08-31 Beirut shattered glass reconstructed

[Image above] One of the eight restored glass vessels at the British Museum. More than 70 glass vessels displayed in the Archaeological Museum at the American University of Beirut were destroyed in the Beirut port explosion in August 2020. Credit: Archive Transcript, YouTube

It is hard to believe that more than two years have passed since a massive stockpile of ammonium nitrate exploded at the port of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon.

That blast on Aug. 4, 2020, killed more than 200 people, injured 7,000, and displaced 300,000, as well as caused $15 billion of economic damage.

Included in the damages were 74 ancient glass vessels displayed in the Archaeological Museum at the American University of Beirut (AUB), which was just over 3 kilometers from the blast’s epicenter. Shards of these ancient glasses mixed with those from the glass case and surrounding windows, seemingly inextricable.

But just as the city at large works to recover from the blast, the restoration of these glass vessels by a collaborative international partnership serves as a microcosm for the larger restoration efforts.

The “Shattered glass of Beirut” exhibit at the British Museum in London, which opened on August 25, is the result of a three-month collaboration between the AUB Museum and the British Museum. It features eight restored glass vessels from the AUB Museum, ranging from the first to ninth century.

The British Museum’s blog explains the various stages involved in vessel restoration, including

  1. Sorting the pieces. The AUB museum team documented the broken fragments in situ using an archaeological grid system, which preserved connections between shards and their location on the gallery floor. They started to link fragments and stabilize the deteriorated glass surfaces using a conservation material called Paraloid B72.
  2. Shipping the pieces to London. From the shards, the team identified eight vessels that could be reconstructed and shipped these fragments to London.
  3. Beginning restoration. Vessels were sorted into three tiers depending on the number of shattered fragments and difficulty of reconstruction. The edges and surfaces of each fragment were cleaned with a 50/50 alcohol and deionized water solution before the fragments could be dry reconstructed, first with Scotch tape and then with a conservation adhesive.
  4. Finalizing restoration. The final stage of conservation involved creating resin fills, or new pieces that support the missing areas on each vessel. The team used Paraloid B72 both as an adhesive and for the fill material. The fills were very lightly tinted using acrylic and watercolor paints so they were visible rather than hidden. As explained on the exhibit’s website, “These visible scars and missing fragments bear witness to the explosion and the determination of the people of Lebanon to recover.”

Hear museum staff and specialists reflect on the rescue and restoration of the vessels in the video below, plus watch the reconstruction of one glass bowl.

Credit: Archive Transcript, YouTube
Credit: Archive Transcript, YouTube

To date, 26 glass vessels have been conserved in total: the eight at the British Museum and 18 more at the AUB Museum. The museum partners plan to finish conserving the other vessels soon.

The “Shattered glass in Beirut” exhibit runs through October 23. At that time, the vessels will return home to Beirut.