AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Objects Luncheon: “So Far Away From Me? Conservation and Archaeology” by Suzanne Davis and Claudia Chemello

In the second talk during the OSG luncheon, Suzanne Davis and Claudia Chemello explored the question “are archaeologists and conservators so far away from each other?”, inspired by the sentiment of the Dire Straits song “So Far Away”. Their talk was illustrated with historic photographs of archaeologists working in Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey in the 1920s, from the collection at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan.

As a follow-up to last year’s annual meeting presentation, which summarized the responses of a survey of archaeological conservators, this year Suzanne and Claudia presented the results of a 2011 survey of archaeological dig directors working primarily in the US. The purpose of the survey was to examine how archaeologists are engaging with conservators,  to gain an understanding of conservation needs from an archaeologist’s perspective, and to identify areas for outreach and education.

They made the survey using the online survey tool Qualtrics and after wide distribution, received a whopping 346 responses.

They plan to publish the complete results of the survey, but in their presentation, they summarized a lot of the data, such as:

  • Half of the respondents are employed in an academic environment and half are employed in non-academic organizations.
  • 41% have employed conservators in their projects. The 59% who have not said that it was due to lack of funding.
  • Most respondents spent between 1-30% of their budget on conservation, and the most frequent amount spent was $10,000/season.
  • 55% said that conservation is expensive or prohibitively expensive.
  • Of those who have employed conservators, 38% have not received conservation reports, which corresponds with the 25% of archaeological conservators surveyed who do not write conservation reports for the sites they work on.
  • 74% have never heard of AIC.
  • 13% have used AIC resources.

Suzanne Davis broke up their presentation of this data by leading the audience in singing a few verses of Dire Straits- So Far Away.

In general, the archaeologists’ responses showed that there is a confusion between the terms “curator” and “conservator”, and they expressed that they feel that many conservators don’t have sufficient field training, nor do they understand archaeological research goals but that they feel that conservation is a necessary expense for archaeological projects.

Based on this survey, what do Suzanne and Claudia recommend? In essence, they said, to paraphrase Mark Knopfler, lead singer of Dire Straits, “we need to stop making love over the phone.” They said that while conservators and archaeologists are not so far away from each other, conservators need to work on increased and sustained outreach to archaeologists and to develop more resources for the AIC website or on the AIC WIKI specific to archaeology, particularly regarding funding sources and site preservation. They also indicated a need to improve education to further integrate archaeological and conservation research.

We think that the results of this survey are so interesting and help to provide hard data on topics that are often speculated on by archaeological conservators. We hope that Suzanne and Claudia are able to publish the entire results of the survey and we look forward to hearing more about efforts to improve the relationship between conservation and archaeology, and to contributing to this effort as much as possible.

-Vanessa Muros and Molly Gleeson