A tale of two privies: Contracting out for archaeological conservation

Lisa Young


Over the last year, the staff of Alexandria Conservation Services performed conservation treatments on a wide variety of waterlogged materials excavated from two different privy features. The first project involved the conservation of materials from an early 18th century feature discovered during an excavation on Independence Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The second privy was discovered in Alexandria, Virginia and dates to the mid-19th century. It was specifically filled with Civil War related artifacts. The two privy features were similar in that they contained a large quantity of mixed archaeological materials, including ceramics, glass, wood, leather, bone, metals, composites and synthetic polymers- in the case of the later privy. In both cases, a Conservator was involved minimally in the field, and was consulted once the artifacts were brought into the laboratory for processing and further identification and analysis. Thus, funding for conservation was not included in the initial scope of work and was not fully secured until after the artifacts were excavated. The conservation of the materials was performed within a year of both excavations, and the process was dictated by the need to stabilize the waterlogged materials for long-term storage and exhibition. For both projects, and at the request of the archaeologist, a conservation proposal was prepared and submitted for costing out staff time and labor, as well as the needed equipment, materials and supplies to complete the conservation work. Items such as who would pay for the conservation, how much conservation would take place, where it would take place and who would perform different conservation tasks throughout the project were decided upon by both the archaeologist and the conservator. These two projects, while similar in many respects, can be used to demonstrate the diversity, which exists between archaeological projects and how this influences contract services for archaeological conservation.

During a testing and monitoring phase of an archaeological site on Independence Park in Philadelphia, archaeologists from the National Park Service and John Milner Associates, uncovered three well and privy features dating to the mid 1700s. The archaeologists decided to fully excavate these features, as they would be impacted and destroyed when development of the site took place at a later date. The archaeologists consulted with a Conservator during the excavation phase of the project, and artifacts were recovered, sorted and stabilized for transfer to the laboratory. The more sensitive and rare artifacts were routed directly to a professional conservator for treatment. Other artifacts such as wood, leather, bone, and metals were packaged in containers with water and were identified for future conservation. Artifacts considered to be relatively stable, such as the ceramics, glass, and faunal remains, were processed by the archaeological laboratory of John Milner Associates following normal laboratory procedures. After the artifacts were processed and bagged they were transported to the National Park Service, Applied Archeology Center for further examination and analysis. The Park Archaeologist recognized the need for further conservation on many of the materials, and approached the Park Director for funding to perform conservation to certain artifact groups. Initially, a small contract was awarded to specifically conserve and reconstruct approximately 50 ceramic vessels. Afterwards, these vessels were returned to the Park in order to create a small exhibition in the Park Visitor Center. When the Park received positive feedback on the project from other Park Staff as well as the public, additional funding was allocated to treat more objects. A year and a half later, conservation is still on going, and over 1500 objects have been treated. Each batch of materials are examined prior to conservation by the archaeologists and the Conservator, and an estimate for time, labor and supplies are prepared and submitted for approval. While the Park Archaeologist was fortunate to receive a majority of the money requested, there was always the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not the funding would be approved and we could move to the next stage of the project. Conservation tasks were carefully planned and implemented to fit into each contract as it was awarded, and volunteers and interns were used throughout the project to assist with the on-going conservation treatments.

In 1997, archaeologists from Dames and Moore and the City of Alexandria excavated a privy feature, which dated to the Civil War period. The privy originally had eight seats and was constructed of pine and oak wood planks. The privy was located on a site that also contained a bakery, an early wharf area, saddle shop and an 1890s townhouse. The excavation lasted for one month and was primarily a salvage operation as development of the property dictated how long the archaeologists could be on site. Approximately two weeks after the project started, and upon discovery of a large quantity of waterlogged material, the Project Director called in a Conservator to develop guidelines for the recovery and stabilization of waterlogged materials in the field The guidelines were quickly implemented so the artifacts could be safely stabilized and transported to the nearby Museum. Laboratory guidelines were also prepared for the Alexandria Archaeology Museum so that the artifacts could be kept stable while they were further sorted, identified, processed and catalogued. At this point, no funding was allocated for conservation work, and a treatment proposal was prepared and submitted to the City of Alexandria for the conservation of 300 artifacts which were considered to be a high priority. The proposal was approved and a Conservator, one assistant and a number of volunteers worked for four months to conserve the objects. A laboratory space was created for use during the project, and the conservation efforts were used to educate other Museum staff, archaeology students and interns, and visitors to the Museum throughout the summer. Artifacts requiring special analysis or equipment that was not readily available at the Museum were contracted out to other conservation professionals. Most of the artifacts identified for conservation were treated during this time period, however the wooden and polymer artifacts are still undergoing treatment. The conservation team worked closely with the laboratory director, in order to stabilize artifacts which were not chosen for conservation treatment. Procedures were developed for the desalinating, slow drying and remedial conservation of these artifacts. Grant funding is being sought to conserve the remaining artifacts as well as the privy boards, which are being kept stable by the laboratory staff and volunteers.

When contracting out for the conservation of archaeological materials, the Conservator is often presented with challenges which are unique to archaeological projects. During many archaeological projects, particularly in the United States, the conservator is often brought into the project after the excavation of an archaeological site has already begun. In some instances, this means that the Conservator may have to undo what has already been done in the field or is asked to work on objects which are actively deteriorating after excavation. After the artifacts are recovered, a treatment proposal is requested for the conservation of a large number of materials, many of which are composed of different materials, and may be in differing states of preservation. As with most conservation projects, the lack of adequate funding and resources becomes a factor, and the project design must be adjusted accordingly. Adequate laboratory space may not be available to treat the objects, and may need to be set up temporarily for use during the project. Many archaeological institutions, Universities and laboratories use volunteers, students and interns to complete a majority of the work. During both of these projects, the use of volunteers and interns to complete conservation tasks was a positive experience, however the uncertainty of the level of training that the volunteers and students have presents a challenge to a Conservator who must take this into consideration when preparing a budget at the beginning of a project. Due to the large amounts of objects recovered from an archaeological feature such as a privy, many times only a small number of artifacts are ready for conservation at one time making it difficult to plan batch treatments of material groups. This level of organization is necessary when treating large amounts of artifacts from different archaeological proveniences, thus saving time and resources in the end. Both projects represent how different conservation projects of archaeological materials can be, even when the artifacts are recovered from similar types of sites. In both instances, the archaeologists were not familiar with dealing with large amounts of waterlogged materials, either in the field or afterwards. By working closely with a conservator during projects such as these, archaeologists who encounter waterlogged finds in the future will be more aware of what is involved with the conservation process, and will be able to make more knowledgeable decisions about future projects. Issues such as consulting an archaeological conservator during the planning and field stages of an archaeological project, especially one involving waterlogged materials, needs to be addressed, as this impacts the cost of conservation at a later date. Equipment, supplies and staff needed to complete projects involving large quantities of diverse waterlogged materials must be outlined in the beginning stages so that adequate funding is available for conservation. In addition, many archaeological conservation projects are designed to treat a large number of artifacts while utilizing low-cost, efficient conservation treatment methods. Decisions such as using volunteers to assist during the project to save money affects the overall cost of the project, and the decision should be made jointly between the project archaeologist and the conservator before the conservation work begins.

1999 | St. Louis | Volume 6