Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Florida State Archaeological Collections and Conservation Lab

The Archaeological Collections and Conservation Laboratory is a part of the Bureau of Archaeological Research within the Division of Historical Resources. I had the opportunity to visit both the conservation lab and the collections on Friday, January 6, 2012. It was a great visit and both tours were both personal and fascinating. It was interesting to see the curation of such a large quantity of artifacts. I thought it was well done, and as I've come to learn, it is quite unique. Only a handful of states actually run their own collections facility rather than depending on a museum or university to house the archaeological collections.

Conservation Lab


The conservation lab is located in the R.A. Gray Building which also houses the Museum of Florida History. The building was constructed in the 1970s and the conservation lab was specifically designed and constructed at that time. It is an impressive facility with a dry lab and a wet lap complete with several tanks for treatment of large artifacts along with a lift crane.

Chandelier from the Martin House at the Dry Lab

Anchor undergoing treatment in the Wet Lab
 J. Claire Tindal, Conservator, led me through both labs and described some of the projects that are currently undergoing treatment. This included a large bronze eagle that had the misfortune of being target practice, a lamp from a shipwreck, numerous parrott shells, two anchors undergoing retreatment, a Native American wooden bowl and a dugout canoe enjoying a nice long polyethylene glycol (PEG) bath.
Conservator J. Claire Tindal with a bronze eagle undergoing mechanical cleaning

Brass lantern, similar to the one found on the USS Monitor

Parrott Shells desalinating

Wooden bowl soaking in PEG with a thin layer of biofilm
(common occurrence during PEG treatment of wood).

Dugout canoe soaking in PEG.
Water color likely a result of natural tannins leaching out of the wood.  

As you may have guessed, I am interested in the conservation of dugout canoes (Cambridgeshire Canoes and Logboat Conservation) stemming from my interest in prehistoric organics conservation. In addition to the canoe soaking in PEG another canoe was being treated by controlled air drying. The method for the controlled air drying including wrapping the canoe in a large polyethylene sheet and essentially let the moisture out just a bit at a time. Some of this moisture would evaporate and some would form condensation on the sheet, which would be cleaned periodically. It seemed like the canoe was in great shape. And the treatment seems to be one of the safest and easiest for freshwater canoes that retain some integrity at the cellular level (if cellular walls are degraded, bulking would be required).

Controlled air drying for a canoe
Collections and Research Lab

Marie Prentice, Senior Archaeologist, and Dr. David Dickel, Lab Supervisor (oversees collections and the conservation laboratory), showed me the collections which were located in the Department of State building on Monroe Street. It was really great to talk to them about the many details of the collections and they did not seem to mind all of my questions. I had quite a few as I am interested in a position with a state archaeological repository as a future career option. In addition to the cool stuff, like the immense variety of artifacts, they were also quite frank about some of the difficulties associated with a large state collection including the fact that not everything that is excavated can go into the collections, and the necessary limitation of artifacts excavated from state lands and a portion of artifacts recovered from state waters.

Marie Prentice
David Dickel

Another difficulty is the perception researchers and exhibit planners have about the collections. Researchers sometimes expect interpretations and some analysis along with the artifact. But this is a repository, and as Dave said, it is similar to a library. The archaeologists working in these collections protect, preserve and catalog these artifacts-and they know exactly where to find them. Analysis and interpretation falls squarely on the shoulders of those with a specific research design. The same goes for exhibit planners, many of them may not know what they want the exhibit to look like prior to coming to the collections. And while the archaeologists have some samples of the variety of the collection in display and it remains difficult to impress upon visitors the inherent differences between archaeological objects and historical objects.

But back to the cool stuff, there were rows and rows of boxes labeled by accession number and filled with polyethylene baggies. The numbering system for accessions was slightly different than those used for historical objects. Artifacts are sorted by material then type, a much simpler and more applicable system than the categories and sub-categories of museum nomenclature.


Archaeology Accession:
Year (xx)-Accession Group#-Field Specimen #-Object # (Lot #) 
Historical Accession:
Year (xxxx)-Accession Group#-Object #-Parts (a, b, c, d etc.)





In addition to the two canoes at the conservation lab, there were numerous canoes within the collections. Many of the most complete canoes are on long-term loan and the ones that remain in the collections are often partial remnants or deteriorated. One of the canoes had been recovered privately and left exposed in the open. The canoe began to deteriorate and it was decided to put it back in the water-which led to even greater deterioration as the wood cells rapidly expanded after shrinking.

Canoes at the Florida State Archaeological Collections

Boards holding together canoe with severely deteriorated and fragmented wood.

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Archaeology, Conservation and Curation by Whitney Rose Petrey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License