Recent visitors to the Artifact Lab may have noticed this new sign posted on one of the lab windows:
Since we opened in fall 2012, you might have occasionally caught us working on non-Egyptian things, but if you visit us now, you will definitely see us working on things from other parts of the collection, especially artifacts that we are preparing for our new Middle East Galleries. Right now, we are focusing a lot of our efforts on treating ceramics and lithics, most from Iraq and Iran.
We have tens of thousands of ceramics and lithics in this museum’s collection, but somehow, in my over 4 years here, I have gotten away with working on only a handful.
Conservator Tessa de Alarcon reconstructing a ceramic vessel. This is a common sight in our main lab (behind the scenes) but not so much in the Artifact Lab…until now.
So this is how, after spending over 4 years working on mummies and coffins, working on a small ceramic vessel becomes a novelty. And that is why I am going to walk you through some of the fairly routine steps of treating a ceramic, because I’ve never gotten a chance to write about it on this blog before, and honestly, I’m excited about it.
This small ceramic vessel with a simple striped pattern was excavated in 1931 in Ur, which is a site in modern day Iraq. It dates to the Ubaid Period, so is at least 6000 years old.
As you can see in the above BT image, it was previously broken and repaired. In order to get it ready for exhibition, those old repairs need to be removed. We don’t always remove old repairs (and we never remove repairs that date to when the objects were still in use), but based on observations of the vessel and referencing an old conservation treatment report, I knew that the repairs had to be undone – if left in place those old materials are likely to fail and possibly cause more damage to the object. Another goal of the conservation treatment is to improve the appearance of the vessel, as there was excess adhesive and overpaint in areas and many of the joins were not well aligned.
Based on that old treatment report and tests in the lab, I knew that the old adhesive is soluble in acetone and that the material used to fill missing areas would soften in acetone enough to allow it to be removed. So the first treatment step, after documenting the piece fully, was to put it in an acetone vapor chamber:
An acetone vapor chamber isn’t anything fancy – in this case it was created with a plastic bag. I placed the vessel and 2 small containers of acetone in the bag and then clamped the open end to prevent the acetone from leaking out. Sometimes an object only needs a few hours in a vapor chamber before it can be taken apart. This little vessel required 24 hours before even one piece could be taken off. The whole thing was finally deconstructed after a week of sitting in the chamber on-and-off and poulticing and swabbing the joins with acetone.
During treatment, after the first piece detached
During treatment, after more than half the vessel was taken down
Success! All the pieces are finally apart, placed on images of the vessel in order to keep track of everything.
Once the pieces came apart, I had to swab all the joins with acetone to remove excess adhesive and fill material. I’m now at the point where I will start joining the pieces together again.
Swabbing a break edge of a ceramic to remove old adhesive
Stay tuned for more posts about our work on these objects, and our continued work on the Egyptian collection and other projects!