Red lighting shows the outline of archaeological remains of a building preserved beneath a modern development.
The Rose Theatre: the red lights show the outline of the 16th Century building preserved beneath the current development. © Rose Theatre Trust
The Rose Theatre: the red lights show the outline of the 16th Century building preserved beneath the current development. © Rose Theatre Trust

Research Theme #Conserve

We need research to inform the conservation of places, sites, buildings, archives, collections and materials. Research includes monitoring and development of measures to mitigate against natural or man-made damage; buildings science aimed at improving energy efficiency of traditionally constructed buildings through retrofitting; understanding the causes of deterioration and performance of materials, buildings and sites; and identifying and sourcing appropriate materials and techniques for repair.

We have divided this theme into three main topics:


Buildings and landscapes

Historic buildings and designed landscapes are vulnerable to a range of destructive agencies, including:

  • long-term physical and chemical decay of materials
  • human activities of maintenance,
  • repair, adaptation or modification
  • environmental changes as a result of climate and weather and/or biological agents.

Research will have impact if it advances good practice in technical conservation. This might include by developing, refining and evaluating interventions that will be effective, practical, and sustainable. It will provide vital information on the performance of materials; practical solutions for the continuing care and conservation of historic buildings and designed landscapes; assess the energy performance of historic buildings; and mitigate harm to heritage assets from catastrophic threats.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • How can good practice in early intervention and routine repair be best promoted?
  • How can we identify building materials used and understand their performance, causes and rates of deterioration, and develop non-destructive techniques for assessing condition and diagnosing faults in building fabric and structures?
  • How do we assess which repair and conservation materials, techniques or treatments will be most beneficial both now, and over the long-term?
  • How do we best balance the conservation needs of historic buildings and sites (particularly ruined sites) with those of the flora and fauna that might inhabit them?
  • What is best practice in the design, installation and use of modern building services in historic buildings?
  • How do we ensure the continued supply of traditional building materials?
  • How do we ensure the mitigation of harm to heritage assets from catastrophic threats and emergencies, such as fires, flooding, or structural failure?

See more on our research into the conservation of buildings and designed landscapes

Preserving archaeological remains

Preserving archaeological remains in the ground is often a better alternative to excavation on cost or ethical grounds.  It requires an understanding of how different materials survive or decay, either rapidly or slowly.  Research is important to the management of all types of sites, but is particularly relevant for those where the absence of oxygen has led to the preservation of a greater range of archaeological materials, especially organic materials. Changes to those conditions will likely cause rapid degradation of rare, vulnerable, irreplaceable and therefore highly significant archaeological evidence.

Research will have impact if it can provide the evidence and the tools to help planning and decision making and to ensure prioritised and practical action is taken. It could help predict the likely presence of well-preserved archaeological remains; or provide an understanding of the level of their preservation when found; or characterise the preservation potential of the environment in which archaeological materials are buried. It may model how archaeological materials will react to changes in their burial environment over different timescales, and monitor those sites where we are less confident about what those impacts will be

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • How can we better understand the tolerance of specific archaeological materials such as bone, pollen, plant macro-fossils, wood or metals to change in different soil and water environments?
  • What are the effects and loss of significance due to specific construction processes such as loading/compression from buildings or machinery, vibration, drainage and boring?
  • How do we assess the impact of large scale land-use/environmental changes, such as re-wetting of wetlands; increasing salinity in freshwater coastal wetlands; ocean warming and acidification, on in situ sites?
  • What particular periods or types of archaeology are most at risk when preserved in situ?
  • How do we ensure that the requirements for preservation in situ of historic assets complements and is balanced against the needs of environmental conservation?

Read an article explaining our guidance on preserving archaeological remains

Read our advice on preservation in situ

Collections and archives

Collections of artefacts, documents and images present particular conservation issues. The materials may be very unstable – archaeological artefacts, or sensitive historical photographic material – and need conservation for the future. However, understanding the past function or association of a wide range of objects often depends on the close investigation of their components, composition and/or construction while retaining their overall physical state. Remedial conservation research therefore informs how we can best use active treatments to stabilise materials and preserve archaeological collections and archives for the future.  Investigative conservation research explores the use of a broad range of scientific techniques, imaging and analytical tools to reveal information on manufacture, use, and for archaeological objects, deposition and preservation, to enhance our understanding of the past.

Research will have impact if it ensures that the materials and methodologies currently used in conservation are the most appropriate, helps us evaluate and adopt new practices and technological innovations, or sustains the significance of artefact collections for future researchers.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • What treatments are the most effective in both preserving information value and ensuring the long-term stability of artefacts? Are there barriers to them being used more widely?
  • How do we develop tools and models to support the preservation of large collections and predict decay trajectories? Can we predict which collections are most at risk of rapid deterioration?
  • Are our current conservation approaches sustainable in terms of climate change or in their environmental impacts (for example regarding changes to environmental legislation), cost, availability of materials and skills?
  • Because of pressure on museum storage space, how can we become more selective in choosing what to retain in archaeological archives and can digital technologies enable greater selectivity?

Find out more about our approach to conserving archaeological artefacts

See more on heritage science

Collaborate with us

If you'd like to collaborate with us on this theme please use the contact address below to get in touch.