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The Analysis and Conservation of The Belle Footwear Assemblage

Anthony Randolph Jr.
Thesis: December 2003
Chair: C. Wayne Smith
Nautical Archaeology Program

Nautical archaeology can be loosely defined as the study of the material remains of ships and their contents as a component of a broader cultural system. The oceans and lakes of the world are replete with shipwrecks fro111 a11 eras, and these sites have become the premier source of data for the nautical archaeologist. The inter-relationship between vessel, cargo, and crew is expressed in the assemblages recovered from these sites, and analysis of these remains serves to fill in the expansive gaps between human behavior and the material culture that they leave behind. The excavation of the French barque Belle, which had been part of La Salle's ill-fated expedition to the Mississippi in 1684, yielded several hundred leather artifacts, predominantly in the form of shoes. This thesis first proposes to analyze the Belle footwear assemblage both as a representation of seventeenth century French culture and as a facet of La Salle's final voyage. The harsh environment of the sea floor, however, affects remains from the Belle site in myriad ways. Metal artifacts are transformed into non-descript conglomerations of marine growth and sediments called encrustations, while organic remnants are preserved via chemical reactions with metals, or by quick burial in anaerobic soils. Equilibrium established between artifact and its benthic environment is disrupted upon recovery, and remains must be carefully treated to ensure long-term stability. This is the purview of the archaeological conservator. The role of the archaeological conservator is by no means limited to the stabilization of artifacts. They are also responsible for cleaning, documenting, and analyzing the objects that they treat. The recent introduction of polymer passivation technologies, which relies heavily on silicon oils, provides archaeological conservators with a new option concerning the treatment of organic artifacts. This thesis also proposes to examine this new methodology, particularly focusing on the treatment of the leather objects recovered from Belle.

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