Wiltshire Bronze Age Ceramics Project

The Bronze Age ceramics housed at Salisbury & South Wilts Museum and Wiltshire Heritage Museum, Devizes are of international archaeological importance. Many of the vessels were excavated by some of the early pioneers of archaeology, such as William Cunnington, General Augustus Pitt Rivers and Richard Colt Hoare. The vessels come from the area surrounding the World Heritage Sites of Stonehenge and Avebury.

Concerns had been raised regarding the condition of the collection of Bronze Age vessels at Wiltshire Heritage Museum, Devizes. This led to a survey of the collection by the Conservation Service. It became apparent that previous restoration materials were failing and affecting the structural stability of the vessels. A survey was also carried out at Salisbury & South Wilts Museum, as the collection there had received similar treatment in the past.

The surveys revealed that 105 vessels required urgent conservation treatment. Money has been received from the Heritage Lottery Fund as well as contributions from both museums to fund the four-year project, employing two conservators and a sub-contractor.

The Aim of the Project

The aim of the project is to re-conserve 52 vessels from each museum plus a trial vessel. The trial vessel was undertaken in order to accurately estimate how long a vessel would take to fully conserve, from the removal of old fills and materials to its reconstruction. It is hoped that as a result the collections will be more accessible to the public and researchers alike. A wealth of information can be gained from these objects, not only about the original restoration materials but we can also compare them to modern day practices and techniques used by conservators.

    A lady wearing a mask working on a large pot. She is standing in a laboratory A conservator at work on a ceramic vessel

Structure of the urns

Bronze Age ceramics are characteristically fired at a low temperature. This means that the fabric of the ceramic is soft and crumbly and easily damaged.

In the past a wide variety of fill materials have been used to restore the vessels. These include cement, animal glue, whole plant pots and bicycle spokes. In many cases the cement was used not only as a gap filling material but also to skim the interior surface of the vessel. This skim could be up to 3cm in thickness. The ceramics cannot support this kind of weight and in many cases have sagged, causing fresh cracks to appear, or have collapsed completely.

Despite the detrimental effects of these past treatments, the intention was to preserve the objects for the future and in many instances considerable skill was shown by those undertaking the reconstructions.

Fill Material

Various types of plaster were used, more commonly so than cement, although both materials were often found on the same vessel. The plaster was often added on top of the cement either to fill gaps left by shrinkage or to fill larger areas. Some vessels have later additions of AJK dough  ( a fill material based on kaolin, jute fibre and an adhesive ) or a polyester resin based fill. The Pitt Rivers restorations represent the most accurate and skilled rebuilding and also the widest range of experimental fill materials. These were often variations on animal glue and a coloured filler material.