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Art alumna discusses conservation of antiquities

Nicole Peters at work

Nicole Peters has worked at archeological sites from Arizona to Egypt. The alumna of  West Virginia University’s School of Art and Design returned to her alma mater to share some lessons learned in her work towards becoming a conservator.

Peters earned an undergraduate degree in  ceramics and a master’s degree in  art history from WVU. She’s currently in her third year as a Graduate Fellow in Art Conservation at Buffalo State, the State University of New York. But with hundreds of hours of required field work, she has spent a lot of time outside of upstate New York.

She’s currently finishing an internship in objects conservation at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, after completing similar experiences in Indianapolis, at the National Museum of the American Indian, and in sites as far-flung as Alaska, Hawaii, and Amarna, Egypt.

In a class visit with J. Bernard Schultz Professor of Art History Janet Snyder’s students, she explained the work of a modern conservator.

“We’re trying to basically halt time, to make the unearthed object look cared for but not to falsify anything, or restore it to ‘like new,’” she said.

Students brought digital examples of archeological objects, and Peters offered insights on how to preserve and protect them. A lead tablet is made of a metal that is self-stabilizing, so Peters advised light cleansing rather than anything more intense.

“Exposing some metals to the air can cause massive, rapid corrosion,” she explained, which requires more immediate and extreme measures.

Of a wooden piece found in a cellar in the United Kingdom, Peters noted that “organics are exciting to find, since they degrade really quickly due to moisture and insects” and are subsequently rarer in the antiquities field. Depending on the material and the circumstance, conservators must make some quick and serious “triage” decisions at the excavation site.

“Pure gold is very malleable and subject to marking and damage,” she noted, looking at a picture of a jumble of jewelry made of different metals. Testing and thorough examination is the only way to tell for sure how much of a piece is metal and how much is corrosion, and whether the piece should even be moved.

A dig site can bring together a variety of different scholars with a range of agendas and approaches. Antiquities conservators have different priorities than physical anthropologists, who need to take precise measurements of human remains. But often, those remains are in the context of antiquities that can reveal volumes about their culture and its values.

Peters discussed one such incident from her experience of remains found at Amarna, Egypt. The physical anthropologists wanted to take precise cranial measurements, and the conservators wanted to preserve fragile and elaborate hairpieces. Working together, each constituency managed to get the information they needed, and to preserve the locks.

Sometimes, Peters acknowledged, a photographic image of the artifact or site is worth more than any actions a conservator can take.

“A lot of times, photographic documentation is the best hope for preserving the legacy of an object,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to take high resolution images before, during and after the removal of any object from its site.”

Peters, visiting as part of the College of Creative Arts Alumni in Residence series, also spoke at the Art Museum of WVU, discussing the on-site conservation treatment methods she used to preserve a child’s coffin in Tell-el Amarna, Egypt.