This interview is part of the Collection Care Network's (CCN) blog series, which features interviews with conservators and collection care professionals. The stories and insights shared in these interviews highlight the many aspects of collection care and its cross-disciplinary nature. If you have a project or story you'd like to share or know someone we should feature in this series, please contact us at email@example.com.
This edition of the blog is an interview CCN Editor Wendi Field Murray conducted with Kimberly Kenyon, Co-principal Investigator and Head Conservator, La Concorde/Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project, North Carolina Office of State Archaeology (OSA). This interview coincides with the CCN column in the September 2022 edition of AIC News, which is all about transition and change.
Hello Kim, and thank you for taking the time to speak with me about your work on the Queen Anne’s Revenge project! With Fall around the corner, this month’s theme is change and transition, so it felt like a perfect time to talk about the transition of archaeological objects from wet environments (i.e., shipwrecks) to dry environments. First, could you summarize your position and background, and the project you are overseeing? What is the Queen Anne’s Revenge?
Thank you for inviting me to share my experiences! I work for the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology (OSA), under the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, as the co-principal investigator and head conservator for the La Concorde/Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project. I am based at OSA’s Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) Conservation Lab, which was established to process finds from this shipwreck. I earned my MA from Texas A&M University’s Nautical Archaeology Program, and I have several years of experience in labs and on submerged sites both in the US and abroad.
Well known as Blackbeard the pirate’s lost flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge previously sailed as La Concorde, responsible for the transportation of many hundreds of captive Africans from West Africa to the Caribbean to be sold into slavery. In late 1717, Blackbeard seized the ship during its third slaving voyage, abruptly altering the ship’s purpose and fate, and ultimately ran it aground near Beaufort, NC in early June 1718. The over 400,000 artifacts from the site represent material culture relevant to piracy as well as to the transatlantic slave trade and serve as evidence of that sudden shift in function during their use life. “Change and transition” is such an appropriate topic for this site, for many reasons. I also transition in my job: I am both an underwater archaeologist and an archaeological conservator and have the unique position of following artifacts every step of the way, from recovery to lab to public interpretation.
As a “land archaeologist,” I am aware that objects reach a stasis with their underground environment, so (depending on what they are made of), just the act of excavating them can be risky for their preservation. Can you explain what happens when an object is excavated from an underwater environment? What precautions need to be taken to ensure the change in environment does not lead to a change in the object’s surface or structure?
Submerged artifacts also approach a stasis with their environment, of course depending on the environment and artifact material. If something is buried or encrusted, any disruption to that protective layer can be harmful to the object. The act of excavating creates a sudden change, and we must be prepared to promptly act in the artifact’s best interest. One of the most fragile objects in a marine environment is waterlogged wood, and it is often what we are most hopeful to find. Wood may be indicative of hull structure, and the biggest questions we seek to answer as underwater archaeologists are about the ship, its nationality, age, construction technique, and purpose.
When we unearth wood, we must work quickly to document and map it in situ, so that we can then safely recover it to a more controlled environment. Recovery of larger timbers entails waiting until the next day, to ensure that there is a safe plan in place (for both divers and artifacts) and that all necessary equipment is on hand. The drag created by the act of lifting to the surface can be hard on an object, therefore wood (for example) must be supported. We also have foam padding and towels to cushion the softened wood from any rigid supports, to prevent new impressions from appearing. Once recovered, artifacts must remain submerged to prevent deterioration due to uncontrolled drying, so various tanks are kept on shore for storage. Large objects, such as timbers and cannon that won’t fit in a tank on site, are taken to the lab on the day of recovery, where an appropriate tank would have already been prepared. Constant communication between the field and lab teams is absolutely critical to prevent loss and to ensure the safety of the objects.
To what extent are conservators or collection care professionals involved in the excavation of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, as consultants or in some other capacity?
The QAR Lab is completely intertwined with the excavation. The lab has three conservators on staff, one of whom is the designated site conservator. This person is always on-site during field seasons and is responsible for documenting and storing artifacts once they reach the surface and for safely transporting them to the lab at the end of each week. The lab is the repository for all mapping data, images, and excavation records, and the site conservator is also responsible for the continuity of this data from field to lab. When I was hired, the role of site conservator was written into my job description. With my extensive archaeological diving experience, it worked out that I was able to assist with excavation, mapping, and recovery, in addition to my other topside duties. Equally, my background in conservation has made me much more conscientious in the water.
Is the aim always to eventually transition wet objects to a dry environment? What questions do you ask yourself as you are making those decisions? Is there ever a scenario when a museum would want to permanently keep something in a wet environment?
If artifacts are recovered from a wet environment, the goal is generally to get them to a stable dry state. The one central question we are constantly posing to ourselves is, “Is this in the object’s best interest?” Even in ideal conditions, wet artifacts will continue to degrade, and it is not in their best interest to remain wet post-excavation. We are a small staff with a large collection, thus out of necessity, much of our excavated collection remains in stable wet storage for years before it is addressed. We systematically process objects based on higher priority conservation needs, while taking into consideration research and exhibit interests.
Wet artifacts on display are much more difficult to stabilize compared to wet artifacts in closed storage. To prevent biological growth, you must limit light exposure (which prevents visitors from seeing it), add a biocide (which might damage the object), install a circulation pump (which could fail and flood your exhibit), or (for metals) keep them in an alkaline solution (which introduces a health and safety concern). We have had conversations about displaying large artifacts while still wet, but large tanks have the added issue of the weight of the water exceeding the weight capacity of a floor. We have found that a rotating display of small concretions alongside their x-rays is quite effective in interpreting conservation to the public and is easier to manage, but I do not advocate for displaying objects permanently in tanks.
Kim working on an anchor from a late Hellenistic marble carrier that
sank off the coast of Turkey. It was excavated by the Institute of Nautical
Archaeology at Texas A&M.
Are all wet environments comparable? In other words, can you take the same approach to caring for objects from a shipwreck that you would to say, objects from a peat bog? If not, what are some differences in wet environments that matter to you as a conservator, and what factors are you taking into consideration when making decisions about their care?
There are all manners of wet environments with specific hydrographic characteristics that contribute to preservation or degradation: temperature, light, substrate, salinity, currents, weather patterns, oxygenation, biological activity, etc. The best chance for an artifact’s successful treatment is through collaboration between archaeologists and conservators starting in the planning stages of excavation, so we know in the lab what to expect with a collection and how its burial environment has impacted it. For example, our site is highly dynamic, and we know that organic matter is lacking and extremely fragile when found, while metals are predominant. Therefore, during the excavation season, we prepare tanks in the lab with an alkaline storage solution ready to receive iron concretions from the field each week. Preparation is key to making this transition easier on the artifacts.
Generally speaking, all wet objects require a high level of care regardless of their individual environments, in that wet artifacts cannot be immediately dried. They will all need interventive treatment and controlled drying. The exact methods and time frames may vary, but the processes are generally the same. We may find that objects from freshwater sites require far less time undergoing desalination, for example, or iron from a freshwater site may be much better preserved than its saltwater counterpart. Peat bogs are notorious for excellent organics preservation, so a conservator would have to be prepared to perform an appropriate impregnation treatment. As long as you are knowledgeable in what to expect from a certain environment, you can start to plan for a collection’s needs well before it arrives in the lab. Every excavated collection is case-specific, but my approach is always to plan for worst-case scenarios (the longest amount of time, the most intensive treatments) until I can truly get a sense of what each object needs.
Are there any particularly interesting or memorable problems you have had to troubleshoot relating to the care of objects from the Queen Anne’s Revenge project?
One instance that comes to mind is our discovery of fragments of printed book paper. These were found sealed inside a wrought iron reusable gunpowder chamber, called a breech block, meant for use with breech-loading cannon. Why they were in a breech block remains a mystery, but through research I was able to identify the source text as “A Voyage to the South Sea and Round the World,” published in 1712 by Edward Cooke.
None of our staff are trained in paper conservation, so we immediately sought the advice of paper conservators on how to handle such a unique find. We have worked closely with book and paper conservators at the State Archives of NC to form an appropriate treatment and housing strategy. Since waterlogged paper is such a rarity, there is little research on either preventive methods or interventive treatments. We have chosen a few representative samples to test methodologies and impregnants, toward identifying an acceptable strategy. We presented this problem at AIC’s annual conference in 2021 and are working toward publishing our findings.
Are there any objects that you have not been able to display in the museum, simply because they are too fragile or vulnerable? If so, what are they?
The paper fragments remain too delicate to handle or display. They are now dry but extremely fragile and degrade easily. The fragments are housed in controlled storage in the State Archives, but we worked with the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort (the official repository and exhibit space for our collection) to develop a high-quality digital display in place of the original objects. We even helped the museum staff track down the exact copy of Cooke to build an impactful exhibit about the paper. This way, the fascinating story can still be interpreted to the public without risk to the artifact.
The identities of these objects have changed too - first as the material signatures of the transatlantic slave trade and piracy, then as archaeological objects, and now as educational objects on display to the public. How do you see your role (as a conservator) in these transitions?
I see myself as one of many custodians responsible for sharing this shipwreck’s evolving story. My job as an archaeologist and a conservator is extremely rewarding, and the combination of doing both is exactly what I had hoped to find in a career. I never realized, however, how much of a public historian and an educator I would become in filling those roles. We have a robust outreach program with public events, tours, lectures, and our blog. Teaching the public about the transition in the ship’s purpose, the transformation that objects undergo in the lab, and the constant change in how we perceive this collection is what really brings purpose to this work.
If you enjoyed this post, check out CCN's other most recent blog, an interview with Liz Shea on Advocating for Collection Care During Building Renovations.