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3 June 2012

The Thinking of a Conservator: Deciding What and What Not to Clean

In many ways, the responsibility and purpose of the conservator seems straight forward.Our job is to clean, to remove soil from the surface of the Hoard objects, and to stabilize them so that they incur no further damage and can be understood and appreciated in the short- and long-term. It seems like a simple enough proposition, but in practice our process of deciding what to do and how to execute our treatments can become fraught with ethical and philosophical questions.

As a third-year conservation student from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in the United States, I have been trained how to approach historic and artistic works with these questions in mind. No matter the object, each work is unique and carries with it its own specific history and condition. The particularities of each object in the Staffordshire Hoard – and the assemblage as a whole – compel us to develop object-specific treatments where we consider an object in its historic totality in order to reveal and preserve as much as possible about it.

K1195 showing historic damage

Image 1. K1195 showing historic damage.

An object can pose physical challenges particularly if it is composed of unstable or highly sensitive materials, or is already in a compromised condition due to historic damageor burial. Objects can also present the conservator with more esoteric challenges when we consider their archaeological significance. Most of the objects in the Hoard are mangled and damaged for reasons unknown to us, but we identify this damage as historically significant – it speaks to the object’s past, and it plays an important role in how we study the Hoard and determine its meaning and importance. In this way, conservation aims to reveal both the artistic aspects of the objects in the Hoard, as well as the forensic evidence they contain. Both can be understood as belonging to particular moments in an object’s past – from manufacture to excavation. It is our responsibility to locate these moments, and determine the best course of action to reveal and preserve each of these parts of the object.

Berberis thorns and pin vice

Image 2. The tools of an archaeological conservator: berberis thorns and pin vice

Archaeological conservation is partly archaeological excavation on a micro scale. Instead of shovels and trowels, we use thorns and cotton swabs to excavate and expose what we identify as important and of artistic or historical value. This may include the filigree or cloisonné ornament on an object, indicators of manufacturing methods,signs of use, wear, or historic damage, as well as micro-artifacts preserved in corrosion products and residues.

In conservation we strive for reversibility or re-treatability in our treatments. However, like archaeological excavation, archeological conservation is also inherently destructive. In cleaning, once we have removed material from an object to reveal certain moments, we have erased a certain part of its history that we cannot replace. We are therefore ethically obligated to justify our removal of any part of the object, soil included. With this in mind, we remove only what is necessary in order to reveal essential features, saving the soil and other samples in vials for future analysis, and documenting what we’ve done with photomicrographs and annotated images along the way.

Sample vials

Image 3. Sample vials containing removed soil, plant matter, accretions, inclusions.

We often decide to leave soil and burial accretions intact. In part this serves an aesthetic purpose; these objects are archaeological, and it would be dishonest to erase entirelythat part of their history. Sometimes this also serves a practical purpose. In many of the cells on K127 where garnet plates were missing, leaving some of the soil in the cells in-situ allows us to protect possible gold foils buried underneath without having to potentially introduce additional synthetic adhesive into the object.

We also decide not to clean for the reasons that we cannot anticipate. Future scientific and analytical developments may enable us to glean more information from these objects, and the less we do now the more we may be able to do later. We are also sensitive to the fact that attitudes about how archaeological finds should be treated are culturally-conditioned and can change over time. For all of these reasons we opted to leave the blocks of soil inside K1195 and other pommel caps in the Hoard intact, as well as the soil inside the rivet holes, and the formerly lidded cells in the border. Likewise, areas that will not be displayed like the back and undersides of objects are often not cleaned.

Soil left intact inside a cell.

Image 4. Soil left intact inside a cell with a missing gold lid on K1195.

Over the course of their lives, the objects in the Hoard have accumulated multiple layersof meaning and history. Materials, ornamental motifs, manufacturing methods, signs of use, damage, corrosion products, and burial accretions each preserve information aboutan object’s past and our collective history. It is our role as conservators to recognize and reveal the evidence of the past moments the objects preserve, always with an eye to the future. Our decision-making often becomes a balancing act in which we strive to maintain each one of these moments. At times the effect of one moment allows us to peer into another; the damage of many of the objects in the Hoard prior to burial allows us to see with incredible detail how they were assembled.

However, the opportunity to reveal one moment and uncover some kind of information about these objects can sometimes come at the price of losing the legibility of another moment. Often what is lost only becomes clear to us well into the future. As such, our conservation must consider each of these objects in their broadest contexts, doing our best to negotiate between the interests of the public and academic communities, of the past as well as the future.

Underside of K1195 after treatment.

Image 5. Annotated image of the underside of K1195, after treatment.

Brian Castriota

Graduate student in conservation and art history at the Institute of Fine Arts – New York University in New York.