British Science Week at the Mary Rose

Between 14 and 17 March 2019, the Mary Rose Trust, in partnership with Zeiss Microscopy, will be offering visitors to the Mary Rose, the chance to learn about the science behind caring for their Tudor collection.

The collection lay at the bottom of the sea for 437 years, and this, of course, raises unique conservation challenges. Go along to the demonstration events throughout the weekend to learn about the scientific techniques used to keep artefacts safe for future generations, and also look at items from the Mary Rose collection through a Zeiss Smartzoom optical microscope to see the structural damage caused by their time spent undersea.

More about the events on offer across the four days can be found here.

Mary Rose Conservation
Conservation work being undertaken on the Mary Rose.

NHSF and UCM workshop- ‘What can heritage science do for you?’

As part of British Science Week 2019, and in collaboration with University of Cambridge Museums (UCM), we are running a workshop (now sold out) to explore what heritage science can do for you.

It will take place on Tuesday 12 March at the British Library and will explore the benefits of heritage science research in the context of collections-based research and outreach activities. Participants will learn about a range of analytical methods which can be used to learn more about the materials composition, history, original context and current conservation and storage needs of archaeological, archival and museum objects.

During the workshop, real case studies of heritage science research applied to a range of objects will be presented and discussed. Participants will be asked to contribute their experience of, or aspirations for, collaboration with heritage science researchers.

The workshop is part of our attempts to make the work of heritage scientists more widely understood and to showcase the benefits of heritage science.

More great examples of heritage science in practice can be found on the University of Cambridge Museums’ Conservation blog.

Additionally, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge are also hosting a free talk on 20 March by Research Scientist, Dr Paola Ricciardi, on ‘Small paintings, big discoveries: Recent research on Isaac Oliver’s miniatures’. More details about the event can be found here.

RH sensors
Relative Humidity Sensors. © Hilary Jarvis

Citizen Science Project- Operation Weather Rescue

The citizen science project for British Science Week 2019 is Operation Weather Rescue, led by researches from the University of Reading and funded by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) and the Natural Environment Research Council.

The project is calling upon members of the public to enter historical weather information into an online database so that meteorologists and climate scientists will be able to make predictions about future climates.

It is hoped that the help of the public in digitising these records will go someway towards addressing the challenges faced by researchers when analysing historical weather patterns. Currently millions of pages of historical weather data are held in archives across the world that are not easily accessible to researchers. Digitising them, with the public’s help, will allow researchers to interpret more historical weather data than ever before, and in turn, lead to better understandings of past climates.

The project is a brilliant example of how the contributions of the public to science projects can make a very positive impact on scientific research. Without the public’s help it would take the team at Reading University many more years to digitise all the data needed. Thanks to volunteers, however, researchers will be able to drawn conclusions on changing weather patterns a lot sooner, which will inevitably benefit us all.

You can find out more about the project and how to get involved here.


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.

SEAHA Conference 2018 – a review

In today’s guest post, SEAHA students Surbhi Goyal and Luz Frias Hernandez review their experience of the SEAHA 2018 Conference, which was held on 4-6th June at UCL.

The SEAHA Conference 2018 was a very interesting and enlightening experience to gain a perspective of different areas related to heritage science and the progress in this field of study.

Full of excitement, the first day started with an overwhelming exposure to the areas of archaeological research and cultural heritage in the first session of the series. The subject of new technologies that monitor timber frame buildings with infill panels was discussed, succeeded by a lecture on preventive conservation and 3D photogrammetry in monitoring of deformation.

The broad spectrum of understanding BIM in the prevention of historic environment was the area of focus in the second session of the conference. The lectures in this session mainly lay emphasis on the understanding the importance of 3D laser scanning of architectural ruins and the interdisciplinary study of invisible polychromies of the Basel Cathedral.

The third session of the talk was a discussion on the development of infrastructure research and presented extended accounts on the assessment of patinas and protective coatings for metals by a gel electrochemical cell as well the development of mobile nuclear magnetic resonance as a tool for the assessment of cultural heritage research. The concluding session of the conference was an insight to the topic of evidence supported policy-making. The presentation on the emission from PU insulation products followed by the engagement of industries to characterize volatile emissions from museum display cases were very in depth insights to this particular topic.


On the second day of the conference, the first talk was an exciting insight of the use of imaging analysis for conservation practices carried out at the National History Museum. Up next, the theme of materials was explored, starting with the innovative talk about the creation of gecko-inspired adhesives for heritage conservation followed by a talk about the use of 3D printing for reintegrating parts of heritage assemblies as well as a fascinating talk showing a project about violin varnishes. After a short break, we enjoyed a presentation about the use of parchment for biological archives through time. Subsequently, the sessions related to bio-chemo archaeology were a great way to learn about the analysis of DNA applied to heritage, as well as the use of industrial x-ray techniques for conservation. The discourse of data was exposed through some projects starting with the big panorama of big data collection and how it is being used in preservation. The importance of social engagement and awareness towards science and conservation projects was emphasised while knowing about the Zoouniverse project, talk that created an introduction to the following presentations about crowd sourcing and participatory research in heritage sites and museums.


Closing an outstanding day, an inspiring bit of the programme was the guided tour to the British Museum, where attendants were able to explore the part of the building where the science happens – while going into the conservation and imagenology labs, getting to know some processes that are performed to conserve those items that we can just see displayed in the museum exhibitions – it was without a doubt a one of a kind experience.

This event can really be enjoyed by everyone, as it has the potential of reaching all sorts of audiences by presenting amazing case studies and projects that everyone have seen or heard about. Even if you do not know much—or anything—about science but have a genuinely interest in culture and heritage, the SEAHA conference is the best place to explore these issues more in-depth but in a clear way in order to know the processes that heritage assemblies pass through to continue being appreciated by the public and preserved for future generations.

Overall, the SEAHA Conference 2018 was an encouraging opportunity to learn about the latest technologies that are being used in heritage conservation, all happening in a delightful ambience that fostered interaction between many professionals and students discussing these topics and sharing their experiences of working in the heritage science sector and their performance in a variety of fascinating projects – all that accompanied by a cup of tea, coffee and even ice cream, it truly could not be better!



Cleaning Modern Oil Paints Project

Tate is the newest recipient of the NHSF Gold Open Access grant for the publication of heritage science research. The grant enabled the publication of the research paper Scientific investigation into the water sensitivity of twentieth century oil paints’, available for free in Microchemical Journal. In this guest post, the paper’s authors tell us more about the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project.

The Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project (CMOP) is a collaborative European research project, funded through the JPI Heritage Plus programme, which runs from June 2015 – May 2018. The project aims to investigate conservation challenges associated with twentieth and twenty-first century oil paintings in order to ensure that modern oil paintings continue to be fit for display for future generations.

Many unvarnished twentieth and twenty-first century oil paintings are exhibiting unusual water sensitivity. Water sensitivity can be defined as the unwanted removal of pigment and/or original material when a discrete cleaning test is carried out using a dampened cotton swab on the surface of a painting. Water sensitivity is not restricted to a particular oil-paint brand, or artist, and affects a broad range of paintings.

Winsor & Newton Artist Oil Colour swatches that were studied as part of the microchemical journal paper. Copyright Tate.

Water sensitivity is problematic for conservators, since many of the well-established methods for removing surface dirt (which naturally gathers over time) involves the skilled application of water based cleaning systems.  Since dry-cleaning methods, for example using dry brushes or specialist sponges, are not always particularly effective at removing soiling, water sensitivity can complicate or even prevent effective treatment. This is problematic as accumulated surface dirt can change the appearance of paintings e.g. through altering the saturation, intensity and gloss of paint passages, and can, over the longer term, contribute to other unwanted side-effects relating to ageing and deterioration.

The interdisciplinary CMOP team have been investigating the underlying causes of water sensitivity in modern oil paints. This information has been used to inform the systematic testing and evaluation of selected cleaning systems for use on water sensitive modern oil paintings, with the aim of informing conservators about the risks involved and how to minimise them.

Part of the CMOP research has involved the chemical analysis of a series of naturally aged modern oil paint micro-samples, taken from case study oil paintings and from historic Winsor & Newton (W&N) artists’ oil paint swatches.  The W&N paint swatches were originally produced by the manufacturer for quality control testing, and were subsequently donated to Tate by ColArt UK for research purposes.

W&W Artist Oil Colour swatches studied for the paper, shown in tungsten light (left) and UV light (right). Copyright Tate.

We are pleased to announce that the National Heritage Science Forum has kindly sponsored the Gold Open Access publication of a key CMOP research paper, entitled Scientific investigation into the water sensitivity of twentieth century oil paints, now published in the peer-reviewed Microchemical Journal. This describes an in-depth investigation into the chemical characteristics of water sensitive paint passages, and likely causal factors.

The research at Tate is led by Principal Conservation Scientist Dr Bronwyn Ormsby, with Post-doctoral Researcher Judith Lee, and with the support of Tate’s Collection Care Research. More information on the project and details of the key CMOP project dissemination event; Conference on Modern Oil Paints taking place on 23-25 May 2018, are available on Tate’s website.

Detail 2
Detail of a case study oil painting analysed as part of the project. Copyright Tate.


The paper Scientific investigation into the water sensitivity of twentieth century oil paints is co-authored by Judith Lee and Bronwyn Ormsby of the Tate Conservation Department, Ilaria Bonaduce, Francesca Modugno, Jacopo La Nasa and Klaas Jan van den Berg.

The National Heritage Science Forum provides Gold Open Access grants to help to open up access to heritage science research. This funding is available to employees, students and members of our member organisations – find out more.

A day in the life of heritage science students at Hellens Manor

Our final guest post for British Science Week 2018, #BSW18, comes from Gavin Leong, a student on the SEAHA MRes course. In this post Gavin reflects on the SEAHA cohort’s visit to Hellens Manor, which took place earlier in British Science Week, to analyse paintings using hyperspectral imaging techniques and carry out environmental monitoring and risk assessments that will inform future approaches to collection care.

Every year, a new roster of Masters students from EAHA visit a lovely old country house sat in scenic Herefordshire. But, far from a holiday or a retreat, these students are here to carry out research. And this isn’t any old house, it’s one of the few surviving 12th century English abodes, Hellens Manor.

Today is Tuesday 13th March 2018, it’s 9.25 AM and the sun is just peeking out of the clouds over Hellens. The imaging group are about to head out to Bloody Mary’s room, a place said to be haunted. But instead of looking for paranormal activity, for the past two days they’ve been painstakingly taking images of paintings using multispectral imaging and infrared reflectography. The former was used as a rapid survey of the ultraviolet, infrared and visible spectrum, while the latter can reveal underdrawings.

With the camera equipment, lighting and cables strewn across the floor they resemble a film crew on the set of a period drama. The stars in this production are two paintings, on canvas and panel. Today, however, they will be using hyperspectral imaging to analyse areas of the paintings with similar composition and pigmentation, which can highlight more modern modifications to the paintings.

It’s now 11.35 AM. The environmental monitoring group are taking advantage of the abundant sunlight, a welcome respite after the recent bout of heavy snow and rain. They’re in the stone hall, where you can find an impressive fireplace that bears the crest of Edward, the Black Prince. But their eyes are drawn to the two equally compelling tapestries. One half of the team are thermal imaging, and measuring the UV and intensity of light falling on the woven fabric, while the other half are assessing its condition using a handheld microscope.

Image of thermal imaging at Hellens Manor by SEAHA students
Thermal imaging at Hellens Manor by SEAHA students


Image of condition assessment of tapestry at Hellens Manor using a handheld microscope
Assessing the condition of a tapestry at Hellens Manor using a handheld microscope.

Later, they’ll be setting up a camera for digital image correlation to observe any deformation or small changes in strain of the tapestries. By correlating these changes with measurements of fluctuation in humidity, temperature and light in the room, it could contribute to recommendations on best practice for conserving the tapestries in the stone hall.

On any other day it would be difficult for any passing observer to spot the risk assessment group. But not today. It’s 3.17 PM and they’ve donned bright yellow disposable overalls and face masks for the sake of heritage science. Dubbed ‘Minions’ by one of their group members, they have the unenviable task of crawling under the Munthe ‘Cinderella-style’ dress carriage built in the 1860s to get to the back wall of the coach shed. But it was not in vain: there they find the elusive mould, predicted by the humidity and moisture assessment, on the red silk.

Image of looking for mould at Hellens Manor
Looking for mould at Hellens Manor

The carriages had not been assessed prior to the work by the team. With the fibre and pest identification, moisture content survey of the wood and corrosion assessment of the metal, the risk assessment group can present a strong case for the future management of the carriages.

Image of pest identification
Pest identification (carpet wool larvae)

To find out more about studying Heritage Science at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology, visit the SEAHA website. The Centre is currently advertising several studentships with mid-April application deadlines.