Each time an ancient vase disintegrates, a ceramic tile crumbles or a painting cracks and fades, another link with our past is lost and we understand just a little less about where we came from and, ultimately, who we are.
When the last artisan dies and an ancient technology is lost, we're similarly impoverished, says Pamela Vandiver, an internationally recognized expert in artifact preservation and, now, a professor at The University of Arizona.
Vandiver came to UA last year to start a program in Heritage Conservation Science (HCS) that trains students to stabilize, preserve and better understand ancient artifacts and how they were created and used.
The curriculum, which combines engineering, anthropology, architectural history and art history is particularly important today because many of the material links to our past are disintegrating, while the ancient technologies that created them are disappearing.
"To preserve our inheritance, we really need a group of scientists and engineers who can work with conservators and other experts to stabilize and preserve these objects," says Vandiver, who holds a joint appointment in Anthropology and in Materials Science and Engineering (MSE).
Knowing how these objects were made is just as important as preserving them, she added.
We might wonder what there is to understand. After all, we live in a high-tech, materials-oriented culture that can produce everything from ceramic heat shields for space shuttles to atom-sized electronic circuits. So there can't be much we don't know about making things, right?
“Wrong,” says Vandiver. For instance, the glazes on 10th to 12th century Chinese ceramics are a mystery. They're at the top of the heap in terms of stable, high-fired ceramics. But modern potters can't reproduce them.
In another case, we didn't understand the technology behind 12th century ceramics made at the recently excavated imperial kilns in Angkor Wat until last year when Vandiver and her Cambodian colleagues unraveled the process.
Khmer potters fired a quartzite-rich ceramic body and then re-fired the ceramic using a Chinese-style glaze. It was either a high-lime, green celadon glaze or a high-lime and iron brown glaze. The glazes were fired to between 1,800 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Celadon glazes have a translucent quality that is meant to resemble jade.
This ancient Cambodian technology now is being taught to local potters who are keeping it alive by producing reproductions of the 12th-century ceramics.
The technology has been so exactly replicated that "some of the border guards have started to intercept these new ceramics because they look exactly like the old ones," Vandiver says. "So we have succeeded in re-creating an important technology and keeping it alive."
Preserving ancient technologies is so important that UNESCO recently started an international program to preserve craft knowledge, Vandiver says. The program is similar to the one that designates World Heritage Sites.
Vandiver came to UA because much of the basic infrastructure needed to start an HCS program already existed on campus. Architecture has a degree in architectural preservation. Archaeology is a strong discipline at UA, and the university has world-recognized tree-ring and carbon-dating labs. The Arizona State Museum is a center for conservation of Southwestern artifacts, and UA has materials-based studies in art history, chemistry, classics, geosciences, and Near Eastern studies.
In addition, UA has a long history of socio-cultural studies and interdisciplinary cooperation between the MSE Department, Anthropology and other programs.
For Vandiver, UA was the ideal location to transfer her work after 18 years as a senior research scientist at the Smithsonian and as a MSE faculty member in the cultural heritage program at Johns Hopkins University.
The Johns Hopkins program was discontinued when two key professors retired, and Vandiver also found herself being kicked upstairs into administration at the Smithsonian.
"So I couldn't go on excavations, couldn't work in the lab, and couldn't work with students," she says. "It was getting more and more frustrating all the time."
She knew about the critical mass for heritage conservation science at UA because her former Ph.D. thesis supervisor, the late David Kingery, was on the UA MSE faculty for many years and organized collaborative research on historic preservation.
So she decided to follow her passion, discarding a prestigious senior position at the Smithsonian to start a new program at UA.
"We're trying to put materials science education at the core of historic preservation, rather than just wallpapering over an archaeologist or conservator with a few materials science courses," she says. "We are producing students who are truly dual disciplinary."
Currently, she and her students are working on several projects. These range from studying lost glazing technologies used on 12th-century Chinese pottery to unraveling the mysteries of a Hopi pottery style.
The projects also include studying adobe-making technologies and constructing kilns to better understand glass slags and Greek pottery. Another project involves studying the basic physics related to cleaning artifacts with lasers. To read more about these projects, see:
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