Archaeological Conservation Program
Highlighting Our Work with Archaeological Projects in 2004

The Archaeological Conservation Program [ACP] seeks to improve the partnership of conservation and field archaeology through an innovative combination of opportunities based in the Objects Laboratory at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education [SCMRE]. 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 2004 included collaborative work with two archaeological projects. Our second year as part of the San Bartolo Archaeological Project (Petén region, Guatemala) involved participation during both the winter-spring field phase and the summer laboratory phase in Antigua [Fig. 1]. The newcomer this year was the Gilund Archaeological Project (Rajasthan, India), with participation during the fall in laboratory activities based in Pune (Maharashtra) [Fig. 2].

The ACP 2004 conservation participants included Claudia G. Chemello (SCMRE post-graduate fellow), who took part in San Bartolo's field and laboratory phases, and in Gilund's laboratory work. Angela M. Elliott (a graduate student in Buffalo State College's Art Conservation program) joined the San Bartolo team in Antigua during the laboratory phase.

San Bartolo Archaeological Project

Background. 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 a full-scale field season in 2003. These excavations are showing that the pyramid complex, with which the painted room is associated, and other prominent clusters of structures 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 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.

2004 Field Phase. The two ACP conservators coordinated their site visit in May with the wall paintings conservators' final work period of the season, and with final preparations of the artifacts for transport from the site to the project's facility in Antigua, where all the excavated materials are studied during the summer laboratory phase. It provided Chemello an opportunity to see first-hand the site conditions and excavation procedures that might influence their state of preservation - important information both for the work to be carried out on site as well as during the summer in Antigua.

During the field visit, Beaubien and Chemello worked with the project's two wall paintings conservators on the site's spectacular Mural Room, decorated with a narrative mural painting on the interior and a modeled stucco frieze on the exterior [Fig. 3]. The two ACP conservators also packed fragile artifacts for transport, including fragments from two walls of the Mural Room, demolished in antiquity, and human skeletal remains. These activities provided an opportunity to introduce basic conservation concepts to six university field school students participating in San Bartolo's first field school, who helped with artifact preparation and packing activities.

2004 Laboratory Phase. During the summer, three ACP conservators joined the project team members in Antigua for the laboratory phase [Fig. 4]. Excavated stucco wall fragments originating from deliberately destroyed portions of the Mural Room were the focus of attention, with reassembly and storage activities of the highest priority. Reassembly, in particular, is providing new information about the mural program's elaborate iconography. The fragile skeletal material also benefitted from further stabilization and rehousing, and a number of ceramic vessels were reconstructed from important contexts [Fig. 5]. In addition, the laboratory staff participated significantly in putting together a small exhibit in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología in Guatemala City, on display during the 18th annual archaeological symposium [July 19-23]. Its theme was the San Bartolo painted murals, with exhibit items including painted reconstructions, drawings and photographs of narrative portions of the room, examples of reconstructed stucco components from destroyed portions of the room, and photographs illustrating the conservation and analysis process [Fig. 6].

Gilund Archaeological Project

Background. Located in southern Rajasthan, Gilund has been undergoing excavation since 1999 by teams from the University of Pennsylvania and Deccan College (Pune, India) under the overall direction of Gregory L. Possehl (University of Pennsylvania). Recent finds suggest that it was a more complex society than originally thought, showing connections with the powerful Indus Civilization (centered on the Indus River and its tributaries in what is largely Pakistan today), particularly during its late phases in the 2nd millennium BC. Excavations are seeking to define the nature of Gilund's society and its regional interactions, and to shed light on the periphery-effects of the Indus Civilization during its heyday and demise. Important evidence of these is provided by an extraordinary cache of more than 200 fragments of sun-dried clay bullae marked with stamp seal impressions, excavated during the 2002-03 season. These show parallels to designs from the Indus region as well as Central Asia, suggesting the presence of a worldly-wise elite class with commodities to control. The sealings' unique nature and fragmented, fragile state prompted the appeal for conservation attention.

2004 Laboratory Phase. Working in conjunction with several researchers on the team, the ACP conservators cleaned and stabilized over 200 unfired clay sealings [Figs. 7 and 8]. Using stable synthetic materials, they produced customized storage containers that would allow the objects to be easily viewed and at the same time safely housed. General recommendations were made about proper handling and environmental issues, so that they could be safely studied and securely stored for the long term.

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

Information about the San Bartolo Archaeological Project can be found on its own web site,

The Gilund sealings are featured in a report on the University of Pennsylvania Museum's web site, World-wide research/Asia.

For more information, contact the author: Harriet F. (Rae) Beaubien