• Adrian J. Boas

On Extreme Fragility and a Homage to the Restorer

Spade and axehead from Montfort Castle

I recall three aged aunts, or more accurately cousins several times removed, sisters, spinsters, so ancient that they had shrivelled away to skeletal proportions. Tilly, Sophie and Isabel were their names, "the Alexander girls", my mother called them. They were not much taller than I was, though I was only about ten, and I believed that they must each have been approaching or perhaps already have passed their centenary year. In reality they were probably in their seventies, so, not very much older than I am today, but back then people seemed so much older at seventy, and they would in any case have been among the more ancient things I had come across, as old as the great magnolia tree in our front garden, perhaps even as old as the thick copper Victorian penny that I had found in the grass in our garden). I recall their silver hair, thin beaky noses, arched backs, painfully bent fingers, the skin on their faces and arms that was tissue-thin and with a million tiny folds like crepe paper (am I perhaps casting something of my mother's appearance in her 80s onto this earlier memory?) They wore pale, diaphanous floral dresses suitable for creatures that seemed almost ghostly, and they smelled vaguely, if not unpleasantly, of another world. They were indeed so fragile (although their conversation showed that they had preserved their youthful sprightliness of character) that it seemed that if someone were to sneeze too violently, they would crumble to dust.

When I was working on my master's thesis, a study of ceramics imported to the kingdom of Jerusalem, I had the opportunity of opening several boxes stored in the basement of the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. These were of objects collected during excavations of 'Atlit Castle in the 1930s. Some of the boxes were marked to indicate what they were meant to contain, and I recall opening a box labelled "axe" with expectations of indeed finding an iron axehead, only to discover a thick layer of crumbly brown powder. Objects that have been buried for several hundred years and have been exposed to water seepage, chemical reactions with the soil that surrounded them and the interaction with small burrowing animals, insects and plant roots, deteriorate, often at different rates and intensities (much as people suffer differently the passage of time). I have found two arrowheads separated one from the other by no more than an arm's length, one in almost pristine condition, the other swollen to twice its size and falling apart in its corrosion. Some materials begin to deteriorate as soon as the object is removed from the soil. I recall, on one occasion, spending considerable time carefully removing a small coin with the aid of dental tools and a very fine brush, only to have it crumble to dust and blow off my hand in a slight breeze, as if it had never existed, never had a purpose, had never been cast in a mint, pocketed, used for purchases, saved, valued.

In 2015, during the excavation of the stables at Montfort we exposed and carefully removed from the soil a small group of iron tools - an axehead, a spade and a sickle-shaped object. The axehead had entirely corroded and the oxidised metal had formed hundreds of fine paper-thin sheets. We barely managed to remove it, more-or-less intact, and to photograph it before it came apart. The other items fared considerably better, perhaps due to the quality of their material and the process they had undergone at manufacture. In any case, they were removed and the same day I took the spade back to the lab at Haifa. As carefully as I had packed it and had attempted to avoid any bumps or sudden stops on the hour-long drive, when I arrived at the university and opened the packing I found that it had slightly bent and had developed a crack across about a third of the way up from its base. Fortunately, the excellent restorer in our lab was able to repair much of the damage.

One can only admire the abilities of the artifact restorer. These people are like magicians... alchemists. They can take a piece of featureless material and turn it into an object of beauty and value, and they are capable of bringing an object back from the dead. A few years ago we recovered from the ruins of a dismantled hall in the castle a small number of pieces of stained-glass that had somehow survived a fall of about 16 metres and then about seven and a half centuries of burial. These we carefully wrapped and packed in small boxes. However, when I opened one of these boxes some weeks later, the fine, pale patina (corrosive layer) from both faces of the glass had come completely away, and on one side had lifted off with it the fine decorated grisaille pattern. Fortunately, once again our restorer, a former student of mine, came to the rescue, armed like a surgeon with an impressive set of tools and with great care and precision entirely repaired the damage.

Stained glass quarry on the right and the patina of both sides to its left (note the grissale pattern on the piece to the left)