017
  • Time: 9.00 – 16.30
  • Location: Augustine United Church, 41 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1EL
  • Costs: Icon Member £45, Student £30, Non-Icon Member £70

Book HERE now!

Timetable

9.00 – 9.30: Arrival, tea and coffee provided

9.30 – 9.40: Introductions and welcome

9.40 – 10.00: Emily Hick, Special Collections Conservator, Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh – Crowdsourcing Conservation

The Centre for Research Collections (CRC) at the University of Edinburgh, is developing innovative ways to carry out conservation work and engage with the student population. This paper will outline a two-day crowdsourcing event, the first of its kind ever held at the CRC, in which 30 students aim to rehouse section II of the Laing manuscripts – the University’s most important written collection.

The presentation will describe the event, provide an evaluation of it, and discuss the challenges faced and ethical points considered. It will also give useful tips and advice for other institutions who are considering holding a similar event. It is hoped that this paper will spark discussion and information sharing about how to help non-conservators engage with conservation treatment in a meaningful way whilst still meeting the need for an ethical approach.

10.00 – 10.20: Claire Thomson, Book and Paper Conservator, National Library of Scotland – The Conservation of the ‘Chimney Map’

A rare antique map that was found stuffed up a chimney in Aberdeen to stop draughts has been saved following intricate conservation work at the National Library of Scotland. It has been revealed to be a late 17th century wall map of the world produced by the Dutch engraver Gerald Valck and there are only two other known copies in existence.

This talk will discuss the work to clean and restore the map, which proved to be one of the most complex yet undertaken by the Library’s conservation department.

10.20 – 10.40: Lizzie Miller, Object Conservator Birmingham Museums Trust – Keeping up with Contemporary Collecting – How conservators at Birmingham Museums Trust are adapting to working with complex modern artworks.

As is the current trend in many museums, Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT)’s five year collecting policy focusses on contemporary sculpture, including installation artworks containing moving elements and time-based media. Yet with no specialist conservator in this discipline, how can the department ensure the preservation of these complex new acquisitions?

A key example is the recently acquired modern art installation, ARTicle 14, Débrouille-toi, toi-même! By Romuald Hazoumè, comprising over 711 individual items, 300 of which are plastic, including mobile phones, trainers and toys. With no budget to employ specialist conservators the BMT conservation team have had to change and adapt to work with such complex pieces, with unstable modern materials, whilst honouring the Artist’s original intent. This paper will explore how conservation are learning to adapt to changing collections policies, by collaborating with external experts and taking on new training and research, to ensure the long-term preservation of these challenging works.

10.40 – 11.00: Questions and answers

11.00 – 11.30: Morning break, tea and coffee provided

11.30 – 11.50: Dr. Cordelia Rogerson, Head of Conservation, British Library – Increasing the Profile and Influence of Conservation – An Unexpected Benefit of Risk Assessments

Risk assessment prior to treatments, exhibitions or loans is vital to conservation, allowing potential problems to be identified and mitigated. After recent work on British Library ‘Treasures’, including Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels and Shakespeare’s mortgage deed, it became apparent that these assessments also served to significantly raise the profile and influence of the Conservation Department within the institution. By presenting risks in a clear, impartial and unambiguous manner, concerns held by conservators can be readily explained to other stakeholders, and this proved invaluable when promoting outcomes not in accordance with their initial aims or requirements. Furthermore, this approach allows complex arguments based on specialist knowledge and experience to be clearly conveyed to non-specialists, emphasising the importance of the conservator’s expertise. The risk assessment models developed as a result are now used widely across the Library, cementing the role of conservation as central to the functioning of the institution.

11.50 – 12.10: Sarah VanSnick, Senior Conservation Manager, National Archives – Taking on mould in a multidisciplinary team.

The National Archives, UK has recently reviewed how it treats and manages existing mould in the collection to mitigate against further outbreaks or reinfection. Mould is a complex issue for any cultural heritage institution to deal with and requires a multidisciplinary and evidence based approach. This paper will present how the conservation team critically evaluated practices within the sector, advice and guidance from external bodies and newly commissioned evidence. It will examine the skills required and challenges to be faced in starting discussions that lead to changes in policy and practice that are relevant to the rest of the sector.

12.10 – 12.30: Dr Isobel Griffin, Collections Care Manager, National Library of Scotland – Collections environment standards: useful or obstructive?

How can collections environment standards such as PAS 198 and PD 5454 practically help us in informing decisionmaking? This paper will discuss whether standards are too prescriptive, or too vague, and will use experiences from the National Library of Scotland to focus on two particular areas: the world of exhibition loans, where requirements still vary between organisations despite the 2014 IIC and ICOM-CC Declaration and the guidelines issued by various groups; and the preservation of film, which is informed by detailed research predicting the effect of the environment upon the lifetime of film collections. Finally, with ambitious targets for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions lying ahead, the paper will ask where we go from here. Is there room for further relaxation of target temperature and Relative Humidity values? And if the rate of change is just as important as the absolute values, how can we measure and control it?

12.30 – 12.50: Questions and answers

12.50 – 13.50: Lunch break. Lunch provided at the venue

13.50 – 14.10: Helen Murdina Hughes, Textile Conservator, Glasgow Life – ‘Unity is Strength’ – Rediscovering Glasgow’s Union and Community Banners at Maryhill Stores: a Cross-disciplinary Documentation and Engagement project.

Glasgow Museums provides a home for a wonderful but little-documented collection of banners, dating from early precursors of trade union groups to modern disputes and peace protests, charting the history of the City’s social conscience. Many of these banners have been kept at Maryhill Stores: a series of old industrial units with basic climatic controls, a skeleton staff and limited access. The arrival of a new ‘decant and inventory’ project team offered an opportunity to change this. The banners project became an invaluable opportunity for crossdisciplinary working, with Conservators, Documentation, Photographers and Students collaborating to create integrated inventories and condition assessments. The work also helped facilitate another concurrent project, ‘Banner Tales’, which took event-specific banners back into the communities that created them, inspiring collection engagement around Glasgow.

14.10 – 14.30: Lynsey Haworth, Regional Collections Manager, Historic Environment Scotland – Hanging out: strain monitoring of tapestries.

Tapestry conservation research has tended to focus on chemical degradation. But what impact does the physical structure of a tapestry have on its eventual decay? In early 2015 a collaborative research project was initiated between the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Textile Conservation and Historic Environment Scotland. The project is capturing high quality images of the newly completed Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry from Stirling Castle, using time lapse photography. The images are fed through a software program turning them into ‘strain maps’, highlighting areas where deformation has taken place. This will show how much strain the tapestry is under and how this changes over time, and highlight areas where damage is likely to occur.

This project is part of wider research into tapestry conservation techniques. Strain data and computer modelling are being used to investigate the effects of different treatment and display methods.

14.30 – 14.50: Sarah Foskett, Lecturer, MPhil Textile Conservation, University of Glasgow – Monitoring Costume on Display: a collaborative project between University of Glasgow and Glasgow Museums

Collaborative work between conservation students, established conservation professionals and museum institutions offers a valuable opportunity for all concerned, especially for students for whom it provides a platform to gain real world experience and contribute to the profession. Second year students at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History joined forces with Glasgow Museums to undertake environmental monitoring of a major temporary exhibition held at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, A Century of Style: Costume and Colour 1800-1899. The exhibition showcased some rarely seen examples of European costume, much of which was on open display. Students focused on dust monitoring, using low-cost and low-technology methods of collecting, analyzing and quantifying the levels of dust within the exhibition. This paper aims to outline, examine, and evaluate the efficacy and limitations of the methods used and will discuss the student conservator’s role and responsibility within this project.

14.50 – 15.10: Ioannis Vasallos, Photographic Collections Conservator, National Library of Scotland – The Preservation of Black and White Polaroid prints: Research based on three albums from the Stanley Kubrick Archive.

The Stanley Kubrick Archive has a unique set of albums with Polaroid prints made during the filming of ‘’The Shining’’; these objects are an important source for the study of the work of the acclaimed director. Research was carried out in 2012 in order to determine the cause of fading in a large number of prints from these albums. Over the course of the research, both the materials of the photographs and the albums were examined. The study and the identification of the Polaroid prints yielded interesting results that helped the decision-making process for subsequent treatments on the objects, in order to ensure their preservation and accessibility. Furthermore, issues are raised on the complexity of the nature and preservation of Polaroid prints and the need for further research on the topic. Finally, the importance of keeping the integrity of the albums is discussed.

15.10 – 15.30: Questions and answers

15.30 – 15.40: Final remarks and close

15.40 – 16.30: Refreshments and networking

16.30: Close