The Case of the Missing Biros

After receiving my much valued Christmas present of personalised Biros (thanks MSc 1 students) (See Figure 1), I have been increasingly anxious about the gradual depletion in my pen stocks (especially at this difficult time when the supplies of Biros may be subject to supply constraints).


Figure 1. Biros painstakingly personalised by the MSc1 students, who clearly don’t have assignments that are hard enough and have far too much free time.

I was troubled therefore to come across the work of Veet Voojagig, in Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, 1978, BBC Radio 4 programme (available on BBC Sounds, something to cheer you up during our splendid isolations).

Veet Voojagig, a quiet young student at the University of Maximegalon, pursued a brilliant academic career studying ancient philology, transformation ethics, and the wave harmonic theory of radical perception. However, after a night of drinking Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters with Zaphod Beeblebrox, he became increasingly obsessed with the problem of what happened to all the Biros he had bought over the past few years. There followed a long period of painstaking research during which he visited all the major centres of Biro loss throughout the Galaxy and eventually produced a theory that caught the public imagination at the time: Somewhere in the cosmos, he said, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloid, fishoids, walking treeoids, super intelligent shades of the colour blue, there was also a planet entirely giving over to Biro life forms. It was to this planet that unattended Biros would make their way, slipping quietly through wormholes in space to a world where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely biroid life style, responding to highly biro oriented stimuli, leading the Biro equivalent of the good life.

As theories go, this was all very fine and pleasant, until Veet Voojagig suddenly claimed to have found this planet and to have worked there for a while driving a limousine for a family of cheap green retractables. When one day and expedition was sent to the spatial coordinates that was claimed for this planet, they discovered only a small asteroid occupied by a solitary old man, who claimed repeatedly that nothing was true, although he was later found to be lying.

If any of my personalised biros show up with you, please let me know so that we can put this this lie to the test of a forensic scrutiny of the facts! Maybe an idea for a Dissertation topic next year!


Dean Sully, 2020


Term 2 projects and updates!

We are now three weeks through Term 2 and are all getting well stuck in to our many object treatments now that we have built up our skills and confidence. We still have several objects left to be allocated before we have our full set that we will keep working on until the end of the Summer term.

Yesterday we had a fantastic lecture from Professor Paul Basu of the Museum Affordances [Re:] Entanglements project, which you can find out more about by clicking this link. You can also read a great blog about the UCL Conservation involvement with the project so far by clicking here.

We also have a new staff member in the lab who we are learning so much from already. Jill Saunders has recently joined UCL as a teaching fellow, and is working with the MSc students in the lab and also the MA Principles of Conservation students. Jill graduated from the MSc in 2012, and also has a PhD in conservation science from UCL.

We can’t wait to share more of our progress with you on the blog and also on our social media. Keep an eye out for our stories and our #featurefriday posts every week of term on our instagram @uclconservation!


Kate Berlewen, 2019

Students support Trowel Blazers Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

Students from the MSc have been supporting the 2019 Trowel Blazers Edit-a-thon today, writing women back into science and history. The history of archaeological conservation is full of women. Many of these Trowel Blazers are celebrated and highlighted at the Institute of Archaeology, but it is vital that women in Archaeology, science, and all disciplines are better represented.


From the Trowel Blazers team, Dr Jess Wade, the IoA’s own Dr Katie Meheaux, and Richard Nevell from the Wikimedia Foundation, we learned about the power and reach Wikipedia has. Wikipedia is used in schools, workplaces, and even in some undergraduate academic programmes. Wikipedia is also often the first source for journalists, producers, and other influential content creators to research key experts and theories in scientific fields. We also learned that due to  90% of Wikipedia editors being male, the majority of pages created are for male experts, particularly in the field of science. This means that the vast majority of experts who will be contacted to be consulted or appear in articles, news broadcasts, and other forms of media, will be male. This leads to a cycle of perpetuation of lack of female representation, and misrepresentation of female excellence.

That is where Editathons and continued action using the tools we learned today will cause vitally important shifts in representation on Wikipedia, and therefore in media and academic representation. So far today 165 articles have been edited, and over 7,910 words have been written by the Trowel Blazers 2019 Editors, with more to come.

Check out the #TBWiki2019 hashtag on Twitter and follow @TrowelBlazers for updates on future Editathons and events.


Kate Berlewen, 2019

Class of 2021


It is the end of the first half of term one and we are starting to feel settled into the lab at the IoA! We have our first two objects allocated – both ceramics – and are finally starting to know where things are kept in the many, many cupboards. We have established an excellent afternoon tea break routine, and have mid-lecture break runs to the coffee shop down to 3 minutes 25 seconds. Priorities.

We all come to the MSc from a fantastic array of backgrounds and you can read more about us on the authors page. Our teamwork is already paying off, with everyone sharing skills, moral support, and lab maintenance.

We really look forward to sharing what we get up to in the lab and in the field! Check out our progress through the year on the UCL Conservation Instagram , Twitter, and Facebook and if you want to find out more about the programme click here.


Kate Berlewen, 2019



A Bronze Hercules from Suffolk

65304022_382340765806946_3527477698429452288_nCarla Russo is a first-year MSc student from Argentina. Her background is in Economics and Finance before eventually following her call and getting a degree in Classical Archaeology. She is very interested in cultural heritage and archaeological material, which led to her pursue of the MSc degree in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums at UCL. (Text by Carla Russo)

In January of 2019 fragments of copper-alloy armour were found via metal detector in southeast Suffolk (figure 1-2). The bronze fragments were reported to the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, which carried out an excavation of the site with the finders and retrieved the fragments. Following conservation treatment, the objects will be donated to a public institution of the landowner and finder’s choice.

1Figure 1. Copper-alloy armour fragments found in Suffolk via metal detector (before conservation treatment).

2Figure 2. Copper-alloy armour fragments found in Suffolk via metal detector (before conservation treatment).

When they arrived at the conservation laboratory at UCL, the fragments were covered in soil and it was not known how many pieces there were in total (figure 3-5). The fragments were bent and scratched in multiple areas, presumably as they were found unstratified in the plough soil, having been disturbed from their context by agriculture. All the pieces were micro-excavated carefully and documented, as this was a fresh archaeological discovery. The fragments were in need of first aid conservation, meaning that they had to be retrieved from the soil, cleaned and stabilized (figure 6-7).

3Figure 3. Large copper-alloy armour fragment in original soil.

4Figure 4. Initial digital documentation of large copper-alloy armour fragment in original soil.

5Figure 5. Large copper-alloy armour fragment in original soil.

There were three large fragments which had depictions of a male torso holding a club, a head and a lion’s face, the combined pieces being a representation of Hercules. It was probably from a highly decorated piece of armour, perhaps part of a chamfron that protected a cavalry horse’s head. This is a very unusual item find in Britain.

6Figure 6. Large copper-alloy armour fragment depicting a male torso with a club after initial cleaning.

7Figure 7. Copper-alloy armour fragment depicting a male head during cleaning process.

The pieces were cleaned using a variety of tools, including brushes and cotton swabs to ensure all the dirt and corrosion was removed successfully (figure 8).

The object was returned to Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, where future work on the fragments includes illustration and potentially photogrammetry, to reconstruct the object digitally, and 3D printing of some of the pieces.

8Figure 8. Copper-alloy armour fragments after conservation treatment.


Dark Heritage and a Figurine

IMG_5607Jenna Belle Bittenbender is a first-year MSc student from Florida, USA, ‘the land of sunshine and oranges!’ Her academic background is in Classical Studies, Archaeology, and Conservation. She is deeply interested in the protection of cultural heritage, which eventually led her to pursue an MSc in Conservation for Museums and Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology.

Dark heritage, which refers to heritage that concerns human barbarism, suffering, atrocity, disaster, and cruelty, among others, is an essential part of the study of conservation theory and practice. In this interview, Jenna Belle talks about a figurine that she recently treated of an Indian manservant. It was created in India toward the end of the British Empire’s era of colonial expansion, brought to the UK, and attests to several issues that fall within the realm of dark heritage. (Text by Amanda Imai)

What significance does this figurine have to its owner?
The figurine is a family heirloom. During the period of British colonial occupation of India, the owner’s family member acquired a sizable collection of these figurines, which were passed down to younger generations. The figurine was badly fragmented and had signs or previous repair. I should say that the object has a great deal of sentimental value to the owner.

In dealing with an object that represents part of a colonial narrative, what were some of the inner negotiations that you had with yourself during the decision-making process of this treatment?
I wanted my treatment to represent the object the way it was initially created, but in my reporting, I documented the colonial history of the object. It was really important to me that his colonial origins not be lost or obscured.

Do you think this object can be classified as dark heritage?
As my research has shown me, there are many different definitions and classifications of dark heritage. It does strike me as problematic that the assemblages were collected during a period of colonial control and that they—meaning my figurine and others like them— depict indigenous peoples in what appear to be subservient roles. I can see how this would cause discomfort to many.

Describe your treatment process for the object.
I began by stabilising the supportive wires inside the object. These were loose and caused the figuring to wobble, which in turn caused crumbling to the unbaked clay. So, to begin with, I stabilised those supports. I consolidated loose fragments of the figurine. Then I began cleaning the figurine. I dry-cleaned the surface and removed the adhesive from previous repairs. Then I re-joined the fragments and consolidated the figure’s painted surface. Lastly, I reconstructed a large portion of his legs, which had been completely lost.

What has been the most interesting part of working on this object?
I really enjoyed stabilising the supports of the figure. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make him stand upright. I thought that even after being treated he may forever be relegated to laying in a box. Strengthening his supports and allowing him to stand upright feels like I have restored some dignity to this figure.



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.

powerful encounters 2

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).

powerful encounters 1

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.

powerful encounters 4

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.

powerful encounters 5

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.

powerful encounters 6