Much of our cultural heritage is preserved in museums, libraries, and archives and the artifacts therein give us unique insights into the lives of people long gone and methods of working with materials long forgotten. We describe a few of the riches to be found in the collection of The National Archives, UK. We identify some of the decay processes that are at play and show how modern scientific tools allow us to study the mechanisms and kinetics of these decay processes. Also, we discuss how conservation ethics and the associated constraints on sampling make the study of these artifacts particularly challenging. Ultimately, of course, the collective aim of scientists, curators, and conservators is to understand the fabrication of these objects better and to find the best conditions for their storage and display in order to preserve them for future generations.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70050-0