UP’s research conserves valuable museum collection

Posted on April 07, 2015

Priceless Iron Age artefacts from the Unesco World Heritage Sites of Mapungubwe and K2 have been conserved and are being exhibited by an expert team of specialists and researchers from the University of Pretoria. This has set a precedent for future archaeological preservation endeavours. The collection consists of rare bone tools and ivory pieces. The newly restored pieces are the first of their kind on display in South Africa and amongst one of the largest collections in the world.  Organic materials in these quantities are not generally found because they are prone to decay. The worked bone and ivory collection is dated to as far back as 1020 -1290 AD and provides a fascinating insight into Iron Age civilizations in South Africa.

The artefacts consist of intricately designed and decorated bone tools like awls and needles, and worked elephant ivory that was fashioned into personal ornamental items like bangles. It has been postulated that a specialised bone tool industry existed at Mapungubwe. Other findings from Mapungubwe include the famous gold rhino, which is an example of an extremely sophisticated metalwork and manufacturing.

It has taken two years and more than 2400 bench hours to complete the restoration, preservation, conservation and curation.  Says Sian Tiley-Nel, chief curator and project manager of the University of Pretoria Museums, “Each of the 360 bone tools and 14 ivory pieces has been catalogued and detailed conservation notes were made on the level of deterioration, damage and condition and type of passive preservation required. Each piece had its own research report generated for further studies”.

Unique environmental control factors to minimise decay and specialised packaging, display and storage facilities were developed. A faunal specialist in archaeozoology had to be brought in for further analysis. In addition to this, other experts had to be brought in for consultation such as curators and archaeological conservators, museum illustrators, graphic designers, museum assistants, photographers and museum specialist exhibition designers.

Improved scientific methods of inquiry and better processes for preservation have been developed in the 80 years since the initial discovery where many of the pieces were improperly handled and stored. “In the past it was common practice for archaeologists to employ treatments such as glue and varnish which now had to be removed. Some pieces were harshly treated and cleaned with acetone and water in the field and lab by faunal specialists and archaeologists. Invasive analysis procedures and improper laboratory handling added to some of the deterioration,” explains Tiley-Nel.

The Lerapo (meaning bone in Sepedi) Collection is a permanent display on show at the University of Pretoria Museums. As many as 10 000 people visit UP’s museums per annum which house large collections of art, sculptures, ceramics and archaeological interests.

Vice Chancellor and Principal Prof Cheryl de la Rey and US Ambassador to South Africa His Excellency Patrick Gaspard were on hand to officially open the display. The US Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation awarded a grant to UP Museums to allow for the conservation and curation of these priceless pieces.

- Author Department of University Relations

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