"The frescoes on the Northern Massada Palace were discovered during extensive archaeological excavations headed by Prof. Ygael Yadin in the sixties. It was a very exciting find at the time, because these frescoes were cutting edge in Roman design, same as in Rome itself or in Pompeii."
Ze'ev Margalit, an architect for the Israel Nature and National Parks Protections Authority, observed, "For 40 years, the frescoes had been preserved through then-modern techniques, but they had deteriorated terribly over time to a point where they might have been utterly ruined."
Before the current project began, the paintings were removed from the walls, put on fiberglass slabs and returned after being sealed in glass to protect them.
"This preservation technique turned out to be disastrous. The damage sustained during the past 40 years has been greater than that of the previous two millennia. The frescoes were crumbling," Margalit recounts.
To save the frescoes of the Northern Palace, the INNPPA launched the restoration project three years ago with funding from the ministries of finance, environment, tourism, industry, trade and education. The Israeli UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) committee also participated in the project, along with the Dead Sea Water Authority. The Antiquities Authority then issued an international tender that resulted in Tagliapietra's involvement.
After much deliberation, the archaeologists decided not to return the ruined frescoes to the site after they had been restored. "This wasn't an easy decision," says Margalit. "In renovation projects we always prefer to keep the articles at the original site, but the damage was just too extensive."
The frescoes were put into a special renovation laboratory built at the bottom of the Massada complex. Most are to remain in the new museum built at the site, which will soon be opened to the public. However, some of the frescoes were returned to the palace's southern wall, which is less exposed to damaging sunlight.
"We decided to replace the frescoes removed from the palace with replicas in order to return the color into the palace," says Orit Borbnik, conservation manager at the INNPPA. "These are exact copies prepared with the same techniques that were used on the original pieces during the times of Herod the Great," she adds.
At the start of the renovation process, the wall was perfectly aligned and then coated with several layers of whitewash. Then, rough plaster was applied and completed with a final layer of fine plaster. The frescoes were then drawn on the finest layer while the plaster was still moist, so the color would be fixed into it.
"This is how the color survives for 2,000 years," explains Margalit. The patterns themselves were sketched out on the walls by Tagliapietra using pieces of string to outline the borders of the fresco.
The paint was prepared from the same products used for the original painting. Yellow, for example, came from semi-solidified egg yolk. Earth, milk, resin and other natural pigments were used to produce other colors.