Friday, March 20, 2009

Shaking off the rust

Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory restores Historic Jamestown items
Friday, March 20, 2009

Staff writer
Southern Maryland Newspapers

Pieces of history have made a temporary home in Calvert County over the past five years, but will soon be heading back home to Virginia.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel in 2003, hundreds of thousands of artifacts stored in Historic Jamestown, Va., were submerged in flood waters. Jamestown staff members attempted to prepare for the hurricane, but, according to Kenya Brown Fusciello, a conservator at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum's Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory (MAC Lab), the "combination of the hurricane and its related storm surge brought in waters from the nearby Pitch and Tar Swamp measuring 5-feet deep at the National Park Service Visitor Center."

According to an article written by Fusciello, the MAC Lab's current "Jamestown Project derives from Historic Jamestown, Va., where an archaeological assessment recovered artifacts including many iron and ceramic fragments, a significant number of them being Colonial period pipe fragments. These excavations, led by noted archaeologists J.C. Harrington and John Cotter, occurred between the 1930s and the 1950s. Subsequently, they were treated by Civilian Conservation Corps and National Park Service staff."

Due to the flood damage caused by Isabel, 34,000 archaeological items from the Colonial period were sent to the MAC Lab in St. Leonard in 2004. At the lab, staff members have been working to restore and clean the items prior to shipping them back to Jamestown in far better condition than they were received.

"I know that we have a very large facility [at the MAC Lab] and, I believe at the time, Jamestown did not have adequate space to accommodate a lot of the artifacts at the site that were affected," Fusciello said in an interview as to why the MAC Lab was a site chosen for the restorations, noting that Jamestown is home to more than 900,000 artifacts.

The artifacts included paper, wood, iron and ceramic items, each of which were "treated" by MAC Lab staff members. The treatment process is long, sometimes taking hours for a single item, and the 34,000 items received at the MAC Lab were treated by a staff of three people, and, at times, only two, Fusciello said.

"Normally it's just two people," Fusciello said. "The project started with just one conservator. I was initially hired as an assistant conservator. Right now, it's been three [staff members working on the project] to date. I hired one of my volunteers part-time, Mark Edmondson in addition to two other contractual conservators, assistant conservator, Nancy Shippen [working on the project] and Caitlin Shaffer."

The treatment process, Fusciello said, is different for each material. For example, she said the iron items, such as pipes, had been glossed with paraffin wax repeatedly over many years to offer some protection. Despite the wax, the iron artifacts "suffered some corrosion due to brackish water" from the flooding, Fusciello wrote.

At the MAC Lab, the iron items were placed in a solvent recycling still at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for six to eight hours. The process pulls wax off the object.

"Because these objects were waxed so much over the years, not all of it comes off but a good amount of it," Fusciello said. After the dewaxing, the items are put through a desalination process, which pulls salts from flood waters out of the iron.

"[The iron items] suffered a lot of corrosion because of that," she said.

After that, the iron pieces go through another process to return the iron back to the original color, which is a black finish. Finally, a coating of paraloid is put on for added protection.

"The treatment cycle is pretty long, and could take several months for a batch of irons, which can be approximately 200 to 300 pieces of iron," Fusciello said.

"The project itself is very routine and can be tedious. However, it is rewarding in a sense that the objects are being treated and returned on time and they look entirely different when they leave," she said.

The MAC Lab's involvement with the project is expected to end in September. But, there is still a chance for the public to come out and see firsthand how the work was done.

The MAC Lab will be hosting an open house on March 27. (Note: See linked article for more information)

The MAC Lab is still home to nearly 3,000 artifacts awaiting the restoration process.

During the open house, the public will be able to meet the staff and ask their own questions about the artifacts and the treatment process, Fusciello said.
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