Women in Science: 10 minutes with an Archaeological Conservator

Ahead of this year’s Heritage Open Days, we met up with two Archaeological Conservators for Historic England.

Based at historic Fort Cumberland in Hampshire (pictured), Angela Middleton (AM) and Karla Graham (KG) tell us about their favourite finds, and what got them interested in archaeological objects.

First thing’s first – what is an Archaeological Conservator?

AM: We look after objects that have been excavated from terrestrial and marine environments. We investigate them to find out who made them and why, and devise a conservation programme to preserve them.

KG: We also look at the sites that they came from and the type of soils, and how to conserve objects that are still buried in the ground.

IMG_2315
Angela preparing a wooden artefact for vacuum-freeze drying.

How did you get into this kind of work?

AM: I always liked working with my hands, and initially wanted to go into carpentry. From there I got into wood conservation, and then archaeological conservation. I just went for it, and that’s what I’ve done ever since.

KG: I always wanted to be an archaeologist. I grew up 5 minutes away from Chester Roman Amphitheatre, and a friend of the family was the county archaeologist. I loved hearing his stories.

What skills are useful?

AM: Patience, good manual skills, being observant, having an eye for detail but also keeping the bigger picture in mind – having the vision of where the whole collection or the whole assemblage is going.

KM: It’s useful to have a wide area of interest, as we deal with so many objects from different periods.

One of many leather shoes recovered from the London illustrating the excellent levels of preservation on the site. © Ste
One of many leather shoes recovered from the London illustrating the excellent levels of preservation on the site © Steven Ellis

What has been your most exciting find or favourite archaeological site?

AM: I think it would have to be the London Wreck, because the artefacts are amazing. There’s quite a lot of archaeological leather, and the preservation on site is fantastic so we get to see a lot of really unusual materials such as leather shoes with shoe laces still intact.

KG: Most recently we received a cremation urn from Birdoswald (Roman Fort at Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria). We were expecting to find a small clump of human bone in the bottom of the urn, but the X-ray showed a mass of unknown objects. It was totally unexpected and so well preserved – that made me run up the stairs, excited to tell my colleagues.

cremation_urn_SF33516_xray_3
One of the Birdoswald cremation urns, with its X-ray image.

What would you say to aspiring scientists?

AM: Go for it! You can do anything you want, the sky’s your limit. If you have a passion for something just pursue it and don’t be put off.

KG: Work hard and don’t be put off.  It’s well worth your time to visit archaeological sites and figure out what you want to do. Get advice from people working in the industry, and meet as many people as you can.

EHCK-CUMBERLAND33
Karla examining a bone artefact under the microscope.

Do you have a project wish list or ambition for the future?

AM: I’d be interested to work with a bog body – human remains that are preserved in bogs. They’re so unusual and pose really interesting conservation challenges. There are also the ethics to consider when working on human remains.

KG: We’re very lucky because our work provides a lot of variety. I’m really interested in looking at sites that are under threat of climate change.

Beeswax candle fragment, showing the fibrous wick in the centre. (c) Historic England
London Wreck 1665 – Beeswax candle fragment, showing the fibrous wick in the centre © Historic England

Why is your work important?

AM: It engages the public.  By unlocking the information within objects, we can contribute to the interpretation of an archaeological site and tell its story. We preserve these objects for the future, making them accessible to others.

KG: History helps us to tell the story of who we are. Some of the most interesting archaeological finds are those that people can relate to.

We’re looking at settlements and why they may have failed, we’re looking at immigration. Archaeology is all about different people coming in and settling, and the culture that they brought with them. People have constantly been coming to this country.

What’s your plan B? If you didn’t do this, what would you do?

AM: I’ve always been interested in the origin of words and language, but then that’s just the archaeology of words isn’t it?

KG: Mine’s conservation related. I collect bikes, and restore them. I love fixing things – removing rust – so kind of similar, still conserving.

Fort Cumberland
Fort Cumberland, a late 18th century fortification on the coast at Portsmouth, now a research establishment. © Historic England

Take a tour of historic Fort Cumberland as part of this year’s Heritage Open Days 7- 10 September. A rare opportunity – this Hampshire fortification dates from 1780 – tours newly include a visit to the Archaeological Science Laboratories. Book your place here.

Further Reading

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