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Technical Research Bulletin

Technical Research Bulletin

Valutazione del trattamento conservativo dei resti umani del periodo
dell’uomo di Neanderthal presso Krapina in Croazia, ed implicazioni relative
all’esibizione e prestito di resti umani fossili</STRONG><BR>Nell’anno 2005, la
decisione presa dal governo dell’Etiopia di prestare i resti umani fossilizzati
per una mostra itinerante negli Stati Uniti, ha causato l’idignazione di molti
paleoantropologi. L’Associazione Internazionale per gli Studi di Paleontologia
Umana ha passato una risoluzione che stabilisce che i resti umani non debbano
essere messi a rischio da prestiti per mostre, ma che debbano essere accessibili
esclusivamente a specialisti del settore.</P>
<P>Questo studio riporta i risultati ottenuti durante la valutazione degli
interventi conservativi della collezione di resti del periodo di Neanderthal
dalla grottadi Krapina in Croazia. I risultati degli esami hanno mostrato come
danni siano risultati in seguito all’incorretta applicazione di resine ed
adesivi, e a causa dei materiali utilizzati per eseguire calchi. A causa
dell’ingiallimento e della contrazione delle resine lo studio delle
caratteristiche superficiali degli oggetti risulta più difficoltoso. In alcuni
casi è anche stata riscontrata la rimozione di materiale originale. Le giunture
tra frammenti sono spesso grossolanamente eseguite e i bordi delle giunture non
sono stati consolidati prima del riattaccamento. L’utilizzo di materiali come la
cera e la gomma per l’esecuzione di calchi ha creato nuove rotture e perdita di
materiale originale. Questo studio ha dimostrato come resti umani fossili
VOLUME 2 2008

ISBN 978-1-904982-35-7
possano essere a rischio non solo da mostre e prestiti, ma anche da ricercatori
Publications ‘specializzati’.</P>
in association with
9 781904 982357

VOLUME 2 2008

ARC-BritMusTRB-2008-COVER1-yello1 1 11/10/2008 13:24:12

Conservation assessment of the Neanderthal
human remains from Krapina, Croatia and its
implications for the debate on the display and
loan of human fossils
Jill Cook and Clare Ward

Summary In 2005, the Ethiopian government’s decision to offer the fossilized remains of a three million-year
old human ancestor for an exhibition tour of the United States provoked condemnation from many palaeoan-
thropologists. In response, the council of the International Association for the Study of Human Palaeontology
passed a resolution stating that such remains should not be endangered by loan and exhibition but preserved
for qualified scientific access only. This report summarizes the findings of a detailed conservation assessment
of the collection of Neanderthal remains from Krapina Cave, Croatia. Examination showed that damage
had occurred due to the incorrect application of resins as preservatives and adhesives, and the moulding of
specimens for casting. Resin coatings had discoloured and contracted making it difficult to study surface
features as well as resulting in surface loss. Adhesive joins were often inaccurate and join edges had not been
strengthened by consolidation prior to adhesion, leaving them vulnerable to damage and further breakage.
The use of casting materials such as plaster, wax and rubber had resulted in loss of the fragile surface and new
breaks, or further breaks along old joins. The report concludes that human fossils may be as much at risk from
researchers as when on loan to exhibitions.


The discovery of human remains more than 10000 years The survey examined the largest known sample of Neander-
old is always a cause for scientific celebration. Such finds thal human remains from Krapina Cave, north of Zagreb
are rare and valuable, as each new sample or technique may in Croatia. Excavated between 1899 and 1906 by palaeon-
reveal threads of evidence in our understanding of human tologist Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger, the collection,
evolution. Consequently, there is a persistent requirement to curated at the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb,
measure, cast and sample from existing and newly discov- consists of approximately 830 bones or fragments, including
ered human bones. As a result many palaeoanthropolo- cranial and postcranial elements of individuals who lived
gists, among them the curator of the Neanderthal human between about 120000 and 60000 years ago. The bibliog-
remains from Krapina Cave, Croatia, Dr Jakov Radovčić, raphy of over 3000 papers in 20 languages written on these
have noted regrettable damage and distortion to speci- remains over the last century is a mark of their considerable
mens. In response to these concerns, and at the request of importance to international research and debate on human
Dr Radovčić and American colleagues Professor Milford evolution [1]. It also reflects the intense pressure placed on
Wolpoff of Ann Arbor University, Michigan and Professor the collection by four generations of scientists, each seeking
Alan Mann of Princeton University, New Jersey, the British to answer new questions using the latest techniques.
Museum agreed to support a conservation survey of the
Krapina material.


Method in many instances has been applied over sediment. This

was usual practice at the turn of the twentieth century;
In May 2007 the authors examined every bone and bone in 1905 Rathgen recommended the application of natural
fragment in the Krapina collection in Zagreb with the resins such as dammar, shellac, isinglass or/and animal
exception of the phalanges and separate teeth. In the case glues in appropriate solvents as a method of preservation
of the phalanges and teeth, representative samples of about for fossil bone [3]. These coatings have embrittled and
10% of each were examined so that an estimate of the condi- discoloured with time, covering and damaging signifi-
tion and conservation requirements could be determined
for all the specimens. Each specimen was checked against
the collection catalogue [2]. This ensured the correct iden- table 1. Condition categories used to assess the Krapina collection
tification of the specimens and their numbers, as well as following the procedure used in the British Museum to indicate and
showing up changes in their condition that have occurred prioritize conservation requirements
over the last 20 years. Dr Radovčić was on hand throughout Condition
category Condition Priority Requirement
the work and provided the invaluable guidance and infor-
A Good No conservation
mation that can only be acquired by long acquaintance with required
a collection. B Stable but at risk of Low Conservation required
Following identification, every item was examined by eye degrading within 10 years within 10 years
and using a ×2.75 Optivisor headband magnifier. As each C Unstable Medium Conservation essential
as soon as possible
specimen was inspected, notes on its condition and conser-
D Actively deteriorating High Conservation urgent
vation requirements were recorded in an Excel spreadsheet.
Photographs were taken to record the deterioration noted
on particular specimens, or types of alteration affecting the
collection generally. Additional, higher-resolution, digital
images of surfaces made during previous research by one of
the authors (JC) were also utilized. As the work progressed,
some basic solvent tests were carried out on the resins and
glues that have been used on the remains over the last
century in order to determine their composition, state of
degradation and potential ease of removal. Samples of these
resins were also taken for further analysis in the laboratory
at the British Museum.
As the specimens were examined, each was categorized
based on the approach developed by the British Museum
for regular auditing of the conservation requirements of its
own collections. Each piece was placed in one of the condi-
tion categories listed in Table 1.
By the end of the survey, even before the data collected figure 1. Photomicrograph of incised lines on Krapina skull 6.
had been analysed, the method already indicated the conser- Evidence of post-mortem modification of the skull is obscured by the
deteriorating resin coating, which is flaking off with fragments of the
vation requirements. Around a third of the collection is a periosteum
high or medium priority and the rest requires attention in
the near future. The remainder of this contribution summa-
rizes the data, outlines the conservation requirements and
suggests the actions required.

Present condition of the fossils

Most of the collection consists of fragments of bone that

have been rejoined since excavation. Many of the joins
were made years apart, so a single specimen may have
been reconstructed by various researchers using a number
of different techniques and adhesives. There is no docu-
mentation recording these reconstructions or the mate-
rials applied. Whether the specimens are complete bones,
rejoined or fragmentary, all but a few have been covered figure 2. Photomicrograph of cut marks in the area of the mylohyoid
with a thick coat of resin. In most cases this would appear line on the interior of juvenile mandible Krapina 53. The resin coating
to have been applied soon after the initial excavation and has a crazed surface and is flaking away


cant post-mortem markings on the bone surfaces, Figures glue [4]. Samples of these resins were also taken for labo-
1 and 2. The internal structure of the bone is fragile and ratory analysis at the British Museum, where subsequent
usually unconsolidated, causing a difference between the testing revealed the presence of polyvinyl acetate, cellulose
hard outer surface and fragile interior that sets up long- nitrate, proteinaceous material and components derived
term stresses within the bones and may eventually result from conifer resin [5].
in surface loss. This is already visible on some fragments, Figures 3 and 4 show some of the criteria that put a
particularly where moulding for replication has taken number of specimens on the critical list of pieces requiring
place. Tests on the coatings using acetone (propanone), urgent attention. Both illustrations show how newly discov-
ethanol, isopropanol (propan-2-ol) and water were incon- ered joins have been stuck together using a variety of adhe-
clusive, although in some cases there appeared to be a slight sives over the years. As the ‘preservatives’ that have been used
softening with hot water, suggesting the presence of animal only coat and harden the surface, without consolidating the
glue. Recent DNA tests have revealed the presence of bovine bone, the interior remains soft and fragile. When two such
DNA, which could have resulted from the use of animal pieces are joined, any adhesive will form a hard line along the
join. This will eventually result in further breakage and loss of
bone. A succession of repairs to such separated joins repeats
the problem, causing further damage with worse and ever
more inaccurate reconstructions. In many cases adhesive has
spilled out onto the surface of the joins. This excess adhesive
may contract as it degrades resulting in surface damage and
even loss. Tests on the adhesive suggest that there may be
cellulose nitrate present. Recent joins have been made with
an acrylic, Paraloid B48N, dissolved in acetone [4].
The use of small wooden sticks glued in place to hold
fragments in position was undoubtedly intended to support
and strengthen some joins, Figure 3. Unfortunately, this
has compounded the problems of excess adhesive and poor
joins. The sticks do not give adequate support to the frag-
ments and in several cases they have detached, removing
the bone surface, leaving the bone unsupported and the join
unstable. Dimensional changes in the wooden sticks due
figure 3. Interior view of the partial skull of a juvenile, Krapina 1
rejoined from several fragments. The old joins and the wooden stick to environmental variations may also have contributed to
supports are unstable. The resin coating on the surface has become this movement. The distortion in form that may be caused
brittle, discoloured and is flaking away removing fragments of peri- could result in the collection of misleading measurements
osteum. This is particularly evident where sticks have detached. Resi-
and provide poor bases for the comparison of specimens.
dues of Blu-Tack, plasticine and moulding materials also adhere to
the surface

figure 4. Rejoined juvenile cranial fragments Krapina 31.10 and

Krapina 33.32 showing inaccurate, unstable joins

figure 5. Femur fragment Krapina 257.4 with resin coating on the Figure 6. Rejoined fragments of adult left parietal Krapina 16 showing
cancellous bone casting residues


On fragments of limb bones there is often a hard fill teeth are in relatively good condition and in general do not
or consolidant material present on the exposed cancel- appear to have been coated with resin.
lous tissue, Figure 5. This appears to be stable, but is thick During a century of research the Krapina bones and teeth
and obscures the surface of the tissue. The few bones that have been extensively moulded for the production of casts.
are uncoated are fragile but otherwise well preserved. The Surfaces and joins bear the traces of this process, which
consist of remnants of casting materials such as plaster, wax
and rubber, all of which adhere to the surface. Damage to
the surfaces and joins, as well as significant distortion, is
also evident, Figure 6. The deleterious effects of these proc-
esses have also been detailed by Monge and Mann [6]. The
remnants of moulding materials need to be removed from
the Krapina bones with great care otherwise they will pull off
more fragments of periosteum, tooth enamel or dentine.
The use of plasticine (a putty composed of petroleum
jelly, fatty acids, and calcium carbonate) or ‘Blu-Tack’ (a
blue putty composed of hydrocarbon polymers, mineral oil,
fillers and pigment) to make temporary joins or to support
specimens during measurement or photography has also
resulted in damage to the specimens, Figure 7. There is a
large amount of Blu-Tack adhering to the surfaces. Blu-Tack
Figure 7. Rejoined fragments of adult parietal Krapina 32.2 showing
and plasticine are difficult to remove from porous surfaces
a discoloured brittle resin coating and Blu-Tack used as an adhesive,
resulting in wide, inaccurate joins and also cause oily stains.
Other extraneous debris noted on specimens included
black fibres from fabrics used as back cloths for displays
or photography, and patches of adhesive that would seem
to be the result of attaching specimens to black fabric for
display, Figure 8.
The surfaces of the specimens are dirty and often show
numerous superficial nicks, scratches and indentations that
have accrued since excavation as a result of that process
and subsequent handling, including the use of metal
measuring implements and dental tools, Figure 9. They
also show copious pencil marks, which have been made
to locate joins, mark measuring points or left as residues
when tracing the edges of fragments. In addition, the speci-
mens bear numbers in ink indicating their place in various
cataloguing sequences. These numbers are wearing away or
Figure 8. Archive photograph of the Krapina fossils temporarily have partly disappeared as a consequence of surface loss and
displayed on a black cloth
are becoming difficult to read. The resin used in conjunc-
tion with the red ink is beginning to degrade, resulting in
shrinkage and cracking that will eventually cause the loss of
the number and damage to the bone.


Examination of the Krapina collection indicates that much

of the damage that it has suffered is due to handling, the
incorrect application of resins as preservatives and adhe-
sives, as well as the moulding of specimens for casting. There
are no records of which materials have been used or of how,
when and by whom they have been applied. The pressure
to allow the collection to be researched has resulted in the
figure 9. Photomicrograph of recent marks made by metal instru- requirements of these uses having priority over conserva-
ments on parietal fragment Krapina 36. These have penetrated the tion considerations, despite the best efforts of the curator to
resin and periosteum to expose fresh bone monitor and restrict any unnecessary activity.


Table 2 provides a summary of the observations and table 2. Summary of observational data
sample data from the 833 hominid specimens. It shows Condition Number of Time in
that the entire collection requires some conservation work category specimens hours
A 0 0
and about a third is in need of urgent or essential work due
B 671 596.5
to active deterioration. The urgent category (D) includes
C 120 565.5
all the cranial specimens, which are of considerable inter-
D 42 528
national scientific importance. It is vital that conserva-
Total 833 1704
tion of this material should begin soon to avoid further,
possibly irreversible, deterioration. The coatings present on
the specimens will become increasingly difficult to remove their laboratories for scientific reasons. As this report on
over time as they age and degrade. This will cause edges the Krapina collection shows, concern for these fossils is
and surfaces to crumble or flake and irreparably damage legitimate and this is not an isolated case [6, 7]. However, in
the bones, reducing their scientific value. this case the cause of deterioration is not the exhibition of
The time required for conservation of all the specimens is the fossils but handling during scientific investigations and
estimated to be just over 1700 hours. The estimate includes lack of professional conservation. The curation and conser-
time for treatment of the object together with proper conser- vation care that such specimens receive in museum exhibi-
vation documentation (an assessment of condition, results tions is protectively benign by comparison with the way in
of analyses, technical observations and a record of treat- which specimens are sometimes handled during research.
ment) and conservation photography where necessary. The Thanks to the informed concerns of Dr Radovčić, it is
estimate is based on the assumption that it will be possible not too late to reverse some of the damage and halt further
to remove the resin coatings from the bone surfaces, take deterioration of the Krapina specimens if immediate action
down old joins and rejoin fragments relatively easily using is taken. This is a case which should be a wake-up call to
appropriate solvents and application techniques. However the palaeoanthropological community. Work on the recon-
this depends on the nature of the resins that are found on struction of fossils should not take place without the partici-
the specimens’ surfaces. Some may be more difficult, or pation of professional conservators. Instead of preventing
even impossible, to remove and this would increase the the display of the common origins of humanity, the Asso-
conservation time required. ciation for the Study of Human Palaeontology should be
Consideration of the data collected during examination setting internationally accepted guidelines for the handling,
of the bones has provided the basis for recommendations reproduction and sampling of fossil human remains. These
about how the conservation work can best be achieved should focus on record keeping, storage, handling and
together with improvements in storage. The latter adds conservation, and should monitor research requirements to
both to the timescale and cost of the conservation, but also ensure they can be met without detriment to the specimen.
adds value and will help to ensure the future survival of The following suggestions made for the Krapina specimens
this collection. The next stage will be for those concerned might form a starting point.
to cost these conservation proposals and to find funding
for an appropriate plan of action to implement the recom-
mendations, most of which could be taken to apply to other Recording
collections of human fossil remains which are in a similarly
deteriorating condition. Curatorial and conservation records whether manual or
electronic should be kept for every specimen. These should
include curatorial data such as catalogue numbers, as well
as information about specimen condition and details of any
DISCUSSION actions taken with specimens such as conservation treat-
ment or scientific sampling. These details should include by
In 2005 the Ethiopian government offered to loan the whom, when, how and with what materials or equipment
remains of a 3.2 million-year old skeleton of Australop- any work was done.
ithecus afarensis (popularly known as Lucy), an early human
ancestor, to museums in the United States. In response,
the council of the International Association for the Study Storage
of Human Palaeontology passed a resolution against the
loan of human fossil remains for the purpose of display. Specimens should be placed in storage in supportive, inert
This international body of scientists involved in research materials. The storage areas should provide suitable envi-
on human evolution feared that the risks of packing, trans- ronmental conditions. The past environmental conditions
porting and displaying human fossils were too great to in which the objects have been stored should be taken
allow, because of the immense value of the specimens to into account, but for collections that have not previously
the history of humanity. Instead, the Association wishes been kept in very dry conditions, the recommended envi-
to restrict access to scientists and only move specimens to ronmental conditions for archaeological bone are 40–55%


relative humidity with daily fluctuation of ±5% or less and a fossils have the extraordinary power to remind us of our
temperature of 16–20°C with daily fluctuations of less than common origins as we search for new identities in a world
±2°C [8]. These conditions should be monitored to provide of complexity and difference. In this role their significance
a constant check on their stability and conditions main- extends beyond science to the diplomatic, provoking ques-
tained by appropriate equipment if necessary. tions that may enlighten our attitudes to one another and
providing opportunities to raise crucial funding for scien-
tific and museum projects in the country of origin. Human
Handling and conservation fossils are rare and precious archives of human ancestry that
need to be shared. To protect and preserve them we need to
Cautious, conservation-conscious handling regulations build up standards of care and presentation that will enable
should be drawn up to which researchers must sign up this, rather than restrict access to the few.
before they are allowed access to the material. These regu-
lations should prevent any further moulding of the speci-
mens and any activities that involve handling or applying
materials to the surfaces or joins. Reconstruction of speci-
mens and new joins should always be made in collabora- The authors would like to thank Dr Jakov Radovčić who requested and
tion with professional conservators experienced in dealing supported the work on the Krapina specimens. Without his knowledge
of the collection and concern for the specimens, this project would not
with organic materials. Institutions should have clear poli-
have been possible. Thanks are also due to our colleagues Marei Hacke
cies on the sampling of the specimens for dating, DNA or and Rebecca Stacey for analysis of the resin samples.
isotope analyses, and such other techniques as may develop.
Where possible, institutions should look to the future and
try to adopt techniques such as computerized axial tomog-
raphy (CAT scanning), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) AUTHORS
or three-dimensional (3D) laser scanning to avoid casting Jill Cook ( is a curator in the
and to reduce the need for direct access to the fossils by Department of Prehistory and Europe and Clare Ward (cward@
making high-resolution 3D images available electronically. a conservator in the Department of Conser-
If casting is essential then rapid prototyping using scanned vation and Scientific Research at the British Museum.
data should be considered as an alternative to traditional
techniques [9].
These guidelines should not restrict scientific work, REFERENCES
but they could raise standards, improve the techniques of
enquiry and ensure the preservation of the fossils. Most of 1. Frayer, D., ‘The Krapina neanderthals: a comprehensive, centen-
nial illustrated bibliography’,
these points will already be accepted and implemented as krapina-bibliography.pdf (accessed 21 March 2008).
best practice in many museums. The recording, storage and 2. Radovčić, J., Smith, F.H., Trinkhaus, E. and Wolpoff, M.H., The
handling requirements can be simply and cheaply achieved Krapina hominids: an illustrated catalog of skeletal collection,
almost anywhere, but access to professional conservation Zagreb, Mladost Press and the Croatian Natural History Museum
skills and suitable laboratories is not so easy. Where inter- 3. Rathgen, F. (translators G.A. Auden and H.A. Auden), The preser-
nationally important specimens are concerned, the sharing vation of antiquities: a handbook for curators, Cambridge Univer-
of knowledge and skills between collaborating institutions sity Press, Cambridge (1905) 151–152.
should ensure the involvement and training of conservators 4. Radovčić, J., Croatian Natural History Museum, personal commu-
nication (May 2007).
and access to techniques that may not be available in the 5. Hacke, M. and Stacey, R., Identification of adhesives and resins used
place of discovery; loan programmes may facilitate this. for the restoration of hominid remains from Krapina, Croatia, CDS
report no. AR2007/79, British Museum (2007) (unpublished).
6. Monge, J. and Mann, A., ‘Ethical issues in the moulding and
casting of fossil specimens’, in Biological anthropology and ethics:
from repatriation to genetic identity, ed. T. Turner, State University
CONCLUSIONS of New York Press, New York (2005) 91–110.
7. Cook, J., ‘Let Lucy sparkle’, British Archaeology 96 (2007) 15.
It is important that museums be allowed to display and 8. Saunders, D., Lighting and climatic criteria for the British Museum
collections, British Museum (2006) (unpublished).
borrow human fossils for exhibition if they are in a suit- 9. France, D., ‘General considerations in casting’, in Human remains:
able condition [7]. At a time when globalization goes hand guide for museums and academic institutions, ed. V. Cassman,
in hand with social fragmentation and intolerance, such N. Odegaard and J. Powell, Altamira Press, Lanham (2007) 67.