Archaeological Conservation Program
Highlighting Our Work with Archaeological Projects in 2005
SCMRE's Archaeological Conservation Program [ACP] seeks to improve the partnership of conservation and field archaeology through an innovative combination of opportunities, based in the objects conservation laboratory. The program offers advanced internships in archaeological conservation, carries out conservation work in conjunction with archaeological projects, pursues in-depth technical study of archaeological materials at SCMRE, and provides other educational offerings focusing on conservation issues in both conservation and archaeology venues.
The Archaeological Conservation Program's activities in 2005 included collaborations with three archaeological projects. In the spring, we joined the San Bartolo Archaeological Project (Petén region, Guatemala), for a third year of participation in the field. Our summer work was based in Mongolia under the aegis of the Joint Mongolian-Smithsonian Deer Stone Project, a research collaboration coordinated by the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Primary conservation activities with the Deer Stone Project in Hovsgol Aimag were followed by a short stint with the Khanuy Valley Project on Early Nomadic Pastoralism in Arkhangai Aimag.
The ACP 2005 conservation participants included Basiliki Vicky Karas (SCMRE post-graduate fellow), who took part in all the field projects. Kimberly A. Machovec-Smith (a short-term intern on loan from a fellowship at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston) joined us at San Bartolo. Carolyn P. Thome (an exhibits specialist from the Smithsonian's Office of Exhibits Central) took part in the Deer Stone Project component as a conservation intern.
San Bartolo Archaeological Project
El Petén, Guatemala
San Bartolo had been an unknown site until March 2001, when William A. Saturno (University of New Hampshire and Harvard University's Peabody Museum), along with several guides, stumbled upon it in a remote part of the lowland jungles of the Petén region. What caught his attention were glimpses of elaborate mural paintings within one of the overgrown ruins - exceptional for both their quality and apparently early date. (Carbon samples taken from the mural plaster have recently placed their date at about 50 BC.) Under Saturno's direction, the San Bartolo Archaeological Project returned in June 2001 to undertake a site reconnaissance, followed by test excavations in June 2002 and then full-scale field seasons since 2003. These excavations are showing that the Las Pinturas pyramid, with which the painted room is associated, and other prominent pyramid complexes at the site are at the core of what had been an impressive pre-Classic settlement, beginning perhaps as early as 1000 BC, and terminating in the Early Classic period by about 500 AD.
Conservation was envisioned as a component of the archaeological project since its inception, with mural conservators Leslie H. Rainer and Angelyn Bass Rivera quickly incorporated into the team to carry out in situ wall painting stabilization. The artifacts conservation component, phased in once the wall paintings component had been established, was implemented during the 2003 season.
2005 Field Phase
The ACP conservators joined the field team beginning in March in order to participate in the most active excavation period, and in coordination with the wall paintings conservators. Beaubien and Karas provided assistance with artifact lifting, stabilized materials left in situ, and carried out treatments of excavated items in a thatched structure in camp serving as a laboratory area. One of the most significant discoveries this season was an undisturbed elite burial at Jabalí, believed to date to the Middle Preclassic period, with fragile bone requiring significant conservation attention. They also provided in situ conservation assistance with Las Pinturas stuccoed architecture, as part of the wall paintings conservation team, which included Machovec-Smith in addition to Rainer and Bass.
Karas remained on site until early May, in order to help prepared when all excavated artifacts were transported to the project's facility in Antigua for storage and study. All of the above activities provided an opportunity to introduce basic conservation concepts to six university students participating in a field school, who assisted the conservators with some of the laboratory work and artifact packing.
Joint Mongolian-Smithsonian Deer Stone Project
Hovsgol Aimag, Mongolia
The northern Mongolian province of Hovsgol Aimag has been the focus of collaborative research, coordinated by the Arctic Studies Center and its director, Dr. William W. Fitzhugh (Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History) since 2001. In its investigations of the region's connections to arctic cultural history, the Joint Mongolian-Smithsonian Deer Stone Project (DSP) has included archaeological studies of "deer stones" and the ritual contexts in which they are found. Averaging 1-3 m in height, these upright stone slabs are characterized by low-relief carvings of deer with flowing antlers. Over 550 have been identified thus far in Mongolia's grassy steppe region, occurring singly, in small groups, or concentrated in larger groupings, often in association with stone burial mounds, called khirigsuur. These monumental features have generally been dated to the Late Bronze to Early Iron Age, approximately 3000 years ago.
Geographic isolation has hampered systematic documentation and archaeological investigation, and very little still is known about the deer stones' age, function and meaning within their social, cultural, religious or artistic contexts. Endangered by unprotected exposure to harsh environmental conditions and increasingly by human causes, the deer stones are now considered among the most important - and threatened - archaeological treasures of Central Asia. This has placed a high priority on efforts both to understand and preserve these national icons, and has framed the documentation component being undertaken by SCMRE.
2005 Field Season
Documenting the deer stones includes photography of all sides with color and scale indication, drawings, condition notes, and, for the first time, 3-dimensional records of individual monuments, all of which are intended to complement the detailed mapping and archaeological data from deer stone site investigations.
The priority for the ACP conservation team during the June-July field season was testing a portable hand-held 3D laser scanner for use in the field. This technology allows dimensional and topographic information to be recorded rapidly and accurately in digital format without directly contacting the object's surface. The digital files can be displayed graphically and can also be exported to specialized milling machines to create high-resolution 3D models.
Once the logistical aspects of scanning under extremely rustic conditions were worked out, Beaubien, Karas and Thome were able to scan 10 deer stones at four sites, using locally available materials to construct temporary shade shelters over the deer stones and a small generator to run the scanner and a laptop computer. Three of the sites were located around Lake Erkhel, about 30 km north of Muren, the region's major town: Ulaan Tolgoi on the west side, with 5 deer stones, including the tallest one known to date (3.8 m); and Erkhel North and Erkhel East, with 2 deer stones each. The team ultimately required only 2 to 3 hours to completely scan a deer stone, including the time to set up the shelter and equipment. The post-processing steps necessary to prepare the data files for graphic modeling and reproduction are currently being carried out at SCMRE.
The Khanuy Valley Project on Early Nomadic Pastoralism
Arkhangai Aimag, Mongolia
The Khanuy Valley, located in the north-central province of Arkhangai Aimag just south of Hovsgol, is being investigated by a team under the direction of Dr. Francis Allard (Indiana University of Pennsylvania). Since 2001, the field work has included surface and subsurface surveys, paleoenvironmental work, an ethnographic study, and excavations of Bronze Age khirigsuur sites, as well as an important Xiongnu period cemetery at Golmod2. The Xiongnu were Central Asian nomadic people who dominated portions of China and Mongolia between the 3rd century BC and 2nd century AD. An arc of small satellite tombs, associated with a large royal burial, have yielded wood and gilded iron coffin components, iron and bronze objects, some with associated textile fragments, horse burials as well as human remains. These finds prompted the project's request for assistance from ACP conservators during their Mongolia field work period.
2005 Field Season
Beaubien and Karas joined the Khanuy Valley Project for a week in mid-July to assist with the field recovery and stabilization of several fragile materials. These were packed for transport, along with other excavated finds, for storage and subsequent study at the Institute of History in Ulaanbaatar.
For further reading:
The San Bartolo site and its extraordinary murals have been the subject of reports in the April 2002 and December 2003 issues of National Geographic, and on the web at www.nationalgeographic.com. Some of the murals have recently been published by William A. Saturno, Karl A. Taube and David Stuart in Ancient America, vol. 7, entitled "The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala, Part 1: The North Wall." Information about the San Bartolo Archaeological Project can be found on its own web site, www.sanbartolo.org. Conservation work during the 2003 and 2004 seasons is highlighted in earlier postings of the Archaeological Conservation Program on SCMRE's web page.
William W. Fitzhugh has published articles about the Deer Stone Project in the Arctic Studies Center Newsletter, at www.mnh.si.edu/arctic under Publications. The deer stones are featured in publications by Esther Jacobsen, including The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia: A Study in the Ecology of Belief (Leiden, New York: E. J. Brill, 1993).
For more information, contact the author: Harriet F. (Rae) Beaubien