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Waterlogged Organic Artefacts

Front cover for Waterlogged Organic Artefacts

Guidelines on their Recovery, Analysis and Conservation

By Angela Karsten, Karla Graham, Jennifer Jones, Quita Mould, Penelope Walton Rogers

These guidelines cover waterlogged organic artefacts, which range from minute fibre remains to complete items such as shoes, garments or containers. Waterlogged environmental remains (ecofacts such as pollen, plant remains and insects and unworked organic materials such as human or animal bone) are not included in these guidelines as they do not merit conservation in the same way as artefacts.

These guidelines are written for anyone working with archaeological waterlogged organic artefacts and cover all stages from project planning and initiation to archive deposition and curation. They are intended to make people aware of the wide variety of waterlogged organic artefacts that may be encountered during archaeological investigations. The overall aim is to ensure that the significance of waterlogged organic artefacts is appreciated, their research potential is fully realised and that they are integrated during the excavation and post-excavation phases. An overview of most waterlogged organic materials is given and good practice for the care of such artefacts is outlined. A bibliography and points of contact are provided for those who require more detailed information.

Organic materials were exploited from the earliest times. Their survival however is often poor, so that our understanding of their use in the past is limited. They can be preserved in wet or waterlogged (anoxic) sites. This includes seas, rivers, lakes and marshes, and excavations that reach down below the water table. Low-lying urban sites are often particularly rich in organic remains. Waterlogged organic artefacts are unstable when found and sensitive to rapid changes in environmental conditions, which, if not carefully controlled, can lead to the deterioration of artefacts upon excavation. Uncontrolled drying of organic materials and outbreaks of mould can lead to the total loss of archaeological evidence. To prevent this, some simple steps need to be taken. Correct packaging and storage and a swift workflow will not only benefit the preservation of organic materials after excavation but will also ensure that costs are minimised.


  • Introduction
  • Project planning stages
  • Condition of waterlogged organic materials
  • Lifting, handling and processing on site
  • Documentation, examination and analysis
  • Conservation
  • Where to get advice
  • Glossary
  • References

Additional Information

  • Series: Guidance
  • Publication Status: Completed
  • Product Code: 51748


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Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • A Medieval barrel at Nantwich containing a multitude of organic artefacts (© Earthworks Archaeology)
  • A typical marine environment: A deadeye with remains of rope from the Swash Channel Wreck
  • Bone, that has become extremely soft due to the acidic soil at Star Carr (note: the pictures depict the same bone being flexed) (© York University)
  • Bone, that has become extremely soft due to the acidic soil at Star Carr (note: the pictures depict the same bone being flexed) (© York University)
  • Direct lifting (left) and passive lifting (right) of a textile fragment
  • Roman hobnailed sole (Carlisle)
  • X-ray of Roman hobnailed sole to record condition and nailing pattern
  • Laser scanning and polynomial texture mapping were used to examine how fine surface details change during conservation. An area depicting tool marks viewed under different lighting conditions (left: specular enhancement, centre and right: differently angled light).
  • Roman plant-fibre cordage before conservation; Carlisle Millennium excavation (photo by J. Jones, Durham University)
  • The Roman rope from Carlisle was conserved by immersion in Primal WS24, PEG 400 and Glycerol followed by freeze drying. This resulted in a good colour but poor cohesion. An application of Primal WS24 to the dry rope improved fibre cohesion.
  • Basket in the process of being cleaned on the exterior (left: clean, right unclean)
  • Bespoke packaging for textiles (©York Archaeological Trust)

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