Conservation at 33 1/3 RPM: The treatment of an Attic trefoil oinochoe

Anthony Sigel


Ancient vessels that have a third of their original fabric missing present complex ethical and technical challenges to conservators; such was the case with a fifth century BCE oinochoe in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums. The decorative painting features a woman playing a barbitos, a type of lyre associated with leisure and revelry. This vessel’s modern history begins sometime before 1903, when Henry Hucks Gibbs, Lord Aldenham of England, acquired it and lent it that year to an exhibition at London’s Burlington Fine Arts Club. The vase scholar John Beazley described it in 1939 as having “a mouth and neck hardly original, which had disappeared when I saw it, in bits, some years ago; was sold at Sotheby’s the year before last; and has since been cleaned and restored.” It is likely that he was describing the condition in which the vessel entered the Harvard Art Museum’s collection.

Before the treatment described in this article, the vase was unstable with loose joins and had substantial, broadly overpainted losses in the body. Close examination revealed that the neck, shoulders, and handle were all poorly shaped plaster fabrications from an earlier restoration. Removal of the overpaint also revealed considerable damage inflicted by previous restorers to the original slip painted decoration, who filed down the surfaces and edges of many sherds during their reconstruction in an effort to make them fit together.

In different kinds of institutions and collections, an object with such substantial losses could legitimately be treated in several different ways, ranging from simple removal of the flawed earlier restorations to full restoration. Curatorial research and documentation of a similar vase by the same potter in the collection of the British museum helped establish convincing evidence of the vessel’s original form. Armed with scale drawings and photographs, the oinochoe was reconstructed to a high state of completion and finish. A combination of conventional and novel techniques were used to re-create the complex neck, trefoil spout, and handle, based upon a close study of their original material and techniques of formation. These techniques will be discussed here and also demonstrated in linked video clips. They include methods for the assembly and alignment of poorly fitting sherds; shaping and forming of replacement elements using a 1970s record turntable—complete with pitfalls to be avoided; the mold-making and casting of elements with complex inner and outer shapes in simplified, one piece molds; and inpainting strategies and techniques. The rationale and methods of loss compensation for damage caused by earlier restorers will also be discussed.

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