Back in 2017-2018, we hosted a 2,000-year-old Romano-Egyptian obelisk from Italy. The obelisk is one of a pair that were made in the 1st century AD during the reign of Emperor Domitian to stand in front of a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis in Benevento (ancient Beneventum). (The other one is in a piazza in Benevento.)
By the time of Domitian, the worship of Egyptian gods had spread throughout the Roman Empire and temples to Isis were being built in Italy. Romans also commissioned obelisks with hieroglyphic Egyptian inscriptions, like this one, to reference Egypt’s great antiquity.
This one is on the small side, as obelisks go, but it was still the tallest object ever displayed at the Getty: its restored height is about 19 feet and it weighs about 2.5 tons. It was literally no small feat to transport and conserve.
From the collection of the Museo del Sannio in Benevento, the obelisk’s trip to Los Angeles was the first time it had ever left Italy, and it was a star object in Getty’s 2018 exhibition, Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World. Getty antiquities conservators had some work to do. They stabilized the fragmented monument and recreated its missing upper portion. In making decisions about how to treat the obelisk, conservators considered not only how it would look in the present but also that the obelisk may need to undergo additional treatments in the future. The goal was to make choices that created the greatest possible stability without permanent alteration. Because the obelisk was broken into fragments, conservators used a system of internal pinning (using preexisting holes from past interventions) and also used magnets to hold modern fills in place. The work is therefore reversible and re-treatable.
The new pinning system allowed the obelisk’s sections to be assembled without permanently fixing them together, and the creation of new lifting mechanisms made for easy handling of each section. This type of mechanical system of assembly meant that the obelisk could be disassembled into its multiple parts for transport, which came in handy when it flew back home in October of 2018. Because of the obelisk’s height, it wouldn’t have been possible to ship it in its vertical, fully assembled state. The sections had to be disassembled and shipped in a horizontal position for safety.
Back in Italy and restored to its original height, the obelisk no longer fit in the narrow, subterranean gallery it had previously occupied. It needed a new place to be displayed.
Working with Getty conservator Erik Risser, a crew of art handlers reassembled the obelisk and placed it in the center of a large gallery of the Museo del Sannio where visitors can now see it fully in the round.
Local photographer Eudechio Feleppa was on hand to document the process. Now, on the two-year anniversary of the obelisk’s return journey, Feleppa’s photos commemorate this unique and exciting project.
Moving the Obelisk
In October 2018, crates containing the obelisk fragments arrived at the Museo del Sannio in Benevento where they would be unpacked.
Placing the Obelisk on Its Base
The Museo del Sannio had a seismic isolator base made to protect the obelisk in the event of an earthquake. The base is similar to the ones we use at the Getty.
Once the base isolator was assembled, the obelisk’s granite base was positioned using a gantry.
The lower fragment of the obelisk, which is its tallest and heaviest section, was maneuvered into place with the gantry and lifting mechanisms. The stainless steel pin that protrudes below connects it to its base.
Once the bottom portion of the obelisk was in place, the team was ready to add the upper section of ancient stone. Removable resin fills had been created to help bridge the gaps between the ancient fragments and to give the appearance that the monument is still whole as it was in antiquity. One of these fills (pictured below) was placed on top of the obelisk’s lower section.
After carefully prepping the lifting mechanism for the upper section (below, left), the team began to slowly guide it into place using the gantry (below, right).
The upper fragment connects to the one below via a metal pin.
Topping it Off
Once all of the ancient material was assembled, the last step was to add the recreated upper portion of the obelisk. The new upper portion and pyramidion were made of a resin skin cast onto an aluminum honeycomb frame, which helps reduce the weight of the upper sections, lowering the center of gravity and the overall top-heaviness of the monument.
Because of the obelisk’s height, the team had to work on tiers of scaffolding for this final stage of assembly. After two days of painstaking work, the obelisk was ready. Now visitors can appreciate approximately how the obelisk would have looked when it was made in the 1st century AD.
The Obelisk Today
The obelisk now stands on view at the museum in Benevento. This photo was taken in July 2020 by our friend and colleague Luigi Prada, an Egyptologist who is currently working on a new study of the obelisk’s hieroglyphic inscription.