A return to the Rubinstein cartonnage

A year ago, I wrote about some cartonnage that we received as a donation from Helena Rubinstein back in 1953. I started working on it but after realizing what a complex project it was going to be, decided to save it for one of our graduate interns to work on (I like to think we save the best stuff for them, and sometimes best = complicated). We didn’t have to wait too long, since this fall we were joined by Eve Mayberger, a 4th year NYU intern who is with us for the academic year, and she was happy to take on the cartonnage as one of her many projects.

One of the reasons the cartonnage is in the lab is because it’s attached to a really ugly old mount, which is no longer providing sufficient support. To remind you, here is what it looked like when it entered the lab:

Cartonnage pieces secured to a wooden mount painted blue

5 separate cartonnage pieces secured to a wooden mount painted blue (before treatment)

Not only do we want to get the cartonnage off of this old mount, but the way the pieces are attached to the mount complicates examination and our understanding of their materials and construction. Basically, this old mount isn’t doing the object any favors, and there’s not much we can do with the object while it’s on the mount.

Eve has spent some time documenting and examining the cartonnage pieces in the Artifact Lab and today she decided to bite the bullet and actually start removing them from the mount. She started with the chest piece (the uppermost piece in the image above). It was secured to the mount primarily through 2 large screws and several smaller nails. Just a few minutes ago, Eve calmly removed the last of the hardware and we were finally able to free this piece from the mount – hurrah!

Eve examining the backside of the cartonnage, recently freed from the old mount, seen on the right side of this photo.

Eve examining the backside of the cartonnage, recently freed from the old mount

Here is a detail of what the back looks like:

View of the reverse of the cartonnage chest piece, after removal from the mount.

View of the reverse of the cartonnage chest piece, after removal from the mount.

Of course now that we can see the other side, we have even more questions about what was done to this piece historically versus what is part of its original construction. Eve will continue to examine this piece and do some more research before beginning the treatment. We will provide updates as she proceeds.

Vampire mummy?!?

In the last couple days we found out a bit more about one of the animal mummies we recently x-rayed.

The clue is related to one of the cat mummies, which came into the lab looking like this:

CG2015-4-9 in (not original) coffin

CG2015-4-9: cat mummy in (not original) coffin

First of all, you might be asking yourselves, how did we keep this amazing detail from you before? This mummy was previously stored in an creepy/wonderful vampire coffin with a glass cover (not original to the mummy). It was sealed inside the coffin, presumably to make it more attractive (?) for collection/sale. In order to get a better look at the mummy and carry out treatment, conservator Alexis North had to remove it from the coffin. Once it was out , we could see that the head had been intentionally cut off.

CG2015-4-9, view from top showing where head was cut off and exposing bones inside

CG2015-4-9, view from top showing where head was cut off and exposing bones inside

Inside the coffin, Alexis found some bits of bones, including this:

Portion of a maxilla (upper jaw), including teeth, 10X magnification.

Portion of a maxilla (upper jaw), including teeth, 10X magnification

This is a portion of the maxilla (upper jaw) of a cat with some linen and even some fur still attached! Based on it’s size and the fact that the incisor is not fully erupted, we* estimate that this belonged to a kitten that was only a few weeks old when it died. The size of the bones corresponds well with the size of the kitten’s body we saw in the x-radiograph. Here’s that image again, showing how small the kitten is in relation to the size of the mummy:

The radiograph shows that there is only a tiny kitten under the wrappings of this cat mummy.

Left: Cat mummy. Right: Radiograph of the cat mummy, which shows that there is only a tiny kitten under the wrappings.

There are other bits of the skull that we found inside the coffin too. We’re not sure when the head was removed, but afraid that the head may have been cut off to fit the mummy into the vampire coffin. We’ve made a new box for the mummy, one that is both more appropriate for this object and for the museum environment, and that will certainly be more protective.

Cat mummy in a new storage enclosure

Cat mummy in a new storage enclosure

*Special thanks to Dr. Kate Moore for her expertise and time!

What’s inside those animal mummies?

Last week we x-rayed 8 animal mummies from our collection. These mummies were previously in storage and are in the Artifact Lab for much needed treatment and storage upgrades. As you can see in the images below, some of them are incredibly fragile with extensive damage. X-radiography is completely non-invasive and is one of the best tools we can use to study these mummies.

Recently we heard that researchers at the Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester found that about 1/3 of their mummies are “fakes” (and we use this word rather loosely – read the article in the link to find out more).

How do ours measure up? Well, even though we have a much smaller sample size, we found our stats to be a little bit better – 7 of the 8 that we just x-rayed contain animal remains, and one contains the remains of 3 animals, so the number of animals actually outnumbers the number of mummies in this instance!

Below we’ve posted paired images of the animal mummies and their radiographs. Our initial findings are written in the captions for each image. See if you can figure each one out, and if you see something that doesn’t make sense or something that we haven’t explained, please write into the comments below this post and we’ll follow up! All radiographs were captured with a GE Inspection and Sensing Eresco 65MF4 tube on a digital x-ray detector at 35kV 6mA for 6 seconds.

Cat mummy (left) and x-ray image (right) showing a complete cat body inside.

L-55-13: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing a complete cat body inside.


97-121-27: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis in the lower 2/3 of the wrappings.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing a fragmented ibis body inside.

97-121-28: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing fragmented ibis remains inside.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside.

E3539: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside, plus an extra bone and part of the ibis beak.

E3541: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside, plus an extra bone and part of the ibis beak lying outside the mummy bundle.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing nothing inside the wrappings.

CG2015-4-1080: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing nothing inside the wrappings (it was likely intended to be a hawk or falcon mummy).


CG2015-4-9: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing a young kitten in the upper half of the wrappings, missing its head.


97-121-8: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing at least 3 snakes inside (scale not included, but this mummy is about the length and width of an iphone).

Animal mummy x-rays

The Artifact Lab has been a busy place lately (thanks in part to a big collections move project), and just last week we got a special delivery of some animal mummies from storage which have not been examined in a long time, and have never been x-rayed.

A cart with animal mummies, some which are still wrapped in tissue paper.

A cart with animal mummies, some which are still wrapped in tissue paper.

While everything has to move out of Egyptian storage, these animal mummies will not be moving offsite – we are finding a temporary home for them elsewhere in the museum. Nonetheless, this move is a chance to examine everything, to upgrade storage mounts, and to carry out minimal conservation treatment as needed.

Project conservator Alexis North photographs an ibis mummy in the Artifact Lab.

Project conservator Alexis North photographs an ibis mummy in the Artifact Lab.

A view of an ibis mummy during treatment to stabilize loose linen wrappings (the silver "kisses" are small weights)

A view of an ibis mummy during treatment to stabilize loose linen wrappings (the silver “kisses” are small weights)

So while we have these mummies in the lab, we thought we’d also take the opportunity to x-ray them using our new(ish) digital x-radiography equipment. There have been stories in the news recently about what x-rays and CT-scans have revealed about animal mummies in other collections and we’re interested in knowing how ours compare.

Alexis arranges an animal mummy on the x-ray digital capture plate below the x-ray tube.

Alexis arranges an animal mummy on the x-ray digital capture plate below the x-ray tube.

We will follow this post with some images of each of the mummies and what the radiographs revealed. Sorry to leave you hanging but I promise it will be worth the wait! Also stay tuned to the museum’s Facebook and Instagram accounts for another mystery mummy quiz!

A recap of Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I just returned to work after 2 fascinating days of Death Salon: Mutter Museum, an event filled with presentations, speaker panels, Q&A sessions, murder ballads, a Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, and Death Quizzo.

Ask a Mortician! at Death Salon: Mutter Museum

Ask a Mortician! at Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I have attended many conferences, but none quite like this one. There were a wide variety of speakers presenting on topics related to death, how different cultures deal with death (both past and present), and our relationship to death and mortality. I spoke on the first day about my work on the mummies here at the Penn Museum – mostly about how we treat them today and how this has changed over time, using examples including PUM I, our baby boy mummy, Wilfred/a, and Nespekashuti. But you’ve heard about all of them before. Let me provide a brief outline of all of the other speakers, with links as appropriate.

  • Dr. Marianne Hamel is a medical examiner who spoke about what it’s really like to be a forensic pathologist vs. what you see on TV. She also was a consultant for the wildly popular podcast Serial and co-founder of Death Under Glass, which also had a booth at the Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, selling watches, umbrellas, notepads, etc. featuring beautiful forensic microscopic images.
  • Alexis Jeffcoat (Chemical Heritage Foundation) and Emma Stern (Laurel Hill Cemetery) spoke about the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery and their efforts to make Laurel Hill a place for the living as well as for the dead, with vibrant community programming.
  • Ryan Matthew Cohn spoke about historical skeletal preparations and models of the human body, along with his own work to make exploded and dissected skulls.
  • A panel discussion about American death spaces with Colin Dickey about the battlefields of the American Civil War and Bess Lovejoy on Hart Island: The World’s Biggest Tax-Funded Cemetery. I had never heard of Hart Island before, where unclaimed bodies and bodies of the poor and stillborn are soon to number one million. There are recent efforts to document the burials and transfer jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department.
  • Evi Numen, Mutter Museum exhibitions manager, spoke about the Curious Story of One-Eyed Joe and the 1867 Anatomy Act, discussing the struggle to legislate cadaver dissection and ownership.
  • Dr. Paul Koudounaris (a now 5-time Death Salon speaker!), who has extensively researched charnel houses and ossuaries, discussed various cultures’ relationships with the dead. He specifically shared information about Indonesian communities who mummify family members and exhume them each year to care for and celebrate them, and sometimes even keep them in their homes.
  • A panel discussion about anthropodermic bibliopegy (books bound in human skin) with Mutter Museum Curator Anna Dhody, analytical chemist Dr. Daniel Kirby, Juniata College Chemistry Chair Dr. Richard Hark, and Death Salon Director and USC medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom. Their project is aimed at surveying and creating an inventory of books bound in human skin, and they are using peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) to determine this. So far they have tested 22 books – 12 are actually human, while the others are sheep, cow, and even faux skin. The Mutter has the largest known collection in the world, with 5 authentic human skin books.
  • A presentation by Sarah Troop about the rituals and art of child death in Mexico. She discussed the tradition, which used to be practiced in many Latin American countries, where dead children become a hybrid between saints and angels called angelitos, and the most famous angelito, Miguel Angel Gaitan from Argentina, who died in 1967.
  • Dr. Norma Bowe discussed her death class at Kean University which she has been teaching for 15 years and has a 3-year wait list. She uses experiential learning in the class and they make several field trips, including to a hospice care facility, a Ronald McDonald house, a funeral home, a cemetery, a maximum security prison, a crematory, and a medical examiners office. A book has been written about her called The Death Class and its currently being turned into a TV show.
  • Elizabeth Harper spoke about incorrupt saints, which apparently aren’t very easy to identify just by looking at them. Her presentation included images of saints she’s visited and a little game of “Incorrupt or Nah”.
  • Artist David Orr presented his work photographing human skulls from the Mutter Museum collection and mirroring one side to create perfectly symmetrical results. This project, Perfect Vessels, can be viewed on his website.
  • Penn physician Dr. Erin Lockard spoke about death from the doctor/daughter perspective in a conversation with Death Salon Director Megan Rosenbloom. She shared her experiences both as a physician who specializes in geriatric medicine and how experiencing her mother’s illness and end of life has affected her work.
  • Mutter Museum Director Dr. Robert Hicks gave a presentation entitled Exquisite Corpses: Our Dialog with the Dead in Museums. He spoke about our relationship and discomfort around post-mortem imagery, and how other cultures are ahead of us in terms of articulating an aesthetic of death, decay, and mortality.
  • Christine Colby discussed the issues for transgender people in how to preserve their identity in death and and the work that is being carried out to assist transgender people and their families and friends.
  • The formal presentations of the conference concluded with a session entitled Ask a Mortician LIVE. Two morticians, Sheri Booker and Caitlin Doughty (Death Salon co-founder), fielded audience questions about their work.

The talks were incredibly interesting and often quite inspiring (and even tear-provoking), and there was an enthusiastic audience of at least 200 people by my count (probably more). The engaging day-time programming was supplemented by some terrific evening events, including behind-the-scenes tours of the Mutter, a Death Ball with a performance of 15th-century funerary music by The Divine Hand Ensemble, murder ballad performances, and a Death Quizzo. This conference had some of the best opportunities for people-watching too. Unfortunately I didn’t capture many photos but if you’re interested you can see some on the Death Salon Instagram account.

Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I’m excited to be presenting at Death Salon: Mutter Museum on Monday afternoon.

Death Salon is an organization that was founded to “bring together intellectuals and independent thinkers engaged in the exploration of our shared mortality by sharing knowledge and art.” They hold annual events in the spirit of the 18th-century salon to encourage discussions on topics related to death, mortality, mourning, and their effects on culture and history.

The Mutter Museum event will be the fifth Death Salon – previous meetings were held in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and most recently at the Getty Villa.

Death Salon: Mutter Museum is kicking off tomorrow afternoon with a walking tour through 3 historic downtown 18th-century cemeteries, organized by the Obscura Society Philly. Tomorrow evening will be a VIP Death Ball (and gotta love this: the dress code is haute macabre). There will be 2 days of talks which begin on Monday morning, covering topics by a wide variety of speakers including osteologists, museum curators, scientists, medical examiners, artists, and musicians, and more (and me). I’ll be speaking about the conservation of Egyptian mummies at the Penn Museum and how this practice has evolved over time.

I’ll follow up sometime next week with a little recap of the talks and any other interesting tidbits, which there certainly will be.


Mysterious bits from Nespekashuti

I’ve written before about mysterious things we’ve found during conservation treatment of our mummies (see this blogpost about the stuff we found at the bottom of Wilfreda’s crate). As I’ve been working on Nespekashuti, I’ve found some puzzling little bits at the bottom of his coffin and caught in his linen wrappings.

Here are a couple piles of detached and in most cases completely deteriorated linen, which needed to be removed as I’ve worked on Nespekashuti:

Piles of deteriorated linen wrappings and other materials removed from Nespekashuti during conservation treatment.

Piles of deteriorated linen wrappings and other materials removed from Nespekashuti and his coffin during conservation treatment.

In these piles, I found the mysterious bits. Some of these things I can recognize, but figuring out exactly what they are and how and why they got there is another story.

Here are some photomicrographs:

Feathers found with  Nespekashuti, 7.5X magnification

Feathers found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

This first one is easy – these are feathers, of course – little grey plumaceous body feathers from who knows what kind of bird. There are some good resources out there for identifying feathers (see more info at the very bottom of our Learn More! page) but for little feathers like this, and non-experts like me, we need to resort to microscopic analysis by an expert from another institution in order to attempt identification. I did take some photomicrographs of the barbules from one of these feathers, which may be their most diagnostic feature, but again, I lack the experience necessary to make sense of what I’m seeing through the microscope. Just for fun, this is what the barbules look like:

Barbules of one feather found with Nespekashuti, 200x magnification.

Barbules of one feather found with Nespekashuti, 200x magnification.

We also found these:

Bird bones found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

Bird bones found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

and this:

Two fused bird vertebrae found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

Two fused bird vertebrae found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

These two images above show some tiny bones that were found in Nespekashuti’s coffin. I consulted Dr. Kate Moore, zooarchaeologist and Teaching Specialist in the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM). She confirmed that these are bird bones, and the second image shows two articulated bird vertebrae. Dr. Moore told me that upon her initial inspection, she thinks that they may have gone through a digestive tract (think:owl pellets, and that dissection you may have done in grade school!).

And then I found a bunch of this stuff:

Found with Nespekashuti - these look like mouse or rat droppings, 7.5X magnification

Found with Nespekashuti – these look like mouse or rat droppings, 7.5X magnification

These things look a lot like mouse or rat droppings, and there’s little bits of hair caught in some of them. No one said that working on mummies is for the faint of heart!

I also found some bits of cotton, tiny pieces of wood and plant materials, and even some broken glass. We can think of lots of good stories to explain why this stuff would be found with Nespekashuti, but in the end we’re not really sure. Like I said, we are reaching out to some experts about the feathers, so I’ll keep you posted if we learn more – identifying the feathers would be exciting, and could help explain how they got there!

Nespekashuti: aesthetic, ethical, and practical considerations

A shot of me working under the coffin.

The last time I wrote about Nespekashuti, I reported that I was working on stabilizing the painted decoration on the underside of his coffin. I did this with Nespekashuti in his coffin up on sawhorses, and by sitting on the floor to do the work. It wasn’t terribly uncomfortable, but it took a bit longer than I expected, and I’m pleased to say that I’m now finished with this part.

So now I have to turn to the step that I’ve really been putting off – the conservation of Nespekashuti himself. In conservation, we are faced with lots of decisions about the treatment of an artifact. Some of these decisions – whether or not to consolidate flaking or powdery paint, or whether or not to join pieces of a broken ceramic – are (usually) kind of no-brainers. The material choices are often not as simple – we regularly consider and test a wide variety of materials when making treatment decisions – but sometimes even choosing the materials to use is pretty straightforward. For instance, we almost exclusively use the same adhesive (Paraloid B-72) to mend ceramics, no matter where in the world they’re from or how old they are.

But sometimes the trickiest decisions are those that are the most subjective – whether or not to fill a loss for aesthetic reasons, how far to go when treating an object, etc. Fortunately, we rarely make these decisions on our own – we engage our curators, exhibitions team, and other specialists in order to determine a reasonable approach that meets the needs of the desired outcome as best as possible. There are a couple decisions I’ve had or have to make in the treatment of Nespekashuti and his coffin that fall into this category, and I thought I’d lay them out here for consideration (even if I’ve already made my decisions, more or less).

  1. Do I remove Nespekashuti from his coffin for treatment? This was a question I had to ask myself from the beginning. When we removed him from exhibit, I immediately knew that there were some major structural issues with both the mummy and his coffin that needed to be addressed as part of the treatment.
    Overall view of Nespekashuti before treatment, showing torn and deteriorated linen wrappings.

    Overall view of Nespekashuti before treatment, showing torn and deteriorated linen wrappings.

    Normally, when working on a mummy in a coffin, we take the mummy out, and work on both pieces separately. But if I have learned nothing else in my last 3 years in the Artifact Lab, I have learned that there is no such thing as “normal” when working on ancient Egyptian mummies. In Nespekashuti’s case, his remains and wrappings are so deteriorated that we can’t simply lift him out of his coffin without causing significant damage. Another option would be to encapsulate everything and flip the whole package over, and then lift the coffin away from the mummy. This is not out of the question, but I got to thinking, is this really necessary? What do we stand to gain by doing this? We can do all of the imaging we want to do (x-radiography, CT-scanning) with him in his coffin, and the coffin is helping to hold him together at the moment. If we did decide to remove him, how much loss is acceptable?  If we took him out, how easy will it be to get him back inside?  It would be way less than ideal if we couldn’t get him back inside the coffin post-treatment, or if doing so caused more damage. So I have made the decision not to remove him for treatment, and to see if it is possible to work on both Nespekashuti and his coffin as they are. But this is not necessarily a final decision – this is a decision that I’m constantly reevaluating as I carry out the treatment.

  2. And then there is the issue of his teeth.
    A detail of Nespekashuti, showing the damage to the wrappings over his mouth, exposing his teeth.

    A detail of Nespekashuti, showing the damage to the wrappings over his mouth, exposing his teeth.

    Do I cover his teeth or not? I consider this not just an aesthetic issue, but also an ethical one. The damage to the wrappings around his mouth is strange. It is not classic “tomb robbery” damage, which is typically seen on wrappings near the neck or chest, but it does appear to be intentional, at least in part. And certainly, his mouth/teeth were never meant to be exposed like this as part of his burial. Many people who visit the Artifact Lab are fascinated by seeing his teeth – I know there was a dentist in here the other day who was excited to see them. But it also seems to me that many people are somewhat distracted by the teeth – it’s hard to appreciate anything else when those teeth are just staring you in the face. I initially wasn’t thinking too much about this damage – it is quite stable, whereas there are many other areas of the wrappings that are terribly fragile and actively falling apart. And I’ve worked on other mummies with exposed body parts and I have not covered them up as part of the treatment. But I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Nespekashuti and it’s got me thinking – what responsibility to we have to him, and to the preservation of his remains, wrappings, and his burial? How do we want him to look when he goes back on display? This is not just my decision to make, but I have decided that it is my responsibility to provide an option – so I am planning to create a removable covering for the mouth, which I will present to our curators post-treatment. I like the idea of covering his mouth, but I will emphasize the fact that this covering will be removable, therefore, reversible. I haven’t made the covering yet, but I will certainly post some images once I do.

I’m curious to hear the opinions of others, so if you have thoughts about these questions and decisions, and any other considerations, please post them in the comment section below.

The right tools for the job

I often think about how a successful treatment depends on having the right tools and materials for the job. Here are some of the things that I have in front of me almost at all times in the Artifact Lab, and I use for many of the treatments I work on:

Tools labeledI’ve labeled them in the image, and I’ll list them below:

1. Silicone-release Mylar. This is Mylar film coated with silicone, which provides a non-stick material that is perfect for certain applications – I’m currently using it as a barrier between a painted surface that I’ve consolidated and the weight I’m applying to hold the area in place. The silicone-release Mylar prevents the area I’ve treated from sticking to the weight.

2. Weights of various sizes (and weights). This one (pictured above) is a favorite because it is so cute and looks like a Hershey’s kiss. It is made by our creative colleagues at Inherent Vice Squad. Check out their website by following this link: Don’t look drab in your lab!

3. Insect pins. These are very fine straight pins, which I often use to hold linen in place when carrying out treatment on mummies. At the moment, they are also coming in handy to unclog my syringe as I work on the treatment of Nespekashuti’s coffin. See this blogpost to read more about how these pins can be used. Okay, and just because I love the Inherent Vice Squad, and because these are called insect pins, I must also tell you that if you’re looking for a way to store your pins, you should check out their rad Museum Pest Voodoo Doll pincushions. I have no good excuse for not picturing one above, but I do have one for my sewing supplies at home.

4. Syringes with specialty tips. The two pictured here have two different types of tips: a narrow metal tip and a flexible plastic tip. The flexible plastic cannulae are especially useful for areas that are sensitive to abrasion or are difficult to access.

5. Fine-tipped brushes for consolidation and inpainting. I do a lot of work on painted surfaces, and often need to apply very small amounts of adhesive along cracks and under paint flakes (see video footage of paint consolidation here). We order our brushes from Blick.

6. Colour Shapers. I had never worked with Colour Shapers until I started working at the Penn Museum. I find these tools, which have a rubber composite tips of varying sizes, shapes, and degrees of firmness, especially useful for paint consolidation.

7. Fine-tipped tweezers. A good pair of fine-tipped stainless steel tweezers/forceps is a staple in a conservator’s toolkit. I was fortunate to get to keep the tweezers I was given to use in graduate school, and I use them daily in the Artifact Lab.

8. Stainless steel micro-spatula. Ditto my comment about fine-tipped tweezers above.

9. Scalpel handle. Ditto.

10. Small, sharp scissors. A third ditto.

11. Bone folder. Bone folders are made of bone (usually cattle) and are often used in conservation for making storage supports, folders, and handling trays – they provide just the right edge for scoring lines and creasing board and paper.

12. Bamboo (or wooden) skewer. We use bamboo skewers for all sorts of things in the lab. Their #1 use is probably for making cotton swabs but we also use them to clean objects, to fashion clamps and apply pressure to objects when carrying out treatment…and a whole host of other things. See this great blogpost on the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology’s blog to read about some examples.

13. Porcupine quill. I had heard about porcupine quills being used in conservation treatments but I had never had the chance to try one until a former Penn Museum intern gave me a porcupine quill as a gift a few years ago. We often have to scrape corrosion and compacted soil off artifacts and sometimes a porcupine quill provides just the right pressure without damaging the surface of an object. And not surprisingly conservators have found other uses too – see this blogpost for one example.

I’ll be interested in hearing if anyone reading this has a favorite tool or material – or supplier! Leave a comment here if you do! Oh, and one last plug for the Inherent Vice Squad: if you’re looking for a nice way to store or carry your tools, check out their really beautiful tool wraps and stand-up tool caddies.

High tech/low tech

We often talk about how we try to take advantage of new technologies whenever possible as part of the conservation examination and treatment of objects. It’s those new technologies that help us continue to learn and do more with objects that we have had for 100+ years. For example, even though x-ray radiography has been around since the late 19th century (see this image of the first radiograph ever captured in 1895) there have been major advances since then, including the development of computed tomography (CT-scanning) and digital radiography, so we frequently re-image objects that were x-rayed in the past to capture even more details (see this blogpost to see the recent radiographs we captured of our mummy Nespekashuti).

There are also many other new technologies that we use on a regular basis (at least in some instances), including our portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer (pXRF), our Mini-Crimescope, our Lynton laser cleaner, just to name a few.

Ron Almagno, a Forensic Instruments Specialist, shows our department some of the features of our Mini-Crimescope.

Ron Almagno, a Forensic Instruments Specialist, shows our department some of the features of our Mini-Crimescope.

But there are just as many, if not more, instances when the low-tech method or solution makes the most sense and gives the best, or just as satisfactory, results. I can provide many examples of this, but the latest low-tech approach that I’m taking in the Artifact Lab is figuring out how to examine and work on Nespekashuti and his coffin base.

I decided to tackle the treatment of Nespekashuti’s coffin before dealing with his remains. After working on all of the areas I could reach while it was sitting on a table, I realized that I needed access to the underside of the coffin. When I’ve worked on the back of other coffins, I first work on the exposed side and then flip the coffin over and work on the back (see a previous blogpost (including video footage!) Flippin’ coffins). The only problem with Nespekashuti and his coffin is that he is still inside, and I’m not ready to take him out yet (or ever…more on what I’m thinking about how to best preserve his remains in a future post). So, the best way to get at the underside was to put the coffin up on sawhorses, padded with Volara polyethylene foam.

Nespekashuti in his coffin up on sawhorses in the Artifact Lab.

Nespekashuti in his coffin up on sawhorses in the Artifact Lab.

This immediately allowed me to see some of the painted decoration on the underside, which I had never seen before:

Detail of the back of Nespekashuti's coffin

Detail of the back of Nespekashuti’s coffin

I’ll work on the areas that are exposed and then I can move the sawhorses around to document and work on the areas that are obscured at the moment.

I’ve started to stabilize the flaking gesso, lifting linen, and paint in the areas I can access, and I’m securing these areas while they dry with plastic wrap, silicone-release Mylar, pieces of Volara foam, archival board, and weights.

Detail of an area being secured with plastic wrap, foam, archival board, and weights.

Detail of an area being secured with plastic wrap, foam, archival board, and weights.

So there is nothing high-tech about what I’m doing with Nespekashuti in the lab at the moment, BUT the treatment will eventually allow us to do more high-tech things with him, like CT-scanning, multispectral imaging…and anything else that we can gain access to that may help us learn more about him.