A career in underwater archaeology often times seems glamorous and exotic, and what I’ve experienced here at Biscayne National Park during my internship has done nothing to disprove that notion. But when we’re not searching for pirate-slave ships or diving on the remains of a possible new find, we are in the conservation laboratory, working to conserve and analyze the artifacts we have recovered from a site.
This summer, we uncovered a number of interesting artifacts. A few were brought back to the lab including several cannon balls, copper and iron nails, and a piece of ceramic. Normally, the artifacts and objects we recover from the seabed are concreted, that is, after years of being submerged in the ocean environment, they have developed a calcite coating which can be difficult to remove. But before anything can be conserved, we need to properly record each of the artifacts and assign them field specimen (FS) numbers to be integrated into a larger project database. Each artifact is weighed, measured, and photographed. By adhering to strict organizational methods in our artifact cataloging, we are ensuring that no artifact is lost or misplaced, and may be easily located for future use.
Most of the heavily concreted artifacts need to be put through rigid and thorough conservation treatment procedures. The first and foremost step in conserving artifacts is to ensure proper storage. As the objects were recovered from an aqueous environment, the artifacts need to remain in water while they are awaiting treatment. The second step is determining the material(s) of the objects, as each material requires different and specialized treatment methods.
Sometimes in the case of ferrous (iron) materials, the artifact may have deteriorated almost entirely, leaving only an impression of its original form in the concretion. When this occurs, the conservator is able to take a mold of the artifact, and can often times make a replication almost identical to the original. By doing this, it enables the archaeologist to interpret the significance of the object more accurately, while important details from the artifacts, like insignia and other diagnostic markings, become visible and can be recorded. With treatments ranging from electrolysis to citric acid baths, the conservator must know which treatments are required for each artifact, some of which may be extremely harmful to the integrity of the object if performed incorrectly. The conservation treatments ensure the survival of these cultural resources, which are an integral part of the preservation of our nation’s past and protects these cultural stories for future generations to enjoy and learn from.