The bas-reliefs of the Royal Palaces of Abomey, one of the most famous and historically significant sites in the West African Republic of Benin will undergo scientific study and conservation treatment by the Benin government and the Getty Conservation Institute, it was announced in February by Institute Director Miguel Angel Corzo. The project is being launched to halt the deterioration of forty-nine polychrome earthen bas-relief panels that once adorned a palace building known as the Salle des Bijoux (Hall of Jewels).

The approximately three foot square bas-reliefs depicting human and animal figures in allegorical scenes are thought to be the oldest surviving elements of the Royal Palaces of Abomey, a group of earthen structures built by the Fon people between the mid-seventeenth and late-nineteenth centuries. The restored ruins of these palaces, now the Historical Museum of Abomey, are inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Photo: Guillermo Aldana.

Exposure to weather and termite and insect attacks caused serious erosion and deterioration of the bas-reliefs while they were on the facade of the Salle des Bijoux. In 1988 they were removed from the building's walls and framed in heavy cement casings. The Salle des Bijoux itself has since been torn down and is currently being rebuilt.

The project to conserve the bas-reliefs, which is expected to last four years with field campaigns each spring and fall, will follow the basic approach developed by the Conservation Institute in its other field projects around the world. After a thorough review of existing documentation on the bas-reliefs' history and condition, and after scientific analysis of their constituent materials and causes of deterioration, the joint project team will develop and implement a conservation treatment plan. The final phase of the project will involve the planning of a site protection and monitoring program to ensure the long-term survival of the bas-reliefs. On-site training of Benin Ministry of Culture staff in the conservation, care, and maintenance of the bas-reliefs will be an important component of the project.

The West African kingdom of Abomey (formerly Dahomey), founded in 1625 by the Fon people, was an exceptionally powerful and wealthy center of trade and culture. The first royal palace of Abomey was constructed in 1645. Thereafter, each king had his palace built near that of his predecessor, the last being built for King Glole (1858-89). Earthen bas-reliefs were used as an integral decorative feature of the palaces. Their function was to represent the significant events marking the evolution of the Fon and their dominion over a vast territory. Although most of Abomey was burned in 1892 as the French prepared to occupy the city, the Salle des Bijoux is thought to have been one of the few structures to survive, making its bas-reliefs of particular importance as a historic record of the Fon's rich culture, complex mythology, customs, and rituals.