New Integrated Knowledge based approachs to the protection of cultural heritage from Earthquake-induced Risk

Beth She’arim
The Catacombs
Conservation and reconstruction of the catacombs
OrdererThe Nature Preservation and National Parks Authority
DurationJanuary 2006
Implemented by: Jacques Neguer - Conservation Guidance
Arch. Ram Shoeff
Meir (Mark) Avrahami
Vladimir Bitman
Amir  Janakh

There is a large Jewish cemetery in the Beth She’arim National Park that reached its height in the fourth century, C.E., and in it are rock hewn catacombs that branch out into large chambers and voids deep in the earth.  These burial complexes were decorated with wall relieves and carved Jewish symbols and motifs taken from daily life.  The aim of the work there is to physically rehabilitate the catacombs and restore the inscriptions and decorations that have been damaged by time and wanton acts of vandalism on the part of visitors. 

Examinations and research into the weathering factors that are characteristic of the catacombs at the site have made it possible to define a basic plan of operation that is intended to provide a long term answer to the problems that were identified. The work undertaken in each catacomb is being implemented according to this plan.
Inventory Survey. Examining the physical elements in the catacombs: entrance, halls, walls, niches, ceiling and floor. A survey was also conducted of the artistic elements that decorate the catacomb and the results of the survey were compared with the descriptions in the excavation reports that were compiled in 1963-1968. The conservation problems were identified and mapped: cracks, disintegration, collapse, the penetration of roots, water percolation and damage having resulted from microbiological activity such as lichen and patina.
Engineering Survey. The stability of the architectural components in the catacombs was examined and hazardous areas were identified. Precision instrumentation was installed in the catacombs for the purpose of measuring the growth of cracks over the long term.
Biological and Microbiological Survey and a Survey of Microorganisms. A prevalent conservation problem in subterranean voids is damage caused by the growth of tree roots into the chambers. The penetration of roots causes cracks and the disintegration and weakening of the chamber. The trees that grow in the region of Beth She’arim were mapped, the growth of their roots was described and the damage caused as a result of it was recorded.
An examination was conducted at the laboratories of the Volcani Institute during which all of the kinds of microorganisms growing in the catacombs in Beth She’arim were identified, and their habitats were defined. In light of the results of this examination recommendations were formulated for controlling the environmental conditions by means of appropriate ventilation and the limitation in the amount of light in the catacombs.

Architectural Survey. Architect Ram Shoaf performed the survey in Catacombs 3 and 4. An architectural-environmental analysis of the complexes gave rise to recommendations regarding architectural intervention so as to prepare these catacombs for visits by the public which would include safety arrangements, accessibility and specific solutions to problems incurred by the movement of visitors.
Conservation Intervention: a pilot program in Catacombs 3 and 4.
The conservation work in the burial complexes was determined in accordance with the research and operating recommendations that were formulated. The proposed solutions will be implemented and their suitability to the conditions of the area is being tested.
The measures that have been taken:
· Stabilizing the entrance to the catacombs.
· Filling in cracks.
· Microbiological pest control.
· Stabilization and restoration of artistic elements: reliefs, polychrome inscriptions, carved inscriptions and drawings.

Preserving the Candelabra Decorations. Many of the wall decorations in the catacombs are in the form of a seven-branch candelabrum (menorah), which subsequently became the symbol of the State of Israel. In 2004 former Speaker of the Knesset, Reuben Rivlin, MK, decided (following a tour of Beth She’arim by Knesset members) that the site of Beth She’arim, where the symbol of the menorah appears so many times, deserves special treatment. Thus a special budget was allocated for the conservation of the seven-branch candelabrum wall decorations. The candelabra were cleaned, preserved and restored. 
The largest candelabrum relief at Beth She’arim is located in Catacomb 20 (measuring 1.90 m high, 1.25 m wide). The relief was damaged by both time and vandalism – the surface of the bedrock was defaced, the foot of the candelabrum was broken and the relief was covered with patina. The conservation measures that were taken to preserve and restore the candelabrum included spraying an herbicide to prevent the spread of the patina; the delicate cleaning of the surface of the relief; and the reconstruction of the candelabrum’s missing pieces of plaster while maintaining a clear line that distinguishes the original plaster work from the restoration.
The conservation work in the catacombs at Beth She’arim is being carried out over the course of several years, during which the weathering processes and damage at the site are being monitored. In the coming years other catacombs will be treated, as well as prepared for visits by the public.

To view the figures, click on the figure caption
Catacomb 3 prior to treatment, roots penetrating into the hall of the catacomb

Catacomb 3 after removal of the roots and cleaning some of the microbiology from the wall surfaces

Catacomb 4: drawing of a seven-branch candelabrum and geometric decorations, prior conservation treatment

Catacomb 4: drawing of a seven-branch candelabrum and the decorations after cleaning and completion

Catacomb 20: the large seven-branch candelabrum at Beth She’arim, prior to conservation treatment

Catacomb 20: the large seven-branch

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