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Behind the scenes at the British Museum, preparing for a Roman holiday

“I’m not saying she looked forlorn, that would be unfair, but she hadn’t been restored or conserved for a long time and she is a wonderful piece. Sculpturally, she is absolutely stunning. The height of Augustan art,” Moorhead says. “Her form is not only realistic, it has a presence in the sense that you feel like you are actually with a person rather than it being a sculpture. There is that feeling of a human being close.”

The priestess was made circa 20-50 CE, in Atripalda, in Italy, and is likely styled upon Livia Augusta, the widowed empress of Augustus, personifying how the imperial house’s propaganda machine functioned, spreading its image around the world. She wears a veil, a tunic and has a wreath of laurel. Her hands have been lost, but she probably carried sacrificial implements. The British Museum purchased her from the major ancient art collector and dealer Alessandro Castellani in 1873.

Need a hand? British Museum curators Sam Moorhead and Peter Higgs surrounded by pieces of the Temple of Artemis.

Photo: John Davis

“From where you see her now as a piece of very beautiful marble, she was absolutely very, very dirty. There was very heavily ingrained dirt so she actually looked like she was black marble,” senior conservator Michelle Hercules says. “Underneath all of that dirt which I removed – it took quite a long time – the process revealed an absolutely exquisite object that actually is carved from one block of stone and that is incredibly rare for Roman sculpture.”

Hercules had the Herculean task of assessing whether the objects selected by Moorhead were fit for travel and, if so, the level of conservation and restoration they required. For the priestess, it was holy water and a lot of elbow grease. Atmospheric dirt had deeply settled into her marble over the years and, coupled with the museum‘s use of oil lamps in the 19th century, had turned her near black.