Seventeen Roman marble sculptures discovered some fifteen years ago in the village of Vid, near Metković, are among the greatest achievements of Roman sculpture, and they have invaluable significance for Croatian cultural heritage. The sculptures, representing the Roman imperial family, members of the aristocracy and deities, have been dated to the 1st and 2nd centuries, and they are believed to have originally been elements of the Augusteum of Narona.
Years of systematic archaeological excavations of the Roman settlement of Narona, on the site of Plećašove Štale near the village of Vid, in the vicinity of Metković, have yielded the sensational discovery of the remains of a Roman temple, Augusteum, with seventeen monumental marble sculptures, whose heights range from life size to nearly three metres. The sculptures, representing Roman emperors, members of their families, pagan deities and members of the local nobility, have been dated to the 1st and 2nd century A.D. Presumably, they belonged to a Roman temple and originally stood on a platform stretching along the walls of the cella of the temple.
When discovered, most of the statues were headless, displaying various degrees of damage. More precisely, they were all broken, which has been attributed not only to the unfortunate combination of circumstances (the destruction of the temple in the late 4th or early 5th century), but also to the technique of their making: they were composed of several parts. For this reason, the best-preserved parts of the sculptures (the torsos) were those made of a monolithic stone block. Given that the sculptures had lain in earth for centuries, they were covered with dirt deposits, calcite crusts, with some biological impurities appearing on their surfaces. The long stay in moist earth had caused the corrosion of iron pins used to attach various body parts. The spreading of the rust caused by the corrosion of the iron pins had resulted in pieces of marble cracking and breaking off.
After the completion of the archaeological excavation, the sculptures and sculpture fragments were transported to the conservation workshop of the Archaeological Museum of Split, and there, in the period between 1998 and 2005, they were subjected to extensive diagnostic testing, and conservation interventions were performed on ten of the seventeen sculptures. The thorough diagnostic investigation, carried out in cooperation with Croatian and foreign institutions and experts, laid down the foundations for the selection of a methodology for the conservation work. The purpose of the testing was to diagnose precisely the condition of the sculptures and to define the scope and plan of activities. In the following period, the sculptures were cleaned, reattached, reconstructed and consolidated. Their surfaces were cleaned of earth deposits, biological impurities and calcite crusts. All fragments were realigned and glued in their respective places. The iron pins were extracted, conserved and returned to their locations. In addition, copies of some elements of the sculptures were made and incorporated in the sculptures because they were lighter, and thus could ensure the static balance. Smaller cracks and irregularities were filled with an artificial stone mixture, followed by the final consolidation of the stone. The goal of this method of conservation was the neutralization of factors that cause disintegration of marble and the removal of dirt and scabs, with a view to presenting the original surface and thus emphasizing the beauty of the material and the sculptor's skill.
In 2005, the work was taken over by the Section for Stone Sculpture of the Split Department for Conservation of the Croatian Conservation Institute. The sculptures subjected to conservation treatment were those depicting Augustus, Julia, Lucius Caesar, Germanicus, Drusus, Claudius and Gaius Caesar, and partial interventions were also made on other sculptures. The methodology already established and successful during the 1998-2005 interventions was applied again, so that the sculptures' surfaces were cleaned, separated elements were linked with conserved iron pins, minor damage was reconstructed, detached segments were glued together and the stone was consolidated in certain places. A novelty in this conservation campaign was the application of a sophisticated method of laser cleaning, which was successful in removing calcite crusts and surface impurities, while the optimal regulation of energy and beam power made it possible to protect the marble structure, traces left by the original stone-dressing tools and the natural patina of the stone.
The main problem in this phase of conservation of the above group of sculptures was raising them to an upright position, which would enable their final presentation in the new exhibition room of the Archaeological Museum of Narona. Most of the sculptures had been found without legs, feet or pedestals, which made it impossible to put them upright and display them. In some cases, even the conservation treatment had to be suspended because of the difficulties with the manipulation. For this reason, this conservation challenge, technically very demanding, called for interdisciplinary consultations with experts of different profiles, and a review of museum collections which share the same problems, in order to come up with a solution. After careful consideration of the problem and development of drawings and plans, it was decided that load-bearing constructions and bases would be made of stainless steel, in cooperation with experts of the Department for Metal of the Croatian Conservation Institute in Zagreb. Steel rods to the length of the missing legs, mounted on newly-made load-bearing bases, were fixed to the sculptures of Julia, Gaius Caesar, Germanicus and Drusus, while the torsos of the sculptures of Augustus and Claudius were linked to the preserved original bases with metal rods. With the fitting of the metal load-bearing constructions, the manipulation of the sculptures was made easier, and their presentation became possible. The intervention is reversible, because the metal rods and bases can be detached from the sculptures at any moment. This is particularly significant in view of the possibility of future archaeological excavation resulting in the discovery of the missing parts of the sculptures. The current constructions also allow a possible future modelling of the missing leg parts, and reconstruction of the sculptures as closed, integral works of art.
The issue of reconstruction of the missing parts was raised during this phase of work, involving to what extent the missing elements should be replaced and how they should be treated. Given that there were no models that could be used for their shaping, not all the missing parts were reconstructed, but rather only some small areas and elements that were necessary to link the pieces that had been broken. These minimal substitutions made it possible to turn each of the sculptures that had been broken into pieces, some of them missing, into a closed unity. The reconstructed elements were stylized, they are not dominant, and they facilitate the reading of the sculpture.
The conservation work on the ten marble sculptures from Narona, performed between 2005 and 2007, encompassed all the phases of conservation: from the development of documentation, diagnosing the damage, and neutralizing the causes of degradation, to the design and execution of the final presentation of the monuments. The fitting of metal load-bearing constructions is an intervention that had been known in the world for quite some time, but in Croatia it was carried out for the first time in an intervention this sophisticated, and on so many sculptures at once.
Nowadays, the sculptures are displayed within the permanent exhibition of the Archaeological Museum of Narona in Vid, set up to present this unique and very rich Roman archaeological site. The Museum was opened in 2007, as the first museum in Croatia located in situ. The central part of the museum is the Augusteum itself, with remains of the architecture of the Roman temple, which houses the most representative exhibits: the seventeen marble sculptures set on a platform.