Conservation for Seleucia Show, Part 2

BY BRITTANY DOLPH, Graduate Conservation Intern, UCLA/Getty Conservation Program

Last month, I discussed the documentation aspects of conservation, especially as it pertained to our preparation of objects for the exhibition Life in Miniature: Identity and Display at Ancient Seleucia on the Tigris. Often, when time allows, conservation research can contribute technical information about objects, revealing how the artifact was made and even how it was used during its “life.” Furthermore, technical data aid us in making treatment decisions later on. Though we didn’t have the chance to do additional chemical analysis for this particular exhibition, we used different types of imaging techniques to get as much information as possible. And using different kinds of light in different ways for gathering information is ideal because it allows us to avoid taking samples. For example, a visual assessment can reveal seams, showing us that the miniature ceramic figurine below was made in two separate clay pieces before being joined together and fired.

This ceramic figurine, photographed from the rear, shows a seam running along the contour of the left side from bottom to top. Fingerprints are visible along the seam as well, where the maker attempted to bridge the sides by pushing the clay over.

A look through a simple binocular microscope can show tool marks that provide clues to how an object was made. For example, a stone figurine could have been roughly cut to size using a chisel or claw, then carved with final tools, and perhaps filed to create a smoother surface. In other cases, microscopy can reveal the remnants of pigment applied to a surface. In addition, condition problems such as micro-cracks, spots of metal corrosion, and many other issues are identified.

Conservators also often flash ultraviolet irradiation (sometimes incorrectly referred to as light) onto the surface of objects. Different materials react differently to the UV, so that we can often tell where additional materials have been applied by the color, strength, and opacity of their fluorescence or lack thereof. It can be especially helpful for finding previously applied conservation or repair materials.

Visual assessment . . . microscopy . . . UV . . . what do we do with all of this information? It helps to us to make decisions — which, it turns out, is a big part of the job! The first step is to decide whether or not even to treat an object. If we decide that treatment is necessary, we then have to decide how to go about it and what materials to use.

Next month, we’ll take a look at examples of treatments — and situations where we might decide not to treat at all.