Conservation science and the community

To celebrate British Science Week (8-17 March 2019), we will be posting a series of blogs over the next 10 days to showcase the excellent work of heritage scientists in using science and technology to understand, manage and engage with heritage. 

First up is a piece by Angela Middleton (HE), with contributions from Kim Roche (MSDS), Alison James (MSDS), Ruth Pelling (HE) and Peta Knott (NAS). 

Citizen science can take many shapes and forms; such as taking part in the Big Butterfly Count, searching your archives and collections for images of actual leather hats or getting hands on and learning something about the science behind the conservation and analysis of maritime artefacts from the Rooswijk.

Together with the Nautical Archaeology Society, conservators, archaeobotanists and material scientists from Historic England have devised a programme of workshops to bring the science that underpins many archaeological post-excavation projects to a wide range of participants. The artefacts and samples used in these workshops originate from the @Rooswijk1740 project: a collaboration between RCE (Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed; Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency) and Historic England, and managed by MSDS Marine Ltd. Starting with a geophysical survey in 2016, the project recovered over 2000 artefacts during two underwater excavations in 2017-18. The artefacts have since been transported to Historic England’s research and conservation facilities at Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth.

The material from the Rooswijk project not only presents researchers with interesting and unique material to study, but is also well suited to help satisfy a growing appetite to engage with archaeology in a very interactive way. Participants to the courses come from all walks of life with varying levels of archaeological experience: retired marketing executives, recreational divers, social workers, archaeologists, etc., all united by an interest in archaeology.

The courses are a well-balanced mixture of theory and practice. The morning is dedicated to learning about decay processes of archaeological materials commonly encountered in the marine environment, the theory of X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF), or the significance of environmental archaeological samples on shipwrecks. The afternoon allows participants to use the same tools and techniques that archaeological scientists use every day. In small groups of no more than four, various practical activities are being undertaken. The small groups allow for a more intimate learning environment and give every participant the chance to carry out each task, whilst the tutors can fine tune the activity according to different levels of confidence and experience or interest. Practical sessions include changing of storage solutions, mechanical cleaning and material identification of artefacts as well as identifying environmental samples collected from the Rooswijk site and within artefacts.

Participants monitor the desalination process using a conductivity meter, which measures the amount of dissolved salts. Maritime artefacts have to go through a lengthy process of washing out salts, as these can be harmful to a wide range of materials. This is achieved by regularly changing distilled water solutions in artefact storage containers.  This process of water changes facilitates desalination and also gives participants the opportunity to handle a lot of different materials from the site.

During cleaning activities, we allow participants to use a variety of tools, such as an air-scribe (a small-scale pneumatic chisel), air-abrasive or air-brush to remove concretions or corrosion deposits. This is almost always guaranteed to be the favourite activity of the day! Another group works carefully under a microscope cleaning coins or packages them for storage after conservation.

The material composition of metal artefacts is analysed in a live demonstration of the XRF. After a spectrum is produced by the software, participants attempt to match different elements to the peaks to identify the composition of the material.

The archaeobotanist demonstrates various sampling techniques, and participants can sort the flot under the microscope by testing their recognition skills and working through the identification process. On first glance it may just look like soil or mud, but with a bit of practice, they are able to pick out seeds and even identify some distinct examples.

During these workshops, participants’ efforts contribute to the often lengthy and repetitive tasks during the scientific investigation after an excavation. What is more important to us, is that we provide hands-on access to heritage, a look behind the scenes and develop an understanding and appreciation of archaeological science processes.

Rooswijk Image 1
The use of the air-scribe on one of the many Rooswijk concretions.
Rooswijk Image 2
Ruth Pelling (archaeobotanist) demonstrates sample sorting.
Rooswijk Image 3
Course participants assisting with desalination and water changes.
Rooswijk Image 4
Course participants are measuring the conductivity of the wash water and recording the reading.
Rooswijk Image 5
Collecting and interpreting XRF-spectra with material scientist Florian Stroebele.
Rooswijk Image 6
Careful cleaning of coins under the microscope.

Alison Trachet: Guest post on the SEAHA conference, 2017

The National Heritage Science Forum (NHSF) provided bursaries to enable three Early Career Researchers to attend the 3rd International Conference on Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology. Here Alison Trachet shares her experience of the conference.

Last week I traded the daily showers and cloudy skies of north central Florida for the warm, sunny shores of the south English coast to attend the 3rd International SEAHA Conference held in Brighton. SEAHA, which stands for Science and Engineering in Arts Heritage and Archaeology, is a revolutionary academic program training the next generation of heritage scientists. The very name “heritage science” implies collaboration between conservators, historians, and scientists, and thus the emphasis of this conference was on “interdisciplinarity”.

The two-day event began with several warm welcomes and a charge from SEAHA doctoral student Keats Webb to consider what you wanted from the conference and revisit this question after its end. I simply wanted to meet experts and emerging researchers as well as learn current research trends (and possibly hear about post-doctoral research opportunities), yet I experienced so much more. The first keynote speaker, Dr. Robert van Langh, addressed the economic impact of cultural heritage, something I had never considered. Katy Lithgow at The National Trust queried if heritage science is outgrowing interdisciplinary research and becoming its own field. Other fascinating research topics included occupational health and safety issues from pesticides, mechanical testing and characterization of tapestries and ancient Roman glass, and analyzing the smell of potpourri. I particularly enjoyed the budget air velocity measurer developed by Dr. Josep Grau-Bove: a thin strip of paper calibrated to register certain air velocities.

We ended the first day with a private tour of the Royal Pavilion, King George IV’s ornate seaside home.

Image of Royal Pavilion, Brighton
The Royal Pavilion, a famous Brighton landmark and unofficial mascot of the conference.

Despite being sold by the royal family, used as a hospital in World War I, set afire, and crushed by a heavy stone, the Pavilion can still be visited by the public thanks to heroic restoration efforts from a diverse team, making the building a perfect mascot for the conference. After our tour, I wandered about the Brighton museum with a glass of wine, nibbled on delicious appetisers, and chatted with new acquaintances about our professional backgrounds and interest in heritage science. We had the opportunity to individually talk to research presenters during these social events as well as during coffee breaks, the poster session, and at dinner with new colleagues. 

Image of SEAHA conference poster session
Curious conference goers enjoying the poster session

The SEAHA conference was the perfect place for me to catch up on relevant research, network with experts from a wide variety of fields including conservators, scientists, and industry members, and meet the next generation of heritage scientists. I look forward to next year’s conference, where perhaps I can share my own research struggles and results.

Image of seagull
One attendee was very keen on discussing ginger biscuits during a coffee break


The 3rd International SEAHA Conference was held at the University of Brighton, UK from 19-20 June 2017. The Book of Abstracts is available at:

ORCHID OBSERVERS PROJECT – update by the Natural History Museum’s Kath Castillo

In April this year the Natural History Museum in collaboration with Zooinverse launched its Orchid Observers project, to find and document native British orchids and compare current flowering times with historic records to assess the impact of climate change on the natural environment. Here, Kath Castillo, Orchid Observers project officer tells us more about the project and how it’s going so far.

The science behind the project
The UK’s environment is constantly changing and most scientists agree that much of the current change is due to human activity. Understanding how the living world is being affected by these changes is an important step in helping us to understand how future environmental change may affect us, our food sources and wildlife. One way of understanding these changes is by documenting when in the year plants and animals respond to changes in the season; well-known examples of this include the timing of frogs spawning in spring or fungi fruiting in autumn.  The study of these types of event is called phenology.

Phenology studies 
Natural History Museum scientists are studying the phenology of several groups of UK organism including butterflies, bees, dragonflies, midges, grassland plants and, of course, orchids.  Scientists already know that at least one UK orchid, the Early Spider-orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) flowers, on average, several days a year earlier than it did at the start of last century. We aim to join data gathered from historic museum specimens with modern observations made by the public to build a picture of how 29 of our orchid species are adapting to change.

Why are we working on orchids?
First, they are much-loved and charismatic plants, some of which are declining – even in well protected sites such as nature reserves, other species such as the Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) appear to be spreading and increasing in abundance. Understanding how changes in the environment are affecting orchids may help us plan and protect key populations or areas. Another reason why we have chosen orchids is that their flowering season tends to be short compared to other plants and they do not repeat flower – this makes data analysis easier!

Ophrys apifera 9-6-15 KCastillo (1)
The bee orchid, Ophrys apifera – one of the most charismatic and much-loved of our native wild orchid species

In the longer term, museum scientists aim to compare data across a wider range of plant and animal groups and investigate how certain habitats are responding to change; a major concern is that certain species that are dependent upon others may not be responding in the same manner or at the same pace. A recent example of this is a study that shows that Blue Tit egg-laying and the rearing of young is not happening at the same pace as the emergence of their main food, aphids.

So how’s it all going?
It’s been a busy time for Orchid Observers!  The project got off to a great start when the website went live on the Zooniverse platform on 23 April and the very first of the season’s field records was uploaded on day one!  A week in and we recorded almost 300 people participating in the online activities and an increasing number of people uploading images from the field. The Museum team showcased the project to the public throughout May with publicity events at Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, followed by Fascination of Plants Day and Big Nature Day at the Natural History Museum.  Some of us in the team have also managed to get out to various sites to record and photograph orchids ourselves!  

Photographing Common spotted orchids at Box Hill

Throughout May and June we visited sites across the Southeast, and further afield in Dorset, Somerset, Wales and Cumbria. At the time of writing this blog we now have over 600 registered users on the website who have enthusiastically completed nearly 16,000 classifications, by verifying and transcribing data for our historical specimens and identifying species and flowering stages for 1270 photographic records submitted by participants so far.  The field records collected span the country, from Cornwall to Perth in Scotland, and from Pembrokeshire across to Norfolk.

So far, for early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) and green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) approximately 9% of the records are from new/unknown sites (as measured by 2 km square/tetrad); this is valuable information, particularly for green-winged orchid which is considered at risk of extinction in the UK.

2 exported
Green-winged orchids, Anacamptis morio

We’ve not been able to fully compare the Orchid Observers phenology data with our museum records yet,  because the relevant, verified, 2015 UK weather data hasn’t been released. However,  we’ve already been able to see that the median date of this year’s flowering of two species (early-purple and green-winged) is at least 10 days earlier than the museum data (which mainly covers 1830 to 1970). These are early figures only, and the full data set will be analysed later this year.

We’re immensely grateful for the time and goodwill of all our participants – without this effort we would not have been able to collect these data. And we’ve still got the rest of the summer to collect more data for all our 29 species in the survey!

Orchids to look out for in July
If you’re up in the far northwest of Scotland and parts of northern England (or down in the New Forest) in July to early August, keep a look out for the smallest of the UK orchids, the bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa). At  just 4-8cm tall it has tiny greenish flowers which are twisted through 360 degrees rather than the typical 180 degrees for most of our orchids, meaning they are upside down. The bog orchid, as the name suggests, is found in acid peat bogs, often growing among mosses.

Bog orchid Mike Waller.MW (1)
The bog orchid, Hammarbya paludosa, (photograph Mike Waller)

If you’re heading for southern England in July, a similar orchid to the bog orchid in size and colour but with bell-like flowers is the musk orchid (Herminium monorchis). It grows in a very different habitat, occurring only on short grassland on chalk or limestone soils. Look out for it, photograph it if you find it, but take care not to step on it – this orchid is classified as vulnerable.

Herminium monorchis Noar.Fred Rumsey (1)
The musk orchid, Herminium monorchis (photograph Fred Rumsey)

To get involved visit our project website – and huge thanks to all of our orchid observers and the fantastic contributions they are making to this vital project.