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Restoration of the Loess Sculpture

Loess sculpture. Khwarezm. 2nd–4th centuries AD. 103 × 35 cm. Before and after restoration.

This unique piece of loess sculpture from Khwarezm (or Chorasmia, a historic region along the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus) River in Central Asia) is a life-size bas-relief of a female figure of which only the middle part has survived. In the existing fragment, the right arm hangs down by side of the body with the palm of the hand turned outwards. The folds of the clothing covering the figure are in keeping with the Hellenistic style of drapery.

This artefact was found in the 1940s, in the course of work by the Khwarezm Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition in the Upper Palace of Toprak-Kala (the former capital of Khwarezm). The main work was carried out between 1945 and 1950, when the Upper Palace was completely uncovered. The rooms in the palace complex were decorated with sculpture made from unbaked clay that was originally painted. It depicted animals, heralds, warriors, satyrs, rulers, their female consorts, and deities.

Sadly, the majority of the sculptural decoration of Toprak-Kala has come down to us in an extremely fragmented condition, which makes the female figure that was the focus of this project even more valuable. It is kept in the Hermitage and forms part of what is unarguably the best collection of art works from Toprak-Kala.

Before restoration

Before restoration, the artefact was in a critical condition. The stucco was very crumbly and degraded. The outer layer was separating off in a crust formed of loess and PVA. The separation into layers (stratification) across the whole surface was growing worse with every passing year due to the presence of salts within the material. There were splits the full depth of the piece running in all directions. The entire surface of the sculpture was covered with deep cracks, dents and other damage. The paint layer and primer were missing. The entire surface was badly soiled with dust and soot.

After restoration

The restoration process included the following measures: removal of the old gesso mounting; removal of excess loess from the back of the piece; in-depth strengthening of the stucco; elimination of the stratification; strengthening and cleaning of the remnants of the paint layer; mounting on a new lightweight backing. A large gesso inset was also removed and two insets were made to add to the arm and torso. Particular attention was devoted to unifying the colour and texture of the entire sculpture.

  • Before restoration
  • During restoration
  • During restoration
  • During restoration
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Thanks to the restoration in 2015, the relief acquired strength and durability, allowing it to be put on display.

The restoration was carried out in the Hermitage’s Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Monumental Paintings, headed by Adelia Bliakher. The work was performed by the restoration artists of the 2nd category Olga Viktorova and Raisa Kazimirova. The keeper of the exhibit is Pavel Lurye, head of the Central Asia and Caucasus Sector of the State Hermitage’s Department of the East.

The project was carried out with the support of individual members of the Hermitage Friends’ Club.