5 Incredible Restorations of Damaged Historical Treasures

iStock.com/Francesco Cantone
iStock.com/Francesco Cantone / iStock.com/Francesco Cantone

It's a painful time for lovers of history, as ISIS cuts a swath of destruction through the Middle East's ancient heritage and war and looters devour what's left. When all seems lost beyond repair, there may be some consolation to be found in the miracles accomplished by restorers and conservators. Here are five restorations that prove that sometimes Humpty Dumpty, even shattered into smithereens, can still be put back together.


In May 2010, the Brooklyn Historical Society discovered that it was the owner of one of the rarest maps of New York in existence: the 1770 version of Plan of the City of New York by British Army officer and surveyor Lieutenant Bernard Ratzer [PDF]. Only three of the maps were thought to survive before this one was found in a shipment from the BHS archives. Mounted on linen and shellacked within an inch of its life, the map was in such deplorable condition that shards of it cracked off and crumbled when map cataloger Carolyn Hansen tried to unroll it.

Paper conservationist Jonathan P. Derow softened the brittle shards by putting the map inside a tent and running a humidifier. Once it was supple enough to work with, he cut away the linen backing, washed the map in a four-day alkaline bath, and meticulously realigned the pieces so they would shrink together in the proper placement once dried. Lastly, Derow bought a bunch of early 19th century books printed on cloth paper (not wood pulp) and sacrificed them to a noble cause. He baked the books in his oven and then boiled them, creating a cloth paper sludge that matched the map color when painted into the white lines.

The final result was so successful it's hard to believe it's the same map.


The Great South Gate of Seoul, a.k.a. the Gate of Exalted Ceremonies, is a wooden pagoda-style gate built into the city's fortress wall in 1398—just four years after the city became the capital of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910)—and rebuilt in 1447. To repair damage done during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-ceasefire 1953), the gate was extensively restored in 1961. It was only reopened to the public in 2006, a century after it was closed and the ancient fortress wall encircling the city demolished.

Two years later, a 69-year-old with a grudge over a property deal gone wrong climbed a ladder to the second floor of the gate, poured paint thinner on the floor, and set it on fire with a disposable lighter. It took firefighters five hours to get the conflagration under control. By then the pagoda—the oldest wooden structure in the city—was a smoldering pile of wreckage.

Thankfully, someone smart had thought to obsessively document the gate during the 2005 renovation, so restorers had 182 pages of blueprints as a starting point. They also had the carbonized rubble, which turned out to contain a surprising amount of salvageable materials. Bent nails were heated up and straightened. More than 60,000 original wood fragments were found to be reusable. The 68 stone animals that adorned the roof were puzzled back together like jigsaw puzzles.

Since they had no choice but to go back to the beginning on this restoration, conservators decided to go all the way back and to restore the gate to its original form, complete with the walls destroyed during the Japanese occupation. Only traditional construction methods were employed this time, unlike the 1961 restoration, which had used modern materials. Every roof tile was hand-made in traditional kilns, and the dancheong—the brilliantly colored traditional decorative painting—was done using natural paints. Not a single power tool was used. Carpenters and masons had to scrounge up their grandpas' tools or make new versions of traditional ones.

Five years after the fire, the Great South Gate was back.


Speaking of jigsaw puzzles: Cambodia's Baphuon Temple takes the absolute cake on that score. Built around 1060 by King Udayadityavarman II, it was the largest temple in the country until Angkor Wat overtook it a century later. It had structural issues almost from day one, and later redesigns only made it worse. It was plagued by collapses and was in ruins by the early 20th century. The Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient (EFEO), a French conservation organization, took on restoration of the temple in 1960. Their bold plan was to dismantle every one of the temple's 300,000 sandstone blocks, shore up the flagging sandy structure, and then solve a 300,000-piece 3D puzzle.

Since the temple was a dry stone construction, every block was individually shaped to fit its neighbor—and as the head architect said, “there is not a square centimeter of stone without decoration.” If this plan was to work, the blocks had to be labeled and thoroughly documented. The spread-out stones covered 10 hectares (about 25 acres) of the land surrounding the temple. The dismantling process took years, and when civil war broke out in 1970, work on the temple was impeded. The Khmer Rouge expelled the French EFEO restorers and killed most of the Cambodian ones. When Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, the headquarters of EFEO was trashed—and the precious documentation of the 300,000 stones and how they fit together was destroyed too.

The EFEO returned to the country in 1995 and got right back on the horse. They photographed and measured every stone, comparing them to photographic archives dating back to 1910. They enlisted the architect who had worked on the project in the 1960s and 30 local builders who had participated in Angkor-area restorations before the Khmer Rouge made doing so a capital offense. The sharp memories of the experienced members saved the day. Computer modeling was attempted, but it paled in comparison to, among others, conservationist Mith Priem's ability to recognize patterns on the stones.

In 2011, Baphuon Temple reopened to the public, structurally sound for the first time despite the 10,000 blocks left unused, like so many tiny IKEA screws you gave up trying to find a place for.


With no appreciation for irony, the Thames flood of January 7, 1928, submerged John Martin's 1822 apocalyptic vision of Vesuvius' eruption. The painting was one of several damaged when the flood waters rushed into the basement of the Tate Gallery in London. Soaked in Thames water and the assorted effluvia of five million people that it carried, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum suffered major paint loss all over and a large chunk torn out of the canvas. All of Vesuvius was gone.

The Tate curators of the time rolled it up in tissue and put it in storage, certain that the painting was gone for good. But Tate curators 82 years later weren't so sure. A planned exhibition on John Martin's apocalyptic vision inspired them to fish the rolled-up painting out of storage and take another look. Things weren't as bad as they feared. It was filthy and flaking, but the flakes were still connected to the canvas, giving conservators the opportunity to reattach the danglers.

The giant gash was another issue. Without the focal point of the erupting volcano, the painting lost much of its story. The Tate experts decided to bite the bullet and fill in the gap. Using Martin's preparatory sketch and the finished smaller version of the work, restorer Sarah Maisey went to work. She didn't want to mimic Martin exactly or try to trick people with her sleight of brush. She wanted to capture his essence but still make it clear on closer inspection that two hands worked on this painting.

The result is as joyously lurid as a John Martin picture should be, and it's reversible so future generations can put the gash back in when they're appalled by our old-timey barbarism.


When German diplomat Max von Oppenheim first unearthed the 3000-year-old Aramaean city-state of Guzana at Tell Halaf in the northern Syrian desert in 1899, he didn't have the necessary permits to recover the statuary he'd found. He returned 12 years later fully permitted and lushly funded by Papa Oppenheim—but this time, World War I blocked him from taking his share of the statues and stele back home to Germany. Finally, in 1927, he was able to ship two-thirds of them to Berlin and installed them in a dedicated private museum called (with appropriately Germanic literalness) the Tell Halaf Museum.

It only had 16 years to live. On November 23, 1943, the museum was hit by a British phosphorus bomb and burned to the ground. All of the wood and limestone artifacts and plaster casts were obliterated. The statues and stele made of volcanic basalt survived the fire, but exploded into thousands of pieces from thermal shock when firefighters tried to douse the flames with cold water.

Oppenheim refused to give up, however. He convinced Walter Andrae, the director of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at Berlin's Pergamon Museum, to salvage the 27,000 pieces. It took time, and the fragments were damaged further by exposure to frost and heat, but in August 1944, nine truckloads full of destroyed basalt monuments were put in storage in the Pergamon basement.

They remained there untouched until after German reunification, when the museum surveyed the rubble to see if some of the larger fragments could feasibly be reassembled. With funding from the Oppenheim bank and the German Research Foundation, the Pergamon Museum conservators began trying to piece together as many statues as possible out of 27,000 basalt fragments, with some chips the size of a fingernail, and some blocks weighing more than a ton. Once again, computer modeling was rejected in favor of human puzzle power. It only took them 10 years to assemble 25,000 of the pieces into 60 statues and stele. One of Max von Oppenheim's favorite statues, an enthroned goddess discovered during the 1912 excavation, was reconstructed from 1800 pieces alone.