Delta Air Lines maintainance inspectors moved the hulking engine case of a Boeing 757 from beneath the giant scanner in a lead-enclosed X-ray room and gingerly replaced it with the head of a 1,900-year-old Roman marble statue of Venus.
Thursday's X-ray scans at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport are the first step in a months-long process to reunite the late first-century statue of the goddess of love with its head.
Conservators at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, which bought both pieces in June, will study the X-rays to see just in how many points — besides the neck — the statue has been broken before, and how the old repairs are holding up. They're using Delta's volunteered equipment and inspectors because of their ability to find the tiniest cracks in hard materials.
Conservators will look for rusting metal pins that might have been inserted to fix cracks in the Venus' thigh, her calf, even the bundle of hair drooping on her neck.
Once they establish the condition of those repairs, which could date from antiquity or as recently as 200 years ago, they will know how best to put the 4-foot-6-inch (137-centimeter) statue back together.
"I spend two-thirds of my time reversing other people's good intentions," museum conservator Renee Stein said jokingly of old repairs.
The head is the hardest part
Re-attaching the head, which was last documented on the body in 1836, will be the hardest part in the restoration of this marble copy of an earlier Greek bronze sculpture that many scholars argue is the most widely reproduced female statue in antiquity.
While there are thousands of similar images of Venus in all sorts of sizes and materials, the restoration of this one is particularly significant because few statues are as large and nearly intact as this one, missing only the right arm.
First, Stein will have to remove an old pin that was inserted in the head to prop it up on a display stand, as well as the lead insert on the base of the neck. Next, she'll drill through the plaster and most likely replace the rod with a stainless steel pin.
Because the jagged edges in the break between the head and the neck were smoothed over, curators will have to study how much space to fill in once the pieces are superimposed again.
Rebirth in spring
Then, after more testing of cleaning materials to wipe off the grayish patina, sometime in spring, Venus will again strike her provocatively protective pose at the Carlos.
The statue catches the goddess off guard as, having removed all her clothes to take a bath, she glimpses an unseen onlooker. She tries to cover herself with her hand, while a small figure of Eros rides a dolphin at her feet, a reference to the goddess' birth from the sea.
The statue probably stood next to a fountain or pool in the gardens of a luxurious villa somewhere in the Roman Empire, possibly in today's France, where it was first documented in the collection of Napoleon's art adviser in the 1830s, said Jasper Gaunt, curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Carlos.
The museum bought the statue for $968,000 at a Sotheby's auction in New York. A private collector in Houston had agreed to sell the head at auction to the buyer of the body.