Conservation in Action: Etruscan Sarcophagi, February 2012

Treatment of two sarcophagi, Etruscan Late Classical or Early Hellenistic:
Febuary 2012

Conservators are working to remove decades of accumulated soot and grime from the larger sarcophagus. After extensive testing, the use of PVOH sponges, lightly dampened with a solution of deionized water saturated with precipitated calcium carbonate, is chosen as the primary cleaning method. The following details show the lid before (left) and after (right) cleaning.


Further examination under ultraviolet light reveals many campaigns of restoration along the side of the larger sarcophagus. Below, the breaks mended with animal hide glue fluoresce white-blue (area A), while sections painted with shellac fluoresce yellow-orange (area B). A gelatin coating, coupled with the natural fluorescence of the stone, appear blue-white (area C).


One of the goals of this project is to gain a better understanding of Etruscan painting techniques. During the condition examination, conservators observed faint traces of a red-painted design (below) along the top of the larger sarcophagus' base.

The paint remnants are very difficult to decipher under normal lighting conditions. However the design becomes much more legible through the use of channel mixers in Adobe Photoshop. In essence, channel mixing allows the conversion of color photographs to black and white images by controlling the level of input from numerous channels. In this case, a blue filter is applied to enhance the visibility of the red paint. Below, a series of horizontal and vertical lines with adjoining triangles becomes apparent.

By correlating data gained from the computer-enhanced images with information yielded from visual examination, conservators are able to reconstruct the pattern that was painted along the top of the base and identify it as a three-dimensional perspective meander (below).


Conservators and collections care staff remove the lid of the larger sarcophagus in order to gain access to the interior. A custom-fit steel brace was constructed to support the lid so that it could be safely raised with a five-ton-capacity gantry. The lid is estimated to weigh 3,500 pounds.

Below, curators and conservators examine the underside of the lid for the first time.

With the lid removed, work may begin to repair the deep cracks which penetrate the stone walls of the base.

See next update.