Tortoise Undergoing Taxidermy

Katarina (Katy) Kaspari is a first-year student in the MSc Conservation for Museums and Archaeology programme at the Institute of Archaeology. Her interest in wildlife, biology, and chemistry led to an exploration in taxidermy that started at the Field Museum in Chicago and continues today. As a form of conservation of organic materials, taxidermy is an important area within the field of conservation. Here, Katy talks about her current treatment of a tortoise from the Grant Museum of Zoology collections. (Text by Amanda Imai)

Why is the conservation of taxidermy objects interesting to you?
I’ve always been really fascinated by the diversity of animal life on our planet from a young age. My favourite TV show as a kid was Really Wild Animals and my favourite place to go on school holidays was Lincoln Park Zoo to see live animals or to the Field Museum to see the taxidermy animals. When I was a kid I wanted to be a zookeeper or a marine biologist, but somehow along the way I ended up in conservation! I tried taxidermy for the first time in 2013 out of curiosity and found it to be a really interesting way to study an animal up close, but also to bring an animal back to life, marrying my interest in science and art really well (which is why I ended up in conservation as well!) When I worked in the bird prep lab at the Field Museum, I was amazed that I could be so close to birds that I had never even seen up close, and some of which I’d never even seen in a zoo, like penguins, cranes, an ostrich, multiple different species of owl, and, my favourite, a red-shoulder hawk. I think conserving taxidermy is so important because so many taxidermy specimens would be illegal to collect today, and for extinct and endangered species, taxidermy is one of the best records we have of what an animal looked like in life.

Tell us about the history of this object.
This tortoise comes from the collections of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. The age and provenance of the tortoise are not listed in the catalogue, although it came to the Grant Museum from the Imperial College Zoology Collection.

How does your treatment of this object differ from previous treatments?
This is the first reptile that I’ve worked with and will be the first taxidermy object that I’ve treated on my own. Prior to this I have taxidermied birds and mammals and have prepared a number of bird study skins, both of which have their own unique challenges different from conserving a taxidermy specimen.

What sort of animal and sex is Sandy?
“Sandy” is an Eastern Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni boettgeri). Based on the size and morphology of the carapace (shell), Sandy is likely to be an adult female. This is based off what I read here (, but I’m reasonably confident Sandy is female.

What did you discover from the X-ray images (below)?
From the X-rays I was able to tell that the entire skeleton is still inside the tortoise, as well as 7 wires – one in each rear foot, two in the tail, one extending from each front foot to the tail and one from head to tail.

What analysis and treatment needs to be done?
The biggest damage to the tortoise is the significant loss of the keratin scutes (scales) on the shell. Of the 50 scutes that were originally present on the tortoise, only 5 complete scutes remain, while fragments of 24 others remain in place, which means that 21 scutes are missing entirely. As the purpose of taxidermy is to give the illusion of an animal in suspended animation for all time, the sensory aspects of taxidermy specimens are of great importance. The loss also detracts from the functional and evidentiary value of this tortoise as a teaching specimen, as the lack of scutes limits the ability of this tortoise to be compared with others of the same species, which is highly important as a specimen in a comparative zoology collection. Treatment will focus on re-creating new scutes for the tortoise, moulded in Steramould moulding compound and will likely be formed in painted Japanese tissue paper to replicate both the colour and texture of the scutes.

(Acknowledgements: I thank Emmy Kingham at the Grant Museum of Zoology and Anastasia van Gaver at the Cambridge Zoology Museum for their suggestions of materials to use in this process.)

Why did you name her Sandy?
Initially, I wasn’t sure if Sandy was male or female, so I wanted a unisex name. Truthfully, I just went to and kept clicking random name until I found one that I liked. Sandy seemed like a good name for a tortoise.




And we have a winner!

Our caption contest is officially over and we have a winner!! UCL’s own (and Taffy’s dad) Dean Sully submitted the winning caption:

“Attempts to ensure that a diverse range of views are incorporated into the conservation decision-making process have increasingly undermined what Sully has previously attempted to present as ‘Peoples-Based Conservation’. Taffy (an advocate of canine rights and an archaeological specialist with an expertise in the post-excavation processing of osteological finds), has been a particularly out-spoken critique of the inherent discrimination evident in this approach that marginalises non-human perspectives on conservation responses. Here she can be seen during a conservation consultation, providing an individual perspective on the canine world view of the treatment archaeological metal work.”



Send us your caption ideas for this adorable photo by the end of May and we’ll choose a winner 🐶


There will be a cookie and/or trophy based prize 🏆

Submissions accepted via DM, email, comment, carrier pigeon, etc.: on Facebook at UCL Conservation Lab Chat, on Twitter @uclconservation, email

Featuring: Brooke and Taffy

Powerful Encounters: Surveying and Treating Paediatric Plaster Casts at the UCL Pathology Museum

By Thea Christopherson

Photos courtesy of Maria Melendez, Emilie Tréhu, and Jan Cutajar

This autumn, the MSc Year 1 students ventured to the Royal Free Hospital to survey new ‘patients’ for treatment – a collection of late 19th century plaster models of paediatric patients at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), now housed in the UCL Pathology Collections. The casts have a ‘sober’ aesthetic, painted white and lacking ornamentation, that matches their subject matter. Originally used by physicians and students at GOSH in the 19th Century for teaching, learning, and research about contemporary medical practice, they continue to provide three-dimensional representations for UCL medical students of physiological deformities and ailments that remain prevalent today.

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Two of the plaster casts of late-19th century paediatric patients from GOSH. Above: the arm of a 12-year-old girl with rickets. Below: the left leg of a 7-year-old boy with talipes equino-varus (a club foot).

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Our work with the plaster casts began with a full in situ collection survey, conducted every Friday for five weeks, to investigate the condition and packaging of the casts, and to aid the Curator, Subhadra Das, and UCL Museums’ Senior Conservator, Susi Pancaldo, in selecting specific casts for a planned exhibition at the museum. The main expectation for the project was to determine if the casts were safe to be handled, stable, and fit for display. Initially, we conducted a pilot survey of 10 objects in order to discuss encountered issues and establish categories of information to include. As pairs of two students surveyed the pilot objects, each team came back to the group with slightly different recommendations. Integrating each set of observations was an illuminating learning experience when we realised the need to agree on very specific definitions for words we were used to using casually, such as ‘abraded’ vs. ‘scratched,’ in order to ensure consistency across teams when conducting the full survey. This process proved to be very helpful for creating a survey form customised specifically to the plaster cast collection. We also decided that the surveying would continue to be conducted by groups of two, with the remaining student acting as ‘quality controller,’ moving between the groups to ensure consistency of method.


The three teams of two, hard at work carrying out the survey at the UCL Pathology Collection in the Royal Free Hospital.

During the survey, we were confronted by the powerful impact of the deformed body parts of children hidden away in archival boxes and acid-free tissue. In contrast to a photograph, the physicality of each individual cast certainly portrayed the pain and suffering of the individual patient very vividly, and affected many of us emotionally. While examining each cast with an eye for structural and surface damage during the survey, it became possible to let the fact slip that these pieces represented the forms of real children. Notwithstanding this, we made an effort to treat the objects with respect for their history, aided by the ability to identify some of the patients by name and age in the collection records.

After the survey, each student chose an object (from those already selected for exhibition) for individual treatment. As a group, we formulated a collective conservation approach based on Subhadra’s request that the objects retain visual evidence of use and manufacture, including years of disuse in museum stores, but also be stable enough for handling and display. We agreed on a treatment of gentle, superficial surface cleaning to a minimal extent in order to preserve the casts’ historic appearance while also highlighting the clinical aesthetic of the white painted surfaces. Additionally, we had to remove enough soiling that it would not become mobile during surface relaying, which we undertook with white spirit and a 50% v/v mixture of Lascaux MFC (an aqueous acrylic dispersion) in de-ionised water.

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Emilie doing surface relaying with white spirit and 50% v/v Lascaux MFC in de-ionised water: with a no. 10 brush (left hand) white spirit was used to flood the area beneath an area of paint delamination, then a no. 0 brush (right hand) was used to deposit a small amount of consolidant at the edge of the flake. The consolidant was drawn underneath the flake by capillary action and, remaining on the plaster surface due to the saturated apolar environment beneath it, adhered the paint back to the surface of the cast as gentle pressure was applied.

Future work will focus on repackaging the cast collection. It is hoped that the collection will continue to be in use and retain their informational value, aesthetic, and associative power to visitors and students alike for generations to come.

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Emilie’s object, the cast of a child’s face with a harelip, before (above) and after (below) treatment. The surface was lightly cleaned and delaminating paint was stabilised, but not all soiling was removed, and surface loss was not replaced in order to retain the cast’s historic appearance.

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Conservation for the Digital Age

Alex Uhde, Guest Contributor


Editor’s note: The Institute of Archaeology’s Technical Service Manager, Alex Uhde, was presented with the challenge of retrieving and preserving material at risk of being lost, much as we strive to do as conservators. Alex kindly wrote up the technical process and experience for us, as an insight into the possibilities and realities for conservation of modern digitally supported culture, in which the material itself may be less tangibly linked to the information it supports than we are used to.

A member of academic staff presented me with an unreadable USB flash drive and asked me to salvage the data. Although the USB controller was detected by the computer, the data it housed did not appear. This suggested that the odds of data recovery were low, but I continued as the data on the drive was of high importance.

First, I removed the plastic shell of the drive and found nothing of immediate concern at first glance. On closer inspection, I found a small spot of corrosion connecting two pins on the flash memory chip. This I removed with the tip of my screwdriver, and then connected the drive again, only to receive the same unsuccessful result.

At this point, I decided that there were only two likely remaining possibilities: complete failure of the flash memory chip (or a portion of the circuit connecting it to the controller), or a cold/cracked solder joint.

I made several more attempts to connect the drive, and on one attempt I did get the LED to flash and the name of the drive – though none of its contents – to show up. This occurred whilst tightly squeezing the flash memory chip. I could not replicate this in additional attempts, but it allowed me to have confidence that all components were functional and there was a solder problem.

Based on this, I decided to attempt a risky, and usually temporary, repair known as a ‘reflow’ to retrieve the data from the drive. This repair involves heating the board to a high temperature to slightly melt the solder and fix any broken or cracked connections. We do not have a heat gun in the IT office, so I set out to search the building for one. Dean Sully from the Conservation Lab kindly agreed not only to the use of a heat gun, but to perform the reflow himself. I explained the principle of the reflow process and the desired result.

Dean heated the board until some of the printing and surface coatings started to burn off. Paying especially close attention to the two sets of connecting pins on the flash memory chip, I used a glass bristle brush to gently remove excess soot and debris from around the most sensitive connections before connecting the drive to a computer. Unlike in previous attempts, it was instantly recognised and the data could be fully recovered from the drive. The drive operated as normal.

A copy was taken of the data, as the repair is not expected to last long term due to the on-going presence of the underlying causes of failure and the removal of the drive’s protective coatings. The data, however, was successfully preserved and the drive, sans casing, returned to the owner.

When Heritage Mending Meets DIY Repair

By Daran Qin

Photos courtesy of Thea Christopherson

If your office chair is broken, will you repair it or throw it away?

Repair Cafe 1

Our table (lower left) at the UCL Repair Café event, held in the main quad of the University.

Last month, some of the MSc 1 Conservation students joined the UCL Repair Café project to advocate repairing and reusing what we already own. Choosing to repair damaged everyday objects is not only fun and environmentally friendly but also reclaims the memories associated with them. Let’s be honest, who hasn’t got a priceless treasure that others may see as meaningless and useless? It might be a childhood memento, an ornament made and given by a friend, or a charm that you’re certain brings you luck. It is the stories behind the objects that connect us to them.

As conservators, we just broadly love objects. Their associations with people, society, events, and ideas attract us and are significant to us when making decisions about repair. By mending the objects, we aim to recover both their functional and emotional values, even as we write ourselves into their biographies. Different from purely functional DIY repair, however, heritage mending requires carefully considering relationships, sometimes at the price of sacrificing functionality.

Repair Cafe 2

Thea and Dean teaching an unsuspecting member of the public.

For the Repair Café, we created a scene of “Theatre of Conservation”. Fully equipped with white lab coats, goggles, gloves, masks, and mysterious analytical instruments, we presented ourselves as the wizards of heritage, offering to share our secrets with Muggles. Two chairs were set up for distinguishing “professional heritage repair” from “hasty DIY repair.” Another two chairs were on the stage in order to give the public the chance to experiment with our analytical instruments and to understand the ways that conservators assess the condition and significance of objects.

Repair Cafe 3

Letting everyone know we mean business.

From the conversations we had, it seemed there was awareness of the benefits of repair and reuse for the environment and curiosity in the difference between conservation and DIY repairs. People showed particular interest in getting to practice conservation techniques themselves under our supervision.

This was just the beginning. In the future, we are going to organize more events to share our enthusiasm for objects and showcase the professional skills of heritage mending. Many people signed up to our contact list, expressing interest in attending our future events to learn ways that conservators undertake heritage mending.

What is your impression of conservators? Scientists who can deal with complicated chemistry problems or artists who are able to understand history and society? We are proud of being both. Want to step into the magical world of conservation? Come and join us!

Teach us something, please…

Welcome, from the 2017-2018 MSc1 Conservation team!

By Brooke Pollio

Group Pic

Back row (left to right): Daran, Thea, Emilie, Maria
Front row (left to right): Brooke, Yuhsin, Chenya

We’re a small team this year — there are only seven of us — and we’ve already formed a very close-knit group. We have an advantage over larger teams from previous years: there’s more space in the lab, and it’s easy to bond with such a small number of people. Within a month, we’d  already built a strong sense of community.

Building a cohesive team can be tough, especially if you have a large number of people or clashing personalities. Who really likes ‘team building’ exercises anyway? For our group, team building happened organically when we stumbled upon a subject that transcended our various ages, interests, and backgrounds: Harry Potter.

Leviosa not Leviosar

(Disclaimer: this is not something we learn in the conservation programme.)

We found that we could communicate more effectively with each other once we determined our Hogwarts houses. Eventually this led to the printing of house banners and designation of Moaning Myrtle’s toilet in the lab office (because the occasional breakdown is inevitable).

Crying Cupboard

“I’m sorry, you cannot access the computer at this time; Brooke is having a minor meltdown. Please try again in 15 minutes.”

We’re also lucky to have brilliant, dynamic professors and teaching assistants that are willing to play along, and our Hogwarts staff is nearly complete. I say ‘nearly complete’, because we’re still waiting on official word from the Sorting Hat on the designation of Dean and Renata. We take this very seriously.


Of course, not everything we do is related to Harry Potter. Our first few weeks have been filled with learning the basics — everything from holding a scalpel to the definition of ‘dirt’ (a several-hour-long lecture on ‘dirt’, mind you). We’ve been settling into the lab as well. Each of us has our own workstation that we can make our own.


Each workspace fits two people, and everyone has their
own microscope, magnifying lamp, and fume extractor.

At first, the only distinction between the workstations was the presence of our Hogwarts house banners.

House Banners

Banners created by yours truly (50 points to Ravenclaw).
(Editors note: While she does try to remain objective, the editor agrees with this allocation of points. Go Ravenclaw!)

 We’re learning conservation techniques by practicing on surrogate modern materials that we have more confidence with. For example, we learned to use a scalpel and tweezers to take samples from an object by practicing on personal items from Caitlin’s office.

Sampling Practice

A selection of Caitlin’s objects to use for practice sampling.

Some of us grew more attached to these objects than others.

Brooke's Boyfriend

Witnesses claim Brooke has been caught repeatedly with Caitlin’s wooden dragon.

We’ve also gaining familiarity with adhesives that we’ll be using or encountering in our careers. We started by taking a ceramic tile and applying sample strips of different adhesives to the surface. This allowed us to experience what it’s like to apply these adhesives when wet, and to see what the adhesives look and feel like when dry.

Adhesive Tile

A ceramic tile with various adhesives.

We can also view the adhesive tiles under ultraviolet (UV) light to see how the adhesives fluoresce. That’s kind of like magic, right?

UV Adhesives


On Fridays we’re surveying and conserving 19th century plaster casts at the UCL Pathology Collection at the Royal Free Hospital. (Editor’s note: stay tuned for a future post by the leaders of the project on how we created and implemented our survey.) Afterwards we head to the nearest pub, The George, for some tipples. No butterbeer here, but they do offer some boozy hot chocolate.

The George
The George…
Pub Pug

…where Yuhsin met a pug equally excited for Friday.

Be sure to check back for updates on objects we’re working on in the lab and pod projects we’re managing out in the real world. We might share the progression of the lab into our own miniature Hogwarts as well. I suspect the lab will be looking even more cheerful after one of the houses wins the House Cup. Once the results are in, we’ll be sure to send you an owl.

“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!”

~ Albus Dumbledore ~

Who’s Your Daddy?

Samantha Jovanovic

Or rather, who is Kyle’s Daddy? We don’t know.


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The finished product!


There is the perception that conservation is reserved for ancient museum artefacts, but the truth is, conservation is done on a wide range of objects, including modern ones. For my high-fired ceramic project, I worked on a modern, rather mundane-looking coffee mug. It was probably made in a factory somewhere with millions of other coffee mugs just like it. This coffee mug ended up being decorated specifically to commemorate someone’s first Father’s Day.

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The mug as it was received.

At some point the mug was damaged and made its way to the UCL IoA conservation lab. As a student interested in taking on more complex projects later in the year, I chose this mug to start on. Another thing about conservation: you cannot necessarily tell how long a project will take until you start. Some objects that look complicated, end up being a breeze, and then there are objects that are deceptively simple-looking. This mug ended up being the latter.


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All wrapped up and clamped to ensure tight joins as the adhesive dries.


There are times when an object does not have an owner or caretaker—a person that makes decisions on its care. Much of what is done by a conservator is based on the what the owner of the object wants done to it. So what happens when an object doesn’t have anybody? Well, you do the best you can. I had many discussions with Dean, the course coordinator for the MSc programme, about what would be best for the object and me, as a conservation student. As most of the pieces were available, it was decided that cleaning and reconstruction would be the best route. While I endeavoured to maintain some of the ‘evidence of use’, it didn’t always turn out the way we had anticipated.

The mug was very, very dirty; with soiling embedded deep into the ceramic substrate. Cleaning the mug took months of soaking and many runs under the steam cleaner to pull all of the soiling through the ceramic. It turned into a particularly arduous task. By the time I put it back together, I actually had not realized how successful I was in the cleaning. Before, all the fragments were different shades of brown, and now that are a continuous shade of light beige or off-white.

On a personal note, one of the reasons I chose this mug is because a few years ago I made a Father’s Day mug for my dad. Obviously, I was much older than Kyle when I made my mug, but the decoration is similar. I applied hand prints that look like they are cradling the mug in my hands and I put a similar “I ❤ DAD” motif.

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Pictures of the Father’s Day mug I painted for my dad.


If you recognise this mug and have any information as to who it may belong to please contact Dean Sully at

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Chedworth Roman Villa

Katie Cook

Term three in the conservation lab started off with an expedition outside of its familiar rooms. On April 26, the UCL MSc Year 1 students made their annual visit to the Chedworth Roman Villa. The villa is one of the largest Roman villas in Britain and is currently managed by the National Trust. The day began with a brief tour of the site, led by Lauren, which provided an overview of the site and some idea of the work that goes into maintaining it during the year and the issues that crop up.

Picture 1

The introductory tour, talking about covering pilae to protect them during the winter.

Although the forecast looked a bit dreary in the morning, the day certainly had its lovely bits. The villa is situated in a sheltered area where it looks out over the River Coln in the Cotswalds. Although Chedworth villa is prominent for its discovery by the Victorians, its preservation and its status as a National Trust property, it is only one of some 50 villas in the area.

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A look out over the view from the villa.

The villa has had a very interesting history, as it was uncovered nearly 150 years ago by the Victorians, who did their own work on the site to help preserve it and make it accessible to visitors. Their reconstruction and preservation efforts can still be seen around the site today, including the building that today houses the museum.

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Victorian-built museum and National Trust office.

Chedworth Villa is best known for its beautiful mosaics, which can be seen in the triclinium, West Bath House, North Bath House and corridor (also known as the ambulatorium). Unfortunately, such treasures also come with preservation challenges. One of which is the fact that all the mosaics save for that in the corridor are built on pilae, i.e. small columns, that support the floor and allow for a hypocaust system beneath it. A fire would be set at the entrance to this system, and the heat would run under the spaces to heat the rooms and floor. However, deterioration of this system over time has also caused some loss due to collapsed floors.

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A view of one of the West Bath House floors, with the pilae and hypocaust system visible beneath the remaining floor.

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The mosaic corridor or ambulatorium.

UCL conservation students have been making annual visits to Chedworth Roman villa for many years in order to help manage the unique environmental situation that impacts the mosaic floors. The villa is situated slightly downhill from a natural spring, which causes a lot of moisture to be present in the soil. Because the mosaics are situated on the ground in some areas, as in the long corridor, they also take up salts from the ground. If the rooms become too wet, microbiological growth appears, causing damage to the surface of the stones and walls, but when they are too dry the salts crystallize out of the mosaics, also causing damage.

Over the years improved shelter buildings and the introduction of drains and conservation-grade environmental controls have helped to regulate the environment around the mosaics, thanks to an HLF-funded project. A UV eradication program has also been implemented to control microbiological growth on the mosaics. Some areas, however, still need to have heavy growth removed manually so that this system can be used.

And that is where this year’s UCL students came in. Aside from assessing the condition of the main mosaics and rooms in the villa, students tackled the removal of heavy microbiological growth in the North Bath House. Plant growth causes deterioration due to the creep of their anchoring systems beneath the surfaces of mortar and tiles, which then pop off as the plants grow larger.

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The North Bath House: Jan and Adriana preparing for the day, with Libby hard at work in the northernmost bath.

Because the UV removal system is only effective when the plant and microbiological growth is thin enough to be eradicated, removing and thinning out thick growth by hand is necessary before it can be implemented in the North Bath House. With the use of brushes, scalpels, and various hand tools, students tackled the thick patches of greenery.

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Monica and Libby cleaning in the North Bath House.

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Amreet and Gabrielle cleaning in the North Bath House.

Although it is task that takes more than a day to complete, we nevertheless managed to make a dent in the green growth in the North Bath House, which in turn will help keep the stones and mortar intact until further cleaning. In the end, this will allow future visitors, like you, to be able to appreciate these remarkable Roman finds in the depths of the Cotswolds.


Keep an eye out for more posts, coming soon!

Making the Invisible Visible

Katie Cook

Archaeological objects can be fascinating and beautiful artworks all on their own. Think of the Venus de Milo or the Winged Victory of Samothrace, renowned for their beauty despite the fact that both are incomplete. The really important bits of archaeology, however, are the small everyday objects that inform us about the lives of people: the pottery, the remnants of meals, the waste from the production of various crafts. These objects are valuable when they have context, that is information about precisely where they came from within the geography and time line of a site.

Recently, I was working on an archaeological ceramic, a large body sherd from a storage jar found at Tell Jemmeh in Palestine (EXXXVI.49/75), which had lost its context. Without context, this piece of pottery had lost its ability to inform archaeologists about production, decoration, vessel shape and origins of the object within its site, as it could have come from any place within it and any time period.


The whole (section) of the storage jar EXXXVI.49/75, pre-treatment

While cleaning, though, I noticed traces of blue writing, which is readily observable on many other Petrie objects which were marked in the field with their context information. Doesn’t look like much to start with, though, does it?


Having the context information would be very helpful, though! So I undertook a series of imaging tests in order to try and make the faint traces visible enough to read. My first attempt was to examine the object under ultraviolet (UV) light. If it fluoresced, that would make it much more apparent. Unfortunately, it didn’t. While the traces did darken under infrared (IR) light, that wasn’t enough to make it readable, either.

My next attempt was to delve into photoshopping high quality images to manipulate the writing into visibility. And that worked! To one extent or another. I came up with a few final images using a variety of techniques:


Stuart Laidlaw, one of the photographers at the IoA, kindly tried his hand at bringing the writing up as well, and had a bit more success in keeping the colour visible than I did:


Luckily, though faint, it is just enough to make out what looks like HK 180, a context number that Rachael Sparks, the Keeper of Collections at UCL for the Petrie Palestinian Collection, was able to confirm as a viable context number for the site of Tell Jemmeh. It looks like the pot has a context after all, which makes it a far more valuable research tool!

All images are provided courtesy of the UCL Institute of Archaeology Collections (