By: Krysia Spirydowicz, Associate Professor, Art Conservation Program, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, CANADA and Senior Conservator, Gordion Furniture Project, Ankara, TURKEY
The ancient Phrygian capital of Gordion in central Anatolia was first explored in the early 1950s by a team from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Located approximately 100 km southwest of Ankara, this impressive site consists of a flat city mound with occupation levels dating from the Early Bronze Age to Hellenistic times and nearby clusters of burial mounds or tumuli. Rodney Young, the first director of excavations, explored three of the largest tumuli (Tumulus MM, P and W) as well as sections of the City Mound. Over 40 pieces of ornate, inlaid furniture dating to the eighth century BC were discovered in wooden burial chambers located deep inside the large earthen mounds.
Some of the best preserved and most spectacular pieces of furniture were found in the intact burial chamber of Tumulus MM including a carved, inlaid table [Fig. 1] and two inlaid serving stands. Tumulus P, the tomb of a small child, contained a number of miniature wooden objects and carved wooden animals [Fig. 2] as well as 21 pieces of furniture. Most were poorly preserved due to the previous collapse of the tomb. Tumulus W, the earliest tumulus, yielded one magnificent but fragmentary piece of furniture-a boxwood serving stand that featured openwork geometric designs embellished with bronze studs.
In the 1950s, the conservation of archaeological wood was in its infancy. When Tumulus P and Tumulus MM were opened, many pieces were damp or wet due to the use of a water-cooled drilling rig in locating the tomb chambers. Some of the larger pieces of furniture were dewatered and then treated in baths of wax and gasoline while many of the wooden objects and furniture fragments were coated with a dilute solution of Alvar, a clear polymer dissolved in acetone. Most of the furniture was eventually transferred to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara where it remained in storage until the early 1980’s.
In 1981, Dr. Elizabeth Simpson, then a research associate with the University of Pennsylvania Museum, travelled to Ankara to assess the condition of the furniture. She discovered that the pieces were continuing to deteriorate and this led her to establish the Gordion Furniture Project with preservation, study and publication of the wooden furniture as its principal goals.
A year later, conservation of the wood began at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations with the treatment of the inlaid table from Tumulus MM. Robert Payton, the first conservator for the Project, worked out the initial treatment procedure which was later refined by subsequent Project conservators to treat the remaining pieces of furniture and most of the wooden objects from the Gordion tumuli. Payton found that the wood was still fragile and very light in weight. The paraffin wax and Alvar applied at the time of excavation had little strengthening effect as these materials had not been absorbed into the cellular structure of the wood. Payton recognized that it was essential to find a low viscosity resin or consolidant to achieve complete penetration of the wood so that the fragments could be handled and displayed safely.
After conducting a series of tests, Payton chose polyvinyl butyral (Butvar B-98) as the most effective consolidant. The wood fragments were soaked in a solution of Butvar B-98 dissolved in solvents for a 24 hour period. Vacuum pressure was applied to ensure the deepest possible penetration. After an immersion time of 24 hours, the fragments were removed from the solution, wrapped in layers of polyethylene sheeting and left to dry slowly over the period of a year. By the end of the process, the strength of the wood fragments was increased significantly and the different woods used for construction of the furniture or for decorative inlays (e.g. boxwood, juniper and yew) had regained their natural colour.
Much of the furniture was in fragments so reassembly was often required after consolidation of the wood. Butvar B-98 dissolved in ethanol proved to be the most satisfactory choice for an adhesive. Sometimes adhesive joining was not sufficient e.g. when fragments were severely distorted or when pieces required extra support due to their size and weight. Butvar paste, consisting of Butvar B-98 in ethanol with the addition of glass microspheres, proved to be an ideal material for bridging or filling gaps in the fragments as it had moderate strength, was compatible with the other materials used in treatment and was also easy to remove. Tinting with dry pigments provided fills which were close in colour to the surrounding wood surfaces.
A number of pieces of furniture including the inlaid table and two ornate serving stands from Tumulus MM as well as an elaborate stool from Tumulus P [Fig. 3] were eventually reconstructed on Plexiglas mounts. Most of these are on display at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.
To ensure the survival of the furniture for the future, it was important to provide safe, long-term storage. Powder-coated steel storage cabinets were fabricated to Project specifications in the USA and shipped to Ankara. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations is an historic building consisting of a restored fifteenth-century han or inn, so the design of the units had to conform to the features of the building. In order to fit through the narrow doorway of the depot where the furniture was stored, each cabinet was custom-built in three sections that could be easily taken down and reassembled inside. Individual storage mounts carved from Ethafoam and lined with Goretex were fabricated by the conservation team to house all of the pieces of furniture and the wooden objects. Each foam unit was designed so that it could be removed independently from its storage drawer to allow for study and analysis with minimal handling of the fragments [Fig. 4].
Research and scientific analysis has provided a wealth of information about the ancient furniture and associated materials. A comprehensive wood species analysis conducted by Professor Robert Blanchette, Department of Wood Pathology, University of Minnesota has now identified most of the woods used in the construction of the furniture and wooden objects. Dr. Blanchette is also supervising a wood pathology analysis, which will clarify the types of degradation present in the wood and the causes of decay. The textiles associated with the furniture from Tumulus MM were analyzed by Mary Ballard, textile conservator at the Museum Conservation Institute, Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Patrick McGovern and his colleagues at MIT carried out analyses of food residues found in a number of bronze vessels from Tumulus MM. The results permitted them to determine the menu of the funerary feast that took place prior to the burial of the royal personage (King Midas or his father) in Tumulus MM, the most impressive tomb at Gordion.
The furniture from Gordion was conserved over a period of 30 years using innovative methods developed by an international team of conservators; these methods are now considered standard for the treatment of dry archaeological wood. The collection is now considered to be the largest and most important group of well preserved ancient wooden artifacts excavated from the Near East.
Ballard, M., H. Alden, R. Cunningham, W. Hopwood, J. Koles, L. Dussubieux. “Preliminary Analyses of Textiles Associated with the Furniture from Tumulus MM. In Simpson, The Furniture from Tumulus MM (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010), 203–223.
Blanchette, R., and E. Simpson. “Soft Rot and Wood Pseudomorphs in an Ancient Coffin (700 B.C.) from Tumulus MM at Gordion, Turkey.” Bulletin of the International Association of Wood Anatomists 13, no. 2 (1992): 201–213.
Blanchette, R., K. Cease, A. Abad, R. Koestler, E. Simpson, and G. K. Sams. “An Evaluation of Different Forms of Deterioration Found in Archaeological Wood.” International Biodeterioration 28 (1991): 3–22.
McGovern, P. “Chemical Identification of the Beverage and Food Remains in Tumulus MM.” In Simpson, The Furniture from Tumulus MM (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010), 177–187.
Payton, R. “The Conservation of an Eighth Century BC Table from Gordion.” In Adhesives and Consolidants, 133–137. London: International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1984.
Simpson, E. The Furniture from Tumulus MM. The Gordion Wooden Objects, Volume 1 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010).
Simpson, E., and R. Payton. “Royal Wooden Furniture from Gordion.” Archaeology 39, no. 6 (1986): 40–47.
Simpson, E., and K. Spirydowicz. Gordion Wooden Furniture (Gordion Ahşap Eserler): The Study, Conservation, and Reconstruction of the Furniture and Wooden Objects from Gordion, 1981–1998. Ankara: Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, 1999.
Spirydowicz, K. “Conservation of the Wooden Furniture from Tumulus MM.” In Simpson, The Furniture from Tumulus MM (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010), 137–158.
Spirydowicz, K. “The Conservation of Ancient Phrygian Furniture from Gordion, Turkey.” In Archaeological Conservation and its Consequences. Edited by A. Roy and P. Smith, 166–171. London: International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1996.
Spirydowicz, K., E. Simpson, R. Blanchette, A. Schniewind, M. Toutloff, and A. Murray. “Alvar and Butvar: The Use of Polyvinyl Acetal Resin for the Treatment of the Wooden Artifacts from Gordion, Turkey.” Journal of the American Institute of Conservation 40 (2001): 43–57.
Young, R. S. Three Great Early Tumuli. The Gordion Excavations Final Reports, Volume 1. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1981.
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