Records in Ruins: Preservation and Conservation of Archaeological Heritage

By Gabryelle Iaconetti

On November 26, 2018, I had the pleasure of attending a conference at Pointe-à-Callière Museum in old Montreal entitled “La conservation du patrimoine culturel: Archeologie et monuments anciens”, translating to “The conservation of cultural heritage: Archaeology and ancient monuments.” This conference was organized in honour of 2018’s European Year of Cultural Heritage in partnership with multiple cultural institutions across Canada and Europe. The speakers present were Massimo Osanna from Italy, Jean-Marc Mignon from France, Pilar Fatas from Spain, Franziska Fecher from Germany, Gerda Koch from Austria, Hendrik Van Gijseghem and Louise Pothier from the hosting museum, and James Woollett and Julien Riel-Salavatore from Canada. The aforementioned presenters come from different cultural heritage institutions with research interests in a variety of archaeological sites worldwide.

As a future information professional with an educational background in classics, I had always wondered how I could incorporate my interest and passion for the ancient world with that of archives and the preservation of information. That question was easily answered by the professionals and academics who spoke about their work in the field at this conference. In fact, several of the presentations incorporated many aspects of archives, data management, digital preservation and information dissemination. For the purposes of remaining succinct, I will only recount the findings from the presentations which I believe are the most applicable to the information field.

Massimo Osanna kicked off the event with his case study on conservation and preservation efforts at Pompeii. Pompeii is one of the most famous and important cities of the ancient world. Excavations began in 1748, and conservation and preservation efforts are ongoing. However, a major issue that is currently being tackled by academics studying Pompeii is the lack of record-keeping and archiving of previous excavations. Without the maintenance of archives and records, it is difficult for excavators and scholars to understand the use of materials for restoration efforts at Pompeii. With the use of photogrammetry and laser scans of the site, there has been a new informatic archive implementated, as well as better documentation. Additionally, there have been efforts put towards the digitization of the Pompeii photographic archives. These new emphases on documentation and record-keeping of excavation activities will certainly aid in the preservation of knowledge within the archaeological community.

It was obvious from the reports of the presenters that there are tremendous steps being made in the areas of digital archaeology, and how it pertains to the preservation of cultural heritage. This was emphasised by James Woollet’s penultimate presentation about the risks to archaeological sites due to climate change. Ultimately, we have limited time before a number of sites are destroyed by rising sea levels and lost for good. Archaeological sites are of extreme value to those studying history, classics, and other humanities disciplines, which makes it all the more urgent to preserve their existence, even in digital form. Franziska Fecher’s presentation was heavily focused on digital archaeology practices at sites in the Honduras, namely Copan and Guadalupe. Much like Pompeii, the archaeologists working at the Honduran sites make sure of photogrammetry and laser scans to document current states of the sites, and to be able to later digitally reconstruct them for analysis and preservation. This is incredibly important as these digital scans allow researchers to analyze and manipulate these models in order to gain better understanding of archaeological structures and artifacts.

Gerda Koch’s presentation on Europeana proved to be a big hit with me personally, as it focused on many of the concepts of preservation and information dissemination that I have learned thus far in the MISt program. Europeana is a digital initiative that ensures online access to digital information collected from libraries, archives and museums across Europe. One can access millions of records through Europeana. Some of its great qualities include searchability by metadata, curated collections of content, growth of thematic collections, and online exhibitions. There are over 2 million archaeological objects on Europeana, which goes to show how crucial preservation of these cultural heritage materials are. There is an incredible amount of things I can say about Europeana, but it would be more beneficial for anyone interested in European heritage to check out their website for themselves and discover what their collection has to offer.

Attending this conference was an incredibly enriching experience and has strengthened my resolve to continue my own research in information science with regard to archaeological heritage. It is undeniable that the two fields intersect at crucial points, and it is relieving to see that consideration for the proper preservation of archaeological heritage is being taken seriously. As the field continues to evolve, and more information is being collected, so too should our methods for adequate preservation and record-keeping of these very important cultural heritage materials.

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