Kaplan Responsive Preservation Initiative Helps Conserve Precious Bronze Age Cargo

Asu Selen Özcan

Conservator Asu Selen Özcan photographs a Bronze Age copper ingot recovered more than 50 years ago from the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck off the southwestern coast of Turkey. Photo by Nicolle Hirschfeld.

In this essay, Nicolle Hirschfeld, co-director of the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck project and one of CAORC’s first grantees for the J.M. Kaplan Responsive Preservation Initiative, discusses the importance—and challenges—of preserving archaeological treasures recovered from the deep.

The J.M. Kaplan Fund grant came just in the nick of time.

We are studying the metal cargo of a ship that sank just off the southwestern corner of Turkey, at Cape Gelidonya, ca. 1200 B.C. The ship was carrying a tinker and his tools of the trade: copper and tin ingots and ingot fragments; an assortment of broken bronze tools, intended to be recycled; and bronze-working implements. This cargo is the only one of its kind thus far excavated, and it is one of only a handful of excavated shipwrecks dated to the Mediterranean Bronze Age, an era so named because at that time copper and tin had a technical, economic, and strategic importance akin to that of oil today.

The ship that sank at Cape Gelidonya was first excavated in 1960 by G.F. Bass, one of the founders of the modern discipline of underwater archaeology. In 1987 he returned to the site and discovered there was more to find. He and his team returned several times in the next decade and finally again in 2010, fifty years after the first pioneering season. The objects recovered in 1960 had been carefully studied and well published by the standards of the day but techniques of conservation and analysis and documentation have advanced significantly since then and the objects recovered from this unique shipwreck merit re-study. Also, the artifacts recovered in the 1980s, 90s, and 2010 need to be added to the published record of the objects recovered from this site. This is particularly so because a shipwreck, like a tomb or a hoard, is a rare example in the archaeological record of a complete and deliberate assemblage. This particular Humpty Dumpty can and should be put together again.

Asu Selen Özcan

Conservator Asu Selen Özcan meticulously cleans concretions from one of the shipwreck’s copper ingots using a precision air compressor tool. Photo by Esra Altınanıt Biçer.

Our team of two metallurgists, a conservator, and me, the director of the project, started working together in summer 2015. We had big plans. But two years later, a lack of funds threatened to stall our momentum. At the end of the summer season our tiny budget would no longer be able to cover the costs of conservation.

The metallurgists’ job is to study the metals and mine is to keep the show running. But the conservator is the lynchpin. Nothing happens and all is lost if the conservator is not there to prepare the objects for study and preserve them afterwards so that they are still available for study in the future, when technologies of analysis will have improved again.

Stabilizing objects soaked in seawater for more than three millennia is tricky and the complicated chemistry of metals presents special challenges. First there is the difficulty of removing 3,000 years of marine growth and calcified encrustation without destroying the original surfaces, so that the metallurgists can clearly see the form and features of each artifact. Next there are the time-consuming tasks of desalination and then drying the sea-soaked objects. After the metallurgists have had their turn with the artifacts, the conservator must restore any damage made in the process of sampling. Finally, the metals must be consolidated so that they do not deteriorate in the open air (think of the greening bronze statues standing guard in city squares). The conservator keeps written records and makes photographs for each object at each stage in the process—these are important generally for keeping track but also are valuable documentation in case something goes wrong along the way and mushy or brittle edges and surfaces crumble. We are lucky that our conservator also has the technical chops to be able also to produce high-quality images suitable for final publication, in both traditional 2D and also 3D photogrammetry formats.

ship's cargo

Before they can be conserved, the ship’s copper cargo must first be desalinated and then left in containers to dry out. Photo by Joseph Lehner.

Asu Selen Özcan is a find as good as any we raised from the seabed. She first came to the Bodrum Research Center of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology on a trip with her university professor. Selen was a Fine Arts major, with a specialization in ceramics, and she was immediately intrigued by the pottery she saw strewn on the tables of the conservation laboratory. After completing her degree at Hacettepe University (Ankara) she returned to Bodrum for a six-month internship in summer 2016. It immediately became clear to everyone in the lab that Selen has exceptionally “good hands” (skill with handling artifacts) and over the summer she also demonstrated her abilities with cameras and computers. All those skills plus her attention to detail, her thoroughness, and general work ethic convinced the metallurgists and me that this was the person whom we wanted to entrust with conserving the metal cargo from Cape Gelidonya. She would learn the techniques from the lab supervisor, Esra Altınanıt Biçer.

We were lucky she accepted, but also lucky to have funds for her conservation work. Finding money for excavation is the easiest (though actually not easy at all) aspect of archaeological fundraising. Discovery is sexy and sells. Second easiest is raising funds for analysis, also a kind of discovery. But finding money for conservation is hard. “Cleaning,” “mending,” and “consolidating” are not keywords that light up application forms or donors’ philanthropic tendencies. The J.M. Kaplan-funded Responsive Preservation Initiative is a happy exception and we are grateful for the lifeline that came our way.

And Selena’s story with conservation will continue in the future. She has decided to pursue a career in archaeological conservation and is even now preparing her application for the graduate program in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Properties in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Gazi University in Ankara.

About the Author

Nicolle Hirschfeld author photo

Nicolle Hirschfeld teaches in the department of Classical Studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She first visited Turkey as a graduate student in 1986, to participate in the excavation of the Uluburun shipwreck, one of the touchstones for understanding overseas trade in the era of Tutankhamun and Homer’s heroes.

She was with George Bass when he first returned to Cape Gelidonya that summer and in 2010 he invited her to co-direct, with Harun Özdaş, the re-excavation of the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck, 50 years after the initial expedition. She is now overseeing the publication of a comprehensive re-evaluation of the discoveries made at the site.

J.M. Kaplan Fund

CAORC administers the J.M. Kaplan-funded Responsive Preservation Initiative (RPI), which provides critical funding to support urgent preservation, documentation, and site management efforts at cultural heritage sites around the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. Learn more

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