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I'm an archaeological conservator and I love it!

Share Your Story: My Job in Archaeology

By susannegrieve

I'm an archaeological conservator and I love it!

Analyzing Biological Samples

I'm an archaeological conservator and I love it!

Decompressing After a Deep Dive

What is your job in archaeology?

There are many things I never anticipated doing in my career as an archaeological conservator, but preserving artifacts from an early Civil War submarine and traveling across the Antarctic tundra have been amazing and unexpected experiences all in the name of preservation.

What education or experience did you need to get it?

I started my career in archaeology at the University of West Florida where I studied underwater archaeology. I really enjoyed learning about preserving the artifacts that we had excavated during the field schools, so I obtained a masters degree in conservation at the University College London.

Why do you think your job is important?

An artifact can be a reflection of a culture, individual, or time period. An archaeological conservator is responsible for revealing and preserving details that will help archaeologists in interpreting the past. This will ensure that the information survives for future generations.

How did you become interested in this job?

As a child, I was raised in a historic house, so I had an early appreciation for history. I knew I didn't want to just read about history, I wanted to see and touch the objects that were produced by past cultures. This in combination with my love of the water led to my studies in underwater archaeology. Part of interpreting objects from this environment is learning how to preserve them. I wanted to be able to provide researchers with important historical information. While conservation does have its challenges, I wake up every morning excited to go to work, knowing that I am contributing something to humanity.

What is a typical day like for you?

As an archaeological conservator, most of the artifacts that I get to work with come from a burial environment. This can be on a shipwreck, buried in the ground, or even in a tomb. I specialize in treating waterlogged material which mostly consists of artifacts that have been submerged on a shipwreck site. Many of these objects are fragile from soaking in water for hundreds of years and require highly specialized techniques to make sure they are stable for future generations. Each day I perform different tasks which can range from checking the water levels in solutions to spending 8 hours hand cleaning a fragile piece of leather. Every site that I work on is different and has unique challenges associated with it:

The CSS Hunley project in Charleston, South Carolina, is one of America’s greatest historical treasures and it’s available for everyone to see! The Hunley sank in 1864 under mysterious circumstances. After she was found and raised, we could begin to piece together the story of the sinking. My job at the Hunley was to conserve the fragile leather shoes that the men were wearing. Working with leather that has been waterlogged is very similar to working with wet paper and it can tear easily. It was very exciting to be able to preserve such a personal belonging and to provide information about the sailors!

After studying in London, I returned to the US to work on another exciting project, also on display for the public. The USS Monitor, an early ironclad, sank in 1862. The Monitor was found in the late 1970's and beginning in 1998 large components were brought to The Mariners’ Museum where a team of conservators, including myself, worked on preserving artifacts from this great historical American treasure.

My next unexpected adventure took place in the unlikeliest of places, Antarctica. Some of the earliest expeditions to Antarctica took place in the early 1900’s and included famous explorers such as Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton. These early expeditions left behind entire base camps that were constructed to help the men survive the extreme conditions. These bases are still standing and are frozen time capsules of the explorer’s lives. It’s as if they just left. I was part of a team of four conservators who were tasked with preserving a portion of the artifacts from Cape Evans and Cape Royds.

It didn’t take me long to realize that conservation is a lot of patience, hard work, and dedication!

Lessons Learned

  • Being a conservator doesn’t just mean wearing a white lab coat and protecting artifacts, it means preserving cultural heritage that hundreds of generations can enjoy and appreciate in the future. If you’re lucky, it can also change your life! Archaeological conservation requires training in a variety of materials and subjects including chemistry, archaeology, art, and photography. Documenting each artifact, photographing it, and stabilizing it are all part of the treatment process. Assisting archaeologists in interpreting the information gathered during treatment is also an important aspect of the job.

K. Kris Hirst, About.com Archaeology, says:

Susanne Grieve is an archaeological conservator for the Maritime Studies Conservation Laboratory in the Maritime Studies program at Eastern Carolina University.
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