Conservation of Archaeological Material (2)

- Conservation 'In situ' -

Conservation of archaeological material is dependent largely upon one factor - enough public interest to pay the bills. Wetland and marine sites preserve artifacts that are lost on terrestrial sites, so there is a lot more for people to get interested in. Unfortunately, these artifacts are difficult to conserve, and this results in a high cost spread over a long period of time.

Much of the material we are trying to conserve has been preserved in its waterlogged condition for longer than museums have existed. If part of a conservator's role is to preserve this material, then we must ask whether or not it would be better left where it is...

In these pages I will be examining some of the alternatives to conservation. The two main possibilities are reburial of material after excavating, and preserving the site in situ. Ideally these programs would allow us to preserve cultural heritage, without the expense of conservation, or risk to the archaeological material. To do this effectively we must be able to measure how stable the archaeological material is within a site.

Further scientific interest in wreck sites arises because they represent human impact experiments that have been running for centuries. Understanding how stable these sites are, and how they interact with the marine environment may shed light on the ultimate fate of the material that has been dumped at sea over the last hundred years.

Further pressure for dumping has recently come from the need to decommission old oil production platforms. Initial plans to dump the 'Brent Spar' in deep water off the continental shelf rightly met with a storm of opposition.

As the original report (*) on this proposal stated, a study of the deterioration of shipwrecks would have provided an understanding of the likely environmental impact of this proposal, but very little work has been done. In the absence of such an understanding the economically more expensive option of dismantling had to be adopted.

More platforms await decommissioning, the pressure to dump cheaply grows. The requirement to comprehend human impact on the seas surrounding us remains. This is a heritage study, which has relevance to all of us...

(*) Scientific Group on Decommissioning Offshore Structures, First Report, April 1996. A Report by the Natural Environment Research Council for The Department Of Trade And Industry.