Archives and Research

Conservation science

Our scientific research allows us to use and share the very latest conservation and maintenance knowledge and techniques.

1 Overview

Our Conservation Science Team’s focus is scientific research into materials and processes in the historic environment.   

The team’s analysis of building materials and objects, and their conservation, informs how we care for our own properties and also the guidance we dispense to other bodies and to homeowners. Our scientific research ensures that we use and share the very latest knowledge and techniques in conservation and maintenance. 

Climate change is a very real threat, and our Conservation Science Team leads the way in researching its impacts on Scotland’s historic environment. Research into the chemical effects of warmer, wetter winters on Scottish sandstone, for example, can help us to adapt to the effects of climate change. Understanding the carbon footprint of various mortars, meanwhile, may allow us to make our activities more sustainable, mitigating emissions.  

Find out more about this work in our Climate Change Action Plan 2012–2017. 

Information gleaned from our scientific research underpins much of what we publish in conservation publications such as our Short Guides and INFORM leaflets for homeowners.  

Conservation science advice and analysis services are provided to: 

The team is also involved in numerous research projects with universities and research institutions. 

The work of the Conservation Science Team is outlined in our Research Strategy 2015–17Our work also forms part of the overall Historic Environment Scotland Research Strategyunder the overarching Our Place in Time strategy.

2 The team

Conservation Science Team

Area of focus: Analysis of building materials and their conservation, including objects and collections.  

A range of analytical techniques is used to determine the composition of building materials and objects. Find out more about our research techniques 

The team of three scientists plus interns and postgraduate students will be based at new, state-ofthe-art laboratory at the Engine Shed in Stirling. This will be open to visiting academics and researchers, including postgraduate students in our research community and others who wish to access our analytical equipment.  

The team also belongs to the National Heritage Science Forum network of UK-wide conservation scientists.  

The network encourages: 

  • cross-domain working across the UK  

  • sharing of skills and equipment between researchers and practitioners across the UK

  • the fostering of international links

3 Partnerships and funding

The Conservation Science Team is involved in a wide range of collaborative research projects. Among others, we work with many heritage institutions such as: 

Much of our equipment is portable and non-destructive in nature. So we can use it to analyse very valuable museum objects such as Robert the Bruce’s tombEquipment can be taken to our partner organisations or used on site in remote parts of Scotland. 

Conservation Science has a small budget to encourage research of direct benefit to Historic Environment Scotland. The team commissions research from external sources (academic and industrial) to fill gaps in Historic Environment Scotland knowledge.  

We strongly support collaborative research and, along with NGS, NLS and NMS, belong to the Scottish Cultural Heritage ConsortiumThe consortium funds up to six PhDs each year through the Arts and Humanities Research Council. 

Example partnership: The Tomb of Robert the Bruce 

We are partnering with NMS to examine fragments of stone said to be pieces of the Tomb of Robert the Brucedestroyed during the Protestant Reformation in 1560. Work on Dunfermline Abbey in the 19th century uncovered some fragments of ornately carved rock with traces of colouring.  

No one has previously studied the rock fragments to establish exactly what they are. Records indicate that the tomb, imported from France, was made of marble and alabaster. But no analysis had been carried out to identify the composition of the fragmentsNor had any work been done to confirm whether the colour noted on some fragments was a coating or simply staining of the rock. 

Our initial inspection of the fragments using microscopes suggests that they are all types of marble; no alabaster fragments have been identified as yet. Whether the marbles came from different quarries, or whether a single quarry supplied a number of marble types, is work for the labs in the future. 

We’ve also used X-ray fluorescence to look at the chemistry of the fragments. This confirmed that the rock is marble, not alabaster, and also revealed that some fragments carry traces of lead and gold. This indicates that parts of Robert the Bruce’s tomb were once gilded – and the 3D digital reconstruction now takes this into account 

4 Projects

The Conservation Science Team is actively or was recently involved in 19 co-funded PhD, postdoctoral and ‘knowledge transfer’ research projects at the close of 2015. We work with 13 universities across the UK.  

We also partner on research initiatives to: 

  • investigate properties of hydraulic lime mortarwith English Heritage, the Building Limes Forum and Bath University 

  • research the extent of earth mortar buildings in Scotlandwith Earth Building UK and Ireland (EBUKI) 

  • create a database of Scottish historic mortarswith the Scottish Lime Centre Trust and Heriot-Watt University  

  • restore the fire-damaged Mackintosh Building at Glasgow School of Art, e.g. by carrying out non-destructive testing of building materials  

  • investigate the interactions between climate change, materials behaviour, site stability and tourist management  

Moisture movement in masonry walls 

This project is part of the SEAHA (Science and Engineering in Arts Heritage and the Environment) Doctoral Training Programme. This programme includes a Master’s by Research at University College London, followed by a related PhD (in this case at Oxford University).  

The PhD work looks at how to improve the accuracy of water measurement in buildings. It involves using thermal cameras, damp meters and microwave meters to improve our understanding of water movement in walls. 

The Scottish National War Memorial 

The Scottish National War Memorial from within Edinburgh Castle.

The National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle.

The Conservation Science Team was asked to look into the cause of some areas of damp in the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle. We used an infrared thermal camera to see which areas were affectedand a microwave moisture sensor to examine the distribution of moisture in the walls and pinpoint the source. 

Our investigations strongly implied that rainwater pooling against the foot of the memorial’s walls was the probable cause of the dampIt was later found that a pipe buried within the base of the wall was leakingmaking the problem worse. 

Castle Rock’s impermeable basalt causes drainage difficulties. To prevent rainwater penetrating the memorial’s shallow foundationsthe buried pipe was removed and a surface drainage channel constructed outside the affected areas.  

A survey five months after the work was completed revealed that the improved drainage had been successful. 

Research techniques 

The Conservation Science Team specialises in the development and use of non-destructive techniques. Such techniques are often preferred when analysing historic buildings and objects as analysis can be carried out in situ and there is no need to take samples. 

The team uses a range of analysis techniques to determine the composition of building materials and objects: 

  • portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) is used for chemical (elemental) analysis  

  • X-ray diffraction (XRD) and near infrared (NIR) spectroscopy are used for mineralogical analysis 

  • thermal (infrared) cameras detect the temperature of a surface, and are useful in detecting water in a structure 

  • microwave moisture equipment can map the presence of water in a building to a depth of 80cm 

Much of the equipment used in these techniques (XRF, NIR, thermal cameras, microwave meters) is portable and can be taken on site or into museums. Other techniques involve taking a small sample (e.g. of stone or mortar) and analysing it in our laboratory. 

Samples can be analysed using powerful microscopes at the Engine Shed laboratory. We can also use XRD to identify mineral contaminants present in stone, which is very useful when identifying salts that might cause damage to stonework. 

5 Publications and conferences

Example publications 

Torney, C. et al.The effects of site practice on the physical properties of proprietary stone restoration mortarConstruction and Building Materials 75, (2015), 359–367. 

Young, M., Thermal imaging in the investigation of solid masonry structuresBuilding Conservation Directory 21, (2014), 23-26. 

Leslie, A.B., Bromley, A. and Poole, A.B., Non-Portland cementitious materials, plasters and mortars in A.B. Poole and I. Sims (eds.) Concrete Petrography: A Handbook of Investigative Techniques, (2015), 669–693. 


Earth Building UK and Ireland Inaugural Conference1314 November 2015, Sligo, Ireland. (A summary of Historic Environment Scotland interests in earth building techniques was presented.) 

13th International Congress on the Deterioration and Conservation of Stone, 610 September 2016, Paisley, UK. (Historic Environment Scotland will contribute at least six papers to this conference.)

Recent and active PhD projects 

Project title Location
Stone surface treatments: Implications for subsequent weathering response and surface stability Queen’s University Belfast
The effects of road salts on masonry structures in Scotland University of Glasgow
Preparation of wrought iron for coatings Cardiff University
Performance of coatings on wrought iron structures Cardiff University
Evaluation of cements and other constituents in historically-significant concrete structures in Scotland University of Dundee
Technical and environmental performance framework for regionally sourced lime mortars: A comparative analysis method Heriot-Watt University
Earth built structures in Scotland University of Stirling
Current mechanisms and future patterns of stone decay in cleaned sandstone and granite buildings University of the West of Scotland
The mechanical properties of historic timber University of Glasgow
From castle to quarry: The characterisation of historic mortars with a focus on provenance University of the West of Scotland
Mesoithic to Neolithic transition through stable isotopes University of Glasgow
Dating crannogs Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre
Scottish monastic planning University of St Andrews
Lime mortars and interfaces Heriot-Watt University
Resilience of sandstone University of Glasgow
Moisture movement in masonry walls University of Oxford
LiDAR Antonine Wall Canterbury Christ Church University
GSA digital recording/archive Glasgow School of Art
Lime kilns in Scotland University of Glasgow

Other research projects

The impact of climate change on weathering in urban environments: Prediction and mitigation University of Glasgow
Turf wars: The battle to conserve earth built heritage University of Stirling
Dendrochronology and art history of Scottish wood ceilings AOC Archaeology Group
Energy efficiency KTP project Heriot-Watt University
UAV testing of scanning methods for masonry walls Heriot-Watt University
Lime mortars analysis from Aberdeen granite buildings University of the West of Scotland