Some members of the Mary Rose conservation team, myself included, recently had the privilege to spend a week in Florence, Italy, to attend WOAM 2016, which is a conference organised every three years by the ICOM-CC working group for Wet Organic Archaeological Materials (WOAM for short!). ICOM-CC stands for International Council of Museums – Committee for Conservation, and WOAM is one of many subgroups dedicated to various materials and areas of conservation in museums.
As the Mary Rose is one of the UKs largest institutions for dealing with waterlogged materials, we felt it appropriate to attend and share some of the work we do with the international conservation community, as well as taking the opportunity to learn from what is going on in other institutions around the world.
The conference lasted for a full five days, filled with talks by conservation professionals from all over the world, gathering to exchange knowledge and ideas. I was particularly interested in hearing about conservation methods that are new to me, like how you’d figure out the best treatment approach for waterlogged medieval apples, or the challenges of recovering artefacts from a wreck covered by Arctic ice sheets, as well as listening to people dealing with similar problems to us at the Mary Rose and how they approach these problems and treatments in different ways. These are the kind of projects we can learn a lot from.
Just as important as the presentations were the breaks where we had splendid opportunities to network and meet conservators and conservation scientists from all over the world, and enjoy the beautiful conference location. I met so many nice and knowledgeable people, who I look forward to getting to know better and potentially working with in my future career. It was also pretty great to get faces on people whose research I’ve read for years, I did feel a little “conservation star-struck” on several occasions!
From our side we presented the results of three ongoing projects at the Mary Rose, as well as a poster giving an overview of the various research projects currently going on at the Mary Rose which was put together by Eleanor Schofield, our Head of Conservation and Collections Care. Nora Piva, a PhD student at the University of Portsmouth who has been undertaking research on the behaviour of the Mary Rose hull during the drying, gave a presentation about her work monitoring the movements of the hull since it started drying after its lengthy PEG treatment. It was received with great interest in general and especially from other institutions with large shipwreck structures to deal with. This is an area where there is plenty of need and opportunity for international research cooperation.
I presented work I have done on neutralising potential acid producing iron sulfates in waterlogged archaeological wood, and my colleague David reported on the progress and troubles we have had with removing iron from a gun carriage using a chelating agent called DTPA. Iron and sulfur accumulation in waterlogged materials is a common problem in collections around the world. When iron sulfates are exposed to air they can form acids and salts, which can break up the structure of the objects they are found in. This is an ongoing problem in many collections, including ours, so there is a lot of research going on about it at the Mary Rose and internationally.
One day we were taken on an excursion to Pisa to visit the not yet opened Museum of the Ancient Ships of Pisa and their conservation labs, where wrecks dating from the Roman period are undergoing conservation and preparation for display. Here we got the opportunity to study close up a consolidation method that differs from the one we use at the Mary Rose. Where the majority of our collection of wooden artefacts has been treated with PEG, these wrecks were treated with a thermosetting resin called Kauramin. It felt important to be reminded that there are many different methods used to treat waterlogged wood and that conservation practices vary from place to place.
Alongside the site visit and the many interesting presentations we were treated to a cocktail reception in the beautiful garden of the archaeological museum in Florence and a fabulous gala dinner in a beautiful Palazzo for all the conference attendees. As always, I was very impressed with the Italian food!