Archaeology programs and conservation: Towards a relevant curriculum

Paul S. Storch


The past two decades have seen a maturation in the field of conservation in general, and archaeological conservation in particular. The professionals in the field have conducted basic lab research on materials and treatments, participated in many field excavations, and published articles. New World archaeologists, in embracing the “new” processual archaeology, while incorporating natural science methods into field and lab archaeology have in large part, neglected the contributions that archaeological conservation can make, This is due, in my opinion, to a lack of interest in artifacts beyond the initial information that can be extracted from them. Conservators are included in field projects if extra funds are available, even though the possibility may exist that artifacts requiring special skill and equipment may be recovered. Most field archaeologists have felt it sufficient to rely on field conservation methods and materials borrowed wholesale from paleontology and on information contained in outdated masters theses.

Unfortunately, much of this outdated, erroneous and unscientific information is still being passed on to students in university archaeology training programs. What is needed to make archaeological conservation and its systematic applied science approach to the preservation of the information inherent in artifacts a consistent part of processual archaeology, is to incorporate it into all anthropological archaeology programs. The main components of the way to achieve this goal are as follows:

1) Close cooperation between the Society of American Archaeology (SAA) and the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) in curriculum development and teaching aids that can be used by institutions without professional conservators.
2) Utilization of professional conservators as guest and/or regular lecturers in basic field method courses. A strong commitment on the part of field archaeologists to include conservators on the field staff, when appropriate, as field school instructors.
3) Anthropology / Archaeology departments need to subscribe to the major conservation journals and to give better support to efforts such as the short-lived “Archaeological Conservation Newsletter.”
4) Incorporate, at a minimum, two semesters of lecture and lab course work in inorganic chemistry; physical geology with labs would also be useful.
5) There needs to be closer monitoring by the AIC of its Associate members who offer archaeological conservation treatment and consultation services. The ultimate solution to the problem of untrained people representing themselves as conservators may never be found, however, the AIC must take a strong stand to prevent further damage to collections by archaeologists who perform treatments on unique objects without proper training, safety precautions, and access to current knowledge.