Conservation program at Tel Shiloh

During the months of May/June 2017, excavations were carried out at Tel Shiloh[1]. At the conclusion of the dig, conservation work[2] needed to be carried out on some walls that were in danger of deterioration or collapse.

One section of the Middle Bronze Age city wall, W17 in Square AC-30, was selected for conservation. This wall was built of large ashlars, but in between these large stones were patches of small stones that needed to be consolidated (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The MBA city wall, W 17, before conservation. Note the many smaller stones that were placed in between the large ashlars.

In addition, the walls belonging to MBA storage rooms in Square AE-30 were found to be in a poor state of preservation. The main conservation effort was therefore focussed on Walls 19, 20 and 21 (Fig. 2), and also on the westernmost wall of the MBA storerooms, in Square AD-30, that had been revealed in the Danish excavations (Fig. 3). These four walls formed two rooms that were interconnected by doorways.

Fig. 2. Walls 19 (at the back, below the blue water container), 20 (right) and 21 (left) during excavation.

Fig. 3. The “Danish” wall after conservation.

Ancient walls were made by placing fieldstones at the interior and exterior faces. The core of the wall usually consists of small stones held together by a soil-based mortar (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. W21 before cleaning. Note the soil in between the stones.

The basic process of conservation is first to remove all soil from between the stones with a small pick and brush (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. W21 after cleaning with small pick and brush.

The remaining soil was then removed with a strong water jet (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. W21 after cleaning with small pick and brush.

The latter made the walls dirty and therefore they needed to be cleaned by spraying water in between and over the stones. Only then were the walls ready for conservation (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. W21 after cleaning with water jet. Note that no soil is left between the stones.

Stones that were missing or that had fallen were replaced with suitably sized stones (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. A stone being placed in a large gap in W19.

After the wall was thoroughly cleaned, the mortar mixture needed to be prepared. We used imported heat-treated NHL 5 natural hydraulic lime, Class M2.5, which is a cement-free mortar (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9. The heat-treated NHL 5 natural hydraulic lime, Class M2.5, used in the conservation.

One shovel of quarry sand and half a shovel of sifted soil was added to one 25 kg bag of this mortar. The quarry sand was added to give texture to the smooth mortar and the sifted soil was added to give a more natural color to the mix. The mortar, sand and soil were thoroughly mixed with water in a wheelbarrow to a smooth consistency before application (Fig. 10).

The best way of conserving ancient walls is to inject the mortar as deep as possible into the core of the wall, so that the exterior faces of the wall remain clean and retain their authentic look. Mortar is usually put on a mortarboard or tray and pushed into the joints or gaps with a pointing trowel. Adequately sized stones were placed into large gaps and secured by the mortar. We found that a mortar pointing gun was much more effective (Fig. 11).

The wet mortar was inserted into the gun’s tube and then injected into the inner core of the wall (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12. Dave applying the mortar and Greg pushing it further in with a wet 1.5” paintbrush

The mortar was then pushed in between and against the stones with a wet 1.5” paintbrush. The advantage of this method is that the stones of the wall are bonded together by mortar from the inside. This prevents unsightly and unnecessary smearing of mortar on the outer faces of the wall, thus preserving the authentic look of the ancient walls. The most important part of the conservation of a wall is its top, or coping (Fig. 13). When the top of the wall is conserved well, rainwater cannot penetrate the core of the wall and thus its preservation is secured.

Fig. 13. Conservation of the top of W21.

After the mortar had set (see Figs 14-16), any remains of mortar that had flowed onto the stones was wire brushed so that the outer faces of the stones were clean and free from mortar (Fig. 17).

Fig. 14. Walls 19 and 21 after conservation.

Fig. 15. W20 after conservation.

Fig. 16. W21 after conservation.

Fig. 17. Final clean-up with wire brush.

Although it is not necessary to employ skilled labor, it is important to professionally supervise the conservation work so that it is carried out according to the procedures set out above. I was pleased to have Dr. Phil Silvia, Dr. David Graves and Greg Gulbrandsen as willing helpers, who quickly learned the ropes of the trade and put their hearts and souls into the conservation project (Fig. 18).

Fig. 18. The conservation team, standing behind Leen: Dave (L), Phil (C) and Greg (R).

Having conserved these storeroom walls, they are a beautiful testimony to the building techniques of the past and can now be enjoyed by the many visitors that come to Tel Shiloh.

[1] The excavations were directed by Dr. Scott Stripling on behalf of the Associates for Biblical Research.

[2] The conservation was directed and supervised by Dr. Leen Ritmeyer, MA (Conservation Studies), Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, University of York, UK. Conservation assistants were Dr.Phil Silvia, Dr. David Graves and Greg Gulbrandsen.

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13 Responses to Conservation program at Tel Shiloh

  1. Ann Klauder says:

    Such vital, inspiring work.

  2. Thanks Ann, your and Lou’s work is pretty important too! It is always a pleasure for Kathleen and me to meet you both once a year.

  3. Gary Byers says:

    Important work you folks did there at Shiloh and thanks for the illustrated tutorial online!

  4. Gary, it was a pleasure and thanks for all your hard work.

  5. Farber Joel says:

    Why is it important to use”cement-free mortar?”

  6. Wayne Stiles says:

    I can’t wait to see what you’ve done as I head to Shiloh this fall, Leen. Thank you!

  7. Farber, in archaeological conservation we strive to copy traditional methods as much as possible. Traditional mortar was always lime based and never contained cement. Portland cement hardens quickly, limits the time available for application and tends to crack over time. Additionally, most cements contain large amounts of soluble salts, in particular potassium sulphate, which causes salt damage to stonework. It is therefore to be avoided as much as possible.

  8. Wayne, hope you enjoy it when you get to Shiloh!

  9. Was honored and privileged to have met you, finally, face-to-face and walk through the dig and share learning experiences.

  10. Enjoyed meeting you too, Yisrael, after having been in contact over so many years.

  11. Miryam Blum says:

    Thank you, Leen, for this clear and informative explanation. I am studying to be a tour guide and you have given me one more fascinating aspect of Shiloh for me to share with the tourists whom I hope to guide there.

  12. eli says:

    it is old tradition that eli was buried in shilo.
    ‘lately jews come there at the day he was killed.

    his pupil samuel is buried near jerusalem, which according to tradition is shilo.

    it looks like the temple from eli was in his shilo, and samuel in his temple in mitzpe.
    whats your take?

    i love your work and posts, keep them coming!

  13. Eli, I hope you are not talking about your tomb!! We will continue digging and one never knows what turns up next. According to Joshua 18:1, the Tabernacle stood in Shiloh, but was later removed to Nob (1 Sam. 21) and then to Gibeon (1 Kings 3:4). Solomon brought the Tabernacle to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles. 5.5) and probably stored it in the new Temple.

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