Conservation of Gallipoli Battlefield Objects, Turkey

Holly Jones-Amin and Carmela Lonetti, objects conservators from the University of Melbourne's Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, travelled to Çanakkale, Turkey in 2014 to preserve objects uncovered in an historic tri-national interdisciplinary archaeological survey of the ANZAC battlefield.

Despite the historical importance of the Gallipoli battlefield, this area had previously remained unstudied in great detail through modern archaeological survey methods. During the survey, spanning nine years from 2005 to 2014, over a thousand fragmented and complete objects were uncovered on the Gallipoli battlefield surface, often found wrapped within thorny bushes, buried under clumps of pine needles or embedded in eroding trench walls. Ms Jones-Amin and Ms Lonetti were commissioned to stabilize and prepare the objects, which remain patrimony of the Turkish government, for exhibition and long-term storage.

The uncovered artefacts are currently stored at the Çanakkale Strait Commandery Military Museum, a working naval base and open air museum, complete with cannons, submarine and a replica of the Nusret mining boat, the vessel that kept the allied forces at bay and forced our armed forces to abandon their efforts to pass through the Dardanelles and to land at Gallipoli instead.

Ms Jones-Amin and Ms Lonetti had access to a purpose built conservation lab at the naval base, where they set about stabilizing the objects  whilst maintaining an appearance of exposure, and preparing  them for future exhibition and travel.

The uncovered Gallipoli Battlefield objects revealed a built-in memory of natural processes. They were exposed to the elements for almost 100 years, during which time they had interactions with their exposed and burial environment. Amongst the artefacts uncovered, there were the expected shrapnel and bullets, but also handmade bricks used to strengthen trenches, sandstone used by the Turks to bake flat breads, as well as fragile and crumbling metal food containers, including iron 'keys', used to twist the top off sardine cans.

During exposure, metals return to their oxidized forms by corroding in the presence of oxygen and moisture. Astonishingly, iron, bronze, ceramic, glass and organic objects that were discarded, fired or lost during WWI survived and were consequently revealed during the nine year dig. Surviving organic material, such as parts of a leather shoe sole, fragmentary textile fibres attached to copper alloy objects, and a particularly ingenuous tree growing around an iron bayonet, were some of the most astounding discoveries of the survey.

Bayonet excavated from the Gallipoli battlefields

The conservators from the University of Melbourne worked painstakingly to remove corrosion on iron and bronze objects using scalpels, dental picks, fibreglass bristle brushes and dental drills. The removal of corrosion from copper alloy bullets and fuse heads revealed inscriptions, and importantly, identified artefacts as either being Turkish or from the Commonwealth battalions. This provided new information (and excitement) to the archaeologists, helping them to interpret the objects and better understand the site.  After corrosion removal, all of the artefacts were preserved and meticulously prepared for storage or exhibition, and thanks to the tireless work of the conservators from the University of Melbourne, the conserved objects are now stable and can be studied and displayed for the next 100 years.

Cambridge University Press will publish the results of the archaeological project in 2015 – Battlefield Gallipoli: Landscape of War and Memory. In addition, a comprehensive, web-based digital archive – Gallipoli Battlefield Archaeological Database (GBAD) – containing thousands of images and detailed data will be made available to the general public.