THE GARLAND SARCOPHAGUS What does it take to prepare a 2,000 year old sarcophagus for a road trip? The 2,000-year-old, 500-pound marble sarcophagus has a lid in the shape of a temple roof. This structure served as a precursor to early reliquaries. Slowly and steadily over the past two years the conservation staff has been working on the The Garland Sarcophagus, one of seven Roman sarcophagi purchased by Henry Walters in 1902 as a part of the Massarenti Collection, so it can travel safely and be viewed in the round for the first time. This process involves many people in various divisions of the museum— conservators, conservation scientists, curators, registrars, art handlers and photographers. Due to the size and weight of the object, it needed to stay in the galleries to be treated. In order to make all sides of the 200 pound lid accessible for cleaning and repair Walters art handlers choreographed and executed the placement of the lid onto a custom-made support using a combination of a mechanical lift, specially designed shims and strength in numbers. Working in the galleries brings with it both opportunities and challenges. Visitors have the chance to view the ongoing work and to speak directly with conservators about the project, while conversely, logistical challenges are created for conservators and art handlers, limiting some work to times when the museum is closed. How do the conservators know where to begin when faced with the task of cleaning and repairing an ancient sarcophagus? How do they know what should or can be safely cleaned and removed from the sarcophagus, and what materials do they use to do this? Before any physical work on the object begins, the conservator consults with the curator to determine the goals of the treatment. The conservator must know how the object was made, in this case learning about the marble as a material and how it would have been carved, what the object was used for and how it would have looked originally. This information will guide decisions about how to proceed with treatment. For example, some Roman sarcophagi were originally painted bright colors—red, green, yellow, blue—even though today they appear as unpainted stone. Even after millennia, many sarcophagi retain small traces of paint in protected areas. Indeed, when viewed under strong light, traces of red paint were visible on the Garland Sarcophagus. It was important to document the paint location, as conservators would clean those painted areas with extra caution. A sophisticated piece of equipment allows conservators to identify elements present in the painted surface without harming the object. This information adds to our knowledge of paints and pigments used in antiquity. So what do conservators clean ancient marble with? In this case, a water-based cleaning system. Months were spent carefully cleaning the entire object centimeters at time. While the base is in one piece, the lid is broken into large fragments. Old, brittle, dark glue and plaster from 19th- century repairs were carefully removed from the surface with scalpels, revealing a network of cracks and losses. In order to make the lid look whole again, conservators filled in these gaps with a stable, reversible material, whose texture mimics the rough marble surface. These areas are then inpainted to match the surrounding marble. The purpose of this is not to deceive the viewer, but rather to allow the viewer to appreciate the beauty and form of the object. Since the treatment of the sarcophagus is a long-term project with many phases, it was worked on by a series of fellows and conservation interns supervised by Walters staff conservators. The interns carried out the majority of the nearly 400 working hours needed to complete this treatment. This project has provided a valuable opportunity for these students to learn from the experienced objects conservators at the Walters and gain skills involved in treating an ancient marble sarcophagus in preparation for exhibition. Additionally, this has been an important chance for the interns to talk with the public about their work and for visitors to see conservation in action.
|1/16/2008||Treatment||stabilized; loss compensation; other|
|9/29/2009||Treatment||cleaned; loss compensation|
|5/17/2011||Examination||examined for exhibition|
- Treasures of Heaven. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; The British Museum, London. 2010-2011.