Re: Use of Cotton in Storage of Archaeological Collections

Kory Berrett

Hi Wendi,

Cotton used to be commonly used as packing and backing material for archeology because of its cushioning properties – so much that comes from excavations is fragile. But there are several reasons it has been abandoned in favor of modern synthetics. First, cotton is a cellulosic material, with a chemistry that will attract and retain moisture from the atmosphere – this property makes cotton a poor contact material. You’ve already mentioned a second problem, little fibers – linters – get caught in anything with a bit of texture. There are some insects that eat cellulosics but this is a rare concern for bulk cotton or cotton cloth, though it is a huge concern for protein based materials like wool, silk, horse hair upholstery, etc. Acid free tissue is nearly pure cellulose and is very stable overall – again it can certainly wick and hold moisture if not protected by supplementary materials like waterproof outer wrapping or bags. Polyester batting has all the cushion of cotton without attracting or retaining moisture. Its not a food source so attracts no pests. Polyetheylene foams are also good cushioning material without wicking or pests, available in various thicknesses and densities, some whisper soft, some hard as pine, so this is very versatile material. In thin foam sheets its useful as a shelf lining to protect against vibration; larger blocks can be carved and shaped for packing inserts that hold and cushion; very thin foams are useful for wrapping and shipping; and some museum mannequins are made from it. Hope this helps.