A Puzzling Project at Villa La Pietra, NYU Florence

by Adrienne Gendron

I am a graduate student at the Conservation Center at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and I’m spending the majority of my summer here at the Penn Museum as part of my training to become a professional conservator. In late June, I took a break from the Artifact Lab and traveled to Villa La Pietra in Florence along with fellow classmate Andy Wolf to work on a conservation project.

Villa La Pietra houses an expansive and diverse collection that came into the ownership of New York University from the Acton family in 1994. The Actons were art collectors from England and the US who lived in Florence from the early 1900s onward. Every year, NYU students from a variety of programs travel to Florence to work on educational projects at the estate.

The main building at Villa La Pietra, where the collections and the conservation studio are housed.

For the span of a week, Andy and I worked under the supervision of Pamela Hatchfield (Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Head of Objects Conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) to perform a complex treatment on a 17th century majolica pharmacy jar. The jar had fallen off a high bookshelf during an earthquake in 2013 and broken into 40 major pieces and innumerable tiny flakes and chips. Conservators often need to differentiate between different types of physical changes that may occur during an object’s lifetime and may choose not to intervene if an object is stable. In this case, because the damage caused by the earthquake was very recent and extensive, we decided to proceed with reconstructing the jar and minimizing the damage as much as possible.

The main fragments of the pharmacy jar.
The many fragments and chips associated with the jar.

After documenting the damage and finding the locations of each major fragment, it was time to assemble. Andy and I realized that because of the geometries of the fragments, we would have to build most of the jar in one session so the adhesive would remain tacky enough to make necessary adjustments. So, after some deep breathing exercises and words of encouragement from our supervisor, we began the assembly process.

The first pieces assembled (left) with the remaining fragments ready to go (right).

Typically, conservators like to reassemble broken ceramics from the bottom up. That was not possible in this case because half of the jar’s foot had been completely shattered in the earthquake damage. Instead, Andy and I decided to assemble the piece upside down starting from the rim.

The assembly of the main body of the vessel took about 3.5 hours from start to finish. Andy and I worked closely together during the entire process, using pieces of black electrical tape to secure the pieces in place while they dried. We were fortunate that the outer surface was stable enough that the tape could be used safely.

The pot nearly assembled. The stretchy black electrical tape assures that the joins stay tight while the adhesive dries and can be safely removed after drying is complete.

After the main part of the assembly, it was time to work on the shattered foot. This was the most challenging part of the entire treatment. After many hours of searching through a sea of tiny fragments, I was able to reconstruct the profile of the missing outer edge of the foot from sixteen individual pieces. 

About one half of the outer edge of the foot was shattered during the earthquake (in this image, the jar is oriented upside down).
The reconstructed outer profile of the missing part of the foot, which was previously in sixteen tiny pieces.

Andy and I worked together to take a mold of the intact side of the foot to use as a guide for matching the curve of the shattered side. Then, we put the missing outer profile in place, using a stable fill material to bridge the gap between the outer edge and the interior of the break line.

The reconstructed profile of the foot in place. The white material is a reversible facing we applied to protect the delicate fragments during assembly.

There’s only so much that can be accomplished in a week, and by the end of our trip Andy and I had just begun filling the remaining losses. The pharmacy jar will be waiting for another team of students next summer, who will take it to completion by disguising the cracks and losses associated with the earthquake damage.

The reassembled pharmacy jar at the end of our trip.

Somehow, on top of our work with the pharmacy jar, we managed to visit six museums and churches! And, of course, we ate plenty of delicious pizza, pasta, and gelato. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work at the Villa this summer, and I’m excited to return in future years.

From left to right: Pamela Hatchfield, Adrienne Gendron, and Andy Wolf with the reassembled pharmacy jar.

The Desalination Station II: The Salty Pot Field Diaries

by Tessa de Alarcon

So I have written before about desalination to stabilize ceramics with soluble salts, but this time I’m going out into the world, and setting up a desalination station for the Naxcivan Archaeological Project in Azerbaijan.

I had been given a heads up from colleagues Brittany Dolph Dinneen (the previous conservator on site) and Jennifer Swerida (project registrar), that soluble salts may be an issue with the ceramics from the project’s excavations. Salts can be tricky to identify with freshly excavated material, as the ceramic vessels won’t have visible issues until a while after their excavation; once the salts from the burial environment have had time to go through a few cycles of crystallization and deliquescence.

Before treatment image of QQ.15.155: the white haze is from soluble salts

Here at on the Naxcivan Archaeological project, the salts are mostly manifesting as a white haze over the surface of ceramics.

Detail of QQ-15-193 showing small salt crystals, rather than just hazing, on the surface.

A few are also showing clear crystallization, but the hazing has been the more frequent symptom of the salt problem, especially as this hazing was not observed when they were first excavated.

Detail of QQ-15-155: the poultice in place.

To confirm that what we were seeing was in fact soluble salts, I poultice the surface.

Detail of QQ-15-155: after the poultice was removed

Once the cotton poultice was dry, I removed it from the surface, re-wet and checked the conductivity, and tested it for nitrates and chlorides with test strips (there are lots of other types of soluble salts, but these are two common ones that are easy to test for). The results were positive, and as you can see the poultice also removed the white haze clearly showing how soluble these salts are.

Here Calypso Owen and I are filtering water from the sink with a deionizing column to get salt free water.

The next step is getting the water, and while we used to use a similar system at the museum to make deionized water, the scenery is pretty different.

Salty ceramics soaking in deionized water: the tags outside the buckets are being used to help track the objects during treatment.

The pot then soaked for a day, while I checked the conductivity until it reached the end point of the desalination process.

Desalinated ceramics after they are removed from the water and are now drying: again the tags are moving with the objects so we can track them.

Once it was removed from the water I rinsed it with fresh clean water, blotted it dry, then left it to air dry.

QQ.15.155 after treatment: white haze free!

Finally, here is the bowl after desalination. As you can see it is now white haze free. Most importantly, it can now be handed over to the Naxcivan Museum with no risk of damage from ongoing salt cycles.

View from the current excavation: Azerbaijan is beautiful

As a final note, it has not been all work, I did get to hike up to the current excavation and I wanted to end on this photo taken from the site, as Azerbaijan is stunning, and I can’t resist the opportunity to share.

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.

Many new faces in the lab…

by Williams Project Conservator Alexis North

Yesterday, I was able to make several new friends, when the American section brought these objects up to the lab, in preparation for the reinstallation of our Mexico and Central America gallery:

 These are a group of Zapotec ceramic effigy vessels from Mexico. These types of vessels are usually found in tombs, and their meaning depends on where and how they were buried. They are often found in groups, and with other associated burial materials.

Each of these effigy vessels is elaborately and uniquely decorated. Some have human faces, some are wearing masks, and some even have animal features.

These two vessels (NA6361; 29-41-707) depict humans wearing masks.

Most of these vessels are in good condition, intact or with only small losses. At least two, however, will need a little more conservation to get them ready to display. This vessel was originally covered with a white stucco coating:

Vessel 29-41-702, depicting a masked seated figure.

The stucco is now starting to lift from the surface, and any handling can cause small pieces of the stucco to fall off. It will need to be carefully stabilized before the vessel can go on display.

Detail of the headdress of 29-41-702. The red arrows show areas where the stucco is lifting off the surface of the ceramic.

And this vessel shown below has some loose fragments which will need to be rejoined. Thankfully the amazing duck bill on his face is still intact!

Before treatment photo of 31-26-1.

For (a lot) more information and other examples of these types of vessels, check out the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., and their database on Zapotec effigy vessels.