After artifacts are removed from the soil by the archaeologist, they go to the lab located on Jamestown Island to be processed and preserved. This is the job of the conservator.
Artifacts are made up of many different materials, such as: ceramics, glass, lead, copper, iron, and organics such as cloth and bone. The treatment method must match the particular material of the artifact. The conservator must be knowledgeable in all treatment methods so that nothing is lost during conservation — among many guidelines to follow, the most essential is “do no harm.” Every detail associated with that artifact is important.
There are many different tools available to the conservator. Microscopes, brushes, and even scalpels can be used on tiny, delicate artifacts. Digital x-rays give the conservator a view of an artifact not visible to the natural eye because corrosion may be covering the material and its details. Corrosion removal can be accomplished with electrolytic cleaning, which uses an electrical current to strip layers of corrosion off iron artifacts. Airabrasion also removes corrosion with powders of varying hardness that are directed in a fine jet of air at the artifact. In some cases, removing the corrosion is just the beginning of the process; further steps are required to stabilize the artifact and ready it for either storage or display in the Archaearium museum on the island.
After the conservation process, the artifact needs an environment that does not promote the growth of corrosion. Artifact cases in our Archaearium and our storage area within our vault, called the “dry room,” limit the impact of humidity, heat, oxygen, and light on the artifacts.