Traditional Conservation and New Technology: The Preservation of Three Assyrian Reliefs

Kelly Caldwell, Mark Rabinowitz, and Silvia Callegari


The Virginia Theology Seminary (VTS) in Alexandria has held three large-scale Assyrian gypsum relief carvings in their collection for more than 150 years. Being an educational institution and not a museum, they have decided to de-accession one panel while moving the others from their long-term location in a basement wall into a proper display condition. All 3 panels were laser scanned and conserved as part of this work. The treatment of the two that will be retained, and the replication of the other carving presents a study in the issues of care, documentation and replication of these significant artifacts from areas of current conflict and destruction and represents an example of how modern technologies like laser scanning and 3-D printing, in concert with traditional conservation treatment and environmental controlled display cases, intersects to preserve the history of lost places and times. The panels were acquired by the Seminary around 1859 from Dr. Henri Haskell, a missionary connected with the Layard excavations of the palace and temple site of Nimrud in resent-day Iraq. To preserve and reinstall this collection, 9th-century BCE Assyrian Reliefs. The collection consisted of three panels, two low-relief carvings measuring 64” tall x 40” across, depicting eagle-headed figures giving an offering to the sacred tree, and a third larger panel, likely from the same site, depicts a Genie figure. Typical of this type of Assyrian relief, the figures are overlain with cuneiform writing. The VTS started planning for the documentation, de-installation, conservation, and reinstallation of these pieces in early 2017, with the goal of the project being to remove the two eagle-head panels from their existing location in the library basement and put them on display in modern, customized cases in a more publicly accessible space on their campus. The VTS employed a team of conservators, designers, digital scanning and replication technologists, and art handling specialists to documentation, treat, transport, and display of the invaluable works of art that are being preserved in the collection. The one piece that is being de-accessioned will be replicated in modern materials. In conjunction with the conservation and preservation of the remaining originals and be displayed alongside them. The 3-D scans will retain the documentation of all panels, including the Genie. This paper will explore the correlation between traditional conservation treatments and the use of new technologies in the preservation of lost heritage. Given the recent intentional destruction of other works from the same area, their survival in the Seminary and now in digital records is instructive. We will discuss the processes used in the treatment and documentation and present the results.

2019 | Uncasville | Volume 26