Ceramics, Salts, and Sun: Conservation at the Arizona State Museum

Monitoring the rate of salt extraction from a ceramic pot with ASM Conservation Specialist Marilen Pool (left). Photo by Casey Mallinckrodt.

Greetings from Tucson! My name is Crista Pack, and I’m in the WUDPAC class of 2013, majoring in objects conservation. This summer I’m interning at the Arizona State Museum (ASM). My time here has primarily been spent working on ceramics as a part of the museum’s Pottery Project, which involves the survey, conservation, and rehousing of the ASM’s entire ceramic collection. Over the duration of the project, conservators here have looked at more than 20,000 ceramics—700 of which were determined to be high conservation priority and brought for treatment to the ASM lab.

Treatments I have conducted as a part of this project include the desalination of Casas Grande and Salado ceramic pots. Ceramics such as these can contain salts within their clay bodies that were acquired during manufacture or use—or while buried in the ground. Sometimes we need to remove some of these salts through a desalination process that involves soaking the ceramic in deionized water. This is done because salts can be extremely damaging. As they crystallize, the salts take up more space and literally push the ceramic surface off—causing pits to form on the surface. By carefully monitoring the salt extraction rate during desalination, we can remove excess salt and improve both the stability and aesthetic of the object.

Petroglyphs at Rock Art Ranch. Photo by Crista Pack.

As I write this, we are quickly approaching the final days of the Pottery Project and will have the last treatments finished within the next week. Then, we will begin shifting gears to prepare for the museum’s next big project: the conservation and rehousing of the collection’s 25,000+ baskets and woven objects!

I also had the opportunity this summer to visit an archaeological field school in northern Arizona. ASM conservator Dr. Nancy Odegaard took me, my fellow intern Casey Mallinckrodt (UCLA/Getty Class of 2014), and conservation assistant Gina Watkinson to the Rock Art Ranch. It is a working ranch located near Winslow, Arizona, and gets its name from the amazing rock art found there which dates from 6000 BCE to 1400 CE. Excavations at the ranch have uncovered objects from numerous occupations ranging in date from 3500 BCE to 1200 CE. These have given researchers new insights into the archaeological Mogollon Rim and Colorado Plateau cultures.

Cleaning ceramic sherds at the Rock Art Ranch. Photo by Dr. Nancy Odegaard.

At the ranch we worked with the students and faculty to learn about the process of site surveying and excavation. We also had an opportunity to work in the field lab, where we cleaned ceramic sherds and performed microchemical spot tests to determine pH and salt levels of the dig site water and soils. I learned a lot about the differences between conservation in the field and in the museum. It was hot and dirty work (complete with caterpillar frass falling from the trees above us!), but a fully rewarding experience that I’ll never forget!

Crista Pack graduated with BAs in art history and studio art from Northern Illinois University in 2001 and an MA in art history from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2006. Her art historical and conservation interests have centered on Native American and Latin American studies, which she will continue as she begins her third-year internship with the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe this September.

Winterthur is celebrating 60 years of graduate programs in art conservation and material culture studies in the current exhibition A Lasting Legacy: Sixty Years of Winterthur Graduate Programs, on view through June 16, 2013.

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