Terracotta figurine—when archaeological becomes decorative

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[caption id="attachment_480" width="200" caption="Before treatment"]

Terracotta is a type of soft red clay commonly used for its plasticity and ability to take detailed decoration motifs. Examples of its use throughout history are abundant and a lot have survived until the present day. However small and incredibly well preserved (considering its possible old age), an object like this can tell us about the habits and beliefs of a civilization of other times.

Excavated in Great Henny, near Colchester (Suffolk), a well-known Roman settlement in the UK, we could easily attribute its making to that empire. However, in-depth research must be done prior to those affirmations. If Roman or even brought to England at that time, these figurines were commonly made as votive objects in homes or temples. It is a draped sitting female figure with head decoration and her arms close to the body suggesting a pudicitia, representation of modesty during the Roman Empire.

The object was made as a small hollow moulded figurine by a technique where the clay would have been pressed to a double-sided mould and then joined together. This making process can be proved by the visible joint line where the two-part mould would have met—the maker’s fingerprints were preserved on this line and also on the inside. A white slip was then applied and possibly colour decoration too (minute pink and black evidence of this was found).Upon acceptance the figurine showed extensive dirt accumulation due previous burials and a noticeable previous repair. I tested the aged and brittle adhesive for solubility and found out that it softened in acetone. Dirt was brushed away and, when too compacted, a moist swab was used for easier removal. Due to the decoration’s fragile state I tried to keep moisture application to a minimum. For the dismantling process the figurine was padded with acid-free paper and placed in a sealed container with a solvent reservoir with acetone. The solvent fumes softened the adhesive enough so that the sections could be securely dismantled. This process was monitored regularly to assess any alteration on the slip layer. When in separated sections, I softened the adhesive residues with acetone and mechanically removed them as shown on the pictures.

[caption id="attachment_488" width="593" caption="Process of removing old adhesive residues"]

After the sections were bonded with Paraloid B-72 in acetone (35%) a support fill was added to the base area. The same adhesive used for bonding was bulked with glass microspheres to make a removable fill. The area was sealed with aluminium foil and a dental wax mould was put in place as a support. The microspheres paste was then applied and let to dry. By doing a fill in this way I could then safely shape and sand it far away from the original. After completely dried, the fill was skimmed with fine calcium carbonate putty and attached to the figurine with the same adhesive.

More than just preserving material aspects, I also tried to improve its appearance. If the figurine belonged to a museum the aim would have been to only to stabilize it mechanically and chemically, usually for research and display purposes. However, when an archaeological piece belongs to a private collector like this one, conservators need to "think outside the box”. In a museum, glass air-controlled showcases will prevent dust accumulation and unnecessary handling; on the other hand, on the shelf near the family photos, it becomes a decorative object in a mixed environment. Therefore, I put in smaller fills of the small chips and losses that were big enough to catch dirt or a passing sleeve aiming for a book on the top shelf. After soft polishing with soft abrasive papers, the fills were retouched with acrylic paints to match the fills’ surrounding clay colour.

[caption id="attachment_496" width="300" caption="Before and anfter retouching fills"]

After completion of the treatment the figurine can safely go home with only a few recommendations on how to be taken care of (i.e. dust clean) for its maximal safety over a long period of time.