Use of Cotton in Storage of Archaeological Collections

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    • #133391
      Wendi Murray

      Does anyone know the current consensus on the use of commercial cotton balls/cotton batting to cushion archaeological materials and organics for long-term storage? Many curation guidelines I have been reading recommend that cotton NOT be used as a cushioning material (in favor of acid free tissue or polyester batting), though they do not explain why. I have found that the fibers are very difficult to remove from corn cobs, seeds, and fragmented bone, but are there other concerns about the use of cotton for long-term storage? Thanks!

    • #133395

      Generally, the reasons for not using cotton balls or cotton in storage stems from the fact that is an organic protein-based material and as such leaves the collections open to insect infestation from those protein-eating little critters. Polyester batting or quilting material is also less expensive generally, and being synthetic is not an insect attractant.

    • #133394
      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.

    • #133393

      Cotton wool is also abrasive and can contain small amounts of materials from its plant origins (depending on purity). It degrades quite unpleasantly. The biggest problem is that it tends to stick to object surfaces (physical tangles and getting stuck to surface after they have become warm or damp in storage)and can be very difficult to remove. It’s standard in the UK to pack special archaeological objects in inert styrene boxes in a carefully cut block of Plastazote polythene foam and less wonderful items in unsealed ziplock bags with a rectangle of thin Jiffy polythene foam as an inner lining. In both cases the aim is to reduce handling (you can see the object without removing it from its packaging) and minimise physical damage when moving. Silica gel bags can be placed in the storage with the item if relative humidity must be kept low.
      Hope this helps too

    • #133392
      Wendi Murray

      Thanks to all who responded – this is very helpful!

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