BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
Beauty isn’t everything at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology; we value all evidence of life in the ancient world, even when the object is, erm, ugly. This month’s ugly object is an Aphrodite figurine made from copper alloy (aka bronze).
I would never argue that Aphrodite herself is unattractive, but this figurine has seen better days. It was severely corroded when excavated at Karanis, Egypt, in the 1930s, and the legs were in pieces. Sometime after excavation, the corrosion patina was stripped with an electrochemical treatment that was once popular for archaeological metals. This resulted in a dull, brown, pitted surface with multiple holes.
Fast forward to 2015, when this object was chosen for a special exhibition. We wanted to reattach the feet and other fragments, but the latter are very thin pieces of metal from the fronts of the legs. They did not attach well to the upper thighs, each other, or the feet, and they could not support the weight of the torso. Our solution was to make prosthetic legs for the Aphrodite, legs that would support the torso and to which the metal “skin” fragments could be attached. I was the conservator for this treatment, and I began by masking the metal surface with Parafilm, a plastic paraffin wrap that is used as a sealant in labs. This protected the metal surface as I worked with the object. Next, I formed new legs with a two-part epoxy putty.
I shaped the new legs one at a time by pressing them into the voids in the upper thighs and placing the feet and other fragments into position on the putty while it was still soft. Once it had cured, I removed the putty from the figurine and the metal fragments from the putty. I then painted the white putty and sealed all the join surfaces with a conservation sealant. Next, each leg and its fragments were glued into place with a conservation adhesive.
We conservators like this object because it looks very real to us. This Aphrodite is almost 2,000 years old, and she is not lying about her age. In most museums, we see perfect examples of objects like this one. But in the field, on a real-life excavation (or at the Kelsey!), an object like this Aphrodite is incredibly special, even though it’s not perfectly gorgeous.
You can appreciate this ugly object yourself; from June 5 through July 26 it is on view in the exhibition “Rocks, Paper, Memory: Wendy Artin’s Watercolor Paintings of Ancient Sculptures.”