Conservators at Work on Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel Project

Emma Hayles, one of our recent graduates, is now working as an archaeological conservator, looking after items uncovered during the Metro Tunnel Project excavations.

After doing an undergraduate degree in Archaeology, Emma Hayles went on to complete a Master of Cultural Materials Conservation in 2017. Since 2018, she has been working on the Metro Tunnel Project as an archaeological conservator. In this interview, she explains what conservators do, and talks us through what happens to objects uncovered during the excavation process.

What does an archaeological conservator do?

The basic role of the archaeological conservator is to look after the artefacts that are uncovered during archaeological excavations. These artefacts are really precious resources for understanding and interpreting the past, and they’re often very fragile; they need specialised care based on knowledge of different kinds of materials and how to handle and store them.

A big part of our role is stabilising the objects, so that archaeologists can study them. We perform ‘first aid’ on the objects and help make decisions about which objects require more interventive treatment and need to be taken to a laboratory.

There are various different components to the work. We document the artefacts, to make sure that everything is recorded in a systematic and precise way, for example. And we also clean the objects so as to reveal information that will help the archaeologists studying the objects and the sites.

In this role, you’re working within a team environment together with artefact processors, archaeologists, and historians, so you have to be mindful about balancing the needs of conservation work with the needs of others within the team. Often this means that you need to find creative solutions for problems, especially on site, when you have limited space for storing artefacts or for bringing specialist equipment.

One of the great things about working in a team like this is that your colleagues are just as excited about the objects as you are!

Afternoons spent separating and categorising potter sherds into Hellenistic, Roman Amphora, or Medieval types on the Paphos Theatre Excavations in Cyprus, 2010. Photographer: Emma Hayles

What led you into this field?

I was very lucky to grow up in a family that loved history, and to attend schools that had fantastic history programs and passionate teachers who really encouraged my interest in the field. So, I think my passion for all things history, and wanting to conserve that history, stems from that. I can still vividly remember learning about Tutankhamun and Howard Carter when I was little! I always knew that I wanted to do something in the history/archaeology field.

I did my undergraduate degree in archaeology, majoring in Near Eastern and Central Asian archaeology. During my studies I really tried to immerse myself into the archaeology discipline by volunteering at museums, taking on cataloguing roles, and participating in excavations overseas in places like Jordan and Cyprus. Towards the end of my undergraduate degree I worked as a sub-contract archaeologist.

But while I loved every minute of my archaeological work, I found myself increasingly drawn to the actual material artefacts being excavated – I found myself especially interested in what the objects themselves can tell us, and in what happens to them post excavation. Once I started to learn more about conservation, I was really attracted by the fact that the field straddles both the arts and science, and that it involves the technical, the cultural and the scientific. I really love the hands-on nature of materials conservation, the large variety of artefacts you get to work on, and the fact you are continuously learning about new techniques and methods of conserving artefacts.

Do you have any key mentors?

The people who have most influenced me are probably conservators that I’ve encountered through the Master’s course and then later on site at the Metro Tunnel Project. To see the wealth of knowledge, the dedication and the experiences that the conservators have at Grimwade Conservation Services, has really shaped the way I view the field and my own practice. Listening to the other conservators talk about their treatment challenges and solutions has really pushed me to acquire more knowledge, and makes me think about my own treatment practices more critically.

My manager, Holly Jones-Amin, has been working as a conservator for over twenty years and her career path really resonates with me because of the similarity of our academic pursuits. Being able to discuss treatments with her, and getting her opinion of my work has been an amazing experience – the depth of her knowledge means that she’s often able to point out things that I hadn’t even considered. She makes me think more widely, more critically and more holistically about the conservation process.

Time spent excavating on a Tell (Hill) at the Pella Excavations, Jordan, in 2011. The site has multiple occupation levels, dating from the Neolithic to the Byzantine Era. Photographer: Liesel Gentelli.

Tell us about your role on the Metro Tunnel Project.

I work as a contracted conservator on both the Melbourne CBD North site with Andrew Long and Associates, and the CBD South site with Grimwade Conservation Services. On both sites we were responsible for providing conservation first aid to artefacts that had just been excavated.

A huge array of materials were found on both excavations – from ceramics, glass, paper, metals, plaster, through to leather, and textiles – and this meant that the conservation process was varied. Organic materials like leather, textiles, wooden items and foodstuffs, are highly susceptible to deterioration and need special treatment. A large portion of the work on both sites involved cleaning these objects and putting them into cold storage.

The excavations also turned up various metal objects, such as coins and jewellery – here the needs are different and first aid treatments for these objects involved removing corrosion and surface accretions. We also found objects like the remains of newspapers – these required especially gentle cleaning. The work also involved stabilising and providing supportive packaging to those artefacts that will need more intensive interventive laboratory work later.

The Metro Tunnel Project is my first job as a qualified archaeological conservator and it’s given me an incredibly valuable insight into the role of an archaeological conservator.

Tell us about your specific role and contributions in this project.

One of the first tasks I carried out was investigative cleaning of coins. Coins are used for dating occupation layers, so the archaeologists frequently request that they’re cleaned as a priority.

The first step involved in this kind of cleaning is to try to remove the corrosion, so that we can see what’s underneath. To do this, I used a microscope, and a combination of mechanical tools like scalpels and brushes, and solvents. Once sufficient corrosion had been removed, and the date on the coin could be determined, the coins were then passed on to our artefact manager so that they could be recorded and documented on the site’s database. Later on, those coins will also go through further stabilisation conservation treatments.

Careful reduction of adhesive on organic materials under the microscope using solvents and soft brushes in the Lab at Grimwade Conservation Services. 2019. Photographed by Victoria Thomas

Were there any surprises for you while working on the project?

One of the main surprises was the type of artefacts that survived. A large amount of organic materials and foodstuffs were excavated, with many intact, really well-preserved samples. This was fascinating because I’d never worked with foodstuffs before, and because this is a relatively unusual item, it’s likely that I won’t come across it again.

The organic materials, especially the textiles, were always interesting to work on as well. When textiles are excavated, they’re often scrunched up and mixed with wet sediment, and look like a lump of mud. In the process of conservation, you get to discover the weave and patterns and, whether they are identifiable parts of clothing or household items. I worked on one item that turned out to be half a vest piece, and slowly uncovering that was really surprising and exciting.

What was most rewarding about your work?

Working on the project has given me a much more tangible sense of Melbourne’s colonial settlement history, and it’s also been really rewarding working with items that have been put on public display.

For example, I got to help set up a small exhibition of some of the archaeological materials at Young and Jackson’s pub adjacent to the CBD south site. This is a semi-permanent exhibition, and it’s really nice to see a business take the initiative to incorporate something like that into their establishment.

The Metro Tunnel Project also has an exhibition on Swanston Street at Metro HQ, the Project’s information centre, where the public can go in and view some of the artefacts excavated, and I was lucky enough to conserve some of the items currently on display there. I feel very privileged to have had the chance to work with these artefacts, and I really like knowing that the public gets to engage with them and learn from them as well.

For more on the experience of working on the Metro Tunnel Project, see our companion post on SHAPS PhD Student Maddi Harris-Schober: ‘Archaeologists at Work on Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel Project’.

Video: Many thanks to Melbourne-based video production agency Creativa for capturing Emma’s story
Feature image: Still from Emma’s interview, 2019