Conservation Examples

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Wessex Archaeology offers high quality in-house expertise in object conservation. Our conservator works closely with experts and specialists to provide a rapid, comprehensive service for terrestrial and marine archaeology, and social history collections. 
 
For our conservation case studies choose from the links below or right.
 
For the full range of central services click here
 

CBA training day

Looking After Finds From Site - July 2013.

 

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This was the first time that this training day had been offered by CBA Wessex, taking advantage of the extensive experience of the Wessex Archaeology in-house conservator, and it proved very successful. The information provided was not restricted to archaeological material but drew on examples from museum and other situations.
 
The day started with an introduction to the types of evidence that can be preserved during burial, and under what conditions this evidence can survive.
 

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This was followed by practical suggestions for retrieving and holding excavated material.  
 
There was also a session on the packing and storage of artefacts for long term preservation, exploring the various options available and looking at what can happen if you get it wrong. 
 

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The day finished with a look at the sort of information that can be gathered from x-raying a wide range of objects. Feedback from the participants has been extremely positive, and it is hoped that the training day will be repeated in the future.
 

Anglo-Saxon bucket from Barrow Clump

Lifting and conservation of a composite bucket

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During excavations at Barrow Clump in 2012, as part of Operation Nightingale, a number of Saxon graves were excavated, containing a range of grave goods – weapons, jewellery, and other items. One of the most interesting of these objects was a small wooden bucket, which required intricate conservation work to lift, consolidate and preserve it – a real challenge to the conservator.
 
The bucket was carefully loosened from the surrounding soil and cushioned with bandages for lifting. It is about the size of a tankard and has three decorated copper alloy bands holding the wooden staves in place. Nearly all the wood has survived, which is unusual, but the base has been lost. It is still possible to see part of the groove along the bottom of some of the staves where the base would have fitted. Strips of decorated copper alloy, fixed with rivets, run vertically down the bucket and hold the bands in place. 
 
The bucket was lifted with its contents still inside, as this reduced the risk of collapse. However, the chalk inside the bucket acted as a poultice and made the bucket so damp that the copper alloy bands started to corrode. The contents had to be removed straight away and were retained for future investigation. A light spring was put inside the bucket to reduce the chances of it collapsing in on itself. 
 
The bandaging was removed from the outside of the bucket and the soil removed from the wood surfaces. At this stage there was barely anything holding the bucket together and, as the wood was so fragile, it was consolidated to give it some strength, using a plant-based material that is sympathetic to the physical properties of the wood. 
 
The copper alloy bands were then attached at intervals to the wooden staves. This held the whole bucket together, but allowed for a certain amount of movement. This had to be done very carefully so that the bucket did not collapse completely.
 
The bucket is now being kept in a controlled environment so that the wood does not shrink and the copper alloy is less likely to corrode again. 
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Anglo-Saxon brooch from West Langton

Excavation and reconstruction of a brooch

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Wessex Archaeology has a long-standing involvement with Channel 4’s Time Team, providing on-site support and ‘back-stage’ expertise. In 2011, during Time Team’s excavations at West Langton in Leicestershire, a metal brooch was found in an Anglo-Saxon grave. Because of the fragility of the object, it was lifted in a block of soil along with some associated glass beads, and brought back to the WA offices in Salisbury for controlled excavation and treatment by our conservator. At this stage the brooch was barely visible, but an X-ray of the soil block revealed its shape and the fact that it was very fragmented. It also showed a hole (the dark area) in the soil block underneath the brooch. 
 
Using the information from the X-ray as a guide, the brooch was carefully excavated and found to be in 17 pieces. It is made of copper alloy and the front surface is gilded. The gold has been rubbed away from the raised areas of pattern, suggesting that it was well worn before burial. 
 

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Before the brooch could be lifted from the soil block, small patches of gossamer were attached to the front to hold the brooch together. The patches were fixed across the breaks using an adhesive that would hold in the damp soil and that could be removed later without disturbing the patches that would eventually be attached to the back. 
 

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The patches on the front allowed the brooch to be lifted and turned over. On the back, mineralised textile has been preserved. After removing the soil, the fragments of brooch were loosened from their front patches, eased back into place (as near as possible) and new patches put on the back. The adhesive used on the back acts as an ‘optical filler’, so that you can see the back of the brooch through the patches. Once it was held together from the back, the patches could be removed from the front of the brooch, leaving the fully conserved object. 
 
 

Claw beaker from Farningham to Hadlow Pipeline

Reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon glass claw beaker

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Part of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery was excavated by Wessex Archaeology just to the north-east of Wrotham, Kent, in advance of the laying of the Farningham to Hadlow Natural Gas Pipeline in 2008-9. One of the graves contained a rich assemblage of high status grave goods, including weapons (sword, spearhead, shield boss), exquisitely decorated metal drinking horn mounts, and numerous fragments from a glass ‘claw beaker’ – so-called from the claw-like handles or lugs projecting from the vessel’s sides.
 
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Such vessels are rare finds, particularly whole examples, although several are known from other Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in Kent. Our example is in a pale blue glass, and is likely to have been made on the Continent, probably in what is now Germany. 
 
The challenge our conservator faced was to reconstruct the vessel from these fragile surviving pieces, primarily as an aid to illustration. As might be expected, this is an extremely delicate operation, and time-consuming, as each stage of reconstruction has to be allowed to ‘set’, before the next stage can begin. Fragments of similar appearance are grouped, and then assembled into sections, which are then gradually pieced together. The finished article is a testament to the skill and steady hands of the conservator.
 
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The adhesive that was used can be removed and replaced if the beaker ever goes on permanent display in a museum. Some adhesives react with each other to produce a permanent bright yellow discolouration, so the one used on the ‘claw beaker’ was carefully chosen to avoid any chance of this happening. 
 

Ship’s barrel from the Solent

Investigation of ship’s barrel from the wreck of the Fenna, near Lymington

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The Dutch schooner Fenna sank off the south coast in 1881. It was carrying sheets of glass, iron rods and barrels of nails. One of the barrels was retrieved by the Coastal & Marine section of Wessex Archaeology, in conjunction with a local diving group. 
 
The barrel had accumulated a layer of concretion that helped preserve both the barrel and its contents. Once lifted from the sea bed, the barrel was kept wet until it could be investigated. 
 
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With the help of two members of the diving group, the concretions were removed to reveal partially preserved wooden staves and the withy bands that held the staves in place. The contents of the barrel were also exposed as a mass of iron nails that had fused into one large mass as they corroded. 
 
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The surviving section of the barrel was later desalinated, consolidated and control dried over several months to preserve it for the future. 
 

Romano-British shoe from Amesbury

Conservation of a Romano-British leather shoe

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A stone coffin containing a Romano-British woman and child was found during excavations by Wessex Archaeology at Amesbury in 2007, as part of a large housing development. A large number of Romano-British graves in several distinct cemeteries have so far been uncovered as part of this development, although this is the only grave so far found to contain a stone coffin, suggesting that this woman was of some status within her community.
 
The woman was wearing cork-soled slippers and the child a pair of calfskin shoes, in both cases extremely rare survivals, and direct parallels have not so far been found in this country. The coffin also contained a complete imported French pottery vessel as well as a copper alloy anklet and a string of jet beads. 
 
The child’s calfskin shoes were well preserved, particularly that for the left foot. Approximately 80% of this shoe survived, although the sole had separated from the upper. The shoes were stitched, and appeared to be ankle shoes, fastened with laces.
 

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All the fragments of the shoe were recorded before the pieces were cleaned and consolidated. The shoe had been squashed sideways, but the general shape can still be seen. 
 
The shoe is kept in a controlled environment to increase its chances of long term survival.