Muses in the Lab: Conserving a Roman Sarcophagus

Follow our conservation team into the lab as they prepare a fragmentary Roman sarcophagus featuring three Muses and the deceased for the Getty Villa Museum’s galleries.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

In Greek mythology, the Muses were goddesses of poetic inspiration and the creative arts. Known as the nine daughters of Mnemosyne, or Memory, they were popular images on Roman sarcophagus reliefs, often with portraits of the dead in their midst to imply the lofty status of the deceased.

In this photograph from the 1970s, we see four figures that originally decorated the front of the stone sarcophagus:

a seated woman, probably the deceased . . . 

Erato (muse of love poetry) with a cithara or small harp . . . 

Thalia (comedy) holding a comedic theater mask . . . 

and Euterpe (music and song) with an aulos or flute.

The size of the figures—each over four feet tall—indicates the complete sarcophagus would have been very large in size and potentially created to hold two people, probably an elite couple. 

From this image, we can also tell that the figures were originally found in pieces and reassembled. For the complete sarcophagus there may have been up to 11 of them. Much of the sarcophagus chest was missing, and the figures were inserted into a new masonry wall. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of the figure of Thalia in her crate by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Assessing the Condition

The fragmentary sarcophagus was on display when the Getty Villa Museum first opened in 1974 and remained on view into the 1980s, but had since been in storage.

When we opened the crates after nearly three decades, we found the sculptures in poor condition. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of the figure of Thalia in her crate by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The figures had been removed from their masonry display, which compromised much of the original conservation treatments. 

Previously joined sections, such as the head and feet of this figure, were separated.

Many of the cracks or spaces that had been previously filled and unnoticeable in the archival photograph were now obvious. The resins used in joining pieces together and the fills that recreated missing areas were also badly discolored or dislodged.

The seams between numerous fragments were also partially opened or misaligned and some sections were completely detached. The light color and sharp edges of the breaks indicate that many of these were new, probably caused by the removal of the figures from the masonry display.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of drapery section showing break joints and old fills, Getty Antiquities Conservation, 2020, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of a fragmentary section showing old fills and new breaks, Getty Antiquities Conservation, 2020, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Many of these edges were adjacent to other prior conservation efforts, such as the pinning for reassembly, and the fills and resins for rejoining. This tells us that these materials were overly strong—causing the rupture in the stone—and not the most appropriate for long-term preservation.

On the other hand, some figures, such as the seated woman, appeared less affected by their removal from the masonry display. But while the cracks were less discernible, many of the fills had darkened and become more visible. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, seated woman (Visible Light) by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

To better understand the conditions and differences between ancient, original stone and newer, added materials, we examined the figures under ultraviolet light (UV). 

Light within the ultraviolet range has the ability to cause many materials to auto-fluoresce (when the light is absorbed by materials, the light that is reflected back is called fluorescence). 

This helps to differentiate between various materials that otherwise are harder to see with the naked eye. Darker, or less-luminescent areas, show us the ancient stone portions.

Lighter, or more luminescent, areas indicate where material has been added over the years, in this case in the form of resins and binders for pigments. The luminescent areas indicate fills and help highlight the break edges between joined fragments. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, seated woman (Ultraviolet Light) by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Further examination under natural light revealed several areas of original polychromy, or pigment painting. 

At first glance, the darker and linear marks on the raised surfaces of the relief carving appear to be grime. Closer inspection showed they are intentional and not random.

In fact, they are the remains of ancient pigment that would have added details to the aulos (an ancient wind instrument), the drapery, and the belt of the figure of Euterpe. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of an aulos with ancient pigment by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Areas like the head and strings of the cithara (a stringed instrument similar to a lyre or small harp) show traces of pigment that would have highlighted each string, and enhanced the decoration of the head and shadow play of the carvings.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of a cithara with traces of ancient pigment by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Beyond pigments, recent research suggests that the purplish color on Thalia’s garment may indicate areas that were once gilded. 

Along with the many colors once added to these figures, gilding is another element that is now virtually imperceptible.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of Thalia’s garment showing evidence of gilding by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Imagine the color of the drapery, the patterns in its hems, or the hair and eye color of each Muse. These are details that have, until recently, been largely unknown yet have huge implications for the cleaning, treatment, and understanding of such objects.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, break joint before cleaning by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Cleaning

Cleaning was a very delicate task. We considered many options, both mechanical and chemical, choosing methods that  minimized any potential to affect, alter, or remove remaining traces of pigment. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, break joint after cleaning by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Cleaning was only carried out on dirt and grime accumulation or where previously applied materials had discolored or altered. Under magnification, we gradually reduced or removed unsightly grime and obtrusive applied materials.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, break joint after cleaning by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The goal of the cleaning was to even out the tonal appearance of each fragment. This was to ensure consistency in color and a more even appearance once the four figures were reunited.  

Disassembly

Disassembly was fundamental to the treatment of the sarcophagus. We decided to remove all previous conservation materials, and rejoin the fragments with current, more stable methods that can be reversed if needed.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, initial disassembly, Getty Antiquities Conservation, 2020, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Removing previous restoration materials would remedy many of the structural and aesthetic issues affecting the stability and appearance of the object.

Following current conservation approaches, we are conscious that most materials will undergo changes over time. We try to address this by making it easier for conservators in the future to undo any of our own interventions.

A major concern was how to disassemble tight, irregular joints—even those already loosened or misaligned—without creating stress to the stone that might result in further fractures or irreversible loss. 

The slight differences in physical properties of each pin and adhesive in relation to the stone proved crucial, especially their hardness and elasticity. 

We gradually removed fill materials between joints with fine pneumatic tools (often used for fossil preparation) and dental drills. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of initial insertion of shims by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This allowed us to introduce fine wooden, plastic, and metal shims, such as those seen here between fragments of the upper and lower body of Euterpe.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, series of shims along break joint, Getty Antiquities Conservation, 2020, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Given the delicate nature of the stone, introducing shims was a very gradual and slow process, often taking weeks to reverse one joint.

One to two millimeters of separation was sufficient, allowing diamond-coated wires or thin, fine-toothed blades to slide in the gap to cut the old pins.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of Thalia’s upper left leg by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The process was more straightforward with some smaller joints and wedge-shaped fragments, such as this section of Thalia’s upper leg. 

Rather than a pin, these joints often relied on copious amounts of resin or fill materials to lock the fragment in place. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of Thalia’s upper left leg after disassembly by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This example shows the size of the drilled pin holes and the amount of fill used to immobilize the fragments in previous interventions (note the debris from the fill at the bottom). 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of Thalia’s upper left leg after disassembly by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Such techniques are no longer commonly practiced for rejoining, as the removal of ancient materials—for example, to create a hole for pin placement— is counter to the idea of preservation.  

With cleaning and disassembly complete, the holes from previous conservation efforts were advantageously repurposed for a new, reversible method of reassembling the figures.

Reassembly

For reassembly, we decided to reuse the original pin holes to establish a new pinning system that incorporated the use of sleeves (tubes), pins, and magnets.

Rather than adhering fragments to one another, magnets are embedded in both ends of the pin and at the base of each sleeve.

The sleeves were adhered in place in the previously made holes, effectively regularizing the size of each hole in relation to the size of the pin.

The magnets secure the pieces of the statue without adhesive, while the pins provide structural reinforcement.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, diagram of sleeve and pins for reassembly by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Here, we can see a pin and sleeve in action, ready to join two fragments together.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of internal pinning by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The sleeves needed some resin to ensure they stayed put within the fragments. We stabilized each piece using their weight and the interaction between the surfaces being joined together—each side is a near mirror of the other—to hold them in place while the resin cured.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus during reassembly, smaller fragments rejoined to large sections by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The break-joints, or edges between fragments that criss-crossed the surface, had to be repaired in a similarly reversible fashion.

The small spaces were filled by casting small amounts of a material composed of a soluble acrylic resin with marble flour and other stone powders mixed in as fillers. This combination matches the appearance of the stone.

This filler was manipulated and shaped while still malleable, and, after hardening, was filed and sanded to mimic the surrounding texture of the carved stone. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, integration of break joints by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

To create the fills for larger missing areas, the break-joints of the ancient fragments temporarily had a thin plastic barrier put in place. This allowed a modern, resin-based material to be modeled directly to the surface. Once set, the resin fills (seen below in gray prepared for Thalia’s neck) easily detach thanks to the barrier and, in essence, become another fragment of the assemblage.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, recreated missing portion of Thalia’s shoulder and neck, Getty Antiquities Conservation, 2020, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, Thalia’s head and recreated shoulder section after reassembly by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Thalia’s head was only supported by a small portion of original stone forming the right neck and shoulder. The fill completes the neck and upper shoulder, ensuring the structural stability of the head as a whole. 

Thalia’s upper body shows the metal pinning system contained within the lower half of the shoulders and torso that will hold the head in position. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, Thalia’s upper body showing incorporated pinning by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The new fill—half ancient stone, half modern resin—awaits Thalia’s face. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus,Thalia’s shoulder sections in place by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

With all the fragments in place, the Muse can be better appreciated as she was originally designed.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, Thalia’s upper body and head fully assembled by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The same process was repeated for Thalia’s feet. Resting on a band decorated with egg-and-dart pattern, Thalia’s feet are the only fragments to preserve parts of the ground line and the bottom edge of the entire sarcophagus.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of Thalia’s feet showing recreated fragments, Getty Antiquities Conservation, 2020, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of Thalia’s feet after reassembly, Getty Antiquities Conservation, 2020, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Mounting the Figures

The back of each figure would have been part of the sarcophagus’s chest, which had a rough, unfinished surface. 

Each figure required a resin interface (transitional layer between the stone and the mounting plate or wall) made to create a uniform back surface for mounting and equal distribution of weight for each fragment.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, initial interface by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

To ensure each figure was level with one another despite their irregular backs, an interface for the seated woman was created first and used as the reference for the remaining three figures. 

Here, the figure of Erato (left) is adjusted with shims to align with the seated woman (right).

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail of the interface of Erato by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The figure of Euterpe required shims stacked six high to keep the front surface in alignment. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, detail showing the thickness of the interface for Euterpe by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, Thalia’s interface next to the inverted Thalia by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In this image, the seated woman and Erato are already positioned on their interfaces while Thalia’s interface awaits her stone figure, which lies face down on the right. 

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, Thalia’s interface next to the inverted Thalia by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

You can see the exact correlation of the grooves and texture of the interface with the irregular stone back. 

Finally, all four figures, while still lying on the lift table, are properly aligned and positioned on their interfaces.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, all four figures on their interfaces providing proper orientation, Getty Antiquities Conservation, 2020, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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In preparation for the installation in our galleries, a unifying mounting system was devised and fabricated. This allows each figure to be installed separately and held in place. This system provided both a means to secure each figure and mount them as a group on display.

The plates secure each figure in place through a series of pre-existing holes in the back of several fragments . . . 

. . . and the V-shape cut through the center helps securely join the system together and to the wall. 

Mounting Plate of Roman Fragmentary Sarcophagus, mounting plate by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The mounting plate was fabricated from three stacked plates that were cut to the outline of the assemblage.

The first plate is seen here in gray, the second plate in yellow, and the third plate in green. 

The Backing Plate, which attaches to  each figure, was kept whole. 

The Upper Plates (made from the top half of plates 2 and 3) were attached to the Backing Plate. 

The Bottom Plates (made from the lower half of plates 2 and 3) were attached to the wall. 

These plates were cut along a regular ‘V’ shaped pattern. Both were cut along the same line but at a slight offset.

The cleat created by the V-shaped cut results in a self-centering lap joint, which locks the upper plates into the lower plates without the need of adjustment.

The result is a strong and stable support for hanging the figures on the wall.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, diagram of sleeve and pins for reassembly by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Watch as the Muses are secured on the mounting plate and installed using a specially constructed lifting system to raise and lower the group:

Large Sarcophagus with the Muses, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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After installation, the team inspected and touched up any visible portions of the interfaces and mounting plate system.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus, after installation by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The next time you’re at the Getty Villa, be sure to stop by the Muses Sarcophagus to not only enjoy the craftsmanship, but to also appreciate the many steps it took to get this extraordinary assemblage from storage to display.

Fragmentary Roman Sarcophagus on display by Getty Antiquities ConservationThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Credits: Story

© 2021 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

For more on the Muses, Roman sarcophagi and other funerary monuments, see the following resources: Of Muses and Magnets, or, Inspiration for a New Technique in Stone Conservation on the Getty Iris Roman Funerary Sculpture: Catalogue of the Collections in the Getty Publications’ Virtual Library.

To cite these texts, please use: "Muses in the Lab: Conserving a Roman Sarcophagus" published online in 2021 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.  

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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