A year on from the devastating explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital on August 4, a consignment of archeological artifacts damaged by the blast are travelling from the American University of Beirut (AUB) to the British Museum in London for restoration.
“We learned of the broken case of 72 glass vessels that were smashed on the floor, and that seemed like something that needed to be fixed,” James Fraser, Assistant Keeper (Curator) for Ancient Levant and Anatolia for the British Museum, told Al Arabiya English.
“They said there are maybe 15 vessels here that can be restored and there are enough of the shards left in good enough condition but, of those, only eight have shards that are robust enough to travel,” he explained. “We have some excellent conservators at the British Museum with excellent conservation lab facilities. We estimate it will take between three or four months with a conservator working full-time on the project.”
The showcase in question originally housed a collection of 74 pieces of ancient glassware, most of them dating back to the early Roman period, along with others from the Byzantine, Ommiad and Medieval eras. Only two artifacts survived. The rest were shattered into tiny fragments when the force of the blast – just over three kilometers away – struck AUB’s Archeological Museum and threw over the display.
The history of glassmaking is tied deeply to Lebanon through the Phoenicians, who invented the technique of blowing glass in the 1st century BC. This technological breakthrough revolutionized glass manufacturing throughout the ancient world. Artisans were able to create glassware much more quickly and cheaply, transforming it from a luxury commodity into something available to everyone.
For Nadine Panayot, Associate Professor of Practice at the Department of History and Archaeology, who also serves as Curator of AUB’s Archaeological Museum, this collaboration is a culmination of almost a full year of around the clock work, not just for AUB but other institutions that had also been hit.
“I only took my position on September 1, 2020,” said Panayot. “Before that, I was at another university handling another museum [but] I was volunteering, not just for AUB but for all the museums where their collections had suffered damage.
“This was with a rescue cell that I had put together with my ex-students, who had masters’ degrees in museum studies and cultural heritage management,” she continued. “While all the other volunteers were picking up stone and glass and iron, I told my ex-students: You have an added value; what you can handle is the collections, so let’s focus on that.”
Work on the shattered fragments of AUB’s collection has been a long and painstaking affair, sifting through the materials left behind in the blast’s aftermath and ‘puzzling’ the pieces back together in small teams, in compliance with COVID-19 recommendations. In addition to the remains of the 72 antiquity objects, thousands of shards of modern window glass and elements from the broken display case are mixed in, making the task particularly challenging.
“We take into consideration the glass color, the curvature of the shards, the thickness, and also the iridescence and the degradation,” explained Claire Cuyaubère, a specialist conservator sent by the French National Institute of Cultural Heritage. “As we assemble the pieces, we [become] more aware of the specific shapes of pieces that could be missing, and that helps us find them as we go.”
“Glass – particularly ancient glass – when it shatters, it does something called ‘springing’,” said Fraser. “There’s a curvature to them. They release just a little bit of that tension. They might widen by a millimeter or two [but] it throws the shape of the object out, and so glass is particularly fiddly to restore back to whole.”
Between Lebanon’s economic crisis and the pandemic, finding the proper materials – such as acid-free papers and reversible adhesives – or funding has been also been extremely difficult. Many institutions in Lebanon are still unable to access dollar bank accounts, which have been frozen, and state assistance is nowhere to be found.
Thanks to outside funding provided by The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF), pieces that otherwise would not have been restored will now be reconstructed. Many of these valuable objects have been irrecoverably destroyed, but even these remnants may still have much to contribute to the field of archeology.
“When you are an archeologist and you find a glass piece, you’re not going to break it to test what it is made of,” said Panayot. “But, when you have a complete piece – the history of which is known – and then it is broken, you have fragments to run an analysis, and this is exactly what we are doing.
“The purpose, for me, is really to have as much positive outcome out of this disaster as possible,” she added. “Every aspect of those broken pieces is going to be looked at and studied. In a museum, every object comes with a story.”
Once fully restored, the vessels will temporary be displayed at the British Museum, before traveling back to Beirut and returning to AUB’s Archeological Museum.