From Archaeology and Heritage to Conservation26 November 2023
Do you work in the field of Archaeology or Heritage? Have you been considering taking a leap into the world of Conservation? Maybe you are a Field Archaeologist and are considering being a Field Conservator? Or do you want to get hands on with history after researching and writing for Heritage Assessments as a Heritage Consultant? If so, then we have something in common. I have previously worked as a Field Archaeologist and a Heritage Consultant, respectively and have now decided to step into the world of Conservation. One of the things I wondered when making the decision to move into Conservation, was if any of my existing skills would be of use to me. Now that I am well on my way into becoming a Conservator, I wanted to share what I have noticed so far with just how many of the skills and experiences I have gained from being a Field Archaeologist and Heritage Consultant cross over with being a Conservator. By doing this, it may just encourage some of you to take that step into Conservation that you haven’t been sure you can.
To start with, here is a bit of background about me. Since deciding to study Archaeology for my undergraduate degree, I have been slowly making my way through the many different jobs within the sector. Like so many, I got my first direct experience of archaeology with a summer dig as part of my undergraduate degree at the end of my first year. This was swiftly followed by a 15-month placement with Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust. I consider this to have been one of the best things I did, because it gave me an opportunity to experience some of the various jobs that are available within the Archaeology and Heritage sector. While on placement I worked as a Field Archaeologist on commercial digging at various sites in South Wales, I did post-excavation work and worked on the Historic Environment Record (HER). After graduating I got to work on a few more commercial sites before becoming a Heritage Consultant specialising in historic buildings. After moving my way through the Archaeology and Heritage sector for the past 10 years, I have decided to take the step into Conservation.
Although I am new to the world of Conservation, I have already begun to see the similarities and differences between working as a Conservator and the jobs I have previously held in the Archaeology and Heritage sector. Here are some of the skills that I have found to be very transferable:
Attention to detail
While doing field work you are required to have an eye for detail, whether it be the subtle changes in soil texture or colour. Also, it makes it easier to spot small finds that could easily be missed while shovelling at a high speed. The need for attention to detail is also a key requirement for Conservation, although in a different way. Rather than looking for variations in the soil, you are looking for slight changes in materials, for example, as well as picking out certain forms of decoration or techniques that may have been used on the object. The more information you can gain from the details of an object or its origins, the more informed your decisions will be when deciding what to do with it.
When working as a Heritage Consultant, I often found my patience being tested, either because information hadn’t been provided by third parties or chasing supervisors for the review report draft that was promised 2 days ago. This need for patience was also a great skill on site, where you could be waiting for your turn with the limited equipment or the rain to finally stop so you could finish excavating that pit (especially while working in South Wales). Patience is a vital skill as a Conservator as well but for different reasons. It could be you need to wait for adhesives to cure, which could take anything from seconds to weeks to do. Or you could need to be patient with yourself as the task you are completing may require repetitive small actions, for example reattaching hundreds of small flakes back onto an object. Whilst there may be times where you carry out conservation actions quickly, such as Field Conservator, there are also times where you need to take your time with your objects, which will also be a test of your patience.
An ability to research is key for all jobs in the Archaeology and Heritage sector. Whether it be researching a site before excavating, an item while carrying out post-excavation reports or an area as part of an assessment. It is also a requirement as a Conservator, as you need to be able to research the item you are working on, the ways in which you could treat or repair the item. Whilst a requirement for all jobs, the manor and nature of the research will vary, but the skills are still transferable. The sources of information will also varying from job to job but can also interlink. For example, the HER and archives would be key source for and Heritage Assessments, which would inform the excavation and the excavation report would then inform conservation of an object. This once again shows the manner in which all the jobs can interlink through the sector.
Report Writing and Photography
For a Heritage Consultant, it is vital to be able to write reports in a professional manner and for people with varying levels of understanding and knowledge of Archaeology and Heritage. Whilst not always a requirement for Field Archaeologists and Finds Processors, report writing is a skill that they are likely to need as they progress up the ranks within the sector. In that, those running the site or a finds specialist are also required to write reports. This skill is also a priority for Conservators as you will be required to record any work carried out on an object. This ensures that people in the future are able to understand what has been done to an object should they be required to do any further work to it.
Photography links in with the report writing aspect as photos help to explain things often written in the report. It is also a vital skill for Field Archaeologists needed to record the excavation process and features identified. After all, as you excavate something you remove what is there and the only evidence left are the photographic and written evidence. This skill is also used to create a visual record of an object and the works carried out to it, whether they be successful or not. It creates guidance and information for future Conservators.
The techniques used for Illustrations on site or in the finds processing can also be used for conservation. Whilst the scale and style used for field work will be slightly different, those skills used for finds processing will be the same to an extent.
Remember, there are also many skills which are not transferable, such as an understanding of the chemical make up of materials, or the practical techniques needed to apply adhesives or clean objects. However, these skills, like so many practical skills are learnt during your training and while working as a Conservator. After all, going from being a Field Archaeologist, Finds Processors or Heritage Consultant to being a Conservator will be a change, for anyone, and for some a very daunting one. However, if it is something you really want and you are prepared to put the work in, once you get started you will realise that it is not completely different from what you have already done. So, if you want to take that step from Archaeology and Heritage into Conservation, then go for it.