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Preserving our heritage

18 May 2010

For immediate release

New approaches to preserving and storing heritage iron ranging from archaeological objects through to ships such as the ssGreat Britain are to be examined as part of a major multi-disciplinary project led by Cardiff University.

David Watkinson, Reader in Conservation at the School of History and Archaeology is working in collaboration with Manchester University and external partners from museum and commercial sectors to identify and test ideas for managing the preservation of heritage iron. Importantly, their approach focuses on the concept of 'corrosion control' rather than 'corrosion prevention'.

As iron readily corrodes, archaeological and historical objects are eventually destroyed during storage and display, especially when contaminated with chloride from burial or marine contexts. Only desiccation or de-oxygenation can entirely prevent corrosion in these instances, but desiccation can be energy-hungry and expensive and difficult to manage long-term. Ultimately, in a world of dwindling resources, not all objects can justifiably merit indefinite preservation. To address this challenge it is necessary to determine how long heritage iron will survive as a viable object in a given environment, and then use this information to develop preservation strategies that increase longevity according to available resources.

The new study will explore whether it is possible to define and assign lifespans to objects to help lower preservation costs and energy expenditure. The research team will do this in a number of ways. They will measure the corrosion rate of chloride contaminated heritage iron, define 'object lifespan' in relation to heritage value, relate this to atmospheric humidity and test novel ways of monitoring corrosion rate by developing two types of sensor.

They will then field test these results with partners in the museum and commercial sectors - ssGreat Britain, Mary Rose Trust, English Heritage, Museum of London, Eura Conservation and Dorothea Restorations – and produce a management model for optimising conservation based on controlled corrosion, cost and energy expenditure.

Speaking about the research, David Watkinson, School of History and Archaeology said: "This exciting and novel interdisciplinary study will generate data for developing a strong management tool to preserve heritage iron. The team expects the outcomes to have an international impact on heritage preservation and aspects of the study will transfer knowledge into other sectors. Quantifying corrosion will provide for informed conservation design and heritage management, which can take account of prevailing finance and energy availability to consider cost-benefit and carbon footprint outcomes in the preservation process."

The research will result in published guidance, data and techniques to inform management decisions for storage of iron taking into account preservation goals, cost, energy expenditure, flexibility, predictability and degree of control, and carbon footprint. The outcomes will be of direct practical use to the wide range of organisations that store and conserve large and small iron objects, both in the heritage sector and beyond.

The project is one of 16 across the country to be funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), through the Science and Heritage Programme. The Programme aims to protect the cultural fabric of the UK and further develop our understanding of it.

Worth more than £6.5M in total, the awards are intended to ensure that knowledge and innovation in cultural heritage research is strengthened and that early career researchers emerge to lead heritage science in the future.

Professor May Cassar, the Director of the UK Science & Heritage Research Programme, said: "These awards demonstrate the resurgence of heritage science as a result of the investment of the UK Research Councils. They will go a long way towards building the capacity of a robust heritage science research base for the future. The quality and range of the collaborative research projects and the individual post graduate fellowships will ensure that the UK maintains its global position in heritage science."

Speaking of the Research Council’s support for heritage science research in the UK Professor Rick Rylance, AHRC Chief Executive, said: "This is great news for the development of heritage science in Britain. We have a unique heritage and expertise in its development. It is crucial we maintain skills and tackle important projects such as these. It is also excellent to see expertise in humanities and technology working so closely and successfully together."


Notes to editors

1. Cardiff School of History and Archaeology
The School of History and Archaeology carries out teaching and research in four main areas: History and Welsh History; Ancient History; Archaeology; and Archaeology Conservation.

History and Welsh History offers a broad survey of the main aspects from the medieval period to the twentieth century. Areas of expertise include: Medieval England, the Crusades, military religious orders; early modern England and Wales; early modern Spain; and modern Indian historiography and gender history. The broad area of Europe and the British Empire in the Twentieth Century encompasses such research themes as: modern Germany; biological racism and ethics; the Right in France; and the Wilson era in British politics. Areas of expertise in Welsh history include early modern Wales; the gentry; industrialisation; popular culture and Welsh emigration/dispersal (with particular reference to North America)

Ancient History focuses on the social and economic history of the ancient world, with particular emphasis on: warrior elites; warfare and the formation; organisation and social effects of armies; violence and its control inside ancient societies; issues of identity, especially gender history and ethnicity; and slavery and other systems of labour and land exploitation.

Archaeology offers expertise in two main areas: the archaeology of Britain, Europe and the Mediterranean 5000BC-1000AD; and studies in ancient technology and the analysis of materials and conservation science.

The Archaeology Conservation degree scheme offered by the School is one of only two such undergraduate courses in Britain. It attracts conservation commissions from throughout the UK, giving students valuable hands-on experience. The teaching of Ancient History and Archaeology was assessed as "Excellent" in the recent national assessment of teaching quality in UK universities.

2. Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning.

3. For further information

Victoria Dando

Public Relations

Cardiff University

Te: 02920 879074