Saving the Sea of Milk

The Wall Street Journal’s art page has this great feature called the Masterpiece column in which you get to just stop and spend time on one work.  As every writer who has done one of these will  tell you, it is exhilarating and frustrating.  I don’t have to explain the first part, at least not to anyone  reading a blog about art.  But someone who does not know the tyranny of “word count” might not get just how frustrating it is to have to leave stuff out, just as I had to do in my feature on the Churning of the Sea of Milk, a 12th-century bas-relief that runs about 159 feet along an open colonnade in Angkor Wat.  As much as I reveled in writing about the work itself, I regretted not having the space to go into much detail on the conservation efforts that make it possible for us to see this today.

That’s where blogs come in handy…  The conservation/preservation work  started with French archaeologists who cleaned the bas-relief and pulled down the colonnade’s falling roof in the 1960s, but then had to high-tail it out of there in the early 1970s when the Khmer Rouge came in.  So there the relief stood, exposed to the elements until the Indian Archaeological Survey came in and scraped and washed off some of the lichen and mushrooms and what

Eastern enclosure of Angkor Wat

conservator Long Nary refers to as “the biologies” that were making themselves at home on this sandstone carving.  They also rebuilt the roof over the colonnade to restore some measure of protection to the relief, not to mention wholeness to the temple’s architecture.  Unfortunately, the Indian team used a lot of cement and did not always thoroughly wash away the harsh chemicals they deployed, both of which led to later problems.  When you talk to conservators on the ground about this, they are really careful to point out that a) at least the Indian archaeologists came and b) cement was for quite a while considered the band-aid par excellence.  Some people probably realized that salts from the cement might cause trouble one day, but it wasn’t yet common wisdom.

Long Nary surveys the state of the stone at the Churning of the Sea of Milk

Fast forward to about 1997.  Water was still leaking onto the relief and  causing discoloration and a fertile habitat for “biologies.” The German Apsara Conservation Project spot-cleaned the stone and replaced cement plugs with others made with mortar that does not leach out salts or chemicals.  According to Mr. Nary, the process took three to four years, “and still…” he said, silently pointing out the occasional streak and efflorescence that no conservator’s intervention can probably ever set right.

Then in 2005,  the World Monuments Fund (WMF) did a study to determine why water was still leaking onto the relief and concluded that the vaulted roof had to be dismantled and reassembled.  In 2008, the WMF erected a huge crane and began the process.  The senior architect and project coordinator is Cheam Phally, who is prone to patting stone columns like they were a favorite horse she’s coming to visit.  She thinks of the buildings at Angkor as “sick, and I am a doctor” who is after the very best treatment she can offer her patients.

Cheam Phally with one of her many “patients” in Angkor

Sometimes this means inserting a material that is not original — in reassembling the roof, for example, the WMF team has slipped sheets of lead between stones to create a full seal.

But mostly her work involves figuring out with her team just what exactly the 12th-century Khmer builders had done.  Those notches in the stones were no accident…   The earlier restoration had filled them with cement, so the WMF team chipped it away and then interlocked the stones in such a way that the notches created little channels for water.  So up the stones went in a pilot phase that lasted over a year and a half and covered  a segment of the colonnade.  When the first big rain came, Ms. Cheam and her team hurried over.  Water was getting in.  It was, they realized, the slope at which the stone blocks were pitched that was the problem.  In some places the drainage was working beautifully but not in others.  So they shimmed the stones in these areas (this makes it sound like a simple matter…which it wasn’t) and, after consulting with more experts, reduced the amount of lead they were using to lighten the load.  Four years later, the crane was removed and people like us get to walk through the colonnade and experience this amazing work of art.

Walking down the colonnade, the opening scene of the Churning of the Sea of Milk

3 thoughts on “Saving the Sea of Milk

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