How do you assess archaeological textiles and decide upon a conservation treatment?

Material Characteristics

Textile is a term derived from the Latin word texere, which means to weave. Before the invention of synthetics, textile fibers were derived from plants like flax, cotton, hemp, jute, and sisal and from animals such as sheep, llamas, goats, alpacas, oxen, rabbit, and others. These fibers were spun into yarn, which was then woven to form the textile. The characteristics of the fiber depend on the plant or animal from which it is produced, the processing of the yarn, and the subsequent dyeing, washing and finishing of the yarn and the textile.


Oxidation and biological activity are the greatest causes of textile degradation. Additionally, physical damage from cutting, tearing, and abrasion, plays an important role in the degradation of textiles.

Textiles from archaeological sites generally survive best in desiccated conditions, waterlogged anaerobic conditions or in proximity to metals, which inhibit attack from microbial and fungal organisms. Textiles from wet, anaerobic sites survive very well and can, in protected sites, be virtually intact, although greatly weakened by hydrolysis, oxidation, and other forms of degradation. Cellulosic fibers (those derived from plant fibers) are attacked by weak acids, while proteinaceous fibers (those derived from animal fibers) are attacked by weak alkalis. Strong alkalis and acids attack both. The textiles from drier sites are usually brittle fragments preserved in association with a metal, such as copper or iron.


Archaeological textiles

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fragments are typically very fragile and require support to lift. If possible, lift them on a block of their surrounding earth. If this is not possible use a piece of thin but rigid plastic (such as a thick gauge Mylar® or other polyester film) to slide under them. Do not attempt to wash textiles or to unfold them if they are folded. Do not use any consolidant on them.


Treatment approaches vary according to the condition of the textile. Dry, brittle textile fragments are best preserved by placing them in a stable, moderate environment, and packaging them in a support that allows viewing without handling. Textiles from wet or damp sites will need to be supported by fine netting, a synthetic non-woven fabric such as Hollytex, or silk crepeline as soon as possible after excavation. This support will remain in place throughout treatment to prevent disintegration of the textile due to weakened fibers. Textiles may need cleaning to remove dirt, stains, metal oxides and salts. Polyethylene glycol (PEG) and Ethulose (ethylhydroxyethyl cellulose, a cellulose ether additive and consolidant) may be used when flexibility must be maintained. Freeze-drying works well to gently dry waterlogged textiles. Treated textiles will be fragile and will need supports for storage and display.


Storage of archaeological textiles must be in a clean, dry, pest free environment of 50% RH/ 65oF. Supports to prevent damage from handling must be used. Low light levels with no UV should be maintained.

Additional Resources:

Allen, N., Edge, M. & Horie, C., eds., (1992) Polymers in Conservation. Royal Society of Chemistry: Cambridge.

Morris, K & Seifert, B. (1978) Conservation of Leather and Textiles from the Defence. Journal of the American Institute of Conservation, Vol. 18 (1): 33 to 43

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