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At the Getty Villa: Spear today, gone tomorrow

June 27, 2009 | 12:00 pm

Vani It took torrential rainfalls to show 20th century archaeologists that a 2,000-year-old trove of gold might be buried at Vani, an ancient city in western Georgia. Serious explorations began in the late 1930s and subsequent excavations revealed a series of graves containing fabulous jewelry, elaborately ornamented garments and beautifully crafted statuary and functional wares.

But just two years ago, another discovery unearthed a cache of metal objects, including two bronze lamps undergoing conservation at the Getty Villa. With the help of Georgian conservator Nino Kalandadze, a three-pronged fixture adorned with sculptural gods of love known as “erotes” and a lamp depicting Zeus as an eagle with his lover will join “The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani,” opening July 16 at the Villa.

The exhibition of about 140 objects has toured the U.S. and Europe under the auspices of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, Monuments Protection and Sport of Georgia, the Georgian National Museum and the Vani Archaeological Museum. Two other recently discovered lamps were displayed in NYU’s version of the show, but “Lamp With Erotes” and “Lamp With Zeus and Ganymede” will debut at the Getty.

The conservation project is the first to bring ancient objects directly to the Villa’s lab from an excavation site, says Jerry Podany, the Getty Museum’s senior conservator of antiquities. It’s an enormous responsibility, he says, but also an opportunity to build a relationship with Georgian colleagues.


Kalandadze, head of collection management and conservation at the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi, has traveled to Los Angeles to work on the lamps, both made between 250 and 100 BC, with conservator Jeffrey Maish and other Getty staffers. They have studied X-rays of the bronze works to see how they were constructed and embarked upon a painstaking procedure to remove dirt and corrosion.

To repair “Lamp With Erotes,” little figures depicting a dancer, a torchbearer and  musicians must be  cleaned with a tiny sand blaster and scalpels, then reattached to the lamps’ arms and the lid of its oil chamber. While underground for centuries, the dancer and lute player became fused to metal spears placed in the same pit, probably for safekeeping during a period of turmoil.

Vani3Some observers have suggested that the odd chunks of corroded metal protruding from the figures resemble surfboards, Maish says. That might be appropriate in the Villa’s seaside location, but — surf’s up or not — the remains of the spears will be removed before the lamps go into the galleries.

— Suzanne Muchnic

Photos: Top, a lute player from one of two recently unearthed Georgian lamps is fused to a metal spear. Middle, Getty conservator Jeffrey Maish examines X-rays of a lamp. Bottom, in the Villa lab, Georgian conservator Nino Kalandadze works to separate another figurine from a spear. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times