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Archeology for Interpreters > 4. What Do Archeologists Do?

How do we preserve archeological resources?

Artifact conservation

                  testing ethanol on a pot. (Art Conservation Center, University 
                  of Denver)

Conservator testing ethanol on a pot. (Art Conservation Center, University of Denver)

Some treatments for archeological resources within national park units—including data recovery and in situ preservation—are addressed in this guide's What happens to a site after it's discovered? section.

The preservation and conservation of objects is a continuing process. The goal is to maintain an object in a state as close to its original as possible. All objects have a limited life span and are never immune to agents of deterioration, no matter what measures are taken. Archeological objects face even more conservation and preservation problems because they are already old and deteriorated. Active conservation measures can be costly and decisions on proper care need to be considered carefully. This is one reason why conservation and preservation should be a collaborative process between archeologists, registrars, curators, and conservators. As well, such considerations need to begin before a field project starts (Childs and Corcoran 2000).

Perhaps the best approach to conservation is prevention. It often takes a lot less time, money, and effort to slow down or prevent deterioration than it takes to repair or replace objects. Prevention involves constant monitoring and control of both the physical environment and the objects themselves. Condition reports establishing the exact condition of an artifact, document treatments, and note potential problems are an essential element of the monitoring process. These reports can be prepared by collections management staff or conservators and need to be readily accessible in an accessions file or similar location (Childs and Corcoran 2000).

Specific conservation treatments vary for every object. Most detailed conservation work should only be attempted by a trained conservator. An inferior conservation treatment can often cause more harm than good (Childs and Corcoran 2000).

Fun fact

What do a plaster sculpture of an African American Civil War soldier, a letter from a young Abraham Lincoln, archeological textile fragments and one of Lady Bird Johnson's dresses have in common? Find out how museum conservation in the National Park Service gives artifacts A New Lease on Life.

For your information

Managing Archeological Collections: Technical Assistance

Much of the discussion in this section is adapted from this National Park Service distance learning and technical assistance guide, which covers all aspects of caring for archeological collections—the activities dealing with all kinds of archeological collections during project design, in the field, in the lab, and in the repository.