Friday, November 22, 2013

Central Park's 3,700 Year-Old Obelisk "Cleopatra's Needle" To Get Make Over

A mechanical arm delivers conservators to the top of the 3,700 year-old,  71-foot high Egyptian Obelisk in Central Park last weekend as park patrons take advantage of the balmy weather.  The iconic 224-ton monument - known as Cleopatra's Needle - will be getting a face lift soon.  This Spring scaffolding will be erected to enable the obelisk to be thoroughly cleaned and to allow conservation treatment of the worn and polluted antiquity. (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge


By Geoffrey Croft

The 3,700 year-old Egyptian Obelisk in Central Park  - known as Cleopatra's Needle - will soon be getting a make over.  

For the past month conservators have been surveying the iconic 71-foot high,  224-ton obelisk located on the Eastside of Central Park near the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A conservator brushes a test consolidant on the surface of the red Aswan granite last weekend. Treatments are being tested in order help bind the stone in an effort to prevent further deterioration. For the past month workers have been documenting existing conditions and assessing potential treatment solutions.  Pieces of blue tape (above) mark off the test area being treated near hieroglyphic text, which in some places has completely worn away over the millennia due to several factors. Thousands of years of neglect have contributed to the obelisk's current state.

The monument's deteriorating condition was thrust sharply into the limelight in 2011 when the head of Egypt's antiquities accused the City and the Central Park Conservancy of not properly caring for it and threatened to have it returned to Egypt if conservation issues were not addressed.   Many conservation treatments have been attempted to stabilize the obelisk's deterioration since its installation in the park in 1881, some of which turned out to be less than ideal. 

Workers have been documenting existing conditions and assessing potential treatment solutions.  

Conservators have climbed aboard a boom lift and ascended high above the ground, painstakingly pouring over the massive structure.  

They have tested various methods for cleaning the surface.  

Curious onlookers have stopped to take cell phone photos of the modern mechanical arm juxtaposed against the ancient structure, slowly rising and circling around its four sides.  

Over the weekend workers were seen brushing a consolidant - one of several tested during the survey - onto the worn  surface of the obelisk's red Aswan granite.  Consolidants are treatments used by conservators intended to strengthen weakened stone and slow the rate of surface loss by binding loosened grains.  Ultrasound is then used to test the effectiveness of the various treatments. 

Workers masked off test areas with pieces of blue tape before applying the liquid, and later covered it up. 

The test area was covered after it was treated.

This past summer the area was also closed off and workers were seen surveying the ground near the monument.

A 3D map of the structure has akso been created.

Park patrons will soon see a much more dramatic transformation. This Spring -  if all goes according to plan -  scaffolding will be erected which will enable the obelisk to be thoroughly cleaned and to allow conservation treatment of the worn and polluted antiquity. 

November 24, 2013. Covering up more test area.

Sources say the conservators are leaning towards using laser technology to clean and strip the thousands of years of grime and atmospheric pollution.  The laser vaporizes the dirt without harming the stone and leaves no falling debris. 

The work is part of a conservation proposal project the Central Park Conservancy has been developing for nearly two years in an effort to clean and help preserve the Obelisk. 

"The current and summertime surveys will help inform the development of a final proposal; the work is expected to begin next year, pending City approval," a spokeswoman for the Conservancy, the park's non-profit caretaker said  in a statement. 

"Besides cleaning and stabilizing this historic monument, the project will document the obelisk’s current condition to aid in future study. Until the conservation plan is finalized, we won’t have any additional information on its scope,"  the spokesperson said.

The group declined to reveal the cost of the project, stating it was their policy to announce it once it has been fully developed and finalized -  not piecemeal -  which they say typically occurs when the public review process begins, which we expect to happen in early 2014.

The beautiful monolithic monument commemorating King Thutmose III, was a gift from the Egyptian government.  It was originally erected about 1443 B.C. in Heliopolis, now part of modern Cairo.

Its preservation however has not been ideal over the millennia.  The obelisk sustained extensive damage in 525 BCE when it was toppled and burned by raiding Persians, and it later sat partially submerged in saltwater on the Nile for roughly 500 years before Romans rescued it and re-erected it in Alexandria in 12 BC.

File:ACSIE010 - The Obelisk now in Central Park, New York, as it Stood in Alexandria, Egypt.jpg

The obelisk, aka. Cleopatra's Needle,  as it stood in Alexandria, Egypt. This illustration appeared in A Confederate Soldier in Egypt by William W. Loring, published in 1884.  

After another nearly 2, 000 years,  it was given to the United States and erected again, this time in Central Park. 

Moisture from our North American climate and pollution have taken their toll since the obelisk's arrival here in 1880. 

Misguided conservation efforts have also further contributed to its deterioration over the years. 

Since its arrival in the park many convervation treatments have been attempted to try and stabilze the obelisk, some of which were less than ideal.  

By 1885 an astonishing 780 pounds of the obelisk's surface including surviving hieroglyphs were estimated to have already been infamously scraped off.

Other incidents were also not helpful including a supposed waterproofing treatment.  

Cleopatra's Needle, 1885 wrapped in scaffolding receiving the Robert M. Caffall wax process "waterproofing" treatment less than five years after the obelisk was erected in Central Park.  The Caffall process was also used in other locations in the park at the turn of the century.  Many conservation treatments have been attempted to stabilize the obelisk since its installation in 1880, some of which turned out less than ideal.  (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

In 1885  less than five years after the monument was erected in the park - Robert M. Caffall applied his wax process "waterproofing" method.   The obelisk  would be  "permanently preserved from destruction by the weather,"  his son Edward M. Caffall was still claiming twenty-five years after the treatment.  (The Caffall process was also used in other locations in the park at the turn of the century.) 

Apparently researchers at  Metropolitan Museum of Art do not agree.

"Caffall's treatment did nothing to alleviate the underlying cause of deteration, which is the periodic dissolution and recrystallization of soluble salts, "  according to a report from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

"In fact the, his use of hydrophobic materials such as paraffin probably promoted recrystallization and subsequent spalling at the interface of stone and consolidant,"  the article entitled,  The Practice of Objects Conservation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870-1942)  concluded.

The monument's current state received a considerable amount of media attention in 2011 when the then secretary general for Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities,  Zahi Hawass,  fired off a letter to Mayor Bloomberg and to Central Park Conservancy head Doug Blonsky accusing them of not properly caring for it.  Mr. Hawass threatened to have the obelisk returned to Egypt if conservation issues were not addressed. 

"I am glad that this monument has become such an integral part of New York City, but I am dismayed at the lack of care and attention that it has been given,"  Mr. Zahi Hawass wrote on his blog.

"Recent photographs that I have received show the severe damage that has been done to the obelisk, particularly to the hieroglyphic text, which in places has been completely worn away. I have a duty to protect all Egyptian monuments whether they are inside or outside of Egypt. If the Central Park Conservancy and the City of New York cannot properly care for this obelisk, I will take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home and save it from ruin,"  Hawass wrote.

Detail.  Thousands of years of neglect have damaged the surface of the Obelisk including its hieroglyphs. The soot and pollution which has blackened the stone will be cleaned in an upcoming project.

"I hope that this letter will spur the city of New York into action. This obelisk is a one of a kind monument that cannot be replicated or replaced. I sincerely hope that both the Mayor of New York City and the Central Park Conservancy can work together to save this artifact and preserve it for many more generations to come."

Several attempts to reach Mr. Hawass were unsuccessful.

Conservation Solutions, a leading heritage preservation firm out of Washington D.C. has been hired by the Central Park Conservancy to provide conservation services, including performing an assessment of the current condition and come up with a treatment plan. 

According to the firm's website, the company was engaged to perform a baseline assessment in preparation for the work that is planned to start in 2014. 

"Careful and thorough maps were created with an overlay grid of square meter panels. After determining a glossary of conditions,  each panel is being closely inspected and the findings annotated on paper and digitally. Sites are being stabilized if they present potential for imminent loss.  Once complete,  the assessment will provide the basis for the planned work."

The female-owned company has worked on a number of projects in the Park, including Sherman Monument (Augustus Saint-Gaudens) at Grand Army Plaza, at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South - the sculptural masterpiece that was recently unveiled after an extensive restoration.

Mark Rabinowitz,  executive-vice president for Conservation Solutions served as deputy chief of operations for Preservation at the Central Park Conservancy before moving on to the Parks Department as chief consulting conservator.

An exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrating the Central Park Conservancy's upcoming   conservation of the obelisk opens on December 3rd.   The exhibit will explore the meaning of obelisks in ancient Egyptian divine and funerary cults and will consider how these massive monuments were created and erected, as well as highlight the importance of this ancient architectural form in western culture, and how a long-standing fascination with obelisks  ultimately led to the erection of the one in Central Park, the Museum said in a statement. 

The museum has two of the original Roman bronze crabs once found at the base of the obelisk in its permanent collection. The ones displayed now were replaced with cast substitutes in 1881 when the obelisk was moved to Central Park and placed behind The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"As the Central Park Conservancy begins to develop a plan to conserve the monument, the Metropolitan Museum will present an exhibition about the construction and evolving symbolism of obelisks from antiquity to the present day," the Museum said in a statement.

A highlight of the installation will be a dramatic time-lapse video of the obelisk in Central Park taken during the course of a day.


Cleopatra's Needle - the oldest man-made object in Central Park was built (1443 B.C) in honor of an Egyptian Pharaoh.
Its twin resides in Westminster in London.

Egypt agreed to gift the obelisk of Thutmose III,  to the United States in 1869.  It was erected in Central Park in 1881.

The New York Parks Department,  under commissioner Henry G. Stebbins,  began a fundraising project to secure the financing for the obelisk’s transportation from Alexandria.  Railroad tycoon William H. Vanderbilt stepped in and offered to sponsor the entire project,  putting up $100, 000.

And yes even movie legend Cecil B. DeMille had a role.   The plaques that translate the hieroglyphics at the base were donated by the academy award filmmaker, who fondly remembered playing in the area as a boy.  DeMille also directed parts of the Ten Commandments (1956), in Egypt. He also helmed Cleopatra. 

The 220-ton,  68-foot-tall monolith was removed from its pedestal and loaded onto the cargo steamer Dessoug on June 12,  1880. Just over 5 weeks later,  it arrived in New York,  and the obelisk was loaded onto a wagon,  which was hauled by a team of 32 horses from the Hudson River to its new home on Greywacke Knoll,  just across the driveway from the newly-constructed Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It took 112 days from the time the Obelisk arrived on the banks of the Hudson River until it reached the Park.

It took nineteen days  alone just to cross the 86th Street transverse road, and it took another twenty days to move it from Fifth Avenue to its resting place on Greywacke Knoll due to a winter blizzard according to the Parks Department.

Masonic stamp celebrating the 100th Anniversary in the park.  The Free Masons were an integral part of the obelisk's successful installation in Central Park.  Thousands turned out on January 22,  1881 to marvel as the obelisk was turned upright in Central Park.   The obelisk commemorates King Thutmose III and was a gift from the Egyptian government.

Thousands turned out in the snow on January 22,  1881 to marvel as the 220 ton obelisk was turned upright. 

Cleopatra's Needle is the second oldest antiquity displayed in our park system.  The Column of Jerash, in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park has the distinction of being the oldest. The 30 foot-high marble column was originally erected in 120 AD by Romans in the ancient Jordanian city of Jerash.  It was a gift of King Hussein of Jordan as part of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

The Obelisk, looking east, 1890, in the Greywacke Knoll area of the park just across the driveway from the newly constructed Metropolitan Museum of Art in the background. The obelisk's only street view would later be completely eliminated from 5th Avenue as the result of the museum's south wing expansion.  

November 16, 2013.  The obelisk being surveyed last weekend.  The landscape area is particularly beautiful in spring when the monument is surrounded by flowering magnolias and crabapple trees.
(Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge

Read More:

A Walk In The Park -  January 7, 2011 

Cassier's Magazine - October 1910 - By Edward M. Caffall 

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