UCL News


Conservators Without Borders: the Peru files

21 April 2009

Conservators Without Borders (CWB) is a volunteer organisation providing free conservation support to archaeological sites that have inadequate funding.

Conservators without Borders It was set up by UCL conservation alumnae in 2007 with the help of a UCL Futures grant, and one of its founders, Melina Smirniou, is studying for a PhD at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. Here the team describes its unique approach and reports on its latest project in Peru.

Conservators Without Borders worked on the northern coast of Peru for three weeks in 2008 at two separate archaeological sites.

San José de Moro

The first project took place at San José de Moro, a Moche period site (AD200-800), in collaboration with Project Director Luis Jaime Castillo. This project, which also incorporates a field school, is one of the few Moche cemeteries currently being researched. It has yielded some of the most complex elite burial and ritual settings pertaining to 1,000 years of continuous occupation. The excavations and related studies at San José de Moro have helped scholars understand traditions, beliefs, artwork, and organisational and governmental forms of ancient societies of the area.

CWB's work at San José de Moro primarily involved the conservation and restoration of unique unfired clay house models, or 'maquetas'. These objects, painted with colourful natural pigments, were found in an elite tomb during the 2007 excavation

The conservation of the maquetas was extremely challenging due to the fragile nature of the unfired clay and the considerable damage that had occurred since their excavation. CWB worked with excavation assistants to find joins between the clay maqueta fragments and collaborated with them on designing a roof support for one of the models. Some of the field school students were interested in conservation and assisted with the remedial work.

The conservators also assisted onsite with the excavation and lifting of fragile textile samples associated with human remains. The team concluded their visit with a lecture on archaeological conservation methods for the field and a summary of the work completed during their visit.

Magdalena de Cao

The second project in Peru took place at Magdalena de Cao in collaboration with Principal Investigator Jeffrey Quilter. This colonial period site abuts the El Brujo Archaeological Complex and contains an early Spanish church and town. The CWB team worked alongside American and Peruvian archaeologists, as well as other specialists to conserve paper, textile and metal finds.

At Magdalena de Cao, CWB carried out documentation, cleaning and re-housing of the finds using conservation-grade packaging materials. The team implemented a visible storage system for all of the 2008 paper finds that minimises handling and allows researchers to view both sides.

In addition to the work on the artefacts, CWB also had the opportunity to discuss several different conservation issues and concerns with the El Brujo Archaeological Complex employees, technicians and archaeologists. During this process, suggestions were made for preventive conservation practices and the long-term care of vulnerable materials. The conservators also demonstrated some basic conservation techniques, showing the variety of tools and materials used during the project.

Communication without borders

A Peruvian maqueta

Because CWB works in different geographical locations, language can sometimes be a challenge. In order to achieve the most effective communication, CWB recruits volunteers with language skills that are beneficial for a specific project. Diana Medellin and Judy Jungels, both professional conservators, were part of the CWB team for the projects in Peru. Diana is from Mexico and was instrumental in the discussions and translations that took place between local peoples and the CWB conservators.

Once again, establishing a sense of trust between CWB and the project stakeholders was key to the success of both projects in Peru. Scepticism and doubts about the involvement of conservation on an archaeological project can be overcome through the identification of the archaeologists' needs and tailoring the conservation activities to these priorities.

The time spent at each site in Peru was limited. However, CWB had the opportunity to demonstrate how conservators can be an asset to an archaeological project and contribute to the overall understanding of a site by conserving associated finds.

The response to the two Peruvian projects was very positive and CWB has been invited to continue collaborative work at San José de Moro and Magdalena de Cao.

Listening to local needs

Based on projects in 2007-2008, CWB firmly believes that two-way communication and interdisciplinary working are fundamental to raising the profile of conservation. In addition, they provide opportunities for conservators to respond to real-world concerns and problems with practical, feasible solutions.

Conservators have an important role to listen carefully to local needs before formulating sustainable conservation suggestions. CWB's activities demonstrate that amongst the sites visited, there is a real openness, willingness to learn and appreciation for the information exchange on offer.

There is great potential for long-term relationships with contacts in Jordan, Greece and Peru as a result of CWB's 2007 and 2008 projects. CWB is enormously indebted to its volunteers. Its success is due to their commitment and contribution of their expertise, time and energy. The directors would also like to acknowledge the support of their respective employers who have granted leave requests allowing the coordination of all of CWB's projects: the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute, The Peabody Museum, The British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

CWB would like to hear about archaeological projects interested in conservation support. For more information on CWB, follow the link at the top of this page.

Read about previous Conservators Without Borders projects in Kythera, Greece and Jordan.

Images from top: San José de Moro field school students assisting with the conservation of the maquetas; a maqueta after conservation treatment

This is an extract from a report originally published in e_conservation magazine, February 2009.