Poultices and Tourniquets: Medical Terminology in Conservation

by Tessa de Alarcón

Recently, while working in the Artifact Lab, I was reminded how often conservation borrows terminology from other fields, often in unexpected ways. Two great examples are the terms “poultices” and “tourniquets”. Both are medical terms, and kind of unusual ones. I recently used both methods on this ceramic lion relief (B20014) from the site of Nippur.

B20014 before treatment (left) and after treatment (right)

If you google “poultice” (which I just did) you would get some intriguing images of herbal substances on peoples’ skin sometimes with gauze in between (and sometimes not). A dictionary definition is “a soft, moist mass of material, typically of plant material or flour, applied to the body to relieve soreness and inflammation and kept in place with a cloth.”

Screenshot of a Google image search for “poultice”

In conservation, poultices are typically moist masses, but they are usually made of gauze, cotton, paper, or clay, and thankfully our objects don’t usually need relief from soreness or inflammation. Instead, poultices are usually used to draw foreign substances out, for example drawing out stains, soiling, or salts. These poultices can be moistened with all types of different solvents, depending on the treatment goal. In the case of the lion relief, I used cotton poultices to draw out ingrained sooty soiling to clean the surface.

Cotton poultice on the surface of the lion relief

Now if you google “tourniquet” you will find images of much more modern medical technologies, mostly of different types of straps. The dictionary definition is “a device for stopping the flow of blood through a vein or artery, typically by compressing a limb with a cord or tight bandage.”

Google image result for “tourniquet”

Since I don’t typically need to worry about museum artifacts bleeding, it might be difficult to imagine what this type of device could be used for during a conservation treatment. Tourniquets are often used in conservation as a controlled way to apply pressure and hold something in place. In the case of the lion relief, I used tourniquets made of cling film tightened around paint brush handles to hold the joins of the relief together and aligned while the joins set. The adhesive I used took a few weeks to cure, and until cured the adhesive did not have the tack or strength to hold the joins together without the support of a tourniquet.

Tourniquets holding the adhesive joins of the lion relief

One of the things I love about working in the Artifact Lab are the questions I get asked. I was recently working on the lion relief in the lab and realized that I had to explain the poultices and the tourniquets I used in this treatment. I use these terms so often, I had forgotten that for most people they mean something quite different.