Combating damage and deterioration of artifacts

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

JR, fabricator of exhibits in the SGA’s ArchaeoBus, takes into account the safety of artifacts that will be put in the exhibits when constructing the displays.

Decay and deterioration are an ongoing problem with stored artifacts.

Therefore, curators—the professionals who care for artifact collections in museums and other institutions that preserve artifacts—are very careful about how they store the items they are responsible for.

So what do curators have to guard against that can accelerate the deterioration of artifacts? Perhaps you have some ideas if you have carefully studied display cases and other places where you have seen artifacts on exhibit. Here is a list of agents of deterioration.

People. People can intentionally or unintentionally damage artifacts—or misplace them.

Pests. Insects, rodents, birds, and other creatures can damage artifacts. Mold and microbes can degrade specimens, too.

Light. Exposure to light can fade or darken some objects, especially organic items like textiles and cordage.

Temperature. Storage at temperatures that are too high or too low can damage some kinds of artifacts.

Humidity. The relative humidity of the storage area can cause some kinds of artifacts to dry out and become brittle, or to become damp and susceptible to degradation.

Fire. A fire in the storage area can obviously destroy or damage artifacts, along with removing information about where the artifact came from (its provenience).

Water. Water damage from leaks or a flood can destroy or damage artifacts, dissolving or corroding some types of artifacts, and causing others to swell and distort.

Pollution. Gases, smoke, grease, and dust can disintegrate, corrode, and otherwise damage some kinds of artifacts.

Physical forces. The physical effects of gravity or the pressure from storage materials can distort and damage some kinds of artifacts. Physical forces also include the potential for deterioration that could result from tornadoes or earthquakes.

Can you think of something that can damage stored artifacts that is not on this list?

GA state capitol Early Archaeology in GA display 2002

“Early Archaeology in Georgia” display in the Georgia Capitol (November 2002).