Shipwreck Club Newsletter
Preserving History for Future Generations
An Interview with Odyssey's Director of Conservation Frederick Van de Walle
How did you become the Director of Conservation for Odyssey?
I have always been interested in shipwrecks and the artifacts on board that are often thought to be lost forever. Particularly interesting to me are artifacts produced and used by diverse cultures and civilizations many hundreds of years ago.
To become a conservator, I attended the Royal Academy for Arts in Antwerpen, Belgium, where I worked towards receiving my Masters Degree in Conservation and Restoration. I then attended EVTEK University in Finland where I received a specialized Bachelors of Science in Marine Archaeology Conservation as part of a one-time worldwide curriculum.
Prior to joining Odyssey, I was Head of Conservation for the Belgian government for 2 years where I was responsible for the conservation of all governmental excavations and archaeological archives. At the same time I was also part of an advisory working group on archaeological archives for the European Union. I also worked for the AOC Archaeology Group in Scotland (2005 – 2006) and the Institute for Nautical Archaeology in Turkey (2003 – 2004) where I was in charge of conserving artifacts from the late Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck.
What are your responsibilities as the head of conservation?
My key responsibilities include the stabilization and conservation of all of the shipwreck artifacts excavated by the Odyssey team. Essential to my job is safeguarding Odyssey’s permanent collection of artifacts and maintaining our artifact database. All artifacts are studied, recorded and photographed for permanent documentation and so that we can have all generated data available for research.
All artifacts are surveyed on a regular basis to make sure they are in a stable condition; this is especially important for those artifacts which travel with our shipwreck exhibit so that we can document any change in status that may occur with any particular artifact. We currently have approximately 16,000 artifacts in our lab. Of these, around 5% are still undergoing conservation treatments.
In the autumn of 2008, Odyssey lifted two rare bronze cannon from the 1744 shipwreck site of HMS Victory. Tell us about your role in conserving these cannon.
Recovering these cannon was essential to confirming the identity of the shipwreck. With the cooperation of the British Ministry of Defense, we lifted a 12-pounder featuring the royal arms of George II and a 4-ton, 42-pounder bearing the royal crest of King George I. Of particular significance, the 42-pounder is the only known example currently in existence on dry land.
Conservation procedures and initial treatments were in place before recovery started. Immediately after recovery, the cannon were stored in a solution that creates a stable storage environment and starts the desalination process or the extraction of salts to prevent the formation of active corrosion products. My first task was to examine the overall condition of the cannon and then assess the different types of corrosion that had occurred in order to decide upon the most appropriate conservation and storage treatments.
The bronze cannon are comprised of a copper alloy and during their years on the ocean floor, salts, largely chlorides and sulfides in the marine environment have caused corrosion. After recovery from the seabed, exposure to the atmosphere can cause further deterioration due to the reactions of oxygen, humidity and chloride ions. When exposed without being desalinated, a cyclic corrosion process known as bronze disease occurs.
What are the future plans for the cannon?
Until the final conservation treatment is decided upon, the cannon will continue to undergo desalination in a stable storage environment. The final conservation treatment for the cannon will be determined depending on a number of factors, including where and how the cannon will eventually be displayed and the desired appearance of the cannon after conservation.
There are several treatment options that may be undertaken, including chemical stripping, retention of the patina or the stable corrosion products, and electrolysis. Both chemical stripping and electrolysis reduce the overall conservation time, but call for constant attention.
The discovery of the shipwreck site of HMS Victory has certainly received a lot of attention, what part of this project has been most exciting for you?
It has been a very rewarding experience to have the opportunity to work with the bronze cannon recovered from HMS Victory. The Victory was the mightiest and most technically-advanced vessel of her age and the last Royal Navy warship to be lost at sea with a complete complement of bronze guns. In conserving the cannon we’ll be able to add to our collective understanding of 18th-century naval weaponry, which will likely impact the historical record. I enjoy being able to play an active role in preserving this important part of our shared maritime history for both current and future generations.
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