The Preservation of Cultural Heritage Above and Below the Water: A Dialogue with Diana Arano Recio

By Nicolas Ciarlo, Associate Editor for Maritime Archaeology

Diana E. Arano Recio (1977) is a consolidated Mexican conservator-restorer focused on underwater cultural heritage (UCH). In 2003, she completed her B.A. in Restoration of Movable Cultural Heritage at the National School of Conservation, Restoration, and Museography of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH, Mexico) with a dissertation on the deterioration of human bones found in underwater cave contexts.  

Moving forward, in 2009 she completed an M.A. in Marine Sciences with mention of Marine Infrastructure Preservation at the Faculty of Engineering of the Autonomous University of Campeche (UAC, Mexico). For her dissertation, she conducted an archaeometric assessment of the conservation of Colonial period iron guns located in the city of San Francisco de Campeche.

Since 2003, she has been a conserver at the INAH, working as co-chair of the Conservation Laboratory of the Campeche State Delegation. In addition, from the very beginning, she has worked on archaeological projects of the Vice-Directorate of Underwater Archaeology. 

Nowadays, she is a Ph.D. candidate in the Doctoral Program in Maritime History and Archaeology of the University of Cadiz (UCA), working at the Laboratory of Studies and Conservation of Culture Heritage (LEC-PH) belonging to the Faculty of Marine and Environmental Sciences of the same university. 

During her career, she acquired extensive experience in management, programming, and execution of projects centered on the conservation and restoration of Mexican cultural heritage. She has always shown a strong commitment to intersectoral collaboration and interdisciplinary approaches for the study of the degradation and conservation of a wide range of materials recovered from underwater sites, from prehistoric human bones to copper-based artifacts from the 18th to 19th Century shipwrecks. Her expertise led her to take both teaching, consultant, and advisory roles in Mexico and elsewhere. She published her work in several articles, book chapters, and conference proceedings of national and international scope. 

Below is a brief interview with Diana, who kindly shared a unique glimpse of her career’s most salient experiences.

Diana Arano, working with the Naia's remains. INAH, Campeche, Mexico. 

NC: The conservation of UCH has been a major challenge within underwater archaeology since the early years of this field, and fortunately, several advances have been made on this matter. Which are the main problems associated with the preservation of UCH located in Mexican (warm) waters?

DA: The main conservation problems of UCH derive from two factors: the social and the natural. Mexico has a vast cultural legacy that is underwater, such as paleontological remains, cave paintings and other cultural vestiges of pre-Columbian societies, shipwrecks, port infrastructure from the colonial and independent periods, and evidence of historical events such as the "War of Castes" in the 19th Century. Due to its territorial extension, it enjoys a coastline of more than 11,000 km, plus rivers, lakes, and all the subterranean caverns system in the Yucatan peninsula with an approximate extension of more than 350 km. High-temperature tropical climates predominate, especially in the South, which promotes physical and chemical conditions in the bodies of water that increase the material degradation rate. In addition, from a local point of view, we are observing an increase in pollution due to industry, agriculture, and massive tourism; and at a global level, we are dealing with the environmental transformations that are produced by climate change. Unfortunately, we still do not have a clear idea of how significant the negative effects of these changes will be on the UCH that remains in situ. That being said, it is necessary to create cultural policies that guarantee the development of conservation science projects focus on UCH, that contemplate training human resources in a multidisciplinary field and includes monitoring and in situ protection, as well as the evaluation of conservation treatments.


NC: The bone remains of one of the earliest Native American girls (Naia) have provided novel information to better understand the first human population on the continent. How did you stabilize this very fragile evidence and which lessons did you learn in the lab during this difficult task?

DA: The first and most important lesson I have learned from my experience stabilizing the bone remains of Naia –anearly 13,000-year-old girl– was that the most important factor in succeeding in the conservation of the UCH is the collaboration and willingness of the working team. The rest consisted in gradually modifying the environmental conditions in which it was found inside the cave until the bone remains could resist the aerial environment. The diagenesis studies carried out allowed us to know that in the remains of Naia there was a lack of collagen, the organic matter that provides flexibility to the bones during the life of an individual. Regarding the inorganic matter, we were able to infer that during the mineralization of Naia’s remains, an ionic substitution was occurring in the hydroxyapatite. Due to the ionic substitution, it had dislocations in its crystalline structure, a property that made the material very prone to rupture. Thus, the bones required very delicate handling when taken from the cave to the conservation laboratory, during the conservation treatments, and in their transfer to the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, where they are in storage at present. The conservation treatment consisted of gradual desalination, consolidation, controlled drying, and packaging, both for extraction from the cave and transportation, as well as for definitive storage. Also, it was very important to control and monitor environmental conditions in the conservation laboratory and the storage cellar at the museum. None of this could have been accomplished without the multidisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration in favor of the conservation of these significant archaeological remains.

NC: Interdisciplinary approaches and archaeometry have proved to be of utmost importance for maritime archaeology research. Which are the most salient advantages that applied physic-chemistry, materials science, and engineering provide to develop preservation strategies focused on UCH?

DA: In recent decades, technological tools applied to the study of materials have had an unprecedented development, mainly driven by the industrial and healthcare sectors. The most salient applications of the knowledge and methods from physics, chemistry, materials science, and engineering to the study and conservation of UCH, have impacted three main lines of research. First, they have allowed us to expand our knowledge regarding the constituent materials and manufacturing process, which in turn have enabled us to assess the chronology and provenance of the remains. Second, they made it possible to acquire new data to better understand the kinetics and nature of degradation processes in lacustrine and marine environments. And third, they have provided additional information for the evaluation of conservation treatments and the implementation of in situ protection systems for archaeological remains. Altogether, archaeometry data have provided managers and political leaders with valuable tools to implement preservation policies at local, national, and international levels. 

NC: Over the years, you have gained a rich experience both working with a plethora of materials and collaborating with diverse specialists from social/human and natural sciences, in Mexico and abroad. What advice can you offer to students and young conservators for their careers?

DA: The first piece of advice is to specialize on a subject that they like and are passionate about, as they are going to spend at least a third of their lives working on it. I wasn't very interested in the natural sciences until I saw them being applied in the study of cultural property; it blew my mind to discover the artist or artisan brushstroke in a piece just by observing it under the microscope. Think about something you can do even if you are on your free time. The second advice is relative to the dissertation theme: keep it as simple as possible. Hidden under topics that sometimes seem arid or meaningless, there are niches of opportunity in which students can develop professionally. Archaeometric research applied to the conservation of cultural heritage is still a young field that requires more young specialists to face future challenges, especially with new problems arising from climate change. The third advice is: don’t stay in your workroom (classroom, office, or laboratory), take some time to experience your field; if you like archaeometallurgy do some jewelry or bronze sculpture courses; if you like to study oil paintings, paint or prepare your art materials as they were made in ancient times. And if you like maritime archaeology, it is never too late to learn to dive! Finally, I encourage young students to seek new experiences in a multidisciplinary environment and foster inter-institutional collaboration. I always refer to the scientific expeditions of the 18th Century and invite students to look for a work team made up of people from various disciplines who, due to a common interest, are willing to sail together.