Peter Van Geersdaele, FIIC: a pioneer in the three-dimensional recording of archaeological structures

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Peter Van Geersdaele preparing the surface of the impression of the ship before pouring the plaster of Paris. Copyright Andrew Oddy

By Andrew Oddy

The death of Peter Van Geersdaele at the age of 85 has sadly removed the last of the team of conservators and specialist craftsmen who responded to a challenge that had left archaeologists daunted.

In the early 1960s, the British Museum became embarrassed by comments from the archaeological world that they had not yet published the complete contents of the famous Sutton Hoo ship. The boat with all its treasure was excavated in 1939 as war clouds gathered, and the contents – later described by the media as the ’£1 million grave’- were carefully stored in a London underground railway tunnel for the duration. After the war, the British Museum had its hands full dealing with war damage and although some of the Sutton Hoo grave goods were conserved - notably the helmet and the shield - and put on display, no real progress had been made towards full publication.

Eventually, the pressure on the dam broke, and in the early 1960s the museum established a workforce under Dr Rupert Bruce-Mitford to publish the excavation of the grave. The boat itself consisted of an impression in the sand with lines of rusty rivets, no wood having survived, and in 1967 Bruce-Mitford and his team laid this bare once again. Bruce-Mitford, however, was a perfectionist and realised that it was crucial to record any evidence for a keel and to see whether anything lay under the boat. As with all excavation, this meant destruction. But to destroy the only surviving remains of an Anglo-Saxon ship in the UK might be regarded as vandalism, although the alternative of preserving the shape in the ground seemed inconceivable.

The concept of creating a mould to preserve the boat’s impression emerged as a win-win solution, and Peter Van Geersdaele, who was a conservator in Bruce-Mitford’s department with experience in the moulding and replicating of Museum objects, was consulted. Van Geersdaele, assisted by Nigel Williams and Jack Langhorn and a team of assistants, set about making a three-dimensional plaster of Paris mould of the impression in the sand at Sutton Hoo – all while TV cameras breathed down their necks. The mould segments, each approximately one metre square, were fitted with loops of metal conduit tube on the backside to act as lifting handles. Over a period of three weeks the mould pieces were moved to an old British Museum warehouse. Here the team re-assembled the segments upside-down in order to make a fibreglass copy of the impression of the ship in the sand. Although an essential part of the documentation of the Sutton Hoo ship, this final mould was not a pretty sight and never became an exhibit at the British Museum. It was subsequently transferred to the National Maritime Museum as part of the record of European shipbuilding.

The success of the operation at Sutton Hoo resulted in the same team assisting the National Maritime Museum in the recovery of another late Saxon boat from a drainage channel on the Graveney marshes in North Kent in late 1970. This time timbers were well preserved in the waterlogged mud and the boat was lifted out, timber by timber. The ribs of the boat were first removed. The team then decided to mould the inside of the hull to ensure that a three-dimensional record was available when the time came to reassemble the timbers in the museum. Peter Van Geersdaele again supervised the moulding process using essentially the same method as at Sutton Hoo.

Peter Charles Van Geersdaele was born on 3rd July 1933. After school, he studied at Hammersmith Technical College, which included work experience in the cast department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, before going into the Royal Air Force for National Service. While stationed at RAF Binbrook, Lincolnshire, Van Geersdaele played football for Grimsby Town, then managed by Bill Shankly. After his discharge, he briefly toyed with being a professional footballer and had a trial with Queens Park Rangers, but then in 1954 he joined the moulders’ shop at the British Museum where he was employed on moulding and making replicas of classical sculpture. Here his technical expertise came to the notice of the British and Medieval Department who took him into their conservation section. Peter demonstrated particular expertise in the conservation of ceramics and on the restoration of the 14th-century wall paintings from St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster. He was also notably involved in the lifting, and subsequent display, of the 13th-century tile kiln from Clarendon Palace, Wiltshire, which was also a remarkable technical achievement for its time and for which he received unstinting praise from Elizabeth Eames, the excavator. He made important contributions on other British Museum excavations, such as the Longton Hall porcelain factory site and the Broadstairs Anglo-Saxon cemetery. He also studied part-time as a mature student for a conservation diploma from the Institute of Archaeology of London University and was thus equipped to publish several papers on his outstanding projects.

In 1976 Peter Van Geersdaele, with his wife and younger daughter, moved to Canada (two days after the elder daughter was married) where he accepted the post of assistant chief of archaeological conservation in the Conservation Division of Parks Canada. Ties to England were, however, too strong and the Van Geersdaeles moved back to the UK in 1980 when Peter was appointed as deputy head of conservation at the National Maritime Museum. Here he was responsible for managing the movement and installation of exhibits and eventually took charge of a major project to re-organise the storage of the reserve collections. He retired in 1993. After returning to the UK, the family returned to live in Woodbridge, Suffolk, only a stone’s throw from the site of his triumph at Sutton Hoo. Peter Van Geersdaele was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s 1993 Birthday Honours.

Throughout his career Peter Van Geersdaele was a natural-born leader who was universally liked and who inspired those who worked with him to give of their best. Peter Van Geersdaele married Maura Bradley in 1955 and is survived by his wife, two daughters, 6 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren. He died on 20st July 2018.

Dr Andrew Oddy, OBE FSA
formerly Keeper of Conservation
British Museum

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