AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting- Joint Objects and Archaeological Discussion Group Session, June 2, “Beyond the Field Lab: Emergency Conservation in the Granicus River Valley of Northwestern Turkey,” by Donna Strahan

The afternoon OSG/ADG session began with a fascinating talk by Donna Strahan, Conservator in the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that very successfully demonstrated the importance of cooperation and flexibility in the preservation of cultural property. Donna began by introducing the site of Troy, where she has spent many seasons as a field conservator.  Troy is excavated by a number of international institutions, but a single conservation lab treats the finds unearthed from all of the excavations. The large site provides ample opportunities for education, functioning as both an archaeological field school and a place for conservation training for an international group of students.  Each season there are between one and six conservators and up to four languages spoken in the lab.  Although language barriers can pose some difficulty, the varied training and experience of the conservators facilitates the exchange of ideas and re-evaluation of conservation practice.

In addition to treating finds from the site—an impressive 500-700 per year—the Troy lab is also called upon to do emergency treatment at neighboring sites in the Granicus River Valley.  Donna emphasized that emergency conservation is about triage and compromise.  The needs of the objects must be prioritized, but the decision of what gets treated outside of Troy is often tied to local politics. The help of the Troy team is often sought in response to or in anticipation of looting, an example of which is the Dedetepe Tumulus, dating to the 5th c. BCE.   In the course of their work, the Troy conservators discovered, among other things, the fingerprints of ancient robbers on the marble sarcophagus, painted marble beds, and a shattered alabaster vessel with resides of Tyrian purple; the latter may provide direct evidence of a funeral ceremony that involved dipping ribbons into purple dye and tying them around a vessel.  Donna then went on to describe several other Granicus River Valley projects:

  • The Polyxena Sarcophagus, with associated remains of a funeral cart
  • The Parion necropolis, where they found a physician’s burial that included a medicine box with arsenic and lead-containing pills (“a Roman Dr. Kevorkian,” Donna suggested)
  • The beautifully painted Çan Sarcophagus with interesting examples of damnatio memoriae, which looters broke into with a backhoe(!).
  • The sites and artifacts receiving emergency care from the Troy team are not always associated with ancient cultures—at the site of the WWI Battle of Gallipoli, a leather shoe was found with the remains of a foot still inside.  Although Donna suggested reburial, the Gallipoli Museum wanted the “object” on view as a reminder of the horrors of war.  Although Donna, and probably many of us in the audience, would consider reburial to be a more ethical decision, she reminded us how important it is to be sensitive to the customs and desires of the country you’re working in.

These case studies were wonderful illustrations of both the difficulties and benefits of emergency conservation.  Emergency excavations, Donna said, are rarely scientifically excavated, there is rarely time to plan, and you’re often working with unfamiliar people and objects.  However, without this important work, the wealth of information contained in these sites and artifacts might be lost entirely.  The finds from Granicus River Valley projects are regularly published in the Studia Troica, giving these objects (which generally languish in storage or worse) a place in the archaeological record.  At the end of her talk, Donna showed a recent picture of Dedeteppe Tumulus, completely destroyed by looters—a powerful reminder of just how essential emergency conservation can be.

In the question period, Tony Sigel, Conservator of Objects and Sculpture at the Harvard Art Museums, said that his rule of thumb is to generally make any modern damage to an object as invisible as possible.  He asked Donna if she considered inpainting the damage done by the looters with the backhoe.  Donna replied that she would not choose to inpaint for two reasons: she did not want observers to think that the conservators were “repainting” the sarcophagus, and she thought it was important to demonstrate just how much damage looting does.