Preserving Ancient Artifacts with the Israel Antiquities Authority

Glass bowl from the late Roman era, before treatment. Photo by Sara Levin.

Shalom from Jerusalem! I’m Sara Levin, objects conservation major of the WUDPAC class of 2013, and I am spending the summer as an intern at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA, or Reshut Ha’Atikot in Hebrew). So far, I have been busy working on archaeological textiles, ceramics, and—right now—glass.

The IAA is a unique place—its staff are in charge of archaeological excavations throughout the country and run a policing unit to prevent antiquities theft. Artifacts come into the conservation labs by the box-load, and it is the primary responsibility of conservators to stabilize, clean, reconstruct, and preserve objects in consultation with the archaeologists who have excavated them. The Artifacts and Treatment Department for ceramics, glass, organics, stone, and metals (overseen by Dr. Zvi Greenhut) is where I am working, and it is often bustling.

Reconstructing the hole-mouth jar, here seen upside down. Photo by Elisheva Kamaisky.

The most challenging project I have worked on so far is helping reconstruct a large ceramic hole-mouth jar from the early Bronze Age (3200–2200 BCE). Before my arrival, Senior Ceramics Conservator Elisheva Kamaisky and her assistant Atalya Fadida accomplished the arduous task of finding all the joins between the fragments and preparing them for reconstruction. We then, as a team, along with conservator Hadas Seri, spent a day and a half adhering the pieces together. We began with the rim, because there is no extant base, and built the vessel upside down. To add to the difficulty, there were many large gaps in the structure, making it highly insecure. Tape, clamps, and plastic bridges were used to temporarily secure the vessel as the adhesive dried.

Conservators here use an adhesive I had never heard of for reconstructing ceramics and apply different methods for plastering. Learning from them and exchanging ideas about materials and techniques—as well as seeing the unique challenges and solutions of a different institution—is part of why this internship is so important.

After the adhesive on the hole-mouth jar had time to dry, I set to work filling the large gaps with plaster in order to stabilize the structure. Ceramic fills are made with plaster tinted with dry pigments to resemble the color of the original ceramic, but remain clearly distinguishable for study purposes.

Refining plaster fills on the hole-mouth jar, here seen right-side up. Photo by Elisheva Kamaisky.

Once enough of the losses were filled on the lower portion, the object was turned right-side up to finish the job. It wasn’t until I saw the jar in this orientation that I fully appreciated how well-crafted and beautiful it is. According to Kamaisky, who is an expert on ancient pottery technology, these kinds of vessels were coil built. The finishing is very finely done on this one.

It’s been a real pleasure working at the IAA. I look forward to continuing my work on glass and to seeing what comes through the IAA’s doors in the coming weeks. For the archaeology enthusiasts out there, this is one of the most recent discoveries making waves here: http://www.timesofisrael.com/ancient-synagogue-and-mosaic-unearthed-in-galilee/

Never a dull moment!

Sara Levin is entering her final year of studies at the WUDPAC program and will be completing her third-year internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning in September. She graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in history in 2005 and has worked on archaeological sites as both a conservator and excavator.

Winterthur is celebrating 60 years of graduate programs in art conservation and material culture studies in the current exhibition A Lasting Legacy: Sixty Years of Winterthur Graduate Programs, on view through June 16, 2013.

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