Marci Jefcoat Burton
My first project as a curriculum intern with the Penn Museum Conservation Department involves the conservation of a mosaic column from the Ninhursanga temple site of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Tell al-Ubaid in Iraq (column in digital collections: (B15887.1 – 15887.4). Dated as 2400 – 2250 century BCE, the column was excavated sometime between 1919 – 1924 as a pattern of alternating triangular and diamond shaped shell, pink limestone and shale tiles. Fortunately, the years of resting in the compacted dirt of the burial environment preserved the shell and stone tesserae and maintained their original conformation. The original column interior, more than likely palm logs, did not survive the centuries of burial.
Without a support, the delicate tesserae were lacking a method of storage and display. Working with the materials available on site and with technology available in the early 20th century, the archaeological team constructed four drums to mount the tesserae into four stackable sections. Although reports attribute the original 3rd century BCE binding medium as bitumen (i.e., asphaltum, tar, pitch) to hold the tesserae in place on the original wooden supports, the 20th century excavation team reconstructed the shell and stone mosaic pieces with a grey plaster. In addition, only half of each drum holds original tesserae, and the remainder of each section is filled with a painted plaster reconstruction.
X-radiography of one of the drum sections revealed that each drum is constructed as a hollow metal mesh cylinder with wooden caps on each end, and several nails to keep the cylinder together. After 100 years in this conformation, the drums have become problematic for the long-term display of the tesserae. Fluxuations in temperature and humidity, as well as the weight of the tiles and the thick, rigid plaster have caused opposing shifts in the internal structure, leading to the formation of cracks in the plaster and several tiles to dislocate and fall from the support.
The column, with all four sections, is one of the many objects selected for exhibition in the upcoming Middle Eastern Gallery (scheduled to open in Spring 2018). Therefore, it was decided it was time for the over 4,000 year old tesserae to be removed from the hollow wire mesh supports and then remounted onto a structured, solid support made with materials that will prevent structural damage and be sustainable for its preservation and long-term display in the gallery. Following a treatment protocol implemented successfully on one of the four column sections by Julia Commander (WUDPAC, Class of 2017), I will deconstruct the tesserae from the current supports, clean and repair each piece, and remount the tesserae in their same arrangement to new cylindrical supports made from solid, very dense Ethafoam measured to the exact shape for each section awaiting treatment. Stop by the Artifact Lab to see the progress of the column treatment, which is already underway, or stay tuned for a follow up blog post!