A Powerful Lesson in Conserving Ancient Art

August 14, 2012

Jessica Arista and IICAH teacher-in-training Zina Ibrahim Kaki remove old fabric from behind an ancient ivory chair-back. Jessica Arista and IICAH teacher-in-training Zina Ibrahim Kaki remove old fabric from behind an ancient ivory chair-back. Jessica Arista loves art. That is why she felt right at home serving as a Samuel H. Kress Fellow in objects conservation at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD.

"I enjoy the combination of "detective work" that goes into learning about an object for any given conservation project - its history, how it was made, how it is deteriorating," explains Jessica. "One of the benefits of the Walters lab is collaborating with other conservators."

In this cooperative spirit Jessica and another conservator, Julie Unruh, traveled to Iraq in April 2012 to participate in the Nimrud Ivories Conservation Project, funded by the Bank of America Art Conservation Program. The project was organized by the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH) in Erbil, one of several programs administered by ECA’s Cultural Heritage Center.

"I had never been to Iraq so I was excited for the opportunity to collaborate with the Iraqi and American conservators and work on the Nimrud ivories," says Jessica. "When I chose to pursue conservation, I had hopes that I could be involved in projects like this."

The Nimrud ivories are carvings illustrating the beliefs and stories of the ancient Assyrians of Mesopotamia. Images of people, sphinxes, and floral motifs comprise these fragile pieces that decorated furniture and luxurious items of the royal palaces. The 2,500-year-old ivories are some of the most exquisite treasures of the ancient world and works of great importance to the Iraqis.

For Jessica, the ivories exemplify something much larger. "Iraq’s cultural heritage is world history and significant to all humankind. It is rich, varied, complex, interesting, and important to preserve."

Jessica and her American and Iraqi conservation partners worked side by side to tackle the many challenges presented when working with a fragile material like ivory. The team researched the technical and conservation history of the artifacts, drafted conservation plans, cleaned and stabilized the delicate ivories, and remounted them on display at the Slemani Museum.

"My favorite parts of the project were working with the unique ivories and, more importantly, collaborating with the Iraqi teachers-in-training," says Jessica. "I think ancient art and artifacts make people who see them feel wonder that anything can last for so long – and that's powerful."