Editor's Note: Erin Gibbs is currently in Jerusalem doing an internship with the Israel Museum. She will send regular updates this month about her experience. Enjoy.

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May 5, 2010

Once again I write to tell you tales of my internship at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Since the opening of the new galleries for the Trustees takes place this upcoming Monday, the museum has been even more chaotic then usual. This means that this past week I was mostly devoted to finishing my work on the Omrit exhibit that I had mentioned previously.

This week I was also able to learn more about paper conservation, and sat in while the paper conservator refinished an illuminated manuscript from the early 20th century. Usually, illuminations, or paintings within books, aren't finished at all, and the conservator's job is to ensure that the paints used for the illuminations stay in good condition. Illuminations that are 800 years old are more secure than modern examples, because they are made from stable and long lasting paints such as tempera or oil paints; and tend to use basic materials to provide hue such as lapis lazuli (blue), ochre clay (yellow, brown, red), or eroded copper (green). However, modern paints can be very chemically unstable, and thus many times they are finished with a type of gloss. Over time, the gloss yellows or erodes, masking the color of the illumination underneath. This week I was able to help the paper conservator remove old finish and apply a new coat and hopefully, even though it's not technically under the category of "archaeological conservation," he will let me continue to aid in the very noble task of paper conservation.

Lastly, I was tasked to clean a large exhibit that presents the altar of a Byzantine Church that is complete with a floor mosaic.

Hope finals went well for everyone!

April 26, 2010

I have been working on two things simultaneously the past couple of days, both the larger mosaic from the site of Wadi Hamam that I mentioned last week, and an exhibition that displays some of the architectural elements from Macalester's very own site of Omrit in Northern Galilee.

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The Classics Department at Macalester has an archaeological excavation where students and professors work in tandem with the Israel Antiquities Authority to unearth the ruins of three temples ranging from the Hellenistic Period through the Roman Era.

Under the tutelage of Professors Andy Overman and Nanette Goldman, students from all departments are able to come to Israel to learn about the history, culture, and conflict in Israel.

Efforts at Omrit have been focused on the excavation of an ornate Hellenistic Shrine dating from the first century BCE. The plastered and frescoed limestone blocks that were used in the construction of this shrine are exceptionally unique and so well preserved that some were sent to the Israel Museum for conservation to ensure that they would stay that way. It's great to work on conserving some of the same blocks that I excavated. One wrong swing of the pickaxe two years ago may have rendered the exhibit nonexistent, or at least much more fragmentary.

After surface cleaning and treatment with an acrylic and ethanol solution to stabilize the plaster, these same blocks are now on display and arranged in such a way that they recreate a section of the building's facade. So, armed with plaster made from the same materials as the 2000-year-old-fresco designs and veneer on the blocks themselves, I began to fill in the spaces between the blocks to make the exhibition look finished. Adding plaster to the limestone also acts as a kind of bandaid that helps to strengthen the aging fresco. The hardest part of the exercise is applying the plaster so that it is completely smooth and flush with its ancient counterpart.

Quite honestly, I failed miserably at this fine point but, as always, my supervisor let me experiment and get used to the technique. All the conservators who instruct me in various conservation techniques have been nothing but gracious, forgiving, and patient with me and my minimal experience in archaeological restoration.

This week, I also worked on cleaning and stabilizing the fourth century CE mosaic from Wadi Hamam. When the conservators removed the mosaic from the site, they glued the surface of the tesserae to linen and gauze, and then pried the mortar base loose from the floor. This loving care is continued in the conservation lab, where I approach the mosaic brandishing a chisel and hammer and get down to business removing the old mortar. Once I do remove all of the mortar, each tessera is scraped clean with a scalpel so that the mosaic can be reset into a new base and ultimately either repatriated when the site is ready, or displayed in the museum.

I'll write more next week. Good luck studying for finals everyone!

Click on any photo to see a larger version

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April 19, 2010
Things here at the museum are going really well. Initially, it took me awhile not only to get settled in, but to start getting involved in projects as well. But, now that I have finally adjusted to living in Jerusalem and reality has set in that I am lucky enough to fulfill a goal I made when I was a precocious five year old. I am having more fun, and learning more about archaeological conservation and myself that I could have hoped.

Things here at the Israel Museum are stuck in a state of controlled chaos; the museum is undertaking an enormous renovation project that completely gutted and remodeled most of the galleries. This renovation started three years ago, and now curators, engineers, and conservators are working to complete the galleries before the opening for the trustees on May 7th. This means that I get to be here at a unique time and see an object's journey in it's entirety from the lab to it's final place in the galleries.

Because of the rapid movement of objects through the conservation lab, I am exposed to many different materials and many different conservation techniques. So far, I have worked on cleaning pre-Columbian terra cotta figures from South America, removing the not so inconspicuous restoration attempts of previous conservators. In reality, I have found that a majority of the work done here is "fixing," in a way, the problems that have arisen from earlier conservation techniques. This can run the gamut from simply removing a type of harmful or poorly applied glue, to dismantling a restored piece, cleaning it, and putting it back together in a completely different style. Since the science, practices, and ethics of archaeological conservation have changed dramatically as technology and understanding of past cultures have grown, this means it's just as important to re-conserve established museum objects as it is to treat new ones.

Currently, I am working on two projects, both of which deal with mosaics. The first is a recently acquired mosaic from the floor of an early Byzantine (4th-5th c. CE) synagogue in the Galilee at the site of Wadi Hamam. When it was uncovered by archaeologists, it was deemed too important to be left in the field between seasons, so it was removed and brought to the museum for cleaning and treatment. So far, I have only finished cleaning one small section of the mosaic, and will soon start removing the mortar and cleaning the tesserae of the second piece, which is roughly the size of a dining room table.

My second mosaic that I am working on is a museum piece that has been installed in the museum since the 1980s and comes from the site of Beit She'an, located south of the Sea of Galilee. The mosaic is too large to fit in it's new niche in the gallery, so the conservation lab has decided to cut the mosaic so that it will fit properly. However, instead of cutting the actual mosaic, which would be unethical since it destroys the original for the sake of display, they are having me reproduce the section they would like to have in the gallery. This means that the essence of the section of the mosaic can be displayed without harming the original. This process involves me tracing the original pattern and copying it onto a prepared panel where I will then paint on the design. According to conservation ethics, the design that I paint must be easily distinguished so as not to pass the reconstruction for the original. In this case, I will mute the colors so that the museum audience can clearly see what is original and what is not.

"I really could not have asked for a better opportunity."

Although I have been here for a month now, it is still hard for me to believe that I get to work at one of the premier conservation labs in the world. All of the staff have been so helpful in guiding me through technical procedures as well as telling me their story of how they arrived at conservation. I really could not have asked for a better opportunity.