A Columnar Matter Part III: The Conservation and Installation of a 3rd Millennium BCE Mosaic Column from Al ‘Ubaid

By Marci Jefcoat Burton

As a last installment of the mosaic column from Tell al-Ubaid in Iraq, we are pleased to announce the treatment and remounting of the 4,200(+) year-old shell, pink limestone, and black shale tesserae is complete (Figure 1)! After a number of years in collection storage, the recently conserved column is now in the Middle East Gallery, and ready for visitors when the exhibit opens this Saturday, April 21, 2018. The treatment process was a dynamic collaborative project, involving a team of seven conservators to clean, repair and re-mount hundreds of triangular and diamond shaped tesserae over the span of 18 months.

Figure 1: The previous column support (left), with all tesserae deconstructed from each section. Only mounting materials, such as plaster ground and reconstructions, remain on the supports. (Right) The newly mounted tesserae on Ethafoam column supports.

The tesserae were originally mounted at the archaeological site in 1919 – 1924 on four hollow cylindrical sections made of wire mesh and burlap. The tesserae were imbedded in a thick layer of plaster, and the resulting weight on a somewhat flexible base eventually became a structural problem. In addition, each column section had a large area of plaster reconstruction to continue the mosaic design around the column. For a memory refresher of the previous condition and treatment protocol, visit our blog posts, column blog 1 and column blog 2.

After months of cleaning every tessera and adhering many fragments back together, the tesserae were mounted onto a new support made from solid Ethafoam, a chemically stable and dense foam (Figure 2). Each new column section support was reconstructed to the same measurements as the wire mesh and burlap supports. The previous use of plaster proved too rigid and heavy in the original mounting system, causing many cracks to develop in the plaster and tesserae to loosen over time. For these reasons, plaster was not used again, and the tesserae were mounted to the Ethafoam supports with an acrylic paste (Paraloid® B-72 (ethyl methacrylate (70%) and methyl acrylate (30%) copolymer) in acetone bulked with glass microspheres) toned black with dry pigments. This is lighter in weight compared to plaster, and compatible with the shell and stone materials. The black acrylic paste was made to resemble bitumen, a pine resin material used by the Mesopotamians to originally mount the tesserae to the c. 3rd Millennium BCE column.

Figure 2: Mounting process of column section #2. The cleaned and repaired tesserae are mounted to the Ethafoam cylindrical supports with Paraloid® B-72 (ethyl methacrylate (70%) and methyl acrylate (30%) copolymer) in acetone bulked with glass microspheres and toned black with dry pigments to mimic bitumen. Spatulas were used to spread the acrylic resin on the support and tesserae were imbedded into the mixture.

All four column sections stack and connect with an internal wooden dowel system. To accommodate the large areas that were once plaster restorations, our Photo Studio printed high resolution, archival images of the tesserae, which were custom scaled and fit to each column section (Figure 3). The digital photo fills integrate a complete mosaic design to give the appearance of a fully mosaicked column (Figure 4). This is a great example of how recent technological advancements help conservators with approaches to treatment and display options.

Figure 3: (From left), Conservation Interns Tessa Young, Alyssa Rina and Jennifer Mikes installing digital photo fills to the top and bottom mosaic column sections.

Figure 4: (a): Column section #2, after remounting tesserae. The locations with previous plaster reconstructions are padded with Volara (closed-cell polyethylene foam). (b): Column section #2 after pinning archival photo fill into place over the Volara.

The mosaic column, and over 1,500 objects await your visit in the Middle East Galleries (Figure 5)! To our visitors in the Artifact Lab who witnessed our many, many hours of treating these column sections, we thank you for your brilliant questions, comments and curiosity about the tesserae and our conservation process during our Open Window Sessions. You will find the assembled column has transformed into an impressive and complete piece, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

Figure 5: Bob Thurlow (Special Projects Manager) and Marci Jefcoat Burton (Conservation Curriculum Intern) installing the four mosaic column sections in the Middle Eastern Gallery.

A Columnar Matter Part II: The Conservation Treatment of a 3rd Millennium BCE Mosaic Column from Al ‘Ubaid

By Marci Jefcoat Burton

As a follow up to my previous blog post, conservation treatment of the second of four sections comprising a mosaic column from Tell al-Ubaid, Iraq is well on its way! For a quick recap, the column is dated to 2400 – 2250 BCE (Figure 1). After centuries of burial, the triangular and diamond shaped shell, pink limestone, and shale tesserae (also referred to as tiles), were excavated in 1919 – 1924. The original wooden column interior did not survive the centuries of burial, so after excavation, the tesserae were mounted with plaster to four hollow cylindrical supports of metal mesh covered with burlap. After nearly 100 years, shifts in the internal support have caused structural instability to each section.

Figure 1: (left) Before treatment image of the four column sections stacked together to make a complete column. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (2003). Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York) (right) Column section 2 detail, before treatment.

First step of treatment: Remove tesserae from the current support.

The plaster was softened with distilled water applied by brush, then carved away to expose the sides of the each tessera. The tesserae could then be separated from the plaster and burlap backing one by one (Figure 2). Like the first slice of pie, the first piece was the most difficult to remove. Once extracted, access to adjacent tesserae became easier.

Figure 2: (left) Removing plaster surrounding the tesserae with a scalpel blade. Plaster was first softened with distilled water. (middle) Carefully extracting a shell tessera from the plaster. (right) Shell tessera after removal from column section.

The tesserae were removed from the support and placed on an enlarged reference photo in a tray to maintain the order of composition (Figure 3).

Figure 3: All tesserae were removed from the support and placed on top of a rolled out image of the column section to maintain their original placement. All that remains on the exterior of the cylindrical support is a layer of grey plaster and previously filled areas. As a bonus, the Egyptian female child mummy named Tanwa can be seen in the background, just outside of the Artifact Lab window!

Second step of treatment: Cleaning

After removal from column section 2, all tesserae were covered with a layer of powdery plaster, which was removed with distilled water applied with hand-rolled cotton swabs. Medical scalpels were used to gently lift and remove thick remnants of plaster as well as adhesive from previous repairs. In addition, years of dark-brown dirt, dust and grime were removed with distilled water, and Stoddard solvent (a petroleum-derived organic solvent) was applied to the pink limestone and shell pieces to remove greasy grime trapped in the surface (Figure 4).

Figure 4: (left) Removal of adhesive and plaster remnants from a diamond shaped tesserae using a medical scalpel. (right) Shell tesserae being cleaned with distilled water. Note the dark grey-brown grime picked up on the cotton swab.

Third step of treatment: Repair

Once cleaned, tesserae that exhibited breakage such as cracks, detachment, and delamination were repaired with a thin layer of a semi-viscous solution of Paraloid® B-72 (ethyl methacrylate (70%) and methyl acrylate (30%) copolymer) resin in acetone. The majority of the shell tesserae experienced separation between the layers comprising the shell. Some even separated into several pieces, making their reassembly somewhat of a puzzle (Figure 5)!

Figure 5: (left) A triangular shell tessera delaminated (separated) into six pieces. (right) The same shell tessera with all pieces adhered together with Paraloid® B-72.

The shale was even more temperamental to remove from the column section (Figure 6). Shale is a soft sedimentary rock composed of mud, clay, and minerals, such as calcite and quartz. The inherent nature of the shale causes breakage and crumbling. Water can remove particles from the shale surface, therefore these pieces were cleaned with dry brushes and if needed, cotton swabs lightly dampened with distilled water.

The most resilient material was the pink limestone. While some pink limestone tesserae are weathered on the surface, most likely from centuries of burial, these tiles exhibited very little breakage and cleaned up nicely with distilled water and Stoddard solvent (Fig. 6).

Figure 6: (left) A diamond shaped shale tessera exhibiting a lack of cohesion, best observed around the edges, which caused cracks and areas of material loss. (right) A resilient triangular pink limestone tessera with a weathered surface, noted by the lighter, speckled locations. The pink limestone tesserae have strong cohesion and required very little repair.

After a month of cleaning and repair of the shell, pink limestone and shale tesserae, their overall appearance is quite transformative. The tesserae look brighter and truer to their original colors (Figure 7). This is especially the case for the pink limestone, which went from a dark peach-brown, to a brighter light-pink hue.

Figure 7: (left) Shell, pink limestone and shale tesserae after removal from the former support, and kept in their original arrangement. (right) All tesserae after cleaning and repair, ready for re-mounting to a new support.

…..What’s next?

The next phase of treatment for section 2 of the mosaic column is to mount the shell, pink limestone, and shale tesserae to a new solid cylindrical support. More information and updates on the column treatment progress will be featured in an upcoming post, so please stay tuned!