Here former Manchester BA Archaeology student, Dominika Król, talks about her experience as a conservator on the Sam Alex Basement Conservation Project:
My adventure with conservation started in 2021 during the third year of my archaeology degree at Manchester. I was one of several students who volunteered to help with the conservation of archaeological finds and samples damaged during the flooding of the university’s artefact storage area in the Samuel Alexander Building basement. During this time, I was trained by a professional conservator and gained experience in cleaning and conserving Roman pottery sherds and tiles. Despite the enthusiasm and dedication of the volunteers, due to the large volume of archaeological material gathered through the years by the department, we only managed to scratch the surface. By the end of the year many decades worth of archaeological artefacts and samples were still in urgent need of conservation.
After graduation, I was invited to join a Conservation Project Team assembled to assess damage and conserve all of the archaeological materials which suffered during the flood. My core responsibilities as a conservation assistant included sorting, cleaning, and conserving artefacts, re-packing and recording all possible context information as well as upkeep of the paper and digital archives. I had the unique opportunity to work with a wide range of materials such as ceramic, glass, bone, wood, metal, charcoal, flint, stone, and shell, which came from various sites ranging from prehistoric to post-medieval. Some of the artefacts I had the privilege of conserving include Neolithic flint tools, Roman spearheads, Medieval coins, Victorian clay pipes as well as countless shreds of pottery. Many objects stored in the Samuel Alexander basement had been excavated during the 70s and 80s and unfortunately had been forgotten. Since a considerable number of paper records were lost to the flood, we needed to work in close cooperation with other experts to acquire more data about the objects and sites. Although the majority of finds such as pottery sherds or rusty iron nails were quite easy to identify, we also encountered some mysterious artefacts which left us baffled and uncertain about their purpose.
One of our objectives during the later stages of the project was to invite students to once again join the conservation efforts and gain valuable practical experience. My responsibilities were therefore expanded to include training and supervising a new group of student volunteers. Thanks to their dedication almost all of the artefacts affected by the flood have now been cleaned, conserved, repacked, and placed in new boxes. The project is now entering its last phase with our attention turning to the future of the objects. My main objectives for the next few weeks will be reinstating, and reorganising the storage of the artefacts, as well as designing and curating an exhibition showcasing the highlights of the project. We are also currently working on the process of repatriation of some of the objects, mainly to France and to Libya.
Undoubtedly, a flood affecting an archaeological store and contaminating countless artefacts and samples would be seen by most as something destructive and regrettable. However, I believe a silver lining can be found in this unfortunate event. Due to the flood various artefacts which became forgotten came back to the attention of academics. Moreover, numerous objects will be returned to their correct owners. Furthermore, many students have gained experience which otherwise would be very difficult to obtain.
My story can serve as an example that volunteering during your degree can lead to fantastic future opportunities. Thanks to my involvement in the project, I have gained skills in cleaning and conservation of various materials such as ceramic, bone, wood, metal, stone, glass using dry and wet conservation techniques; knowledge and observance of Health and Safety regulations during working with hazardous materials and substances such as lead, mould and Industrial Methylated Spirit; working with large databases and spreadsheets; accurate record keeping; researching unpublished excavation reports; working collaboratively with specialists from different backgrounds; supervising of a large group of volunteers; restoration of a ceramic vessel; curation of a display cabinet; artefact photography and many others. I think that all of the skills and practical experience I have gained during my involvement in the Conservation Project will undoubtedly help me with the development of my career in archaeology and conservation.