Saturday, June 21, 2008

Conservation treatments of human fossil remains

Although research on human evolution depends in many cases on the study of fossil remains that have been treated by conservators, few treatments have been published.

In this article, we present an example of a strict conservation methodology applied to the human mandible ATD6-96, from the site of Gran Dolina (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain). We describe examination performed before the intervention, which included a the extensive diagnostic computer tomography (CT) scan and stereoscopic light microscopy. The mechanical preparation is also described in detail.

Diagnostic computer tomography (CT) scan - Photo: Jordi Mestre /IPHES

Human mandible ATD6-96 - Credit foto: Jordi Mestre - IPHES

This fossil is treated mainly mechanically, with a scalpel, and some soft brushes and solvents are also used to complete the treatment. Although we use the simplest techniques to prepare a fossil, we state that the technical simplicity does not in any way imply conceptual simplicity: behind the decisions that conservators make there is a work method that involves the knowledge of the material treated, as well as the products and techniques that exist to diagnose the alterations and solve conservation problems.

Through the description of this treatment we show how the interdisciplinary work allowed retention of both the integrity of the specimen and its information. As we think that the boundary between recovering or saving information and losing it is in the recognition of what is valuable, we state that conservation treatments have to be proposed taking into account the needs of the different specialists who partake in the study of the materials.

To sum up, we use the example of the treatment of this human mandible to talk about Conservation methodology and principles and we show how a good treatment needs more than dexterity and patience.

From: López-Polín, L. Ollé, A., Cáceres, I., Carbonell, E., Bermúdez de Castro, J.M. (2008): Pleistocene human remains and conservation treatments: the case of a mandible form Atapuerca (Spain). Journal of Human Evolution, 54 539-545 DOI 10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.07.011