Cleopatra’s Needle Gets Laser Beam Facelift

The obelisk in Central Park. Photo: Michael Minn via MichaelMinn.net.
The obelisk in Central Park. Photo: Michael Minn via MichaelMinn.net.

Visitors to New York’s Central Park have one less sight to see this summer, as the its 69-foot-tall Egyptian obelisk, popularly-known as Cleopatra’s Needle, is currently shrouded in scaffolding as it undergoes a laser beam-guided restoration, reports the New York Times.

A monument to Pharaoh Thutmose III erected outside what is now Cairo at the Heliopolis about 3,460 years ago, the monolith took a circuitous route to America, with the Romans first moving it to Alexandria. In 1880 the Egyptian khedives gifted the obelisk to New York, and since 1881 it has lived atop the park’s Greywacke Knoll, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Over the years, accumulated dirt, soot, and grime have taken their toll on the ancient monument, obscuring its hieroglyphics and pink-flecked granite. To restore it to its original glory, the Central Park Conservancy (which is funding the $500,000 project) has called in Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio from Forest Park, Illinois.

The restoration, which has been underway since May, is actually taking place at the atomic particle level, carried out inch by inch with handheld lasers. The careful cleaning method radiates blackened soot, heating it to super-high temperatures and dislodging it from the granite surface. Due to its lighter color, the granite, which is not exposed to the laser beams long enough to overheat, reflects the radiation.

This isn’t the only piece of monumental ancient art that’s received this level of high-tech conservation this year. As artnet News previously reported, Greece’s iconic Caryatid statues, from the Acropolis, were recently undergoing similar laser treatment at the Acropolis Museum in Athens (the originals were replaced with replicas in 1979 due to pollution concerns). The cleaning on the 2,500-year-old statues was completed last month, and the restored sculptures are currently on display in celebration of the museum’s fifth anniversary (see article from the New York Times).

The laser work on the Central Park obelisk should be finished within a week. Then, a consolidating agent will stabilize loose particles on the surface, bonding them at the molecular level. The scaffolding will come down in the fall, revealing Cleopatra’s Needle in all her glory.


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