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Studying a medieval ivory reliquary

Ivory reliquary

Objects are frequently more complicated than they first appear. This piece of walrus ivory seems to have first been carved as the leg of a chair or throne in about AD 1150, but was later converted into a reliquary.  

A compartment at the top of the leg was hollowed out and a hinged lid made of gilt bronze fitted (probably in the mid-fourteenth century by the style of the metalwork).

During conservation work undertaken at the British Museum, radiography was used to look for potential weaknesses in the structure. More was revealed than expected, including a number of concealed joins and repairs. X-radiographs of the object from the top and the side show many cracks, with a complete break under the stone setting.

Looking in more detail at this area it is possible to make out two dowels fitting into drilled holes used to hold the two parts together. Detailed examination also revealed other repairs. 

Knowledge of this internal structure, particularly the large number of cracks and the repairs has been useful in ensuring that a suitably supportive display mount can be constructed. At the same time the old fills have been toned in with acrylic colours so that the surface appears less disrupted.

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