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Restoration of the prehistoric pottery


Recently Renske Dooijes, restorer for ceramics and glass with the Netherlands National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, professionally restored a number of prehistoric pots from Tell Sabi Abyad. The unique pottery, which is more than 8500 years old, now belongs to the showpieces of the National Museum of Archaeology in Damascus. Read on for Renske Dooijes' report on the various aspects of a restoration of this kind.


"During the 2002 excavation campaign several important discoveries were made on the northwestern side of Tell Sabi Abyad. Prehistoric pottery was excavated, even including a complete jar found in situ. Research showed that this material had to be dated to around 6500 BC. And so this pottery appeared to be the oldest ever found in Syria. This made it very worthwhile to restore the pots, with the intention of being able to exhibit this important discovery to a wide audience.


This is why, being the restorer for glass and ceramics with the Leiden National Museum of Antiquities, I joined the excavation team for a few weeks during the 2003 campaign. My aim was to conserve and possibly restore a number of interesting pieces of pottery, so that they might eventually be exhibited in the Damascus Museum of Archaeology. It was my job to turn all this material into a presentable whole within a period of three weeks.


In 2002 all sherds had been sorted, washed and numbered. Whenever possible, sherds that belonged together were bagged together in the field, immediately after excavation. The sherds that belonged together were now taken out of their various bags, spread out and sorted again for fitting sherds. As it turned out, a number of pots yielded enough sherds for them to be reconstructed.



First all sherds had to be washed again, and the break edges had to be cleaned mechanically, with a scalpel. Thus the last traces of soil, sand and dried lime could be removed. When this type of residue remains behind, the sherds cannot be glued together because of their bad fitting.



After the break edges of the sherds had been pretreated with an adhesive solution to improve bonding, they could be glued together (with Paraloid B72 in aceton, in a 30 % solution). During the process of gluing, the sherds were held together by means of rubber bands and clamps.


Owing to the very high day temperatures during the excavation (rising as high as 48 degrees C) there was the extra risk of the glued parts  to become detached so that the glued pot would cave in. This has got to do  with what restorers call the critical temperature of the adhesive: the temperature at which the adhesive goes soft. Each type of adhesive has its own properties in this. It is something to keep in mind in a hot climate.


Other materials, such as wax and plasticine, which are needed to make supports when filling in the missing parts, may also melt in the heat. Everything goes faster when it is hot: paint dries out, solvents evaporate more quickly, filling materials solidify faster. These factors pose an extra challenge to the restorer working on the site.


The base of this bucket-shaped jar with two lugs along the upper rim was almost completely missing. Therefore a fitting support was made by means of wax sheets that were positioned under the missing part. Subsequently the base could be modelled onto the support by means of a filling material that was coloured with pigments to match the appearance of the sherd.

For a number of other pots quite a few sherds were missing as well and the missing parts had to be filled in. The break edges and the missing sherds were remodelled with a filler on the basis of lime, pigments and a binding agent. When the filled-in parts had hardened, they were retouched with plaster rasps and knives and with abrasive paper. With pigments the  addition was next made to agree with the original appearance of the pots.


One large pot, although very fragile, had come out of the soil intact. This pot was placed on a tray for support and easier handling. Hairline cracks in the wall and the base made this pot extremely vulnerable, however. It could hardly be transported, let alone be exhibited. It was therefore necessary to take the pot carefully apart, clean it and then glue it together again.


The restored pots can now be admired in the archaeological museum in Damascus. A separate showcase has been devoted to the site of Tell Sabi Abyad and its remarkable prehistoric pottery. Come and see it for yourself!"