Science for heritage: coping with complexity

This is the first of five blog posts for British Science Week in which we address who we are, what we do and some of the challenges we face in using science to help understand, manage and conserve heritage.

Today’s challenge is complexity. Heritage is complex and diverse. There are many different types of heritage, and they are facing a huge range of different threats and risks. For heritage to be conserved for future generations, a very wide range of scientific expertise needs to be deployed. In the circle below, we have tried to give a representative picture of the types of sciences needed. They are colour coded in a wheel from the blues of ‘pure’ sciences, the purples of more applied sciences, the reds of social sciences, oranges of more practical subjects, and the green of philosophy. Are these all science?

Some of the ‘sciences’ in the diagram may look very different to what we conventionally think of as science, but they all contribute to solving the problems facing heritage in today’s world. Indeed, the German term ‘Wissenschaft’ is, we think, a useful way of summarising all the different types/kinds of knowledge needed to help conserve heritage. Wissenschaft is often translated as ‘science’, but it’s a broader and more nuanced concept which includes scientific and non-scientific inquiry under the heading of ‘systematic research’.

Coping with complexity: Katrin at Pompeii

Dr Katrin Wilhelm,
Conservation and Heritage Scientist in OxRBL
She used to be a stone mason and is now an expert on the use of non-destructive, field-based methods to diagnose stone deterioration.
She works at many heritage sites, including the Roman ruins of Pompeii, Italy.

One of the OxRBL researchers, Dr Katrin Wilhelm, has worked on the conservation history of Pompeii. To understand the different materials used in the conservation of wall paintings at Pompeii and their long-term performance, she has had to consult historical records, use advanced microscopic techniques developed for geology and materials science, work with archaeologists and talk to microbiologists. No one field of science can provide all the answers, and anyone working on heritage has to be prepared to collaborate with others and step out of their comfort zone.

Pompeii (Italy), Casa del Criptoportico (I, 6, 2) in 2016.

Pompeii (Italy), Casa dell’ Ara Massima (VI, 16, 15) in 2016. Discussion between architects, archaeologists, scientists and curators about past, present and future conservation strategies.

Introducing OxRBL and science for heritage conservation

We are a group of scientists from diverse backgrounds who work at the University of Oxford in the Oxford Resilient Buildings and Landscapes Lab (OxRBL). For British Science Week we are posting a series of 5 blog posts to explain who we are, what we do and why, and how we use science to help conserve heritage. The ideas for these blog posts came out of some discussions in our weekly lab group meetings and illustrate the challenges we find applying science to heritage conservation.

But before we start… some introductions are needed.

What IS heritage?  And why does it need conserving?

Heritage can be defined as anything that we value beyond everyday use and want to pass on to future generations. It’s much more than old buildings and archaeological sites (although these are important too!). Heritage can be both tangible (things we can see and touch such as pottery, shells or murals) and intangible (things we experience such as music and dance). Heritage can be cultural or natural, or a bit of both. Cultural heritage includes objects, buildings and sites created by humans, whereas natural heritage is made up of plants, animals and the physical environment. Heritage can be movable or immovable – things we can collect and put on display somewhere (like artworks) or things that we have to go and visit where they have been created (like mountains). What things do you value and would like to pass on to future generations so that they can enjoy them too?

Heritage needs conserving because there are many threats to all types of heritage – such as climate change, wars, economic and social change, as well as natural processes of decay. The more value we put on heritage, the harder we are prepared to work to conserve it.

Who are OxRBL?

Currently, there are 19 of us in OxRBL ranging in age from 22 to 60, including students, researchers, and three Honorary Research Associates who contribute to our research but who also have jobs elsewhere (in industry or at other universities or research organisations). We come from many different parts of the world – UK, Germany, France, Canada, USA, China, Japan, Ethiopia, and Syria. We have done many different undergraduate degrees including geography, conservation science, chemistry, architecture, geology, art history and archaeology. We come from a diverse range of cultural and religious backgrounds, some of us have caring responsibilities, and some of us have had difficult journeys to get to Oxford. OxRBL is very gender-balanced and we are proud of our LGBTQ+ members. We enjoy challenging stereotypes of what scientists should look like and what scientists should do.

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Ammar Azzouz – works for Arup, producing a video on Domicide: the destruction of home.

Blen Taye Gemeda – Doctoral student researching rock-hewn churches, Lalibela, Ethipioa

Dáire Browne – Doctoral student researching laser spectroscopy methods for heritage

Heather Viles – Professor of Biogeomorphology and Heritage Conservation (@Geodiverse)

Hong Zhang – Research Technician in charge of OxRBL’s lab and field equipment

Jenny Richards – Doctoral student researching environmental impacts on earthen heritage

Katherine Jang – Doctoral student researching the impacts of moss growing on old walls

Kathryn Royce – Doctoral student researching mineral collections in museums

Katrin Wilhelm – Researcher working on sandstone conservation and other projects

Kenta Sayama – Masters student assisting research on Reigate Stone, Tower of London

Lucie Fusade – works for Rose of Jericho, developed the Use Lime Mortar app

Martin Coombes – Researcher working on biodiversity and heritage conservation

Martin Michette – Doctoral student researching Reigate Stone, Tower of London

Richard Grove – Doctoral student researching sandstone conservation

Sam Woor – Doctoral student researching the history of alluvial fans in Oman

Scott Orr – Lecturer in Heritage Data Science, University College London

Shanlong Yang – works for Dunhuang Academy, China on heritage conservation

Tim Baxter – Doctoral student researching marine life on historic walls

Yinghong Wang – Doctoral student researching sandstone grottoes in NW China

OxRBL and The British Science Week

During the British Science Week (6 – 15th March 2020) our lab will be publishing blog posts to introduce ourselves and some core ideas and challenges science tackles in the field of cultural built heritage.

Isle of Portland, investigating limestone using ground penetrating radar (GPR)

Stay tuned!