JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 49 to 58)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 49 to 58)




The small church of the Panagia KanakariŠ is located in the village of Lythrankomi, part way along the Karpas peninsula of northeastern Cyprus that points toward the mainland of Turkey. Although small and seemingly insignificant, this church contained some of the most important examples of Byzantine art from the sixth century (Michaelides 1989). Sometime after the 1974 invasion of Cyprus by Turkey, but before 1976, significant portions of the mosaics were stripped from the walls of the church and removed from the island. Their whereabouts were unknown until four fragments surfaced in the hands of an Indianapolis art dealer in 1989. Legal proceedings were undertaken jointly by the Cypriot government and the Autocephalous Church of Cyprus to have them returned. In 1990, DanaŽ Thimme and the author were called in by the prosecution as expert witnesses to examine the fragments with a view to testifying in a suit for damages.

The four fragments depict the heads of the North Archangel and the upper half of the figure of Christ from the apse and the heads of the Apostles James and Matthew from the arch in front of the apse. Dating to the mid-sixth century and surviving unscathed the Iconoclastic period of the eighth century, these mosaics are considered among the finest examples of Byzantine art. Demonstrating a high level of workmanship and preserving unique iconographic features, these fragments can be compared with counterparts in Ravenna, Thessaloniki, and Sinai (Megaw and Hawkins 1977:61–145).

Our task was to establish the overall condition of the fragments and see if it was possible to determine a chronological sequence of damage. We found that the damage could be divided into five discrete phases. However, only the three that are relevant to the topic of this paper will be discussed here:

  1. The inexpert facing and hurried removal of the mosaics from the church. Each fragment was part of a larger composition that was roughly cut up; the figure of Christ suffered the most since it was cut in two and the halves disposed of separately.
  2. The removal of the facings. There was every indication that the facings were ripped off the fragments without the use of a solvent. As a result, many tesserae were loosened, and the surfaces of others, already riddled with minute cracks, were sheared off.
  3. Restoration. Cracks were realigned and filled, and the surface of each fragment was brought into a level plane by raising or lowering the tesserae with no consideration given to the fact that the fragments had come from a curved surface. The flattening, achieved by removing existing plaster or by adding fill material, altered the placement of tesserae, effecting subtle changes in expression in the composition as a whole, most noticeable in the faces of the figures. By altering the original setting of the tesserae, the subtle movement of the figures carefully effected by the mosaicist through the reflection of light off the surfaces of the tesserae was also destroyed. From a technical point of view, this treatment obliterated what remained of the red sinopia, or underdrawing.

In addition, irreversible materials were used throughout, and no documentation was made. Each fragment was encased in a thick layer of plaster of Paris with no separating layer between it and the original plaster. The original plaster was not consolidated prior to encasement in the rigid surround and remains friable and unstable. Each fragment, mounted precariously with screws to flat squares of Masonite, was meant to be hung on the wall. A more detailed discussion and illustrations of the condition of the mosaic fragments can be found in Sease and Thimme (1995) and some of the legal aspects of the case can be found in Gerstenblith (1995).

The court decided in favor of the plaintiff, and the decision was upheld by the U. S. Court of Appeals. A decision was then made not to pursue the damages portion of the suit, and in the summer of 1992 the fragments made the long trip back to Cyprus. Although the fragments are back home, they are greatly diminished and, because of flattening and fragility, can never go back to their original positions in the church, assuming that the political situation there might one day make their reinstallation possible.

These antiquities are by no means the first or the last to suffer such a fate. Since the 1960s, the antiquities market has been escalating at an alarming rate to become a billion-dollar-a-year business involving archaeological artifacts and works of art from all over the world. As the market grows it creates an ever-increasing demand for antiquities, which, in turn, leads inexorably to the looting of archaeological sites. This insatiable demand has been responsible for the partial, sometimes complete, destruction of untold numbers of sites. This fact is all the more unfortunate because many of these sites disappeared without their presence ever having been known to the scholarly community, a situation not unlike the extinction of many plant and animal species. A recent estimate is that “80 percent of all antiquities that come on to the market have been illegally excavated and smuggled” (Norman 1990).

The consequences of looting are extremely serious, not only from a scientific point of view but also from a humanitarian perspective. Our archaeological heritage is finite, and once it is lost, it is gone forever. In essence, the looting of sites wipes out our record of past peoples and their ways of life. Meyer equates the looting of archaeological sites with the burning of the famous ancient library in Alexandria by the Romans, “the catastrophic bonfire in which much of the wisdom of antiquity was consumed in flames” (Meyer 1973, 12).

Since involvement with the mosaics case, the author has given much thought to the role of archaeological conservation in the antiquities trade. The purpose of this paper is to share some of these thoughts and open the topic for discussion. First, it is necessary to discuss the concept of archaeological context for an understanding of how essential it is to comprehending the significance of the devastation caused by looting.

Copyright © 1997 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works