Have you ever hit a wall in your research?
Co-curators Anastasia Amrhein, Clare Fitzgerald, and Elizabeth Knott hit a proverbial and literal wall when working on an exhibition on Babylon's Ishtar Gate two years ago. The colorful walls of Babylon's Ishtar Gate with raised relief animals were composed of multiple clay bricks that were molded, baked, glazed, and baked again. Brick making is still practiced in many regions of the world today, and we know that the simplest method of production is to use a rectangular wooden mold. However, these wooden molds do not work for bricks with raised relief like those found on the Ishtar Gate.
Since no original brick molds have been found by archaeologists in Babylon, the curators turned to Conservator Jean-François de Lapérouse of the @metobjectsconservation. J-F was familiar with these bricks, as examples of animals from Babylon's Ishtar Gate are on display at the @metmuseum and one was included in ISAW's exhibition. Using an experimental archaeology approach, J-F created his own brick mold following the production steps proposed by the German excavators that consists of the typical 4-sided wooden mold described above with a removable side featuring a mold attached with bitumen. When in use, the sides may have been held together with rope. He discovered during this process that clay shrinkage during drying was greater than expected and more experimentation needs to be done to determine the exact amount of plant and mineral tempering that was added to the clay.
Experimental archaeology and scientific research often provide us new insights into objects from the ancient world. In this case, J-F's approach shed light on an otherwise lost technological innovation: the modification of existing brick-making practices to create bricks with raised reliefs. Further scientific research could perhaps help determine whether the same mold was used again and again, or whether different workshops used similar but slightly different molds. Thank you J-F for this exciting research!
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Images: J-F de Lapérouse / Metropolitan Museum of Art; Creative Commons image of VA Bab 01976