One of our big projects this year is the conservation of three large fragments of an Assyrian wall paintings discovered by Dirk and his team in the Bronze Palace in 2008 and 2009. The Assyrians typically decorated their palaces with ornate figures and geometric designs. In the Assyrian heartland of modern-day northern Iraq, at places like Nineveh, these decorations were made by carving enormous flat panels of limestone called orthostats which lined the interior walls of the public buildings.
Here is an orthostat now found at the British Museum showing the Assyrian king hunting. These are some of the most stunning and iconic images we have from ancient Assyria.
Out on the northern frontier, at places like ancient Tushhan, palaces were not so elaborately adorned and wall paintings or frescoes were used in the place of carved stone orthostats. The paintings were made on white plaster with black, red, and blue paint. Because they are made from perishible substances, almost all of the wall paintings at Tushhan and other Assyrian imperial centers have been lost over the past 2700 years.
In 2008 and 2009, we found several large fragments that were preserved when the walls of the palace collapsed in upon themselves and sealed the plaster beneath the rubble of the mudbrick walls. These photographs from 2009 show Dirk carefully cleaning the surface of one of the paintings, and below that two of our conservation team, Charlotte Rerolle and Yvonne Helmholz, using a chemical consolidant to hold the plaster together so it could be lifted in one piece.
Because they were so delicate, we decided to lift the large fragments intact with the goal of conserving them in the laboratories of the Diyarbakir Museum in a later season. This was done by first digging the soil out from around the fresco to raise it above the surrounding ground level, a technique called pedestalling. Next we wrapped the edges of the fresco fragment in a non-adhesive covering akin to kitchen plastic wrap. Then we covered the entire perimeter in gauze bandages soaked in plaster to create a hard plaster shell around the fresco to give it stability.
Finally, an iron sheet was driven beneath the fresco, slicing through the soil pedestal, freeing the large fragment, which allowed us to remove the entire piece intact. Additional supporting material was added to the fragment before it was loaded on a truck and moved first to our depot, and then on to the Museum storeroom. By the time we were done, each of these “eggs”, as we nicknamed them, weighed enough to require a number of Turkish workmen to lift on poles.
Fast forward to 2014. The “eggs” have been sitting in a storage room in the Diyarbakir Museum for years awaiting our attention and finally this year we have a team of three conservators – Yvonne who was here in 2009, Lourdes Mesa Garcia, and Olga Emgrund – whose job is the crack open the eggs, clean them, and prepare them for exhibition. Here is what one of the plaster frescoes looked like at the beginning of the 2014 season. Yvonne has cracked open the first egg and is gently brushing away the dirt. The process of conservation will take weeks, or even months, before the wall fresco is stable enough to be put on display.
We will keep you up on progress on this conservation project. Wait and see!