The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society operates a two thousand square
foot conservation laboratory that specializes in conserving underwater archaeological
artifacts. This means all the artifacts that are either recovered from our
archaeological expeditions or are donated are conserved on premises.
Currently our collection contains approximately 100,000 artifacts and consists of
a variety of inorganic and organic materials such as gold and silver bars
and coins; precious jewels; various metals; glassware and ceramics; ivory
as well as some organic artifacts such as wood, seeds, insect fragments,
bones, and leather. The objects range from cannons, cross bows and other
weaponry, to tools, ship's rigging, hardware, navigational instruments,
personal items, galley utensils, shackles, trade goods and coin chests.
When you enter the
conservation lab you will notice numerous large
tanks that contain hundreds of coral encrusted artifacts
immersed in fresh water. Artifacts recovered from wet environments must be kept
wet until they are stabilized because exposure to oxygen will alter their
physical and chemical state.
Each material type requires a specific treatment to become stable, and treatment
may vary between a few hours to several years depending on the material
type. Our conservation staff, volunteers, and interns conserve between 150
and 200 artifacts each year. After our artifacts have been successfully
conserved they go on display in our galleries and traveling exhibits, or
they are placed in our storage facilities and are available for scholarly
What is conservation?
Conservation is the process of stabilizing and protecting cultural property
from further deterioration. This involves the use of specialized treatments
and includes analysis, documentation, and long-term care. Conservators conduct
specialized treatments to physically and chemically stabilize the artifacts
to stop and prevent further deterioration. These treatments may be as simple
as desalination (removing soluble salts) in water baths, or more complex
involving chloride removal by electrolytic reduction. Treatments may take
as little as a few hours or as long as several years. To retain the object’s
integrity and diagnostic features, conservators take great care to protect
and maintain the object’s original structure and appearance. It is not the
goal of the conservator to restore the object to its original condition,
but rather to preserve the object in its present condition and to stop further
Conservation also involves maintaining the artifact’s condition after
treatment has been completed. Conservators monitor and adjust
environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and light in the galleries and storage facilities
to maintain an optimal environment to help sustain the artifacts condition
and increase its longevity.
Encrustation or Concretion
When an artifact enters sea water it becomes covered with bacteria, most
commonly, sulfate-reducing bacteria. The bacteria uses the surface of the
artifact for nutrients or as a place to inhabit. The bacteria attracts
living organisms such as corals, shellfish, and tubeworms, which attach
themselves to the surface of the artifact. When these organisms die, their
skeletal remains are left. New organisms attach to the old skeletal remains
and over time this process produces a dense layer that covers the artifact.
This layer is referred to as encrustation or concretion.
a few of the many things that go on in our lab:
you wanted to know about ivory, but were afraid to ask...
Where does ivory come from? In strict terms, true ivory
comes from the tusks of elephants. This includes both
African and Asian species and their prehistoric
ancestor, the mammoth. Click here to read more about this.
Conservation Grant Update
One year ago, in April 2001, the museum received its first Conservation Project Support grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
The project supported by this funding has been completed, and by all measures
is a success. Click
here to read more about this project.
MFMHS Conservators find clues to the past at the local
Over the years the Radiology Department at Lower Keys Medical Center has graciously provided the Society with an invaluable service, x-raying our concreted artifacts.
Click here to read more about this.
Mystery Artifact Identified
When iron artifacts are recovered from aqueous environments they are encrusted with a dense layer
of coral concretion. This layer forms as a result of the cyclic action of organisms attaching themselves
to the artifact then dying. Over time their skeletal remains build
up eventually encapsulating the artifact in a dense, concrete-like cover. Although the artifacts are completely concealed within the concretion, they can usually be identified by their general shape and size. Identification is more
difficult when two or more artifacts are encrusted together, or when an object is so unique there is nothing to compare it to, as was the case for our mystery artifact.
Click here to read more about this.
the conservation lab for more