Meet Archaeological Conservator Vanessa Muros: Director of the Experimental and Archaeological Sciences Laboratory

Discovery is a word often associated with archaeologists. But according to Vanessa Muros, it should be applied equally to conservators who work alongside archaeologists in the field and labs, as well as in institutions. Describing herself as an archaeological conservator, Muros is director of the Experimental and Archaeological Sciences Laboratory (EASL) at the Cotsen Institute and an advocate for teamwork in the field between archaeologists and conservators. With extensive work experience in conservation and more than 15 years at UCLA, she has MA degrees in both archaeology and conservation and hopes to receive her PhD in Archaeology from the University of Peloponnese, Greece, this spring. The title of her research is History, Archaeology, and Cultural Resources Management. Below Muros describes her road to the Cotsen Institute, her outlook for conservation, her work in EASL, and how she ended up determining how many people per square foot could occupy the Cotsen Institute during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Roz Salzman:  How do you define an archaeological conservator?

Vanessa Muros: I am a conservator who specializes in the examination, analysis, and preservation of archaeological materials. I do not really consider myself an archaeologist, even though I have undergraduate and master’s degrees in archaeology. Most of my professional life has been as a conservator.


RS: Did your dissertation efforts derive from your work as an archaeological conservator?

VM: My dissertation came out of my work as an archaeological conservator on the Lofkënd Archaeological Project directed by UCLA professors John Papadopoulos and Sarah Morris. Various glass beads from their excavation were brought into the laboratory for treatment. Some of the beads were quite deteriorated, where beads right found right next to them in the same grave were in very good condition. I wanted to figure out why the degree of preservation varied so much, and that led me to look into their composition and how they were made. That then morphed into a larger study of Late Bronze Age glass technology, which became my PhD research.

Through my dissertation research, I have had to learn a lot about analytical techniques I had not used before. This is now helping me in my current position at the Cotsen Institute working with graduate students in archaeology who need to do similar types of analyses. I can explain what kind of information different analyses can tell them, how samples should be taken and prepared, and the limitations of each technique and how it is going to work for them. I will sometimes refer them to others who can help if we do not have the instrumentation they need.


RS: Speaking of working with graduate students, you took on an unusual role in directing laboratory traffic during the recent pandemic. Willeke Wendrich, director of the Cotsen Institute, even included a special recognition in her recent message by stating: “I want to thank Vanessa Muros, who is responsible for coordinating the research plans that allow our students, faculty and staff gradually to take up work that has been lying dormant for a year.”

VM: Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, March 20, 2020 was the last day we could be in the Cotsen Institute. But the university did not want to shut down all research indefinitely. So they came up with a phased reopening for research on campus, and in June we were able to open the laboratories at 25% capacity. I was asked to be the floor coordinator for the Cotsen Institute, and I have been working on the various phases of reopening since then. To prepare to get students back at 25%, there was a lot of work that had to be done. We had to submit applications which had to be approved by several authorities. We had to justify why graduate students and not just faculty and staff should be allowed back into the laboratories. We had to create safety protocols and a schedule to make sure we stayed within the allowed capacity. The capacity was not just for each of our laboratories, but had to be calculated for the entire floor and even the entire building (the Fowler Museum). So we needed to coordinate both horizontally and vertically. We had to manage capacity, keep an eye on numbers, make sure that everyone submitted their plans describing what people were doing, and so on. I created a template and worked with office manager Bronson Tran and the staff at the Fowler Museum to produce a calendar available to UCLA administration. For Phase 2, we could have one person per 250 square feet. I had to hunt down a floor plan of the Cotsen Institute with a scale and calculate the size of each space and determine its personnel capacity. Everyone working in the laboratories had to sign in and sign out. We had to control where they entered and coordinate with the Fowler Museum. Everyone had to be on an approved personnel list, and they had to get a clear-to-work certificate. We had five laboratories to consider that were trying to open. It was all very complicated. For example, if we had three people in a large space, how did that impact the rest of the building? And you could not do work that could be done off campus. We were supposed to go to 50% capacity last fall, but there were so many considerations that it did not happen as anticipated, and then there was the surge in Covid-19 cases. So everything was paused. We eventually entered Phase 3 in late March of this year when they allowed more people to work in each space by reducing the footprint required for individual workspaces.


RS: Did you get to use your own laboratory during this time?

VM: I was able to continue the project I was doing before the pandemic with Kristine Martirosyan-Olshansky, director of the Armenian Lab, analyzing pigments from Masis Blur, a Neolithic site in Armenia, using a polarized light microscope. I was also able to train students on the use of the portable X-ray fluorescence that they will be using for their dissertation research. I worked with one of the graduate students in conservation during the fall quarter who was coming in to use the kiln to prepare samples for her master’s thesis research. During this ongoing period of limited capacity, access for student research is a priority since some have had to delay their degree completion because of the three months of closure last spring. The current increased capacity will definitely help get them back on track and make progress with their research. As director of EASL, I continue to pursue my goal of helping to better integrate conservation into archaeological research and education. There is often still a divide between the two disciplines, especially when it comes to the introduction of cultural heritage preservation and conservation into archaeology programs.


RS:  You have a BA in archaeology from Boston University, an MA in archaeology and a graduate degree in art conservation from University College London, with a specialization in the conservation of archaeological and ethnographic objects, and an upcoming PhD in archaeology, history, and cultural resources management. How did you find yourself leaning into conservation instead of archaeology?

VM: When I went to Boston University, I was considering doing something science-related, but more in the medical field. I took a class called “Great Discoveries in Archaeology” to fulfill a general requirement for graduation, and that changed everything. They talked about the scientific side of archaeology, and that really interested me, especially the lab work. I also loved the travel and fieldwork. As part of the archaeology major, I had to take two laboratory classes, and there was a class in basic field conservation methods for archaeologists. We used a book on conservation, Conservation Manual for the Field Archaeologist, by Catherine Sease, which had actually been published by the Cotsen Institute Press. That was when I first realized that what I wanted to do was examine and preserve all the material that archaeologists excavated in order to uncover the mystery of what the artifacts were.

Vanessa in the fieldI had to do a field school to get my degree. I chose one that had a large laboratory component and had a conservator on the site, so I could experience what it was like to do laboratory work and see conservation in the field. It happened that there was a student on that project who was about to go to the conservation program at University College London. At the time, it was really the only place to get a degree specifically in archaeological and ethnographic conservation. I was interested in going into the conservation program, but still was not sure whether I wanted to leave archaeology, so I decided to do the one-year MA program in archaeology there. Within a few months, I knew that archaeology was not for me, and I started meeting with people in the conservation program. I finished my MA in archaeology, then started the conservation program. After getting that degree, I moved to Los Angeles for a year to complete a fellowship in objects conservation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Then I went to Chicago where I worked for five years as the assistant conservator at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. In learning more about conservation, I knew I wanted to still be able to do field projects, which I did not have the opportunity for in Chicago. After that, I came to UCLA to work as a laboratory manager for the conservation program.


RS: What did that job entail?

VM: I managed the off-campus laboratories at the Getty Villa. I helped to prepare material for classes, facilitate research for the students, and even was a lecturer. During the 14 years I was there, I did not have a lot of time to do treatments, given my other responsibilities. However, while I was there, founding conservation chair David Scott was doing a lot of scientific analysis. He started training me on the various equipment and techniques because I was the one who would have to train students and help them interpret the results. He and I also worked on many research projects together. At that time, I was also able to work with archaeology graduate students at the Cotsen Institute. That all started me on the path of doing a lot more work on the research side, rather than just strictly treatments. For example, I was researching materials to identify how things were made, what pigment was used, how the bronze was created, and so on.  

During my time in the conservation program, I started working as an archaeological conservator on various field projects run through the Cotsen Institute. From 2006 to 2009, I joined John Papadopoulos and Sarah Morris on their project in Albania. When they started a project in Greece, they asked me to work with them there, and I have been on that project since 2012. I have been able to do research as well as conserve objects. I have even brought the portable X-ray fluorescence instrument to Albania and Greece. It is really important to me to be able to grow in the field. One of the things I really appreciate is that in an academic environment such as at the Cotsen Institute, we are always learning. Everyone is curious and it is a really dynamic environment. I also have taken students with me into the field over the years. The conservation program has an internship requirement, and a lot of students want to work on site, but they can only go where they are supervised by a conservator. And not all sites have conservators.


RS: Why do you think that is?

VM: I think there are probably several reasons, but one of them is that some archaeologists do not know exactly what the work of a conservator entails. We can really contribute to archaeological research and help with the interpretation of what is going on at the site. We do not just clean artifacts, put them back together, and store them safely, but can answer a lot of questions about materials and technology by looking at things under the microscope and identifying materials, aided by analytical equipment.


RS: How did you come to your current position at the Cotsen Institute?

VM: A few years back, the space that we are currently using became available, and EASL was created to focus on experimental archaeology and archaeological science. I was looking for a new opportunity and had experience setting up a laboratory and conducting scientific research on archaeological materials. I was already doing a lot of work with students at the Cotsen Institute, helping them with their research and training them on equipment, so I think it was good timing. While the original focus of EASL was on ceramic technology and petrography, we have since greatly expanded our capabilities.


RS: In your new job, were you able to continue to do field work before the pandemic shut everything down?

VM: In addition to working with John and Sarah in Greece, I was able to join Willeke on her project in Ethiopia. I was there to conserve the finds and also brought the portable X-ray fluorescence instrument, mainly to analyze metal finds. Because I am personally interested in glass, I was able to work on some glass beads as well.


RS: Once everything is up and running again, what are your main goals?

VM: When I was with the conservation program, what I loved most about my job was working with the students. I really want to work more in mentoring students, especially undergraduate students, because it can be hard for them to learn about conservation and get experience. Often students from underrepresented groups or lower socioeconomic backgrounds have difficulty in getting access to any of the pre-program internships that are required to apply to graduate conservation programs. I would like to create some opportunities for students interested in pursuing conservation. I would also like to hold some workshops on ancient technology. I want to put a program together on making faience and do something on ancient pigments, as well. I would also like to teach classes and publish more.


RS: Above and beyond your efforts for the pandemic, your work, and your dissertation, you also helped with the Spark crowdfunding campaign to raise money for laboratory equipment for the Cotsen Institute. You participated in a panel discussion on the theme “The Fragment,” focusing on ways that fragmentary objects are analyzed, interpreted, and preserved. When you actually have free time here at home, what do you enjoy doing?

VM: I like to go for hikes, mainly in Malibu where you get views of the ocean. I love the ocean and the beach. Having grown up in Florida, I do not really like to swim in the Pacific because it is too cold, but do love to hang out at the beach, sitting in the sun and reading or listening to podcasts. During the pandemic, I also jumped on the sourdough bread-baking bandwagon. I baked a lot of bread over the last year, which kept me, and my sourdough starter Sydney, pretty busy.

For additional information, see the EASL webpage, and the 2020 issue of Backdirt, in which Muros describes the first full year of work in her new laboratory. For information on how to support our research and education in archaeology and conservation, please contact Michelle Jacobson at

Published on May 20, 2021.