The Central Park Obelisk

The Obelisk in Central Park 

On January 4th, Zahi Hawass posted on his blog parts of a letter he sent to New York City May Bloomberg which was erected in Central Park in 1880. Hawass was not criticizing the installation of the monument, or the way in which Frederick Olmstead installed it in his grand park. Rather Hawass voiced some concerns about weathering being done to the hieroglyphic text on the needle. News of the fact that New York is not caring for an ancient Egyptian obelisk soon spread. David Gill argued “Noth Americans” who are critical of the situation at Pompeii should be “chastened”. But I’m  not at all sure that weathering is actually taking place, and I do not see how Zahi Hawass can make that claim either: he has made his allegations on the basis of some photographs which he was sent.

This is certainly outside my area of expertise, so I’d appreciate any corrections in the comments below. But it seems to me like Hawass is making some unfounded allegations. He is claiming that the air pollution, rain, snow and wind in New York are wearing down the obelisk. And from this image, some kind of weathering certainly seems to have happened. But why is the face to the right of the photographer still in very good condition? Moreover, in the comments on his blog, Hawass does not make any specific claims, or provide any possible remedies. He only makes a loud claim, that New York and Central Park are not caring for this object. How do we know the obelisk did not look like this before it was removed to New York?

It seems to me that Hawass is instead trying to argue that wealthier nations are not caring for antiquities, and arguing that he and Egypt will. He says that “If the Central Park Conservancy and the City of New York cannot properly care for this obelisk, I will take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home and save it from ruin.”

No one can fault Hawass for his passion, but here I think his criticism of the care for this obelisk is misguided. Is there something toxic about New York that is prematurely weathering this obelisk? What about the similar obelisks in London and Paris? 

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3 thoughts on “The Central Park Obelisk”

  1. The obelisk has undoubtedly weathered over the past century but it does not appear to have weathered any more than any other monument made of stone over the same period. It is well known in archeological circles that weathering has happened to a greater extent due to the pollutants emitted as a result of the industrial revolution. And, in some cases, that weathering has been quite severe. Take, for instance, the Parthenon, specifically the marble reliefs which adorned it. Those removed by the British and stored inside, i.e. the Elgin Marbles, are in superb shape. The ones left on the edifice of the Parthenon are horrendously degraded. This is due simply to the movement of air patterns which allowed pollutants to rain down on that part of Greece (rather than, say, inside a museum). The fact is the only sure way to protect anything is to move it inside. Clearly, that is not an option if one wishes to continue to have a (real) obelisk in the park.

    Hawass, or others, may be correct in asserting that it is possible that the damage sustained by the obelisk was greater in NY than, say, Egypt where erosion due to rain is less a concern but erosion due to wind may not be as bad. Obviously, serious study would be needed before knowing the comparative damage. A good archaeologist, however, would probably be able to go to the park, examine the obelisk and determine if the degradation is directional (which I suspect it is after a look at some photos online) and what it causing the damage. This would help answer whether it would be feasible to erect some sort of structure to more adequately protect it.

    Ultimately, my bet is that short of making a copy of the obelisk and replacing the original with that copy (removing the original to an indoor location) there is very little that can be done to prevent undue degradation. The important point, however, is that very few nations, if any, have avoided the damage done by changes in our atmosphere since the industrial revolution. (A quick study of sketches done during the period when the “Grand Tour” and photographs was common in combination with a quick study of early photographs will illustrate how serious such degradation has become and the extent to which treasures of the past have been eroded the world over).

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