Anglo-Saxon CSI: Sittingbourne

Investigative Conservation
September 9, 2009, 9:53 pm
Filed under: Conservation


A conservator is a professional who works on the conservation of heritage objects.  Their work involves determining the structural stability of objects, and addressing any problems of chemical and physical deterioration.  A conservator may carry out treatments based on an evaluation of the aesthetic, historic, and scientific significance of the objects in their care.

One of the CSI: volunteer conservators at work

Conservation professionals use a mix of practical experience and science to decide the best way to treat an object.  There is a commitment to high standards and performance to abide by with the work as the objects are often very important.  The ethics involving suitable treatments and practices are utmost importantance.

Conservators are usually university trained for at least three years, and can pursue this further if they so wish.  There are a number of universities in Britain that cater for people wishing to enter the profession.

There are many different areas involved in heritage conservation.  These include paintings, paper, buildings, textiles, sculpture, furniture, ceramics, photographs, gilding and archaeological conservation; along with numerous others.  The CSI: lab focuses on archaeological conservation and aims to ensure as much imformation as possible is gained from the objects that are being worked on.


The process of conservation can teach us a lot not only about the artefacts but the people too.  We can learn what materials were used, the technology available, any decorative features, where the materials originated from and also evidence of organic materials.

Mineral Preserved Organics

This is organic materials that have been preserved by the iron corrosion products.  It includes materials such as wood, textile, leather, grass, barley and even insect activity.  Due to the significant number of iron objects that are being conserved in the CSI: lab we have been finding a large amount of organic materials present on the surface.

This is valuable information that would otherwise be lost.  Although the iron objects are not the most beautiful, they can be the most interesting and provide us with a lot useful information.  On all of the swords there has been evidence of wood that represents the preserved scabbard.  At other sites in Kent, barley has been found preserved against objects.  This was probably placed in the grave as an aromatic to stop the dead body smelling too much.

Clues to Technology and Styles

These clues can be discovered by examining x-rays or using other non-destructive methods.  The cleaning process can also reveal valuable information about the technology and materials the Anglo-Saxons possessed.  For example, some of the brooches from the site were probably made in Faversham, with the garnet stones being of Eastern origin.

We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to have non-destructive neutron tomography analysis carried out on swords.  The main objective of this analysis was to discover whether the swords had been made by pattern welding the iron.  As the iron was covered by the minerally preserved wooden scabbard we ould not see the metal.  This was a brilliant opportunity to discover some extra information about the swords without having to take physical samples.

The swords were flown to Switzerland for this analysis.  Each sword is placed vertically in the machine and images are taken down the length of the object – sort of like stronger x-rays.  The process took approximately 6 hours per sword.  There has been a lot of information to analyse and collate and we are still awaiting the results.  Hopefully we can post some images of this in the near future.

2 Comments so far
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HI If it takes a university education to be a conservator how can you be one in CSI after a few days training? What is the difference between what the volunteers do and what a conservator does?

Comment by Jane

Thank you for your comments Mrs. Henderson

The volunteers are given basic training that most students on the first year of a practical archaeological conservation course are given. This includes handling objects, using a microscope and scalpel, and understanding x-ray images. The Museum of London have donated some archaeological iron objects that have no associated information with them for the volunteers to be trialled on. All the volunteers are observed by conservation interns and Dana to assess their skills and establish whether they will be suitable for the job in hand. If they are deemed suitable they can come back and begin working on the “real” objects. It is not for everyone though, so this training session is valuable in determining this. Obviously, before they can begin working they must also sign risk assessments…

Objects are chosen for these new volunteers to work on – for example, initially these will be objects that have a larger amount of soil on. The volunteers will work on these under the close supervision of Dana and any interns, usually Katrina. They all work slowly and methodically and know that they can ask questions at any time if they are unsure and need a professional opinion. They all realise the significance of what they are being allowed to work on, and know the importance of their discoveries. Within a short space of time they are able to recognise mineral preserved organics and their different structures, as well as other small details.

The volunteers do not gain as much theoretical knowledge about the profession as somebody who has studied the subject at university, but they learn enough of the practical and theoretical approaches to the work to be able to confidently and safely work on this type of object. Personally, I would not say there is much difference in the practical approach taken between the professional and the volunteer. As mentioned, the skills taught are perhaps the most basic and all that is needed for this type of object. A very large majority have shown themselves to be more than capable at working well on these objects. They all present themselves to the public in a professional, confident and down to earth manner so that everyone can understand. This has to be one of the best aspects of this project, and perhaps something that a trained conservator might find hard to do.

I hope this answers your questions.

Comment by anglosaxoncsi

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