Telling a story with photos: ceramics conservation for Before Egypt

Artefact photography is just one aspect of what I do. Another, at the other end of the scale, is documentary photography.

Unlike my artefact photography, which is carefully controlled and thought out, documentary photography is about working with what you’ve got, and reacting to the moment. Your environment dictates the photography, rather than the photography dictating the environment.

There are two main branches of documentary photography I do. One is the pure documentary stuff; what you might call ‘street photography’. This is the candid photography you do out-and-about in the street, in the museum gallery or at an event.

The other is what’s known as environmental portraiture.

What is environmental portraiture?

Environmental portraiture, simply put, is about photographing a person in their ‘natural’ environment, rather than putting them in a photographer’s studio. It tells a story about that person. About their work or hobby.

It’s photographing a chef cooking in their kitchen, or a climber out on a rock face. It can be a musician performing on stage, or an archaeologist working on their dig.

Environmental portraiture can be posed or unposed. It can be a single photo or a series of pictures (a photo essay), but the end goal is the same: you’re telling a visual story about a person in that particular aspect of their life.

And it’s this story we wanted to tell about the conservation work done on some of the pots included in the Before Egypt exhibition.

Photographing ceramics conservation for Before Egypt

The work of the conservator is paramount in archaeology and heritage. And yet – as far as I can see – their work often goes unnoticed.

We (rightly) applaud curators for their exhibitions and archaeologists for their work in revealing ancient sites. But, without the conservators, much of our collections would crumble away into the mists of time.

For this reason, we wanted to take you ‘behind-the-scenes’ for a moment. We wanted to introduce you to the conservators and show you this work they’ve been doing for the Before Egypt exhibition.

So, I went out to Edge Conservation, who are ceramics specialists, for a couple of days, to photograph them working on the vessels.

It was such fun!

Lynne and Anna were lovely, and they were describing what they were doing as they were working. I learned an awful lot!

I learnt about matching the strength of your adhesive to the strength of your material; about consolidating edges before applying the adhesive; about using plaster infill to strengthen the vessel; and about cleaning up around old repairs. I also learnt that broken ceramic pieces can warp, so matching pieces up and making sure everything’s realigned properly can be more time-consuming and detailed than you’d think. Especially when dealing with decorated ware.

I learnt that although a lot of their equipment is very specialist, there’s also a few things you might find at home such as cling film, masking tape and nail files. And, apparently, dental wax is great for creating a base for your infill!

I also learnt that conservation’s a long process. There’s an awful lot of time spent waiting for things to dry, so the conservators may work on several projects at once. It can take days and days to put one pot back together.

Conservation work is where science and art meet. You need to know about solvents, adhesives, organic and inorganic materials and how it all works together. But, there’s a real art to it, too, such as creating, shaping and moulding the infill to match the shape of the vessel.

I’m in complete awe of the work they do!

The photos

Because this photography was about telling the story of the conservation of the pots, we decided to mostly focus in closely on hands, rather than posing the conservators in a portrait-style shoot. Because of the nature of the work – the careful, delicate work, and the relatively small space – I didn’t want to interfere with extra lighting. None of the photos are posed; I just photographed them while they were working. Hence a lot of the over-the-shoulder shots (being 6-foot tall does come with its advantages!).

Click on the first photo to scroll though in a full-screen lightbox.

And here are two of the finished pots. This first one is the large d-ware (‘decorated’ ware) pot in several of the photos. It’s that amazing, immediately recognisable style we associate with the Predynastic period. Some of the old repairs remain in places, being strong enough to not need redoing.


A large ancient Egyptian Predynastic pot with painted decoration, in pieces before conservation


A large ancient Egyptian Predynastic pot with painted decoration of animals and nature

This ripple-burnished bowl is the bowl you can see with the pink dental wax in the photos, and in the final photo drying. I hope you’ll agree they’ve done an amazing job reconstructing this piece (no ‘before’ photo for this one … I came in after they’d started on this one).

A wide, ceramic, plain ancient Egyptian bowl with a ripple burnish

What do you prefer? The artefact photography or the documentary photography? If you’d like some more photos, have a look at my Documentary Photography gallery or my Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt gallery:

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Unless otherwise credited, all photos on in this post are © Julia Thorne. If you’d like to use any of my photos in a lecture, presentation or blog post, please don’t just take them; drop me an email via my contact page. If you share them on social media, I’d appreciate a link back to this site or to one of my social media accounts. Thanks!

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