Mist clinging to the foot of an autumnal-wooded hill; a hidden sunrise bathing the early morning sky in pinks and reds and gold; a cup of tea, a light breakfast, and the backdrop of the beautiful city of Santiago de Compestela. There are times, sadly not taken as often as they should be, when it’s necessary just to pause and take in the view, which is what I was doing on this early October morning of the second day of the TechnoHeritage Conference in Santiago.1
This was the mid-point in my stay in the city as one of the invited key-note speakers at the TechnoHeritage conference. Hosted by the University of Santiago de Compestela and organised by the International Congress on Science and Technology for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, this involved a busy schedule of more than 60 papers in four days with heritage, conservation, and archaeological academics, museum-based and private-sector professionals attending from across Europe.
Three papers caught my attention for their relevance to some of the current archaeological trends in the UK. These were talks on the Las Medulas community archaeology project in Spain; the absolute dating of lime mortar from the Roman theatre in Braga, Portugal; and the problems of heritage crime in Europe. Yet more striking were those papers and poster presentations on new technologies and techniques for conserving and understanding the built and below-ground heritage. These included conservation techniques for stone using lasers, the study of decaying agents in wood and brick, and the stabilisation of photographic emulsions; GIS applications for mapping building decay and recording building fabric; and non-invasive technologies for conservation such as thermal assessments and biomolecular monitoring.
The relevance of this work was emphasised when I returned to the UK in time for English Heritage’s launch of their annual Heritage at Risk Register.2 This revealed that 5,831 of England’s c. 400,000 scheduled and listed historic buildings and monuments were at risk, including one in six of all scheduled ancient monuments that were under threat. The total bill to repair these sites had risen in the five years covering 2007 to 2012 from £330 million to £423 million, but in the same period English Heritage’s grants budget had shrunk by 40%. Some of the conservation techniques described at the Santiago conference were time-consuming, experimental, and expensive. Yet this is the kind of research that leads to new technologies for understanding and conserving our heritage, and potentially to a reduction in the number of buildings and sites on English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk Register.
I was able to snatch another quiet moment on the morning of my flight home. Sitting on a bench in the leafy park overlooking the great baroque cathedral of Santiago, marvelling at a skyline devoid of tall buildings, power lines, and satellite dishes, I had a panoramic view of the ancient pilgrimage city, which is justly a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
1) www.technoheritage.es/main.html. This is a network of university, museum and private sector researchers fostering collaboration and ideas exchange in heritage conservation in science, technology and enterprise.