The adventure of archaeology and the thrill of discovery, whether on land or underwater, often receive the lion's share of attention and steal the limelight from the aspects of archaeology-conservation, research and publication-that make archaeology's continued scientific development possible. Many significant discoveries are made in the lab and library rather than the field, but the scientists in the lab wear fume or dust masks rather than diving masks when they make their discoveries.
Six days a week, INA-Egypt conservator Howard Wellman and his Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) colleagues Mamdoh Hussein and Tahany Mohamed continue their efforts to safely clean and conserve more than 3,000 artifacts from INA-Egypt projects now in the Alexandria Conservation Laboratory for Submerged Antiquities (ACL).
The laboratory, now in its second year of operation, is located on the grounds of Egypt's National Maritime Museum. INA-Egypt, in cooperative partnership with the SCA, uses the lab for conservation and training.The Sadana Island shipwreck excavation and the INA shipwreck survey program provide conservators and archaeologists with a variety of artifacts and materials to study from earthenware, porcelain, and glass to stone, bone, ivory, copper, brass, leather, wood, seeds, charcoal and even insects.
Desalinization is the first and most important conservation treatment for all these materials since the formation of salt crystals can literally blow an object apart. We keep all excavated artifacts wet from the moment we raise them in the field until they enter the Alexandria lab's freshwater storage tanks.
Cleaning stubborn marine concretion from delicate objects is work often accompanied by the music of dental picks, scalpels, tiny hand chisels, mini-drills and pneumatic chisels. Some materials, such as the hard-fired porcelain from the Sadana Island shipwreck, can withstand faster and easier chemical treatments.
Soaking porcelain in diluted hydrochloric acid weakens the hold of corals and other deposits of shells, algae skeletons and worm tubes so that gentle mechanical cleaning reveals the glazed porcelain surface. Other acids remove stains and return the porcelain to its original blue and white. Earthenware, unfortunately, is too soft to withstand the effect of strong acids, so conservators remove the stubborn concretion speck by tiny speck.
As the work progresses, conservators constantly make new discoveries. For example, cleaning two heavily corroded copper bracelets revealed a delicately variegated metal inlay. Separating stacks of porcelain dishes concreted together for hundreds of years revealed fragments of straw once used to wrap them for shipping. Underneath fragments of copper corrosion lay an inscription dating the ship and a name, perhaps one of the merchants on board; another metal box contained tobacco-his?
Other secrets disclosed this summer include preliminary identification of seeds and nuts from more than 700 samples taken from containers and other points on the Sadana Island wreck, linking it directly to a rich Indian Ocean trade stretching back thousands of years. Ultimately, ACL staff will preserve all these fragments of evidence--from coconuts to coriander, packing materials to porcelain-to be woven together in a vibrant tapestry illustrating the Sadana Island ship's last voyage.
None of this work would be possible without the combined efforts of the SCA and our corporate and individual supporters. We especially thank museum director Ahmed Bedawi, curators Selwa Abdel Magid and Hala Selim, SCA Director of Conservation Shawkhi Nakhla and Director of Conservation in Alexandria Amira Abu Bakr.
The generosity of the John and Donnie Brock Foundation supported the summer's research and preparations for the 1998 Sadana Island campaign, while Diane Haldane's donation provided darkroom equipment, a refrigerator, and chemicals for cleaning porcelain. Kodak-Egypt supplied camera and x-ray film, paper and chemicals that record the laboratory's ongoing discoveries.