“Behind the Scenes at the Museum!” was the immediate answer from my tenth-grade English teacher when I asked him years later for his favorite book. It was a choice he based largely on the novel’s opening sentence: “I exist!”
That sentence comes back to me as I enter a clean, white room in the Parsons Conservation Laboratory at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University.
A lidded bowl of dun-colored clay keeps to itself on a paper-lined table. It is decorated with faded geometric patterns that also include a long-legged bird and the meander of a swastika.
The lid is topped with four small clay horses standing side by side, a familiar symbol of the Greek Geometric Period from which it dates. The poet we know as Homer, sighted or not, might have recognized this object as a pyxis, a vessel designed to hold jewelry or other keepsakes. It once belonged to wealthy Athenians living in the time Homer composed his epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. Myths of the Trojan War were important for Greeks living in the eighth century B.C.E. The owners of this vessel would have counted their ancestors among the victors in the Greek siege of Troy and distinguished themselves as aristocrats with links to a Homeric past.
The few things that haphazardly share the table with the bowl — a plastic box filled with small tubes of acrylic paint, a roll of paper towels, a wooden mask staring at the ceiling awaiting attention — are its inelegant companions, an affront to its composure.
Jasper Gaunt, curator of Greek and Roman art, selected the pyxis for acquisition by the museum. Just as we presume Homer pieced together the stories of many to craft his epic poems, Gaunt calls upon his expert and multifarious knowledge of the history of art to piece together the story of an object.
Acquired recently when a 19th-century French collection was dispersed at a Paris auction, the piece sparked his interest as a rare find. Pottery in the Geometric period was not made in any great quantity, and to Gaunt’s knowledge only two or three other horse pyxides have come on the market in the last 30 years. Even rarer was the number of horses on the lid; four are shorthand for a four-horse chariot.
As The Iliad opens in medias res, nine years after the start of the war, so, too, is this pyxis in the middle of things. This quiet workroom is its penultimate stop in a journey that began almost 3,000 years ago. Its odyssey from eighth-century B.C.E. Greece to an afterlife at Emory’s Carlos Museum is a story of the collaboration of many.
According to Gaunt, the pyxis was made to be used by the living, but within a couple of generations was almost certainly consigned to a grave as an offering for a deceased family member. “It probably came to light in the 19th century in the context of some sort of construction, and was purchased — presumably in Athens — by a French tourist.”
Director of collections services and chief registrar Todd Lamkin arranged safe passage to the museum. Upon arrival at the Carlos, the pyxis was unearthed from yet another burial as Lamkin and his colleagues opened its protective crate and removed its wrappings. In their care, it was photographed and given an accession number. Hard-copy and electronic files were created, and its condition was assessed by conservators in the laboratory under the guidance of chief conservator Renée Stein.
Assessment made, the pyxis was rolled on a cart to the storage area off the lab while conservators mapped their restoration plan. An entire story could be written about this storage area, this way station where objects await their fate. It resembles not so much a museum laboratory as the waiting room of a secure, clean bus station. A United Nations of priceless objects peers out from within glass-fronted shelved lockers: African masks alongside ancient Roman glass and gold adornments, next to Greek sculpture and even an entire brightly painted Egyptian coffin.
After a short stay, the horse pyxis was rolled to the conservation lab, which has been its temporary home for almost a year. Kathryn Etre, Mellon assistant conservator, has spent over 250 hours mitigating the effects of nature, use and time, and even longer hours waiting between procedures. Etre worked to leach damaging salts from the clay, repeatedly bathing it. She cleaned and reversed old repairs and rejoined the fragments to enhance its structural stability.
The four horse figures atop the lid, so important to the historical value of the piece, were restored only to the point of stability. In conversation with the curator, the conservators made aesthetic decisions regarding the visual unity of the piece. The fragile horses, once stabilized, remain largely in the compromised condition that better conveys the story of their years.
Preparator Bruce Raper worked with the conservators and the curator to provide secure and appropriate mounts for display in the museum in conjunction with Joseph Gargasz, director of collections and exhibitions. Gargasz worked with curator, conservator, preparator and object to determine proper placement and presentation in keeping with the curator’s interpretation and goals for the gallery in which it will appear by September.
It is impossible not to conjure images of the afterlife when considering the journey of this ancient object, at rest now in this quiet room in the year 2014. Craftsmen formed it from Athenian clay and decorated it with a slip (a purified version of the clay from which the vase is made).
The family that owned it valued it enough to take it with them to the grave. A French tourist added it to his collection.
Now it comes to the Carlos, bringing with it as much as we will ever know of the language of the past. The horse pyxis, accession number 2012.6.1A/B, will soon take its place in the galleries of the museum, to offer its silent form to all who stop to listen.
In a world of impermanence where so much vanishes everyday, it is a wonder that this fragile vessel made of earth, air and water in another world has even reached us. It exists. We owe a debt of gratitude to the dedicated people working behind the scenes at the museum to unearth, collect, preserve and protect for us these messengers from another time.