A conservator is responsible for the care, preservation and understanding of heritage materials. No one can halt the process of time, but we can try to limit the damage. To do that, we need to understand materials science, have an analytical and creative approach — and an open mind. The work can be slow and repetitive but ultimately very rewarding.
I love the mix of art and science. But most of all, it is a process of discovery: conservators work so closely with the surface of an object, sometimes staring for hours down a microscope at it, that we notice the tiniest details that help us understand how the object may have been used, where it has been or how it was made, and it is this forensic approach that really excites me.
My main interest is the investigative conservation of metals, especially studying tool marks and workshop practices. But most of all, I have never lost that thrill I get each time I look at a fresh X-ray of what appears to be just a lump of corrosion and soil, knowing that I am the first person to see that object since it was lost by its original owner sometimes hundreds, even thousands, of years before.
We use laser scanning and 3D digital recording to enable more sophisticated documentation and research. Recent advances in scientific instruments for analysis means we are better able to understand the materials we are working with, to work out what they are made of as well as how they are deteriorating and so decide how best to maintain, preserve and display them.
I am working on finds from an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery site at The Meads, near Sittingbourne in Kent. More than 200 burials were discovered on a site that everyone thought had been stripped away by Victorian brickmakers — it was such a surprise that Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT), who excavated the site, found themselves with a huge project but very little funding. Each grave had about six finds, totaling around 2,500 for the whole site. We have 11 swords, many shield bosses, spearheads and knives, buckles, box and scabbard/belt fittings, intricate garnet-inlaid and gilded brooches, silver gilt mounts and hundreds of beautiful glass beads.
Our team has discovered the remains of wooden spear shafts and shields, woven cloth, insects which colonised the graves at time of burial, and even what appears to be a thumb and two finger impressions in the sheath of a knife placed in the deceased’s hand. No skeletal remains have survived because the soil is acidic, though some organic material has survived where it lay next to metal.
My project, Anglo-Saxon CSI: Sittingbourne (Conservation Science Investigations), is working with CAT and Sittingbourne Heritage Museum. Together, we have created a lab and an exhibition to conserve and display the finds. As always, money is an issue but much of our lab equipment has been donated by the Museum of London, the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Foundation and Rapiscan — who gave us our airport X-ray machine! Our work so far has been funded by Kent County Council and Marstons — one of the developers of the site. A shopping centre is an unlikely location for a conservation lab. What brought you here?
Tesco donated the use of two shops right in the middle of this shopping centre on Sittingbourne High Street. I had heard of people using empty shops for art galleries and museum exhibitions, so, I thought, why not a conservation lab? It is accessible to the whole community — people pop in while doing their weekly shop. We have had more than 10,200 visitors since we opened in September 2009, and many come back to check on our progress. Being so central also means we can attract a fantastic group of volunteers who come in regularly to work on the artefacts. We get people from all walks of life: retirees, unemployed, mums whose kids are at school, working people who come in on their day off, university graduates, and students.
Certainly. All volunteers commit to training sessions and at least one 4-hour session per week. We take the work slowly, and volunteers have generally been self-selecting at deciding whether they have the appropriate skills to carry on or not. Of course, damage to finds is a concern, but we mitigate this by ensuring a slow, steady pace of work in the right environment with the correct equipment and close supervision by trained conservators. Katrina Redman, who is paid for by the Institute of Conservation and Heritage Lottery Fund, has been brilliant helping me run the CSI Lab day to day and we have conservation-student interns from the Sorbonne, Cardiff, UCL and West Dean who have given weeks of their time to the project.
There is still a lot to do: we are looking for funds to continue conserving the other half of the cemetery, and hoping Tesco will agree to sponsor our lease for another six to 12 months. About 35 active volunteers want to carry on, and almost the same again are waiting for new training sessions to begin. With luck, we will find funding to produce a popular publication on our project and also to involve the public in how we are interpreting and reconstructing the evidence.
This project has been such a success that I am keen to open more CSI labs in shopping centres around the country. I was thinking of a ‘Roman CSI: Gravesend’ for a particularly fine collection of finds discovered by Oxford Archaeology on an A2 Highways Agency and Skanska project, for a start — but that is another story…