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Conserving a statue of Hadrian

Statue of Hadrian in Greek dress

The well-known statue of Hadrian dressed as a Greek has long been thought to demonstrate the emperor’s love of Greek culture. Preparation for the exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict gave Museum conservators the opportunity to investigate their suspicions that the head did not belong on the body.

It was decided to remove plaster between the neck and the drapery across the statue’s shoulders, which had clearly been added since the sculpture was restored. The heavy head was slung into a cradle to secure it while a conservator worked with small chisels and a hammer to gradually remove the plaster fill.

As areas of the original neckline and drapery were revealed it became obvious that the head did not, and could not align correctly with the receiving socket in the body. There was no dowel joining the head to the body, only a bed of plaster. With the head removed, the receiving socket and the tenon (the projection at the base of the neck that inserts into the socket) of Hadrian’s head were revealed for the first time in 150 years.

What is particularly unusual is that the head has a wedge-shaped cut in its tenon, and the receiving socket is set in an off-centre square section. In other words, they don’t match. This confirmed the theory that the head did not belong to the body, but that the two were put together probably in the nineteenth century.

It was decided to mount the head back on the body in order to explain the history of this sculpture. The join was made so that it could be removed again in the future. Without the plaster fill it is clear that the body and head do not belong together.