Last* in our student series is Ashley Johnston. Ashley reports on her class project, reconstructing ceramic and glass vessels from the sherds found on a site. Here she looks at how techniques have changed over time.
Archaeologists uncover hundreds of thousands of artifacts, and at times these artifacts can be reconstructed to form a complete or semi-complete object. The process of piecing these puzzles back together has changed over the years, as better technology and products were developed, and as procedures changed to preserve the integrity of the item. A handbook from the 1970s is going to include techniques different from a book from the early 2000s or current websites. Determining which sources to consult when conducting research or reconstructing an object can prove to be a challenge.
One example specifically involving ceramics is the type of tape used for temporarily holding the vessels together before gluing the sherds permanently. The 1976 handbook simply says to use tape or a temporary glue, whereas a current website and a 2003 book say to use masking tape. However, masking tape can leave residue on the artifact, while electrical tape can be left on the object longer and not leave residue behind. What about filling in the gaps where sherds are missing? Both the 1976 and 2003 books suggest using plaster to fill in the holes. The website notes that archaeologists do not always find all the pieces for a complete reconstruction but does not say whether or not to complete the object. By leaving the voids in the object it not only adds character to the artifact, but also preserves its integrity.
Currently, in the Anthropology lab at Armstrong, there are two objects under reconstruction, a kerosene lamp from the Benedictine Monastery site, and a teapot on loan from the Savannah History Museum collections found at Old Fort Jackson in 1970s. The best sources to consult when reconstructing historical artifacts are archaeologists and curators who will know the updated procedures and techniques for that particular artifact type.
Ewen, Charles Robin, Artifacts. Vol. 4. Archaeologist’s Toolkit. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003.
Guldbeck, Per E., The Care of Historical Collections: A Conservation Handbook for the Nonspecialist. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1976.
“Intrigue of the Past: Mending pottery.” Learn NC. Accessed April 01, 2017. A resource for K-12 teachers.