How do you clean a 2,000-year-old sarcophagus and get it ready for a road trip to Cleveland?
Very, very carefully.
Walters Art Museum conservators have spent the past three years restoring a 500-pound, child-size coffin, elaborately carved with winged goddesses, Medusa heads, the masks of comedy and tragedy, and the offerings of fruit and flowers left as tributes to the dead.
The conservators have used an instrument resembling a space-age-style ray gun to detect lingering traces of red paint that has lasted for nearly two millennia — an accomplishment that seemingly eludes the manufacturers of modern-day wall-colorings.
The restoration experts have cautiously dissolved the 19th-century glue that held together the 15 separate pieces that make up the lid of the so-called Garland Sarcophagus, and crossed their fingers that when they did, the marble lid wouldn't crumble into a pile of dust.
Once the sarcophagus is ready to hit the road, so to speak, it will be hoisted into the air on pulleys and then lowered into two custom-designed crates: one for the rectangular bottom part of the coffin and the second for the peaked lid.
"I approach each piece as if it were made of nitroglycerin," says Michael McKee, the Walters' senior collections technician, who is in charge of ensuring that the marble treasure remains intact during its 373-mile, pothole-strewn journey. "Slow and methodical is the key. I pretend that at any moment it could explode, so I have to move it as gently as possible."
Once the conservators finish up this summer, the sarcophagus will hitch a temperature-regulated and humidity-controlled ride to the Cleveland Museum of Art as part of an exhibit opening Oct. 17. The show, called "Treasures of Heaven: Relics, Saints and Devotion in Medieval Europe," then sets up in Baltimore and will be displayed in the Walters from Feb. 13 to May 15, 2011.
"Sometimes when we're working, the piece will look worse before it looks better," says Julie Lauffenburger, the Walters' senior objects conservator. "That's really frightening."
Against all odds, the sarcophagus has remained more or less intact since the peak of the Roman empire, when the original marble slap was hauled all the way to Italy from a quarry in Phrygia, a region of present-day Turkey.
It would be a pity if something were to happen to it now.
"There are so many things that can go wrong," Lauffenburger says. "It's a big responsibility."
Though much about the sarcophagus remains hidden and mysterious, the bits that the Walters staff have pieced together are intriguing. For instance, the coffin most likely was carved for a child from a wealthy family.
According to written materials prepared for the exhibition by the museum's curators, there are hints that the beautiful casket was something of a rush job. There are incomplete areas on all four faces, suggesting that the work was interrupted midway through — perhaps indicating that the sarcophagus was needed more quickly than the child's family had anticipated.
The material notes "that it is often impossible to know the reason" a casket was left unfinished. But in ancient Rome, the burial ceremony didn't necessarily mean saying goodbye. It was traditional for the deceased to continue to be part of the family.
"Roman tombs often housed the remains of several generations," the text reads. "They could be visited by family members, who would hold ceremonial meals and perform other rituals in the tombs at certain times of the year."
The show's curators were interested in the Garland Sarcophagus because it represents a link between the pagan cult of the dead and such Christian traditions as saints, whose powers are thought to extend beyond the grave.
"Both are based on the idea that the dead person is not really dead," Martina Bagnoli, who heads the Walters' department of medieval art, writes in an e-mail. "In particular, we wanted to explore the pagan concept of communing with the dead, and how that became important for the Christian cult of the saints."
The lid of the Garland Sarcophagus resembles a gabled roof. Similar architectural shapes later appear in reliquaries — the bejeweled containers for such sacred Christian objects as the bones of holy martyrs.
In addition, the sarcophagus is notable for its design of fruits and flowers, which represents the gifts to the dead that visitors frequently left at the tomb.
But by the time the marble casket became part of museum founder Henry Walters' collection in 1902, it was a mess.
The sarcophagus was one of seven that were unearthed in 1885, when piles were being driven for a new apartment building in Rome. The lid of the Garland Sarcophagus was in several pieces, indicating that it had been pilfered by grave robbers searching for treasure.
In the 108 years that the sarcophagus has belonged to the Walters, it had never been cleaned. When the restoration is completed, all four faces will be on view for the first time.