A Discussion about Archaeology and Conservation Education

CHRIS CAPLE is an associate professor in conservation in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

IOANNA KAKOULLI is a professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department of the University of California, Los Angeles, and was formerly the Lore and Gerald Cunard chair of UCLA’s Interdepartmental Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials.

CLEMENTE MARCONI is a professor of the history of Greek art and archaeology at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University.

They spoke with TOM ROBY, a senior project specialist with the GCI department of Buildings and Sites, and JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.

TOM ROBY: Each of you teaches in a university with degree programs in both conservation and archaeology, of which there are very few in the world. What were the reasons behind the development of these programs?

IOANNA KAKOULLI: The establishment of the conservation program at UCLA was based more on an intrinsic need to train conservators for the preservation of archaeological and ethnological materials around the world than on the recognition of the contribution of conservation to archaeology and related fields. Conservation in general—despite all the advancements it has made—is still not considered at the same academic level as archaeology. Many archaeologists don’t always see the need for conservation to be carried out by trained conservators. I’ve participated in many meetings where archaeologists have presented their approach to site management after excavations, and it was something they did by themselves without consulting with conservators—let alone having conservators as an integral part of their team.

CHRIS CAPLE: At Durham they started teaching archaeology in the 1950s. Problems with dirty, unstable, and fragmentary excavated artifacts prompted the head of the department to look for conservators in the 1970s, and a number of courses started in the UK around the same time—not only at Durham but also at Cardiff, joining the existing course at the Institute of Archaeology. It really was about solving the problems that archaeological artifacts were generating as they came out of the field. How could we look after this material? It kind of developed from there. After we started doing the work, we began to train students, and very quickly the university wanted us to award degrees. So it was archaeologists at both Cardiff and Durham who saw the need, and the course came out of a field archaeology requirement.

Ioanna, you’re right that in academic terms conservation is still struggling to be taken as seriously as archaeology. Our archaeology colleagues sometimes do see us as a bit of a handmaiden to their endeavors, which is frustrating. Hopefully, as we work on them year upon year, they can be a little more generous in their recognition of our efforts and what we can bring to the party.

CLEMENTE MARCONI: At the time the conservation program was established at the Institute of Fine Arts in 1960, the mission of the institution was to provide graduate education in art history, archaeology, and museum work. The two essential factors in the development of the conservation program were art history and museum training, at a time when art history at the Institute was particularly focused on objects. So our conservation program did not come out of archaeology in any particular way. However, the establishment of conservation education as an essential component of our academic mission has fostered a culture of mutual respect and collaboration between fields, including the recognition of the essential role of conservation in archaeological practice—from site management to the conservation of finds—on the part of both our faculty and our students.

JEFFREY LEVIN: What do each of you think needs to happen in higher education to improve collaboration between archaeology and conservation—in terms not only of objects but also sites themselves?

KAKOULLI: There are already ongoing collaborations—mainly in the field, where conservation and archaeology meet and collaborate. Every summer, for example, we send our students to archaeological excavations led by UCLA archaeologists, as well as to other “foreign” excavations, so on the object side there is that support, which is linked directly to the students’ education. There is less on the site management side. In my experience, we haven’t really participated in a major way in site preservation. Moving forward, a lot depends also on the institutions themselves. At UCLA, our program is under social sciences—in other places, conservation programs could be under humanities or the fine arts or architecture departments or divisions—and it has been difficult to get the support we needed to enhance these collaborations. In some ways we don’t speak the same language. In social sciences at UCLA, we have departments such as history, economics, and sociology. And then we have conservation. Our interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary training is bridging the two cultures described by C. P. Snow—the physical sciences and the humanities. Our program is not fully aligned within social science, and that is a challenge in increasing collaboration and integration and receiving support.

CAPLE: It’s a difficult question. History suggests that one of the key reasons people look at heritage and think about its preservation is individual instances of loss. If you look back, you can see that when high-profile sites come under threat, it stimulates interest in higher education and legislation, and in heritage agencies actually doing something. It seems perverse to suggest this, but it is loss that actually focuses people’s concerns on conservation. We have to recognize that threat has a role here. Obviously, we don’t want to imperil something, and we make responsible arguments to archaeologists, our administrators, and others, but in most cases it’s when they need our help that they raise concerns and listen. It’s not just a question of us speaking—it’s a question of them listening. Perhaps we need to take those opportunities when they arise—where individual finds come up and events occur, and then we step forward. Whether it’s finds or particular problems on an excavation, these are real opportunities for us. Maybe we need to be more aware of utilizing them to make people recognize what we can offer.

Photo: Courtesy of Chris Caple.
Let's not forget the power of artifacts to communicate. If I were going to say how we highlight the importance of conservation to archaeologists, let's do it through the artifacts.
Chris Caple

MARCONI: Your question is about higher education, but before I address that, it is very important to take legislation into consideration. The collaboration between archaeologists and conservators should be mandated. In Italy, it was only about twenty years ago that it was mandated by law that for state-sponsored projects and major works of infrastructure there had to be a preliminary investigation of the site by archaeologists. This law did not come from the politicians but from the archaeologists, who made a very strong case for the presence at, and the contribution of, archaeologists to site investigations.

Now, focusing on higher education, we should be very outspoken about the need for this collaboration. I can think of two possibilities. One, obviously, is developing interdisciplinary education and training in archaeology and conservation. For example, at the Institute we will be starting a new course on methodologies of archaeology and conservation that will be mandatory for students who are working in the field and are going to archaeological projects. Michele Marincola and I will co-teach this foundational class. This is definitely one way—a course co-taught, with the students coming from both conservation and archaeology. There is also the need to talk about conservation in our courses on ancient art and archaeology. For example, when you talk about the Acropolis, you should discuss site management and evolving ideas about conservation. And the same when you talk about objects found in an excavation. In this way, even students who may not go to excavations but want to know about ancient art can learn about the essential role of conservation.

ROBY: That’s great news about the joint course you’ve organized, Clemente. In that course, is there going to be some emphasis on both objects and sites? Traditionally there’s been a division between the two, and I wonder how you feel about trying to integrate within conservation training both object conservation and site conservation.

MARCONI: For me, there should be no separation between objects and sites. You really cannot deal with the object without considering the site where it was found and used in ancient times. More generally, the study of ancient art cannot be divorced from its contexts. We have had enough scholarship on ancient art that has systematically avoided context, and we all know the disastrous consequences of that approach. This connection between sites and objects is essential. The way Michele and I have structured the course is to make use of our site excavations as a general framework. The class will first address the sites as a whole, and then we discuss the objects from these sites in their original architectural, ritual, and social contexts. So there is integration between the two in the structure of the course.

KAKOULLI: I totally agree you can’t separate the two, but it does come down to the practicality of teaching. I used to teach a seminar called “Issues in the Preservation and Management of Sites” that was mandatory for conservation students and open to archaeologists and students across campus. It was a nice integrated seminar on understanding how materials bring out the culture and how this can also be taken into consideration in terms of site management. With changes in the curriculum, I don’t teach this course anymore. We had another course on methods of field conservation that we designed particularly for archaeology students, but because it wasn’t mandatory for them, we ended up teaching it to our conservation students—and they thought, “Okay, yet again you’re giving us another course that’s a bit redundant given all the other courses we’ve done.” In addition, having both these themes in one course can’t work in the quarter system, because in ten weeks we can hardly do anything. If we want to make this instruction effective with both parties benefiting, it needs sufficient time and has to be mandatory for both.

CAPLE: I agree that if you make some of this optional, you end up with a self-selecting group. It’s important to convince the archaeologists that they need to understand something about the decay processes of their materials and the reasons that things survive, followed by aspects of conservation. We also have to be realistic about doing a certain amount of basic education for as many archaeologists as we can reach. From there, we have to have options for going into greater depth. Eventually you do require some specialist knowledge. It’s a step-by-step process, starting with a broad base that encompasses a wide range of students who are working in the heritage or archaeology fields. As we step up in terms of complexity, knowledge, and skill, there are going to be smaller and smaller numbers. The problem we face in the UK at the moment is funding. You have to have enough students to make things financially viable. We see declining numbers of archaeology undergraduates, and we’re having courses close and merge. When we talk with other departments of archaeology about conservation, they say, “It’s our survival that’s important. We can’t afford to put conservation into the existing curriculum for all our archaeology undergraduates. We recognize that there’s some interest from students, but we lack the resources to do it.” So I think we have to continue our efforts to encourage our archaeology colleagues. The professional archaeology organization, CIfA, is starting to accredit university courses, and as part of accreditation they have a strand that includes conservation. We’ll be involved in working with them to see how much we can ensure through the accreditation process that all archaeology students understand something of conservation. But there can be only so many universities and so many courses. We have to be thinking in terms of what can be presented to a large number of people. After all, unless the archaeologists are actually asking for it and believe it is important, we won’t get the involvement we want.

LEVIN: Part of this is a question of resources, but you’re also suggesting that it’s a question of attitude—attitude in the archaeology field that conservation needs to be part of archaeology instruction and incorporated into field practice.

CAPLE: It is, but that goes back to my earlier point. When people see loss and damage, that’s when they think, “We have to do something about this.” Which comes back to questions regarding archaeological ethics and responsibilities, and getting archaeological colleagues to take that on. That’s where a professional organization like CIfA is perhaps one way forward.

ROBY: You mentioned archaeological ethics. I know that’s something that professional organizations have been encouraging. Are you aware of development of courses in that subject in the UK?

CAPLE: It’s an element in most courses, and it’s certainly raised where professional accreditation is taking place. But it’s a question of competing in a busy marketplace, with things like human skeletal material, repatriation of artifacts, working with local communities, preventing violation of sites, and legal requirements. It’s a busy old schedule that archaeologists have to work with, and resources come back into this. Some UK museums are starting to refuse to take finds because they’re running out of space and their funding is being cut. There is less local enthusiasm for getting artifacts because museums are closing or not able to cope with them. If there is no pull for the artifacts at the other end, what good is it to just keep churning them out? It’s quite complex. You have to look at the whole system and how to create enthusiasm in the local population for visiting their museums and seeing their past come to light.

KAKOULLI: On the ethics side, while it might be integrated into archaeological practice, I don’t think it’s something that’s taught. We do have a class on ethics and principles of conservation that is open to archaeologists, but they’re not required to take it. From the archaeological side, the curriculum at UCLA in certain respects hasn’t changed for a long time, although archaeology students do go through a course that covers some of the ethics and schools of thought that guide the field. As I’ve said, there’d be a tremendous benefit from integrating into the archaeology curriculum an appreciation and understanding of conservation principles and ethics. There are some concepts that could overlap, but they’re taught slightly differently.

Photo: Courtesy of Ioanna Kakoulli.
There’d be a tremendous benefit from integrating into the archaeology curriculum an appreciation and understanding of conservation principles and ethics. There are some concepts that could overlap, but they’re taught slightly differently.
Ioanna Kakoulli

MARCONI: In 2010 the Institute was awarded a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support a four-year study that would seek to explore and shape the direction of research and teaching in the fields of art history, archaeology, and conservation. I was part of the panel charged with examining archaeology, and to this end we interviewed a large number of colleagues in the field, mainly working in the Tri-state area. I don’t remember much discussion about ethics in terms of formal teaching—it was all about ethics in the practice of archaeology. On the other hand, ethics is an important component of my classes at various levels, and I suppose it’s part of the teaching of our colleagues in the archaeology and anthropology departments. But as far as I know, there is no formal requirement for teaching archaeological ethics.

LEVIN: All of you have outlined some of the challenges with respect to a greater integration of education in archaeology and conservation. But I’d be interested in hearing each of you describe some practical steps that could be taken to promote that integration.

CAPLE: In the UK we often have small-scale excavations, and there is much less need of conservators on those excavations. We’re not getting whole vessels—we’re getting fragments and shards, and so there are fewer conservation problems on-site. When you have large American universities going to dig in the Mediterranean or in Turkey, you have long seasons, and often a conservator is embedded with the excavation. That provides a very positive experience for a number of our students who go off on such excavations. What I would like to see are events taking place on an excavation site that make archaeologists very aware of what the conservator can do.

I sometimes think we can be too theoretical. It’s very clear that whenever discoveries do happen—when you get to the bottom of a waterlogged ditch and you produce some leather shoe or something like that—that’s when the archaeologist gets excited, and that’s when the local people get excited. I’m not only a conservator but also an archaeologist, and on my own excavations of a medieval castle in Pembrokeshire a couple of years ago we actually did find a shoe that I conserved and brought back the following season. It was much more exciting to the local people than almost anything else. The ability to see this was almost magical to some people. Let’s not forget the power of artifacts to communicate. If I were going to say how we highlight the importance of conservation to archaeologists, let’s do it through the artifacts. Courses—yes, they’re important, but sometimes it’s just getting students and archaeological professionals to actually see some of these artifacts and what we can do for them. It’s making them think, “We can do more, we can do better.” Yes, we should be talking to professional organizations. Yes, we need to look at degree courses and try to influence those organizations and those courses that don’t have conservation in them. But above all, let’s recognize the magic of artifacts and use that as our way in. Because that’s the thing that fascinates people.

KAKOULLI: I think professional organizations can play a vital role and be great advocates. They can develop guidelines and, in some ways, enforce this collaboration. From the practical side of academia, unless you develop a mandatory course for both sides, it will never be successful. It’s not difficult for it to happen—it’s just a matter of both sides adding it to their curriculum. Another thing is mutual respect and understanding between the two fields. We need to find that common language that can help us communicate how we can really help each other out. As Chris said, the objects are our medium, and they could be the lingua franca that we speak. They can also be used as a means for community outreach—a way to speak the cultural heritage language. So that could really contribute both to the integration of the fields and to community awareness and respect for culture in general. Even from an academic perspective, I think it could help us push our agenda forward and be mutually beneficial.

MARCONI: I’m for legislation that emphasizes having conservators as members of archaeological missions. We need to be speaking to governments in charge of cultural heritage and making a strong case for an integration of archaeology and conservation. For example, we have an archaeological project in Sicily where there are requirements for obtaining and maintaining a permit. If you want to carry out an excavation, you need to have a professional archaeologist to excavate according to the most rigorous standards, you need to undertake proper documentation, and you need to publish within a certain amount of time. How about introducing the presence of conservators in the excavation among these requirements? Professional organizations can advocate for this with the institutions in charge of administration of the cultural heritage. So this is one aspect. The other is the magic of the artifact, as Chris mentioned. It is astonishing that there is no particular sensibility among archaeologists as to how much you can gain in terms of knowledge, not only by stratigraphic digging but also by involving a conservator in the excavation process. I will mention an example. We are working on the acropolis of Selinunte in Sicily, excavating one of the earliest monumental temples in the West, dating to the early sixth century BCE. The building was completely sealed in its archaic and classical levels, and under the original floor we have been finding dozens of objects along the inner walls of the cella, belonging to the foundation deposit. We found pottery, metalwork, and even a musical instrument made of bone. No archaeologist is allowed to retrieve these objects as they come out of the ground. This is the first thing you learn by collaborating with conservators—they really are the most appropriate people to handle objects during an excavation. There is so much information that you get through collaboration with conservators. For example, in our foundation deposit we found one of the largest documented collections of iron weapons from archaic and classical Sicily. And this is not because of the particular nature of the deposit but really because of the presence and active role of conservators in stabilizing the objects in the ground, retrieving them, and treating them in situ and in the lab. I may add that our most important finds are now on display in the local museum, which opened in September, based in large part on our discoveries. Precisely because of the presence of conservators in our team, the objects we found in July were on display in September. I would like to speak not only of the magic of artifacts for the general public, but also of the magic of conservation for archaeologists.

Photo: Courtesy of Clemente Marconi.
I'm for legislation that emphasizes having conservators as members of archaeological missions. We need to be speaking to governments in charge of cultural heritage and making a strong case for an integration of archaeology and conservation.
Clemente Marconi.

LEVIN: Looking back with respect to these issues, how have things changed over the last twenty years—for good and for bad? For example, in terms of the conservation of archaeological and ethnographic objects, the whole UCLA program didn’t exist twenty years ago. Are there other things that each of you would note?

CAPLE: In Britain, we’ve had courses in archaeological conservation since the 1970s, so in those terms the situation isn’t very different. What we’ve seen recently is a more commercial side to archaeology and more financial constraints. And we probably had a little more optimism twenty years ago. We’ve become more realistic about what the development industry will support, and we’ve had courses close or move. We’re educating roughly the same number of students in archaeology and in conservation—that’s been fairly static. We’ve seen more management and more excavation taking place in the UK, with finds being stored until the excavation has been completed. At that point, there’s an assessment of those finds, and we decide how much will be conserved. Not everything is. Only those from the best context and the most meaningful. There’s a real awareness of the value of money, and decisions are made after the excavation is finished and before conservators get involved. Conservation is seen as expensive, and so we’re getting strategies to minimize the cost and maximize the input, selecting artifacts on the basis of X-rays—sometimes even before they’ve been fully cleaned—and on the basis of what will be needed for the museum. We don’t have enough money to conserve them all. There are the high priorities and medium priorities, and the low priorities might get attention only if you’ve got a little time on a Friday afternoon. Almost all the conservation work that goes on in museums now is for exhibition and for loans. We do not see work going on in stored collections. And so we’ve been making much more strategic use of conservators. We now have to think about ways we can deliver more information to the archaeologists without raising costs. For the most high-profile objects, yes, of course, there’s a public interest and demand, and they are beautifully cleaned. But those middle-range artifacts that used to be better cleaned, better researched, and better investigated have dropped in the pecking order a bit. Money is just a little too dominant in our world at present, and it’s impacting conservation to its detriment.

MARCONI: In the last twenty years, there definitely has been progress in terms of awareness of the importance of conservation for art history. Now we have a branch of art history, technical art history, which represents an important intellectual development, making us more sensitive about materiality than before. This is naturally an important development. On the other hand, when you move from objects to site management, the picture is uneven. It all depends on money. Money is dominant, governments are dominant. I can speak of Italy, where government philosophy has shifted to focus on sites that are major tourist attractions. I don’t need to tell you how problematic this is for a country like Italy, where cultural heritage is spread all over the peninsula in both cities and countryside. It’s all very good for those major sites such as Pompeii and Agrigento, where there’s been a significant increase in government funding. However, lesser sites are suffering, and museums at these sites suffer, together with the conservation of their objects. In Selinunte we had the opportunity to contribute to the opening of a local museum, with funding provided by the European Union, mainly because we are talking about a major archaeological site. So some places are doing much better than others, and money is definitely dominant in the current landscape.

KAKOULLI: I’ll take a different perspective on the last twenty years. It was during this time that we started seeing conservation changing as a discipline and becoming more of an academic field. Previously it was more of a craft, if you will. We can see that even from the two primary schools teaching conservation in Italy—the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence and the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro in Rome, renamed Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro. These are schools that taught a diploma in conservation, which was changed to a university degree equivalent to a master’s degree. At the same time, we’ve seen the development of many other courses worldwide, both in conservation and in conservation science at the master’s level. These are seen primarily as professional courses rather than research degree courses, or they are perceived as such. Nevertheless, you’re getting out of school with a master’s and a professional degree, and I think that brings new appreciation of the profession and enriches it in various ways. The other thing that I see is a greater appreciation of the materiality of the object and a recognition of conservators’ understanding of the material. I work a lot with the FBI and Homeland Security for the repatriation of artifacts, and they seek help from us because of our understanding of the materials. Sometimes just the stylistic analysis from an archaeologist alone is not enough to close a case or to understand where these objects came from. You need to go one step further, and this is where conservators and conservation scientists have more credibility. There is more and more taught in courses about these issues of international cultural heritage and its preservation, and I hope that this can help advance the integration of archaeology with conservation, perhaps in a more organic way.