A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Jacques Neguer (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
What does the IAA's Conservation Department do?
We have a laboratory for the conservation of finds, paintings, and mosaics. At the same time, this space serves as the storage area for mosaics. These mosaics have never been displayed in museums. They mainly come from excavations dating from the beginning of the 20th century, during the British Mandate, until today.
How many mosaics do you estimate you have here?
We have something like 2,000 square meters, at least. They are on different supports. Until the 1990s, all over the world, every mosaic was detached, or at least partly detached, after its excavation. Today, this is only five percent of our activity. We are now against the detachment of mosaics from their archaeological context. We conserve mainly in situ; generally, we try to work on the archaeological site. At the same time, there are buildings that need to be built, roads that need to be constructed, many things related to the destruction of archaeological sites. In these cases, we need to detach the mosaics and transport them here.
What else do you do?
We have a big problem. All of the old supports for the mosaics that were removed in the past were set in reinforced concrete. All over the world, conservators today are changing these supports. They're cutting off the concrete because inside there are iron bars that are rusting and destroying, literally "blowing up" the supports. Now that we know this is happening, everybody throughout the world is cutting the concrete. In addition to that, we have a lot of mosaics that don't have any support. And these are even more difficult to preserve for the future because they are glued onto fabric. And the glue and the fabric are not substantial. Sometimes, we have only buckets with tesserae [tiny mosaic tiles].
The IAA's Conservation Department houses some 2,000 square meters of mosaics that have been excavated over the past century. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
What is the date range for the material here?
We have mosaics from Herodian, Roman, and Byzantine times, as well as the Early Islamic period.
I noticed a conservator working on a beautiful wall painting in the other room. Where is that one from?
She's working on a wall painting from the 12th century, the Crusader period. This is a very important monument because first of all in Israel it is the only wall painting in gouache [opaque watercolor] from this period that was found in a church. Secondly, it comes from the 1996 excavation of the Gethsemane garden. We excavated this in a rescue excavation. Its removal and first conservation was on the IAA's budget. The painting belongs to a Benedictine monastery, the second most important one in Jerusalem after the monastery of Saint Sepulchre. It was partially destroyed at the end of the 12th century. After that, during the Ottoman period, its stones were used to build the walls of Jerusalem.
Elisheva Yardeni conserves a 12th-century wall painting excavated in 1996 at the Gethsemane garden. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
Do you know any more about the people who built it?
We only know the monks came from the monastery of Cluny in France. The name of the monastery we don't know. But we have here wall paintings from this monastery, from the nine-meter-long wall of a refectory or some other building.
What is shown in the painting?
It is a Classical composition but with some particular additions. There is a panel with birds, which is a common scene in medieval tapestries. And after that, we have two lines of inscriptions. At the moment, we don't have the interpretation of these inscriptions and we don't even know what language they are, exactly. What we know about the composition is that we also see the Deesis, similar to the painting in Saint Zeno in Verona, and we have two figures holding inscriptions in each hand. Christ is shown at the center. On the right side, there is a figure wearing sandals, which, iconographically speaking, means he is a saint. On the left side, we have a person. We know this because he is wearing red shoes. A figure with red shoes can only be the king or the bishop. Now the question is, who is the king at this precise moment? Who is the bishop?
What will you do with the painting when you're finished conserving it?
There is a new exhibition hall in the Israel Museum and the wall painting will go on display there. There will be an entire wall painting exhibition.
But you prefer to leave things in situ...
Yes, but when I can't—when the environmental conditions don't permit me to conserve in situ—I do whatever is necessary to preserve. One of the possibilities is to backfill. The second is to send it to a museum.
Do you work with finds from the whole country or just things found in Jerusalem?
In general, my team covers the whole country.
You must be working with the Roman mosaic from Lod, then. Why are you moving it?
This now-famous Roman mosaic from Lod will be conserved by the IAA before portions of it are exhibited in September 2010 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (Photo courtesy of the IAA)
A museum is going to be built there. This is part of the business. The mosaic will be lifted, the museum will be built in that place, and the mosaic will be returned back in situ. But on a modern support—that's the difference. Also, at Lod we have additional reasons to move it because in the mosaic, glass tesserae and gilded glass tesserae were used in some details such as birds and decorative elements. They need special environmental conditions to be preserved. They're very fragile. And at the same time, it is a very unique use of gilded glass tesserae in floor mosaics. It's quite...not existent. And at Lod, there is this very well-preserved one. Now, to create special conditions in this kind of a space is quite impossible. And the mosaic is under the level of the existing roads. It would be flooded if we left it there exposed.
What makes the Lod mosaic so special, so unique?
First, the mosaic is decorated in a style that is typical of North African Imperial art. It is not art typical for this area. And the mosaic is very well preserved. At the same time, it's a very high quality. These things, together, make the mosaic unique and extremely important. And it needs care in special conditions.
So after they come here, they'll be transported to New York?
Yes. And we'll begin to move them all over the world, I think, before the museum is completed.