An archaeological journey: The excavation, deterioration, and treatment of a painted glass miniature from Nimrud

Ariel O’Connor


The ancient city of Nimrud, located in the heartland of Assyria at the eastern edge of the Tigris river valley, was a powerful citadel and the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under king Ashurnasirpal II during the ninth through the seventh centuries B.C. Excavations at Nimrud began in 1845 by the British Museum and continued through the 20th century, including collaborations with the Metropolitan Museum of Art during 1951—1963. In this time, thousands of carved ivories were excavated from the arsenal and storeroom known as “Fort Shalmaneser.” The majority of the objects were fragments of elaborate furniture that were collected and hoarded over centuries of Assyrian domination. Excavated in the debris were a series of nine small painted glass plaques from the 8th century B.C. that constitute the earliest known painted glass from the ancient Near East. The painted glass plaques were divided between the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the British Museum, and the Corning Museum of Glass. All nine glass plaques were analyzed by Robert H. Brill and were published by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq in 1978.

In 1959 the Metropolitan Museum received two joining fragments that formed the top half of a single plaque, 4.4cm in length and 1.75cm in height (MMA 59.107.25,26). The painted decoration on the front shows the head of a human-headed winged sphinx facing a single straight-stemmed papyrus flower, with an Egyptian nemes headdress, wings, and an arched tail. The object was photographed and recorded intact during the early 1980s, but was retrieved from storage in 2002 and was found disintegrated into approximately 85 microscopic fragments.

This object was the focus of an in-depth research and treatment project performed by the author at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009. This presentation will begin with the archaeological history of the excavations and provenance of the inlays, and will review the analysis and treatment performed on all 9 glass inlays by Robert Brill. Comparative analysis on the Metropolitan’s inlay was performed by Adrianna Rizzo and Mark Wypyski of the Department of Scientific Research in an attempt to identify any remaining pigments and gilding, as well as to identify previous restoration materials applied to the glass in the field. Possibilities for the object’s rapid decomposition will be discussed. Microscopic solvent testing was performed to identify suitable conservation materials and treatments that would not disturb the original paint layers, and a method of reconstruction was developed for working completely under the microscope to reassemble the paper-thin fragments into a three-dimensional form. These results will be discussed, as well as methods and options for treatments, the final choice being heavily influencd by the previous treatment performed on the archaeological site. Finally, the actual treatment and reassembly will be demonstrated with step-by-step images along with a digital reconstruction of the inlay in its uncorroded state.

2011 | Philadelphia | Volume 18