1. What do conservators do?
  2. What do archaeological conservators do?
  3. What is the goal of archaeological conservation?
  4. Do all archaeological artifacts require conservation?
  5. What can a conservator do to help maximize the information of a site’s artifacts?
  6. How do I find an archaeological conservator?
  7. Having located a conservator, are there specific questions I should ask?
  8. What does conservation treatment cost?
  9. Is funding available for conservation-related activities?
  10. What other web-based resources exist for conservation information?

What do conservators do?

A conservator is a specially trained professional who cares for cultural property and heritage collections in public institutions and the private sector. Formal and hands-on training includes specialization in a wide variety of materials including archaeological and historic objects, paintings, paper, and architecture, to name a few. Conservators prevent objects from deterioration through careful examination, documentation, analysis, preservation, restoration and preventive care. Professional conservators care for cultural property in accordance with an ethical code such as the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice


Photo by E. Williams. Used by permission of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The Conservator:

  • Assesses objects for condition and recommends treatment options.
  • Examines objects by visual and scientific means.
  • Researches treatment methods that are best for the material of the object and yet preserve object integrity.
  • Performs treatments to meet curation standards and ethical guidelines.

What do archaeological conservators do?

Emily Williams lifting a saw-blade in the field using top and bottom support.

Emily Williams lifting a saw-blade in the field using top and bottom support. Photo used by permission of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Archaeological conservators serve as partners to the archaeologist in planning for recovery of artifacts, purchase of materials for packaging and storing artifacts, recovery of fragile artifacts, and analysis of artifact materials. Conservators also aid in the long-term preservation of artifacts for study and interpretation.

Archaeological conservators work with archaeologists and other museum professionals both on site and in the lab. Activities in the field include implementation of specialized first aid techniques to protect delicate objects from damage during excavation, storage and transport to the lab. In the lab, conservators aid in the careful documentation and long-term stabilization of excavated objects. Conservators ensure the preservation and documentation of important archaeological information such as tool marks, evidence of use and wear, and mineralized organic remains, thereby contributing to the cultural and historical value of artifacts.

What is the goal of archaeological conservation?

Accessibility and Use of Collections

Accessibility and Use of Collections

The goal of archaeological conservation is to preserve and elucidate artifacts. An artifact can contain and preserve a significant amount of information about the materials and techniques used to manufacture the object, the manner in which it was used, the reasons for which it was ultimately discarded or buried, the other artifacts with which it was deposited and even why it deteriorated in the manner it did.

public education

Public Education
Photos by M. Myers used by permission of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Conservators study and assess artifacts, perform analysis, and design treatments to preserve objects while maximizing their informational output. Approaches may range from preventive, such as creating a microenvironment to stabilize the artifact, to highly interventive, such as impregnating the object with modern polymers, and must balance the informational needs of the moment with the future informational potential of the object.

Do all archaeological artifacts require conservation?

This question can be answered from both a materials preservation point of view, and from a management point of view. In each case, the answer is no, not all archaeological artifacts require conservation. However, they do require a proper assessment in order to make that determination, and they do require proper curation and storage to ensure their continued preservation – known as Preventive Conservation. Materials preservation: Many materials survive well in certain burial contexts, and may not require special treatment in order to be studied and preserved for the future. It is impossible to generalize since preservation varies tremendously and is dependent on several factors, but ceramics, stone, glass, and bone often survive well in terrestrial archaeological contexts. Some metals may even do well without conservation treatment. However, a trained eye, knowledge of the burial environment, and sometimes x-radiography are necessary in order to make this determination. In almost all cases, controlled storage is required in order to keep the artifacts stable. Some types of artifacts from underwater environments may also require little more than Desalination and drying, but these processes require monitoring and recording, and are often performed by a conservator.

Management: It is not always practical or desirable to treat each artifact from an excavation. The decision to conserve an artifact or collection should be made in conjunction with a curator or archaeologist, taking into consideration factors such as informational potential, a project’s research design, funding, human resources, and the intended disposition of the artifact. X-Radiography can provide detailed information about an artifact or collection and may, depending on condition, replace the need for a more interventive treatment such as cleaning. Some artifacts may be recorded and studied, and then reburied rather than conserved. Simple non-destructive analytical techniques may in some cases provide as much information as more expensive destructive analysis. Multiple examples of a single type of artifact may not all require full conservation. An artifact to be placed on display may be left untreated in order to present an as-excavated appearance. Artifacts intended for certain types of instrumental analysis may not require conservation.

What can a conservator do to help maximize the information of a site’s artifacts?

During the fieldwork phase of an archaeological project, a conservator can assist with special lifts, train excavation staff, and assist with the recovery, documentation, initial sorting, packaging, and transport of the artifacts. All of these tasks, if performed correctly, will maximize the information retained with the artifacts as they make their way from the field to the laboratory. If fragments are separated at the point of excavation, or objects are mishandled and broken or cleaned incorrectly, the information potential of the artifact may be compromised. A conservator is able to assist in the field with some of these tasks to ensure that information is not lost. Post excavation, a conservator can further assist with prioritizing the artifacts for treatment, analysis, and research. The treatment of an artifact can provide information not only about morphology but also about use, adaptation and even post-deposition history. While the “cool” artifacts are often those selected first for treatment, mundane pieces often have their own stories to tell and the assessment by a conservator may help to identify these stories and focus research questions. Conservators are often trained in a large number of analytical techniques ranging from relatively simple microscopy and spot testing to more complex instrumental analysis. Additionally, they are also usually aware of a number of individuals who can carry out this sort of analysis if they can not, and they are familiar with sample preparation techniques that can help to maximize the information potential of the samples.

The conservation treatment of archaeological objects, like archaeological excavation itself, can be a destructive science and therefore everything that is removed from an object must be fully documented before, during and after treatment. Whenever a conservator is working on an artifact, he or she makes decisions about how to approach the object, what types of treatment to perform and why. In order to preserve all the information associated with an object, conservators keep detailed documentation, both written and photographic, on the treatment process. This information should be archived with the archaeological site archive in order to keep it in context and to make it accessible to researchers, the public, and other professionals. By disseminating information on the conservation of objects, whether it is in the form of treatment reports or a scholarly paper, the conservator is making information about the artifacts available to the widest audience possible.

How do I find an archaeological conservator?

The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) has a referral service (FAIC) to help people find a conservator. Requests are taken by topic and location. Brochures are also available on how to select a conservator and how to care for objects. Contact information:

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works
1156 15th Street NW, Ste. 320
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 202.452.9545;
202.452.9328 fax
The Association of Regional Conservation Centers (508-470-1010) can provide information on 13 regional conservation centers across the country.

Local museums, historical societies, and university departments may also be able to refer you to a conservator. Always ask many Questions of a Conservator to ensure that his or her training and expertise are appropriate for your needs. It is a good idea to get opinions, quotes, and references from at least two conservators.

Having located a conservator are there specific questions I should ask?

The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) is a good place to start when selecting a conservator. It offers a comprehensive brochure called “Guidelines for Selecting a Conservator” which can be ordered or downloaded from the AIC website. Simply follow the links to the “Public information” section.

This brochure will help you select a qualified conservator who can provide sound, ethical preservation services for your art objects, artifacts, and other items of historic and cultural value. The conservation professional can diagnose present and potential problems, provide treatment when necessary, and advise on appropriate conditions for storage and exhibition. The choices you make will directly affect the objects you wish to preserve.

In order to ascertain whether the conservator you have contacted is right for you, you should ask for the following information:

    • scope of practice — Is conservation their primary profession, and what kind of cultural materials do they work on? Someone with a specialty in the conservation of painted wall surfaces may not be the best person to use on a site with largely waterlogged materials.
    • length and type of professional experience- Has the conservator been involved with archaeological projects before, and in what capacity?
    • experience in working with the kind of object for which you seek help-This is particularly important if the artifact you are seeking help with consists of exotic materials or has specific condition problems (such as being waterlogged or from permafrost). For large or complex projects, you may want to ask if the conservator has experience working with similar projects.
    • training- Where did they train? If they did not attend an academic training program, who did they train with? Have they kept up with developments in the field since completing their training by attending conferences and short courses? If so which ones?
    • involvement in conservation organizations–As in archaeology, involvement in professional conservation organizations indicates a level of commitment to their profession and suggests a network of contacts that can be called upon.
    • availability-Will they be available when you need them? Will they be able to meet the deadlines your project has set?
    • references and previous clients-Any conservator should be able to provide these and it is important to check them.
    • You are making a very important decision. Contact references and previous clients. The quality of conservation work is most accurately evaluated based on the technical and structural aspects of the treatment in addition to the cosmetic appearance; another conservation professional may be able to help you make this evaluation.

Other topics to discuss prior to hiring someone may include:

    • Will the conservator provide training to archaeological team members?
    • What deadlines does the conservator/ archaeologist have for the project?
    • What can the conservator do or not do? What procedures might you have to contract out (for example, specific types of materials analysis)?
    • What conservation input is desired for the technical report?
    • How and when will billing occur? As each object is completed? At the end of the project or on a quarterly basis?

The more information the project manager can give to the conservator about the project, the more prepared the conservator will be and the more successful the partnership is likely to be.

What does conservation treatment cost?

The most expensive part of a conservation treatment is labor – most conservation work is hands-on and labor intensive. Since most archaeological conservators in the Mid-Atlantic region charge from $50 – $80 per hour.

You’ll notice that the time estimates cover large ranges. That is because it is almost impossible to give a precise estimate for an unseen object – there are too many variables due to burial environment, salinity, rates of corrosion or decay, and other factors. The table also assumes that all objects will be fully cleaned, stabilized, and made ready for handling. More limited processing such as basic stabilization or archival packing with microenvironments may cost less. The project director and the conservator should explore the range of available options only after the collection has been examined. Associated costs for materials, waste disposal, and special services will usually add an additional 5% – 20% to the labor costs. See also Isn’t conservation expensive?

Is funding available for conservation-related activities?

Funding for conservation and curation of archaeological materials should be included in the overall budget for an archaeological excavation and should be planned in advance of the project. It can be much more difficult to get funding for processing, conservation, curation and publication after the fieldwork phase of an excavation is over. For archaeological collections already in museums or other institutions, funding for conservation can be obtained by applying to granting agencies that support funding for museums and the conservation of objects. Grants for specific conservation activities fall into three primary categories: General conservation support for the surveying, re-housing and data collection of entire archaeological collections; treatment of specific objects or groups of objects; and education and publication of conservation-related information.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) provides funding through the Conservation Project Support program and Conservation Assessment Program. The Conservation Project Support program awards matching grants to help museums identify conservation needs and priorities and perform activities to ensure the safekeeping of their collections. The Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) serves as an adjunct to the Conservation Project Support program. Funded by IMLS and administered by Heritage Preservation, the program provides eligible museums with an overall general conservation assessment. Applications are funded on a first-come, first-served basis. Application materials can be obtained by contacting Heritage Preservation or by visiting its website (www.heritagepreservation.org). Each museum may receive only one Conservation Assessment Program grant. A museum that has received a grant for a general conservation survey through the Conservation Project Support program is not eligible for a Conservation Assessment Program grant. The IMLS also has grant funds to support education and public outreach pertaining to conservation at museums.

The American Association of Museums runs the Museum Assessment Program, which supplements the conservation assessment program mentioned above. The mission of the Museum Assessment Program is to guide and direct museums and museum professionals to an understanding of the importance of continual self-study and assessment, and to advise them on how to implement professional museum practices in order to sustain themselves and more effectively serve the public. This ties directly into conservation activities within an organization or museum.

National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) provides grant funding for preservation, access, and research of collections. There are many different kinds of NEH grants, and programs may change from year to year. To look at all of the different grants and see what might fit your institution best, visit their website for updates, application packages and further information. The current program most relevant to conservation is the NEH Preservation Assistance Grant program. The National Park Service, NEH, National Endowment for the Arts, IMLS and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities administers the Save America’s Treasures Grants program. These grants are available to both federal and non-federal museums and organizations. Save America’s Treasures grants are available for preservation and/or conservation work on nationally significant intellectual and cultural artifacts and nationally significant historic structures and sites. Intellectual and cultural artifacts include artifacts, collections, documents, sculpture and works of art. Historic structures and sites include historic districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects.

In addition to the large governmental granting agencies, conservation activities may be supported through state or local agencies. The degree to which projects are funded and the sources of the funding may depend on the region or state in which you are located. In Maryland, for instance, the Maryland Historical Trust offers assistance to archaeologists and museums within Maryland. Funds from the Maryland Historical Trust’s Non-Capital Historic Preservation Grant Program are available to non-profit organizations, educational institutions, and local governments for certain types of terrestrial and underwater archaeology. Museum grants are offered to small and larger museums with activities pertaining to conservation. Finally, the general public is very interested in the processes of archaeology and conservation and is often willing to contribute to the conservation of specific artifacts. Innovative schemes, such as Alexandria Archaeology’s Adopt an Artifact program, have been very successful at finding funds to help preserve both individual artifacts and collections. Industrial and community support can sometimes be secured particularly if the site or the materials recovered from it are of local significance or national prominence. Often this support is in the form of in-kind donations or technical assistance such as x-raying or 3-dimensional imaging.

What other web-based resources exist for conservation information?

There are a number of web-based resources available for information on both archaeological conservation and conservation in general. One of the primary conservation websites is Conservation On-Line (CoOL). Various conservation topics are covered, including where to find suppliers, information on planning for disasters, and recent research. Many national and international organizations such as the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation (UKIC) are linked to CoOL. Many regional conservation groups have their own websites; examples are the Washington Conservation Guild and the Virginia Conservation Association.

Other web resources for conservation include:

Copyright © 2006 Colleen Brady, Molly Gleeson, Melba Myers, Claire Peachey, Betty Seifert, Howard Wellman, Emily Williams, Lisa Young. All rights reserved. Commercial use or publication of text and graphic images is prohibited. Authors reserve the right to update this information as appropriate.