Conservation’s key contributions to archaeological projects in Central America

Harriet F. Beaubien


Conservators are becoming part of a growing number of archaeological projects in Central America but the integration process is a slow one. Some of the reasons for the slow pace are shared by projects elsewhere. Many of the archaeologists have limited exposure, beginning from the time of their own field training, to conservation principles and practices as part of the archaeological process. For example, the repertory of techniques for recovery may be narrow, and finds processing choices about cleaning, reassembly and storage may not be evaluated by conservation standards or for their effect on the research value of the artifacts. In the American subtropics, experience in the field has tended to reinforce an assumption that materials which survive in the archaeological record (e.g., lithics, ceramics, bone) are robust and thus without conservation issues. As a result. preparation is likely to be inadequate when artifacts which are fragile, from extraordinary contexts or outside the normal range of materials are found. It does not help that trained conservation personnel are scarce and, excepting the Churubusco Restoration Center in Mexico, regional conservation training is limited. Topical workshops funded by the Organization of American States have tended to focus on museum-based conservation techniques, and none has equipped participants for field situations.

External sources appear to exert little pressure on archaeological projects to address conservation concerns. Most funders (the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies being a notable exception) do not supply guidance or support for conservation, nor do grantors of excavation permits require that projects address conservation needs of materials they excavate, such as by including a conservator on the team. Site repositories and local museums similarly do not stipulate curation standards, such as condition or housing, of collection materials which are turned over for storage. However, those sites which have received World Heritage designations by UNESCO are more likely to have some awareness of conservation, as they are required to submit a management plan which addresses site preservation issues in conjunction with tourism development. At Copán (Honduras), for example, the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia established a stabilization and maintenance program for the exposed architectural remains and a small restoration laboratory to prepare materials for display in local museums. Despite this, university projects carrying out new archaeological investigations had not included conservators on their field teams.

How this is changing at selected sites in Central America is useful to examine, both for the pathways by which conservators are becoming involved and for the contributions they are making to the archaeological endeavors.

Unanticipated preservation problems and complex recovery issues of several significant artifacts opened doors first at Cerén (El Salvador) in 1989, and then with two separate projects working at Copán, in 1990 and 1992 respectively. The prospect of encountering preservation challenges similar to these earlier sites’ experiences prompted several projects in Guatemala to seek conservators, the Aguateca project successfully doing so in 1998. Contacts largely occurred through networks of graduate students and professors from university departments with a significant Mesoamerican focus, by word-of-mouth, through published reports and site visits. Conservation staffing for these projects was arranged through an advanced internship program in archaeological conservation offered by the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education (formerly Conservation Analytical Laboratory).

The successful recovery of special finds at Cerén, Copán and Aguateca has been sufficient to convince them of the benefit of conservation participation, but integration has been most effective when a direct contribution to archaeological research has also been demonstrated. For example, the identification and analysis of a class of artifacts (painted gourds) and the interpretation of the remains of royal burial furnishings would not have been possible without conservation involvement at the earliest stages of examination and recovery and during subsequent investigation.

Another pathway for conservation involvement has been through archaeological field schools. Conservators have taught sessions on conservation issues and techniques and supervised student projects in Harvard University’s field school at Copán, beginning with the first one in 1995. Familiarity with conservation efforts at Cerén (a University of Colorado project) prompted the university’s field school at Bluff Great House, Utah, to expand its curriculum in 1998, a project which until then had not included a conservator. In those Central American projects not offering field schools per se, individual training events addressing various conservation concerns have been routine offerings since conservation involvement began. These various activities have promoted greater integration of conservation and archaeological practice in the current excavations and potentially that of future projects of the participant students.

Project by project, the benefits of conservation participation have extended beyond the initial rescue effort to include improved recovery and curation of all newly excavated materials. Participation has provided opportunities to expand the scope to site as well as site museum conservation concerns, and to enhance the training of U.S.-funded team members as well as nationals, particularly where no comparable training is available. Significantly, it has given conservators opportunities to undertake technical studies which make a contribution to the archaeological research endeavor. The archaeological projects have responded by recognizing these contributions in publication, and by instituting conservation space, personnel and procedures as part of their field operations.

1999 | St. Louis | Volume 6