Eight glass vessels dating back to the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods are on display at the British Museum. They were housed in Lebanon before the 2020 Beirut explosion shattered them to bits and they had to be painstakingly put back together.

Eight ancient glass vessels shattered by the massive Beirut Port explosion in 2020 have been pieced back together by conservators at the British Museum. 

The vessels, from the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods, were reconstructed at the world-famous museum's conservation laboratories, and will be shown as part of its "Shattered Glass of Beirut" showcase, before returning to Lebanon later this year.

The exhibition at the British Museum will run from August 25 to October 23, 2022. The visiting hours are Saturday to Thursday 10 am to 5 pm and Friday 10 am to 8:30 pm.

The case of glass vessels displayed at the Archaeological Museum (AUB) before the explosion.
The case of glass vessels displayed at the Archaeological Museum (AUB) before the explosion. (AUB Office of Communications and Archaeological Museum)

‘Resilience and collaboration’

"(It) tells a story of near destruction and recovery, of resilience and collaboration," said Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum.

The vessels were among 74 contained within a case at the American University in Beirut (AUB). 

The case fell over when the shockwave of the port blast, which occurred three kilometres (two miles) away on August 4, 2020, hit the building, smashing the glass objects inside.

A team of experts had the daunting task of sorting every shard of glass, deciding if it was part of an ancient vessel, rather than display case, and which vessel it belonged to, Duygu Camurcuoglu, a senior conservator at the British Museum, told AFP.

Archaeological Museum Curator Nadine Panayot (right) assessing the fallen display case.
Archaeological Museum Curator Nadine Panayot (right) assessing the fallen display case. (AUB Office of Communications and Archaeological Museum)

"It's all pretty much done by hand or by eye –– brainwork basically. You have to know certain techniques to be able to carry out this work," she added.

Once the pieces had been sorted, the conservators began the mammoth jigsaw-puzzle exercise of reassembling the vessels.

"It's a case of using an adhesive to reconstruct the vessels," said Camurcuoglu. But they could not just use anything.

"We don't use superglue, we don't use UHU," she joked. 

Once the pieces had been sorted, the conservators began the mammoth jigsaw-puzzle exercise of reassembling the vessels.
Once the pieces had been sorted, the conservators began the mammoth jigsaw-puzzle exercise of reassembling the vessels. (The American University of Beirut, Lebanon / The Trustees of the British Museum)

'Scars'

The most challenging vessels were the "large dish and the Byzantine pitcher," Camurcuoglu recalled.

Eighteen of the vessels have so far been conserved as part of an emergency recovery campaign in Beirut, along with the eight vessels at the British Museum and two that emerged unscathed from the fall. 

Experts hope that at least half of the remaining 46 objects in Beirut can be conserved soon too.

The collaborative project between the British Museum and the AUB's Archaeological Museum began in 2021, following an offer of help from the London institution.

Conservators agreed early on to make the vessels structurally sound but leave imperfections caused by the shattering visible, bearing witness to the explosion. 

The notion is not unlike the Japanese repair art of ‘kintsugi’ (also known as ‘kintsukuroi’) that uses gold to join together broken pieces of a vessel, celebrating the history of the object and its imperfections.

The exhibition will take visitors on the journey undergone by the glass vessels, from the moment of the blast to their display in the famous London museum.

Lighting will be used in the display to illuminate cracks and gaps in the glass.

"We really wanted to highlight the damage these objects went through, so we can all look at the scars, and remember how they were revived together," said Camurcuoglu.

The vessels are considered important in telling the story of the development of revolutionary glass-blowing techniques in Lebanon in the 1st century BC, enabling the mass production of glass objects and making them available for common use.

Their restoration, and the teamwork involved, are a source of pride to the conservators, said Camurcuoglu.

"We all individually felt that, I think, we contributed to something by working on these objects -- by sharing this pain, these emotions.

"So it's not only about the conservation... but also the working together and achieving something together," she added.

Camurcuoglu mused: “Eight glass objects, hundreds of fragments, three women… Conservation of these unique vessels proved that when we support one another, there will always be hope.”

The Museum team, conservator and student volunteers retrieve fragments of broken glass vessels from amongst the shattered glass from the display case and nearby windows, at the Archaeological Museum, AUB.
The Museum team, conservator and student volunteers retrieve fragments of broken glass vessels from amongst the shattered glass from the display case and nearby windows, at the Archaeological Museum, AUB. (AUB Office of Communications and Archaeological Museum)

THUMBNAIL IMAGE: Four of the eight glass vessels that were reconstructed after the Beirut port explosion shattered them to pieces. (The Trustees of the British Museum/ The American University of Beirut, Lebanon)

HEADLINE IMAGE: The newly conserved ancient glass vessels damaged during the 2020 Beirut port explosion, and displayed at the British Museum in London, on August 24, 2022 ahead of an exhibition which will walk visitors through the laborious conservation project. (Susannah Ireland/AFP)

Source: TRTWorld and agencies