How Many People Does It Take to Move an Assyrian Relief?

Story posted December 10, 2006

The renovation of the Walker Art Building has included relocating the four 9th-century B.C. Assyrian bas-reliefs from the rotunda to a new gallery that will offer a view inside from the street. Anyone who has seen the enormous stone slabs would be quick to ask, "How'd they do that?!" The following story, reprinted from the Bowdoin College Museum of Art Newsletter, Autumn 2006, explains.

We have no information on how many were involved in the 6,000-mile, mid-19th-century move of the giant stone slabs from the palace of Assurnasirpal II in present day Iraq to Bowdoin College. But in the 21st century it requires eight, for starters: one project manager, one preservation mason, two additional masons, four riggers, and a foreman. To this team add two fine art object conservators, three Bowdoin College Museum of Art staff (registrar, preparator and director/gawker), a classical archaeologist, a photographer, and an Assyriologist.

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Photo © 2006 Diana and Dennis Griggs.

This was the ensemble that over two weeks in late August performed, assisted, or stayed out of the way of the delicate dance involved in dismounting the four large, ninth-century B.C. gypsum panels from the walls of the Rotunda where they had resided for nearly 60 years, conveying them approximately 60 feet, and attaching them to the walls of their new location in the renovated Walker Art Building.

Although the reliefs appear to the eyes of visitors as monolithic slabs, each is in fact composed of from two to five fragments, breaks that occurred when they were first cut from the palace walls. The two largest reliefs were also saw-cut horizontally for ease of travel down the Tigris River and over the sea to Brunswick. After much study over several months it was determined that the reliefs could not be moved safely as whole units, so a process was designed by which each section would be removed separately.

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Assyrian, Kalakh. Winged Figure with Embroidered Tunic and Shawl, ca. 885-860 B.C. Gypsum, 90 9/16 x 58 3/4 x 6 7/16. Gift of Dr. Henri Haskell M 1855. 1860.2

The irregular fill of brick and concrete which had held the reliefs to the wall since the 1930s was carefully chipped away along the top and sides, revealing eccentric, highly informal, and randomly placed attachments (ten-penny nails, wire, twine, and even a bent chisel!).

Scaffolding was erected and a tower gantry set up, requiring cuts high in the wall to receive the aluminum I-beams on which the hoisting equipment was set. Stainless steel lifting eyes (as few as possible) were inserted along the top or sides of the pieces to which straps could be attached. Two riggers then hoisted the object on chains 1/8 of an inch at a time until the slab gently swung free and could be lowered onto specially constructed foam-padded A-frame carts and skids.

Once the panels were removed, the backs of the slabs could be carefully inspected and the long-standing question as to whether they had been carved with figures or inscriptions on the reverse was finally answered in the negative. However, the saw-cut edges of the two largest fragments had been painted with travel instructions. One clearly read "AMERICA"; the other, much fainter, "Prof. Cleaveland Brunswick, Maine." (Parker Cleaveland was a renowned professor of natural philosophy at Bowdoin at the time.)

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An overview of the Rotunda. Photo © 2006 Diana and Dennis Griggs.

A track of plywood, masonite, and 1/4-inch aluminum plates was laid down to the new location over which the two-ton skids could be safely rolled through the original building. To be blind-mounted the fragments were drilled and pinned from the back and raised by gantry once again, slowly and dramatically, and fastened to carefully located points on structural steel supports in the new walls.

When the last slab was in place, the assembled crew gave a huge sigh of...relief, and delight at how they came to life once bathed in natural light.

So, how difficult is it to move an Assyrian relief? "If you'd asked me at the beginning of the week, I'd have said a ten," says Gerri Strickler, object conservator, Williamstown Art Conservation Center. "By the middle of the week, though, it had gone down to something less scary, like a seven."

Renovation of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is on track to be completed in the spring of 2007.

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