Conservation of a Han Dynasty Mythical Beast

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By Sally Place

One of my favourite assignments this year has been the opportunity to conserve a Han Dynasty mythological creature. This fine low-fired grey earthenware object is very likely to have been buried in a tomb along with other grave goods for a wealthy Han citizen over 2,000 years ago. The worship of Heaven and ancestors became well established in the Han Dynasty, c 206 BC to 220 AD, and the custom of building large tombs and burying the dead along with large quantities of grave goods was practised by all who could afford it.

It was so important to their culture that Han Dynasty emperors started building their tombs a year after ascending the throne, diverting one third of all taxes collected towards the construction. It is thanks to this practice that many earthenware objects have survived from this period of China's history. Safely buried deep under tons of soil, objects were kept safe until their discovery many hundreds of years later.

The object is a sturdy, composite horse-like figure, with three flattened roundels aligned on its spinal cord and a tail, which is rather jauntily curving upwards to form a loop. The head is slightly bent downwards, its equine traits carefully incised and partly in relief. Its two ears are pricked up and horse-like. It has hooves incised into the ends of its four limbs.

Although the front of the animal appears to be horse-like, the back is more akin to that of a tiger, with its long curved tail and powerful back legs, which are very much like that of a prowling big cat. The object seems to be on the move as its limbs are in a pose that indicates walking rather than standing still. Significant areas of white slip remain on the object and traces of polychrome pigments can still be seen, noticeably red colouring on its face-mouth, nose and ears.

From overhead showing some of the tail and ear shards

From the back. Note the cat-like pose of its hind legs

Its condition In relatively good condition, the object's curly tail was broken in two places-at the base and about halfway along. The tail had been restored previously and discoloured adhesive was still evident. One ear was broken, although the shard making up much of the top half of the ear was still mainly intact. There was a significant amount of small loose shardage from the break area. The white slip, which would have originally covered the whole object, was partially worn away, but was still present on much of the object. Similarly, the polychrome pigment was still visible, most noticeably in the ear, nose and mouth.

Note the white slip. Red pigment is still evident in the ear, nose and mouth

Close-up of the area of loss at base of tail

The ear and tail shards close up

Close-up of the area of loss on the ear

The conservation plan The owner of this wonderful object wanted us to lightly surface clean, bond, fill and retouch any areas which required structural stability. Because of the object's age, minimal intervention is advised and its conservation will aim to make the object structurally sound as well as reattaching the detached elements to achieve a unified appearance.

The plan in action The object was covered with ingrained dirt, and because of its nature and archaeological interest, mechanical cleaning with a soft brush was the most appropriate method. Cleaning with solvents is best avoided in an object such as this as solvents can be quickly absorbed into the porous earthenware body. During cleaning, great care was taken to leave the traces of white slip and red pigments undisturbed. The edges of the break lines were gently brushed with a soft brush to remove particulate matter. Some of the old adhesive residues on the tail base were stable and attached strongly to the surface. As it was considered that they provided a good key for bonding the tail to the object's body, some of the previous adhesive residues would not be removed, but would be diminished as much as possible. Any loose adhesive residue was removed.

I spent a lot of time considering how to attach the loose shards for both the tail and the ear. Because of their delicate nature, the handling of these shards had to be kept to the absolute minimum. Nitrile gloves were used whenever possible, with the exception of when I was trying to work out the bonding plans. I needed the maximum amount of manual dexterity.

There were numerous ear shards

I compiled two detailed bonding plans with photographs, showing which shard belonged to which areas and also the order in which they should be assembled as I wanted to avoid a lock out. This is a situation where pieces have not been assembled in the right order with the unfortunate result that one or more shards will not fit in. It is a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle, but the stakes are much higher. I wanted to incorporate as many of the loose shards as possible, but it was not always obvious where they went, and every time they were handled there was the danger that they could crumble even further. A photographic bonding plan:

Working on the object

Bonding of the tail and ears

For both of these areas, I used Paraloid B72®, a type of acrylic adhesive. It is an adhesive often used to bond earthenware objects. It was a tricky operation and I used various aids to keep the pieces in place while the adhesive set. For the tail, modelling wax covered in cling film (to avoid the wax contaminating the fragile ceramic surface) did the trick. The ears benefited from being bound with Equigrip®, a stretchy, flexible bandage more often used on horses, was used to keep the ear parts in place while the adhesive cured.

Modelling wax covered in cling film provides versatile support while the adhesive cures

A bit Heath Robinson, but it worked

The ear after bonding

The tail after bonding

Mind the gap

Because of the age of the object and its sensitive surfaces, fills needed to be kept to the absolute minimum and only carried out where areas needed extra structural stability. Where this was the case, microfilling was carried out using Paraloid B72 together with a few drops of Acetone and Industrial Methylated Spirit and bulked with glass bubbles (borosilicate glass). It needed the lightest of touches and great care was taken not to get the material on the surface of the object.

The base of the tail after microfilling

Once cured, the white microfilled areas had to be retouched to enhance the aesthetic appearance. This is a particularly fun thing to do and colour tests were first carried out on plaster samples to ensure the right colour and look is achieved. The more you look at the object's surface the more colours you can see. I used Golden acrylic paints, as well as dry powder pigments and powdered pumice stone to emulate the object's original surface.

The colour palette used to retouch the tail and ears—neutral grey, cobalt blue, titanium white, burnt umber, raw sienna, and burnt sienna

Close up of the tail after colour retouching

Close up of the ear after colour retouching

A Han Dynasty wee beastie with attitude The Han Dynasty Mythical Creature has his curly tail and ear back in place, and seems all the happier for it.