For a period of four weeks this winter I was lucky enough to undertake an internship under Mr. Phillip Parkes at Cardiff University, Wales. I initially sought to undertake my placement at the institute in question as I wish to pursue a career in Archaeological Object Conservation.
The projects that I worked on were interesting, varied and of great archaeological interest. I was fortunate enough to work on four projects that included a variety of materials and challengers, attend a conference on Conservation in Wales, and interacted with current students and professionals to discuss some of the differences in the approach to heritage and conservation in Wales vs. Australia. In this piece I will discuss some of the projects I worked on, followed by some general thoughts and a few experiences that stood out during my time in the United Kingdom.
The largest project was the re-conservation of a collection of Ancient Egyptian Copper Alloy and Wood objects from the University of Swansea. During the conservation process a few main challenges were addressed; previous conservation work, how much of the corrosion to remove, stabilising a loose fitting on one object, and adverse environmental circumstances in the laboratory during the conservation work.
The main challenge of this project was determining how much of the corrosion to remove; trying to walk the line between stabilizing the objects and not spending the whole four weeks of my internship on two objects. In the end the compromise was removing only the bright green areas of active corrosion with a scalpel and then using a glass brush to quickly remove and other surface impurities. This was followed by soaking the objects in BTA to further stabilize them, and lastly applying a new layer of Incralac to slow down future infiltration of pollutants. Another area for consideration in this project was previous conservation work had been carried out on some of the objects within the collection; this was evident on two of the objects. For one of the objects this simply meant adding the step of applying a solvent, in this case acetone, to the areas of active corrosion into the conservation process. The second object’s previous conservation work only became evident due to a coincident with the weather. During my second week a heat wave rolled through the United Kingdom, resulting in high temperature and humidity in the in the laboratory, this change in humidity softened the layer of consolidant on the object. It did not change how I approached conserving the object, however it is an interesting consideration for future applications of Incralac. Another area that needed to be considered during this project was the choice of adhesive for one of the objects that had a loose fitting. The fitting was a copper alloy while it was attached to a wooden handle. The chemical composition of the two material types needed to be considered, along with allowing for future environmental changes that the materials would responded to differently. In the end a small spot of Paraloid B-72 was applied as it was determined to be the best option for the two materials involved.
The next two projects were a Roman Copper-Silver Alloy coin hoard and an archaeological collection from Abbey Strataflorida in Mid-Wales, from which I worked on Medieval Silver coins. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to work on two different coin types that shared some chemical properties, but in which those differences resulted in very different corrosion patterns and treatment plans. Before treatment the Abbey Strataflorida collection was X-Rayed. The bellow image is of the X-ray showing the coins that I later treated;
The Welsh silver coins required extremely careful mechanical cleaning while the Roman Coins were chemically treated before mechanical treatment that in comparison was much more brute force with a combination of scalpel and glass brush cleaning. The different approaches did however result in very good results on each of the coins.
Treatment of at least ten Roman Copper-Silver alloy coins is a requirement of the undergraduate conservation students at Cardiff University. After working on these objects I can understand why; not only are you developing you mechanical cleaning skills, they also make you considered when to stop working on them, and also the sheer amount of time and skill it takes to clean a large hoard. Ideally you should be able to clean one of these coins in no more than 20 minutes, by the end it was still taking me hours.
Aside from the time I spent in the laboratory, I was also lucky enough to be in Wales when their bi-annual conference on Conservation in Wales was held. It is a day long event that allows new conservators and heritage professionals to network and gain experience in presenting at a conference. One of the main themes that I noticed at this conference, and in general conversation with my co-workers in Cardiff, was the integration of social media and working in the public sphere into conservation. This seems to be a subject that permeates discussions in Wales when compared to its almost non-existence in the field in Australia. I believe it is inevitable that I will join the conservation here, and it will be interesting to see how Australia approaches it subject.
Lastly, I wanted to write about a few of the standout museum exhibits that I visited. The first exhibit that stood out to me was the Egyptian Tomb room at the British Museum, London. A newly renovated display, the element that stood out to me was the integration of scent into the room, mixing with the low light to create an atmosphere that called to mind the ancient sacred space that the room designed to showcase. I found it to be an extremely engaging aspect of that display and would like to see other exhibitions integrate other senses into the experience. The other museum that particularly stood out to me was the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. The thought that went into the flow of each of the galleries made an extremely engaging and thought provoking visit. For example in the natural history display, the taxidermy animals were grouped by ecological niche, mating display, or sense preference rather than the more traditional geographical groupings.