What is Conservation? (Part I: Preliminary knowledge)
 Syrian stele depicting cuneiform writing across the middle band

Syrian stele depicting cuneiform writing across the middle band

 Intricately wrapped hand of an Egyptian mummy

Intricately wrapped hand of an Egyptian mummy

 Glass urn originally used to protect cremated bones, from Warwick Square, London, 1st century AD

Glass urn originally used to protect cremated bones, from Warwick Square, London, 1st century AD

When people ask about my future programme, I get a lot of blank looks in response to "it's a Master's in the Conservation of Archaeological and Museum Objects." Aside from that being a mouthful of a title, I think people often hear "archaeology" and get stars in their eyes with images of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft dancing in their heads–and while trust me, I love of both those characters, that is an over-the-top, fictionalized representation of only part of archaeology, and conservation is a different animal entirely. I wanted to write this post as a longer winded explanation for people I don't see often, and as a preparation for how to answer that question in person. I want to come up with a sort of "elevator pitch" where I can explain in a few sentences that get the point across without being too detailed or losing someone's attention–and without causing further confusion, which often happens too. However, at this point I have not worked as a conservator and so only have a shallow knowledge about the field. I'd like to do a series that I can refer to as my knowledge grows and also so that people can find out more about the career if they're interested. These descriptions can and will change as I get further in my programme, and maybe I'll link them all together in the future. First I will cover a very basic, concise explanation to start with if you have no idea at all what archaeological conservation is, and then I'll detail it a bit more loquaciously for the curious (don't feel bad if you want to skip that part). 

 

A conservator is a specialized archaeologist who works closely with individual artefacts (typically in a museum laboratory setting) to clean, preserve, safely store and transport, and study them in an in-depth way. A lot of conservation work requires a detailed application of chemistry principles (in fact I took a specific conservation chemistry course as part of my application to the programme). Additional knowledge in history, anthropology, and art is (from what I've gathered) necessary as a conservator. The ability to research these subjects to inform decisions is also paramount to the job.

 

Much of what a conservator does is related to cleaning an object. Dirt present on an object can cause damage and cause the object to degrade in certain circumstances. "Dirt" to a conservator is defined as any material that is undesirably present on the object. For example, the presence of beeswax on an artefact might be desired for one artefact (for example in the bindings of a historic book) and not in another (for example if beeswax dripped from a candle onto historic furniture just before the conservator got to it). In the second example, beeswax is dirt and should be cleaned off. In the first, it is an important part of the object and should be preserved. Dirt does not have a universal chemical composition and must be assessed uniquely for every object. There are also occasions where dirt needs to be left in place even if it is undesirable due to the fragility of an object. Sometimes cleaning does more damage than it is worth. One of the guiding principles of conservation is that any decisions made about the object are damaging (even leaving it alone and doing no work to it). Therefore, the conservator should choose the course of action that does the least harm and fits the other constraints on the object (such as financial and what it is needed for in the future).

 Silver lyre discovered in the Royal Cemetery at Ur in the Great Death Pit, appx 2500 BC. The silver is original and was removed by pouring plaster into holes left by disintegrated wood to maintain shape. The strings and pegs were added after excavation.

Silver lyre discovered in the Royal Cemetery at Ur in the Great Death Pit, appx 2500 BC. The silver is original and was removed by pouring plaster into holes left by disintegrated wood to maintain shape. The strings and pegs were added after excavation.

 Faience bead-net belonging to the mummy Takhebkhenem. While on display, the original threads had rotted away. Conservation work included rethreading alongside surviving original thread and replacing lost beads with modern ones painted to match.

Faience bead-net belonging to the mummy Takhebkhenem. While on display, the original threads had rotted away. Conservation work included rethreading alongside surviving original thread and replacing lost beads with modern ones painted to match.

But why is a deep understanding of chemistry necessary for simply cleaning an object, you may ask? Well, every object is made up of chemicals. Every substance in every object on earth has a specific chemical makeup. Even just rinsing something with water needs to be considered on a chemical level; water is a highly polar molecule, an incredibly effective solvent for many substances (meaning it will dissolve and rinse away a fuck ton of stuff), and can increase the likelihood, speed, and extent of degradation on many substances (like iron). Not to mention that rarely in the real world do we work with perfectly purified water–even dissolved CO2 present in water changes the pH. Other suspended contaminants can and will be present in any water. Simply rinsing an object with water may: 1. remove desirable, historically important substances ("dirt" which is not actually dirt, like microscopic flakes of paint for example); 2. cause irreparable damage or speed up the degradation process; and 3. introduce unintended contaminants to the object that may have degradative properties. Add any number of detergents (each with their own chemical makeup) to the water and it is even more complicated. It is the job of the conservator to understand how each substance will act together with every other substance (including things that many take for granted, such as the composition of the air, humidity, temperature, differences between excavation conditions and storage conditions... the list is infinite really). It is extremely detailed, nitty gritty, and precise work that requires an elaborate thought process before any work is even begun on the object itself. A conservator must also know the history of the object (to make decisions about the most important aspects of its conservation), the cultural importance of the object (to understand its future use and significance) as well as external concerns such as funding and time constraints. And this is actually a very short list.

Apply the above very brief discussion of cleaning complications to the other aspects of conservation (like storage, transport, excavation procedures, repairs, preservation treatment, etc) and you can begin to understand why it is important to have trained professionals working on these precious artefacts.  Professionals trained simply as archaeologists may not have the background required for delicate conservation work–and have their own tasks to better use their time for anyway. Thus the need for individuals specifically trained in archaeological conservation.

What kind of work can a trained conservator expect when they graduate? This is a multifaceted question, and one that I'll have a better answer to when I've done more of my official studies. Many conservators are employed by museums and heritage trusts in a laboratory setting to help process new artefacts as well as maintain the existing collection. I won't get into it on this post, but one of the reasons I chose a university in the U.K. is because of the larger opportunity for specialized conservation positions compared with the U.S. Sometimes, conservators will be present on an excavation site to assist with proper handling, initial cleaning, and safe transportation of excavated artefacts in particularly delicate situations (I think this job would be rad as hell). Conservators typically specialize even further; for example, as a book or paper conservator, building conservator, marine artefacts conservator, etc. As for me, I'm not entirely sure at this point where I want to specialize, but everything I have discussed above excites and invigorates me to begin a career in conservation.

Note: All images in this post were taken by me at the British Museum in 2016. Any information in the captions was pulled from display cards where I recorded it. I do not have further information than what is included with the captions; I wish I had taken better documentation of the objects I got to see while there but I only had a few hours and was overwhelmed in the best way possible!

February 2018 Daily Life
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This is something I used to do and keep in my planner, but will now be recording here. Time passes quickly to me and I wanted a way of recording what daily life looked like for Tyler and me (we may be lame old fogeys, but this usually consists of what shows we're watching, what outings we're usually taking, what the overall weather was, etc). I've loved looking back at the rhythm of our lives and writing down these snapshots of each month has just been lovely.  

January of this year was just a resting period for us, so I'm not sad that I didn't record it. But I'll start again here with February Daily Life. These categories I established are arbitrary, but I found that they helped summarize the overall ambiance of the month well.

Weather

  • Surprisingly beautiful and warm for winter
  • Snow mid-month

Watching

  • The Good Place: I finally convinced Tyler to watch this with me and we're both SO glad I did! (I convinced him by mentioning that it takes place in the same universe as Parks & Rec - there's a Dennis Feinstein ad in one of the shots.)
  • Queer Eye
  • Charlie Luxton's Homes by the Sea: This is a genre I'm realizing is strongly in my wheelhouse; British real estate shows. Any and every kind.
  • Altered Carbon

Reading

  • The Mummy Congress by Heather Pringle
  • Ghosts Know by Ramsey Campbell
  • The Other Side of History, a Great Courses lecture by Robert Garland

Notable Events

  • Jury duty
  • Taking friends to Bollywood Theater
  • Brunch at The Bad Habit Room

Doing

  • Playing LOTS of Breath of the Wild
  • Oregon Archaeological Society class on Saturdays
  • Figuring out lease shenanigans

Accomplishments

  • Finishing a huge closet clean-out
  • Getting productivity back
lifeLauren BurlesonComment
Wednesday 21 February 2018
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We've gotten a bit of snow here the last few days. Portland typically gets one or two snow days per winter (nothing more than an inch or two excepting last year), so it's always bit of a treat. I broke my camera out of hibernation and got a few snaps (mostly Pepper, to be honest). I'm curious how much snow I'll be seeing this time next year and what the differences will be.

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lifeLauren BurlesonComment
Introductions

This blog is meant mainly as a personal journal, a place for me to catalog and look back on in the future, as well as a place to share travel photos/life updates with family and friends a bit more easily than trying to text photos to everyone I can remember. I expect that really, the only people to read this will be me later on, and my mom (hi mom!). But, in case you're curious (and to act as a snapshot to future me), I thought I'd do an introductory post here.

My name is Lauren, and I have lived in Portland, Oregon, U.S. my whole life (I was even born downtown). Right now (February 2018), I work as a commercial photographer, but have been offered a place on a postgraduate programme in the archaeology department of Durham University, UK, which begins in October of this year. This honestly has been the impetus for starting this journal, because I (correctly or incorrectly, judgment reserved) finally feel as though I will be living a life worth documenting. I have had "live in a different country/U.K. and at least one other" on every bucket list I've ever made, along with "get a Master's degree (or further)." I'm thrilled that I found both of those in a calling like archaeology (I should have realized this much earlier in life–more on that later). This programme, in this field and in this country, is truly a dream come true for me and a life goal, and I want to be able to look back on this time (the good and the difficult) in images and words that I'll have forever. I know a lot of my future as a conservator will involve polishing and perfecting heavily procedure-based scientifically accurate reports and experiments, and I want to establish a place that is set aside for more fluid, creative, and poetic pursuits–I do have a B.F.A., after all.

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It will be another half a year before I move (approximately in August or September), and I decided to start this blog now so that I can document what my life is like at this point, because although I'm incredibly excited for my future, things are pretty damn good as they stand. I described my life recently as "happy, discontented, hovered on the precipice, becoming who I want to be" and I think that sums it up pretty well. Happy because I have a life I couldn't even hope for when I was younger; I would not describe my childhood overall as happy and much of it was even abusive. Now, I live in NE Portland with my amazing partner of almost five years and my heart dog, a miniature longhaired dachshund called Pepper that we rescued two and a half years ago from the Oregon Humane Society and who I can't imagine my life without (I should put a limit on dog talk here, otherwise this will turn into a dog blog because I'm hopelessly infatuated with him). His story will probably get its own post at some point. And before you ask–don't worry, we're taking him with us when we move.

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Discontented because I always wish for things to move faster. I want my program to start now, our move to take place now, and I want to know everything there is to know about archaeology, osteoarchaeology (forensic/physical anthropology if you're in the states), and conservation now. I have to (and have always had to) remind myself to be patient. I know that this trait comes from within myself and my drive to work (which is not always a bad thing, and also not always a good thing). However, despite this, I want to be in this time, and remember how good it was in the future. I love my partner (he's coming with me, but big life events tend to change relationship dynamics), I love my dog (also coming with me, but I know his transition will be difficult for a bit because he's a dog), and I love my apartment and my place in this city.

I'm just finally ready for something more.

first post

Firsts are always awkward to me. I never put too much superstition into firsts, as they tend to be sort of a trial period in my life before I figure out the reality of the thing. The first card of the major arcana in the tarot is The Fool, and I think that is beautifully fitting to so much of our lives. So, to break this "first entry" barrier, here are some of my favorite photos lately with absolutely no context.

lifeLauren BurlesonComment