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A Journey in Conservation: Basketry

Many objects in a museum collection require conservation treatment to extend their longevity and First Nations basketry is no exception. Treating baskets requires multiple steps, but the general philosophy is simple: reduce the effects of damage by using a controlled, documented, and reversible way.

MOA Conservation Intern Josh cleaning a basket from the ethnographic collection.
MOA Conservation Intern Josh cleaning a basket from the ethnographic collection.

The first step of conversation is documentation. Once this is complete, it is time to treat the basket. Conservators consider a lot during the treatment of an object including; fragility, materials, and the object’s continuing health. The first round of cleaning is usually ‘dry’ cleaning. This includes brushing surface dust and debris from the object, as well as using cosmetic sponges to remove adhered dirt or accretions from the surface. Dry cleaning is an effective way to gently remove most of the dirt and dust from an object without being aggressive or invasive (because causing extra damage to the object only means more work later). In my experience with the basketry collection at the MOA, most require dry cleaning only.

However, some objects may be broken or torn and require more intensive treatment. The severity of damage can vary. For example, minor breakage such as a small tear in the middle of a basket weave is not likely to weaken the structure enough to cause further damage. Some breakage can even be natural stress-relief from changing environmental conditions such as fluctuating relative humidity.

Significant breakage can weaken the structural stability of the basket or result in loss.  For example, multiple breaks along the rim may leave the rim sagging, which then puts stress on the weave of the basket, and may lead to severe warping in the future.

To consolidate and repair more severe damage, I am using a Wheat Starch paste as an adhesive. This method of treatment is recommended by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) for use with paper artifacts (both basketry and paper are cellulose-based). Wheat starch paste is chemically inert and stable, as well as strong, workable, and adaptable. Once prepared, it can be watered-down without losing strength or applied as a relatively thick gel.

Once treatment is complete, the baskets are wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and placed in archival-quality boxes. This protects them from dust, as well as light. Light and UV rays fade colours of both wood and paint. Baskets in storage should also be kept at a consistent temperature (below 25oC is best) and relative humidity (RH). Fluctuating RH can lead to splitting, and prolonged periods of high RH can cause mould.

Once conservation is complete, the basket is wrapped in acid free tissue and placed into archival quality boxes for long term storage.
Once conservation is complete, the basket is wrapped in acid free tissue and placed into archival quality boxes for long term storage.

It is important to consider all these factors before treatment, in order to make an informed decision. Any work that you do not feel comfortable completing yourself should be completed by a professional conservator.

Archaeology Activities for Home

Parents, the weather is slowly turning dark and grey. The opportunities for outdoor play, becoming harder to find. That’s why we’re sharing Archaeology Activities that you can do at home. Read on, download the tools and have fun with your adventurer.

Keeping kids entertained on rainy days can be difficult. Why not engage them in fun, educational activities, which can be done with only a few materials and simple instructions? Here are just two of the many activities you can do with your little ones that will keep them engaged and teach them about archaeology!

Stratigraphy

Stratigraphy studies the different layers of the earth and what we can find in them. Archaeologists use these layers to help develop a timeline for the area (the oldest items are usually found in the deepest layers). The artifacts found in the layers can also indicate who was living on the site at different points in time.  This information is the context for each artifact.

 

Materials

Image of Braciopod Fossil
  • Empty plastic water bottles
  • 2 boxes of table salt
  • Food colouring
  • A small shell (or brachiopod fossils if available)
  • broken pieces of pottery or ceramic (edges can be sanded, if sharp)
  • Pop tabs

 

Instructions

1) Split salt into four containers, add a different colour food colouring to each, shake containers

2) Give each child a water bottle, a shell (or fossil), 5 marbles, and a pop tab

3) Place shell at the bottom of the bottle, add one colour of salt on to cover.

4) Add more layers of different coloured salt until about one-third of the bottle is filled

5) Add the pottery/ceramic, and then keep layering

6) place the pop tab on top of the final layer

Why This Archaeology Activity is Relevant

This activity gives us a visual of how stratigraphy works. Each layer of salt is a different colour, just as the different layers of sub-soil and top-soil are different colours depending on location and what created them. At the very bottom of our site, we have our oldest item – the shell/fossil. Next, we have some broken pottery representing a past human layer. Finally, at the top, we have the metal pop tab, a ‘new artifact’ of the present time.

Cookie Excavation

Image of cookie excavation

This cookie excavation will help children understand the care that must be taken while excavating in order to not damage the fragile artifacts (in this case the chocolate chips). They will also appreciate how they have destroyed the cookie (archaeological site) in the process. However, by recording all their artifacts the information of their cookie will survive on.

Materials:

Instructions:

  • Give each child a cookie, activity sheet, and two toothpicks.
  • Before starting the excavation, children should place their cookie on Grid A. Then draw the cookie, with all the visible artifacts (chocolate chips) included. This will be their record of the archaeological site.
  • Excavate cookies with the toothpicks, by carefully chipping away at the dirt (cookie) to slowly reveal any hidden artifacts. For an added challenge, remind them that they should not pick up their cookies because archaeologists cannot pick up sites!
  • For each “artifact” found add it to the drawing on grid B.
  • At the end each child should have a pile of back dirt (cookie crumbs) and artifacts (chocolate chips), and their drawing of what they looked like before.
  • Count artifacts; who has excavated the most?
  • Eat the destroyed cookie!

Why is this Relevant?

Archaeological excavations are a destructive process. When archaeologists have finished with a site, they have largely taken it apart piece by piece to discover its secrets. Unfortunately, this means a site, once excavated, can’t be excavated again. To fix this problem, archaeologists take lots of notes, drawings, photographs, take samples of soils, and write detailed reports so archaeologists in the future can come back to their excavations and learn even more. Without all these notes and reports all the context we learned about in the stratigraphy activity above will be lost forever.

We hope you enjoy this archaeology activities with your adventure.

Kathleen Kenyon Archaeologist

As part of our programs, we encouraged University students to contribute to our blog, based on what they were learning.  In this week’s guest blog, Elizabeth McConkey. then a student in Western’s ANTHRO 2261 – Adventures in Pop Culture Archaeology, covered Kathleen Kenyon, an Archaeologist we would all benefit from knowing better.

Kathleen Kenyon, Archaeologist

Image of Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon

Indiana Jones is one of the most well known movie franchises of all time. In the first installment of the series, with the Nazis hot on his trail, Indiana Jones equipped with his whip, shotgun, satchel and fedora sets out to uncover arguably the most significant archaeological find in all of history, the Ark of the Covenant. Despite having an affiliation with a museum and university, Indiana adds some unconventional aspects to the archaeologist’s job description. Such criteria include gun fighting and hand to hand combat. Despite the image that popular culture provides, the truth is that real archaeologists are quite different from Harrison Ford’s character. For example, British archaeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon could not seem further from this portrayal of an archaeologist. Kenyon was a significant British archaeologist in the 20th century, taking part in excavations all over the world. She might not have been involved in gun fighting and car chases, but her career was nothing short of extraordinary.

As a significant female archaeologist, Kenyon defies the masculine image and stereotype that the Indiana Jones franchise reflects. A graduate of Oxford University in London England, Kenyon pursued a career in archaeology with a special interest in stratigraphy (the distribution of different soil types in the ground) (3). She created the concept of the baulk, which is now a very significant part of stratigraphic analyses in modern archaeology (3). A baulk is the wall or edge of an excavated area, which reveals the different layers of soil in the ground (4). Baulks are significant because they allow archaeologists to identify the different layers of the soil and thereby to determine the age of a site and categorize the artifacts into time periods.

Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho

Kenyon in the field at Jericho
At Jericho

Though Kenyon never set out to find the Ark of the Covenant, she did take part in significant excavations with a biblical theme. For example, she was greatly involved with the excavations at Jericho, a site located in Palestine and associated with the ancient Israelite’s (1). This site is not only significant because it is thousands of years old, but evidence collected by Kenyon suggests that it is the only site that has been inhabited continuously from the beginnings of the first human agricultural settlements until the present (2). The evidence that she collected shed light on the lives of those who inhabited the site in more ancient times. Her research records the development of the people of Jericho from their nomadic beginnings to their use more sophisticated year round settlements (2.Pg 269). Though nothing supernatural came with her finds, she certainly contributed a great deal to knowledge about the site.

Kenyon’s career was not lacking in excitement. Through the development of new archaeological techniques like the use of the baulk and her excavation of sites at Jericho, Kathleen Kenyon clearly made a large mark on the field of archaeology. Despite their differences, Kenyon was more like Indiana Jones than we might have expected at first glance.

Kathleen Kenyon Archaeologist

References and Additional Resources:

  1. Kenyon, Kathleen. 1955 “Some Archaeological Sites and the Old Testament: Jericho,” The Expository Times 66(12). 355-358.
  2. Kenyon, Kathleen. 1967 “Jericho,” Archaeology 20(4). 268-275.
  3. Dever, William G. 1978 “Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978): A Tribute,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 232. 3-4.
  4. Archaeological Institute of America “Introduction to Archaeology: Glossary,” Accessed on Feb 8th 2016.
  5. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Kathleen-Kenyon