Conserving a Medieval Deel: Materials and Tools

This summer, AFCP Project Leader Colleen O’Shea joined AFCP Fellows O. Angaragsuren and Kristen Pearson in Ulaanbaatar to work on conserving a medieval deel in the collection of the Mongolian Academy of Science’s Institute of History and Archaeology. Our next series of AFCP blog posts will focus on the team’s in-person work in Mongolia. First up, we’ll tell you a bit about some of the tools and materials we used.

You can learn more about the AFCP project here.

Introducing the deel

The INBH II deel prior to documentation, cleaning, and treatment

In consultation with the Institute of Archaeology, the AFCP team chose to work on conserving a silk deel from the cave burial site of Ikh Nartiin Balariin Khad II in Dornogovi. This deel was excavated in 2012 by a joint US-Mongolian team of archaeologists led by Dr. Tserendagva and Dr. Schneider. As in many other cave burials, dry, sheltered conditions had helped preserve the deel in excellent condition for more than 800 years–but recent looting fragmented the object and exposed parts of it on the surface. When archaeologists recovered the deel, only pieces remained at the site, and these were heavily soiled and damaged. Our team’s goal was to document, clean, and humidify each surviving fragment in order to better understand the object, prevent further damage, and enable future display.

Tools and Materials

Many of the tools and materials that textile conservators in the US use regularly in their work are not available for purchase in Mongolia, which means we had to get creative. As much as possible, we wanted to find ways to treat the textile using locally available resources, since this would enable us to better advise our colleagues and tailor AFCP training materials to their situation.

Our modified vacuum

As anyone who has ever beaten out an old carpet knows, textiles can hold an astounding amount of dust. To remove dirt from archaeological textiles, conservators use a combination of manual cleaning with tools like wooden skewers and porcupine quills (yes, porcupine quills) and very low-powered, targeted suction from a specialized vacuum. In order to replicate this tool, we went in search of a household vacuum cleaner and experimented with ways to modify it to suit our needs. We were able to find a relatively inexpensive vacuum cleaner with modifiable suction and a range of nozzle attachments for more targeted cleaning at a large home goods store in UB. Recalling how a sock sucked into the vacuum tube reduces its power, we knew we needed to block the flow of air with a porous material while still allowing space for dust to travel through the tube. What worked best? Several packets of cotton wrapped in soft paper and hot glued to the inside of the tube where it attaches to the nozzle. It was a cheap fix, easily replicated, and it lasted throughout our treatment of the object.

Cosmetic sponges doing their job. All of that dirt used to be on the textile!

Our next trip was to the cosmetics store to find makeup application sponges, which are just as good at removing fine particulate matter from surfaces as they are at applying it! Conservators use small sponges like these to remove stubborn surface dirt as one of the final steps in dry cleaning an archaeological textile. While the foam eventually starts to break down, the sponges can be washed and reused several times. We went through two bags of sponges cleaning the Ikh Nartiin Balariin Khad deel, with many rounds of washing.

Angaragsuren found animal glue at Narantuul at stalls selling power tools and house paints

As our work progressed, we visited other stores and markets to identify sources of conservation tools and materials. Several artists’s supply stores near the State Department store had soft brushes, acid free mounting board and watercolor paper. A tiny knitting and crafts supply shop in Peace Mall sold acid free tacky glue. At Narantuul, we found undyed cotton fabric, polyester batting, pellets of animal-based glue, and fine chains perfect for creating gentle, flexible weights. We used these chains, along with dozens of small plastic bags filled with rice, in the humidification process–we’ll share more details about that and other methods in an upcoming post.

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