X-raying fragments of a painted wooden coffin

I recently completed the treatment of these coffin board fragments.

E12617A-C, boards from a painted wooden coffin, before treatment

E12617A-C, boards from a painted wooden coffin, before treatment

In addition to the cleaning, which I blogged about before, the treatment involved stabilization of loose and powdery gesso and paint, filling losses where needed for structural support, and x-radiography, multispectral imaging, and portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) analysis. It has also enabled a translation of the text. I’m going to write a few shorter posts to highlight the different components of this project, starting with the x-radiography.

During my initial examination of the boards, I could see that the boards represent just a portion of the front, head end of the coffin. The rest of this side of the coffin would have continued much further to the left, but at some point these pieces were cut down and finished off on the left side to a smooth edge. This is most evident when you look at the hieroglyphic text, which obviously should continue to the left.

I could see that these 3 boards were originally joined with wooden dowels, because there are wooden dowels protruding from the join edges. I also noted some large cracks in the painted surface of the largest (center) piece in the image above, which led me to realize that this central piece was made of more than 1 piece of wood. I turned to x-radiography to get a better understanding of what is going on below the surface.

Here is a composite image showing the radiographs of the 3 boards:

E12617A-C x-ray image

E12617A-C x-ray image

The dowels joining the 3 pieces together are very clear in the x-ray image above. There are some darker (almost black) areas, which represent the holes that were drilled out for inserting the dowels. The denser (whiter) areas within those voids are the wooden dowels themselves. I’ve outlined these areas in green in the image below.

E12617xraymapped-1The x-ray image also helps clarify how the center piece is constructed, with 3 pieces of wood, which I’ve outlined in red above. Where those 3 pieces of wood join correspond directly with the cracks observed in the painted surface on the exterior.

Also visible in the x-ray image are two small nails driven into the lower edge of the bottom board. These nails are historic additions, likely added at the time when the boards were cut down and modified, although their purpose is unknown.

In my next post, I’ll focus on what cleaning, pXRF, and multispectral imaging has revealed about the painted surface, and I’ll include some after-treatment images.

 

We love ugly objects too!

Last week, I posted some photos of a beautiful stola coffin lid that I’m working on at the moment, and I mentioned that this lid might be my new favorite object. I now somehow feel a need to post images of some objects that aren’t necessarily as pretty, but I want to assure you that we’ll give them just as much lovin’ here in the conservation lab.

A Nubian jar, ca. 100 BCE-300 CE and ivory horn protectors from Kerma (Sudan), ca. 1650-1550 BC

A Nubian jar, ca. 100 BCE-300 CE and ivory horn protectors, Kerma (Sudan), ca. 1650-1550 BCE

A cat mummy head, unwrapped, Thebes, ca. 664-332 BCE

Cat mummy head, unwrapped, Thebes,                 ca. 664-332 BCE

Sections of a beaded mummy shroud covered in wax

Sections of a beaded mummy shroud covered in wax, Egypt, exact site and date unknown

I also feel the need to mention that I don’t just love pretty objects. My most favorite “object” that I’ve worked on here in this lab in not an object at all, but a mummy – our Predynastic mummy Bruce, and I don’t think anyone would call him pretty. But please don’t take that the wrong way (I don’t think he would be offended either). My interest in him goes way beyond his looks.

I promise to post photos of what the objects in the images above look like before they leave the conservation lab. Conservator Alexis North will be working on these pieces (along with some help from our interns) in the upcoming weeks.

This post was inspired in part by a great blogpost on the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s blog, “Ugly Object of the Month“. Enjoy!

 

Observations of a stola coffin lid

As if there is not enough up here (see our recent post about the Egyptian storage move and associated conservation work), this week we brought another quite large object into the lab, and it might be my new favorite object up here.

The lid of our yellow stola coffin

The lid of our* yellow stola coffin

This is the lid that belongs to the late 21st/22nd Dynasty yellow coffin base which we recently treated here in the Artifact Lab. Due to its previous location in storage, I hadn’t been able to take a close look at it until this week. Now that I’ve gotten to spend a few days with the lid, I’ll tell you that it’s total eye candy. If you were impressed by the painted decoration on the base, the lid will give you even more to get excited about.

I only just started to examine and document the lid and I will continue to update the blog as I work on this object, so today I’m just going to mention a few things about it, and some of my favorite details so far.

First of all, you may have noticed that I referred to this as a “stola” coffin in the image caption above. The term “stola” refers to the narrow red band depicted on the coffin that encircles the neck and crosses over the chest and over the oversize collar. Both the presence of the stola and the oversize collar have been recognized as distinctive of the late 21st/early 22nd Dynasty (see other examples and explanations here and here, and special thanks to Dr. Kara Cooney at UCLA for information as well).

The figure depicted on this coffin used to have a beard, which is now missing, but there is a hole in the chin indicating that it was once there.

Detail of the hole in the chin

Detail of the hole in the chin

The arms are depicted as being crossed over the chest and the hands are made of separate pieces of wood. The hands on this coffin are clenched and I have read that this is reserved for male coffins while females are depicted with hands open and lying on their chests. I’m assuming the fisted hands mean that this coffin belonged to a man, but I’ll have to check with our Egyptologists to confirm, since I cannot translate any of the text myself. I also really like the fact that the thumbnails are painted in:

Detail of the left hand

Detail of the left hand and thumb

What else can I say about it? Well, it is beautifully painted and also varnished just like the base with a yellow-colored pistacia resin. This pistacia resin causes many of the areas painted blue to appear green:

Much of the blue lines on the wig appear green, but in areas where there is no varnish, you can see the blue color of the paint.

Many of the lines on the wig appear green, but in areas where there is no varnish you can see the blue color of the paint.

There is a thick layer of dust on the surface of the coffin, but I can tell it’s going to clean up well. Check out the embossed details in this raking light image, which were built up with gesso:

Detail of the embossed designs on the central part of the lid

Detail of the embossed designs on the central part of the lid

This is going to be a fun object to work on! I’m looking forward to getting started with the treatment.

* I should clarify that this coffin technically belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) but has been on long-term loan to us for nearly a century. We received this coffin as part of an exchange of objects between our 2 institutions in the 1930s. I am carrying out the treatment in close consultation with the conservators at the PMA.

Wax on, wax off

In my last post, I briefly described the Egyptian storage move project currently underway. And I also promised to feature some of the objects that are in the lab as a part of this project. As conservators, we get excited by lots of things, so I really can’t post images of every single object that comes into the lab, but we will try to post as much as we can here, on Twitter, and on the museum’s Facebook page.

Earlier this week, Alexis brought a drawer of beadwork up to the lab, and this is one of the pieces she found in that drawer:

A piece of beaded fringe that recently came to the Artifact Lab for conservation/re-housing.

A piece of beaded fringe that recently came to the Artifact Lab for conservation/re-housing.

Huh. Not the prettiest object I’ve ever seen. But just wait…

Partially cleaned beadwork

Partially cleaned beadwork

Under that dark material (which is wax) the beadwork is beautiful! We actually see a lot of beadwork in our collection that has been coated with wax, which has now discolored to a dark brown, completely obscuring the colors of the beads. Coating beads with wax was a method used by archaeologists to remove beadwork from mummies during excavation, in order to maintain the correct arrangement of the beads, since the original linen threads were usually mostly deteriorated. In the case of this beadwork, shown above, it was not only waxed, but affixed to a piece of cardboard. Alexis is currently cleaning the wax off the beads and she will eventually re-house this piece for safe transport to the off-site storage location.

Another cool detail – she found this, written on the back of the cardboard:

HapimenbeadsIt says: “E16220B. Bead fringe of Hapi-men, Pl. LXXIX Abydos. From mummy buried with his dog.” This small piece of beadwork belongs to our mummy Hapi-Men, who is currently on exhibit with his dog! Hapi-Men and Hapi-puppy were excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie from Abydos in 1902. You can read more about Hapi-Men and some of our research about him here and here.

 

Treasures from Egyptian storage

If you have visited the Artifact Lab in the last couple weeks, you may have noticed that we have a few more objects out than usual, and often, an additional conservator working in here.

A few objects that were brought to the Artifact Lab recently for conservation treatment before they are moved off-site.

A few objects (stone, cartonnage, ceramics) that were brought to the Artifact Lab recently for conservation treatment before they are moved off-site.

The new objects were recently brought up from Egyptian storage by conservator Alexis North, who was previously here as a graduate intern, and now is working as the new Project Conservator for the inventory and move of our Egyptian collections to an off-site facility.

Due to construction that will be happening at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), which is adjacent to the museum, certain storerooms and galleries will be affected and as a result, the entire Egyptian collection in storage (with some exceptions) must be moved off-site for the duration of the project. This move requires a new inventory of the collection and also that everything be examined and stabilized, through conservation treatment and/or packing solutions, which will benefit the collection greatly. In addition, emptying the Egyptian storerooms will allow us to carry out a much-needed renovation of these areas, so that when the collections return, they will be housed in a much better protective environment.

We will try to feature some of the more interesting objects that come up to the lab as a part of this project on the blog, but if you do have a chance to stop by the Artifact lab this summer, you’ll be in for a treat, I assure you, because we will be working on some pretty amazing things.

This faience beaded collar is just one of the beautiful beaded objects that came into the lab recently as part of the move project.

This faience beaded collar is just one of the beautiful beaded objects that came into the lab recently as part of the move project.

 

The treatment of (half of) a yellow coffin

This week, we finally finished the treatment of the lower half of our 21st/early 22nd Dynasty yellow coffin.

A view of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

A view of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

The treatment mostly involved cleaning the interior surfaces to remove dust using a soft brush and HEPA-filtered vacuum, and cosmetic sponges. Here’s another view to give you a better sense of just how much grime had accumulated in the interior of the coffin:

A detail of the head of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

A detail of the head of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

There was also a fair amount of flaking and lifting paint, which needed to be stabilized. We used 1-2% methylcellulose in 50:50 water/ethanol to consolidate flaking paint, and Japanese tissue paper and 5% methylcellulose to fill gaps.

In the course of the treatment, I have also continued to research the significance of the holes drilled into the bottom of the coffin, which can clearly be seen in the overall images at the top of this post, but here is another look:

An overall shot of the coffin bottom, with a detail of 4 of the holes below.

An overall shot of the coffin bottom, with a detail of 4 of the holes.

I’m anxious to start working on the lid of this coffin, which will inevitably provide more information about this object and it’s history. We should be able to bring the lid from storage up to the lab sometime this summer, and I’ll post images of it as soon as it arrives. In the meantime, I have enjoyed researching these types of coffins and finding images of similar ones in other collections (like this one at the Petrie Museum, this one at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and this “remuddled” coffin at Stanford University) which is helping me gain a better understanding of these coffins and the contexts in which they were made.

Looking inside Nespekashuti

A few weeks ago I introduced you to Nespekashuti, a New Kingdom mummified man who we recently removed from display in our mummy room for conservation treatment. Even though we’ve had Nespekashuti and his coffin since 1893, we have very little information in our database about him. Working on his remains in the Artifact Lab is providing an opportunity to take a much closer look and to learn more about him.

Overall view of Nespekashuti before treatment

Overall view of Nespekashuti before treatment

One of the first things we decided to do was to x-ray his remains using our new digital radiography equipment. Although Nespekashuti looks pretty well-wrapped (despite his teeth being exposed), this is what we see under the wrappings:

X-ray of Nespekashuti (image created by stitching several x-rays together)

X-ray of Nespekashuti (image created by stitching several radiographs together)

As you can see, there are some big empty spaces (areas that are completely black), especially the neck and upper chest area, and there are areas where bones are completely disarticulated and appear to be piled on top of each other. We’re not really sure why this would be, but we have some ideas. Dr. Janet Monge, our physical anthropologist, is currently taking a closer look at the x-ray images in order to draw some conclusions about the bones and their condition, which may help us better understand why they are a bit of a jumbled mess…not unlike another mummy we recently treated and x-rayed, Pinahsi.

In the meantime, I’ve started the conservation treatment, which I’ll be sure to report on as I make progress.

A tiny mystery mummy

Yesterday we x-rayed mummies of 2 extremes: a full-sized human mummy (Nespekashuti), and a tiny mystery mummy:

mystery mummy

This tiny mummy is about 2″ wide and 5″ long, and easily fits into one of my hands.

We already had the x-ray tube warmed up for capturing images of Nespekashuti, so we figured we’d zap this little mummy while we were at it, to find out what is underneath those wrappings. We had lots of guesses, but ultimately, none of us guessed correctly.

Here is one of the x-ray images:

An x-ray image of our tiny mystery mummy

An x-ray image of our tiny mystery mummy

We had 3 conservators in the room when this image popped up on the computer screen, and we were immediately puzzled. Bird? Definitely not. Crocodile? No. Mouse? Nope. Cat? Again, a no. Could it be a…dog? We knew that the 3 of us non-experts couldn’t say anything with any certainly, so we called in the big guns…in the form of zooarchaeologist Dr. Kate Moore, who has helped us with some of our other animal mummies in the past.

Dr. Moore spent some time looking at the images, and then looking at some x-ray images of immature dogs (puppies!). She was troubled by a few things, including the fact that we can’t see any teeth and that the animal appears to have only 1 leg, also the length of the spine and front paws/feet, but ultimately concluded, based on the x-ray images that we captured, that this is indeed a puppy, who died right around the time it was born.

Based on its size, I don’t think any of us expected this tiny mummy to contain a dog, but it’s not surprising that we would have a dog mummy in our collection, since millions have been found in Egypt, notably in the Dog Catacombs of Saqqara. And this isn’t the only puppy mummy in our collection – if you visit the museum, you can see Hapi-puppy on exhibit, displayed at the feet of his owner, Hapi-men, both of which have been CT-scanned. A CT-scan of our newly-discovered puppy mummy would provide greater detail and a better understanding of this tiny animal, and would help make a more certain identification. We’ll be sure to update the blog with any new findings if we are able to do some more imaging.

 

ARCE’s 66th Annual Meeting

Last week, I attended the 66th Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), which was in Houston, Texas. I was invited by Dr. David Silverman, Curator-in-Charge of the Egyptian Section, to speak on a panel on the Bersheh funerary equipment of Ahanakht, which we have been working on here in the Artifact Lab. When the Artifact Lab opened in fall 2012, we began working on this material, which included conservation and a full transcription, translation, and analysis of the inscribed texts.

The panel at ARCE included Dr. Silverman, who spoke about the discoveries that he has made about Ahanakht’s funerary equipment, including translations of the texts on the outer coffin and the discovery of canopic box pieces, previously thought to be pieces of an offering box, or additional pieces of the coffins. Leah Humphrey, a PhD student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, presented her work on the transcription and translation of the edge inscriptions on the outer coffin boards. I spoke about the conservation of the boards, and the technical study that we have carried out to better understand their materials and technology (my presentation was co-authored by Alexis North, another conservator in our department).

Leah Humphrey, presenting at the ARCE annual meeting

Leah Humphrey, presenting at the ARCE annual meeting

In addition to our panel, there were two sessions devoted to ongoing work in Abydos, which included presentations by Dr. Josef Wegner, who spoke about the recent discovery of the pharaoh Senebkay, Dr. Jane Hill, who presented the forensic examination of Senebkay’s remains, and two Penn graduate students, Paul Verheist and Shelby Justl, who spoke about projects related to the excavations and finds from the recent seasons in Abydos.

It was my first time attending the conference, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing all the talks and meeting lots of new people. A PDF containing the full list of speakers and abstracts (in the 2015 abstract booklet) can be found here.

While in Houston, I also had the opportunity to visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), and in particular, their recently-installed Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Entrance to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Entrance to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Another view of one of the galleries in the Hall of Ancient Egypt

Another view of one of the galleries in the Hall of Ancient Egypt

The exhibit was very impressive, and consists of objects from the HMNS collection, but also large loans from institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Michael C. Carlos Museum, and the Egyptian collection at Chiddingstone Castle. I was especially interested to see some objects similar to those I have worked on or am working on in the Artifact Lab, including this falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, which is similar to our own corn mummy and coffin:

A falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum

A falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum

and the coffin of Neskhons, made of painted wood, from the Third Intermediate Period, and similar to the painted wooden coffin currently in the lab:

The coffin of Neskhons, on loan to HMNS from a private collection

The coffin of Neskhons, on loan to HMNS from a private collection

I left the ARCE meeting feeling invigorated to return to work, not only because I was relieved that my presentation was behind me, but mostly because of the new things that I learned, arming me with new resources, questions, and directions to take in my own projects. I think this is the best that you can hope for when attending a conference!

 

Meet Nespekashuti

When we returned Pinahsi to exhibit on Monday, we swapped him for another mummy in the same case, a mummified man named Nespekashuti.

Nespekashuti's coffin lid (far left) and Nespekashuti in his coffin box (at foot of lid)

Nespekashuti’s coffin lid (far left) and Nespekashuti in his coffin box (at foot of lid)

Unlike Pinahsi, we actually have Nespekashuti’s coffin (see image above), and we brought him into the lab in the coffin box. The lid will remain on exhibit for the meantime, but it will eventually also come to the Artifact Lab for treatment.

We have had Nespekashuti since 1893 – his remains and coffin were purchased from Emile Brugsch, a German Egyptologist and assistant curator at the time at the Bulaq Museum (now the Egyptian Museum).

Nespekashuti in his coffin in the lab.

Nespekashuti in his coffin in the lab.

We know this mummy’s name because the following is written on his coffin: “of the singing-master of Min, Nespekashuti, son of the singing-master of Min, Nespeneb…”. We can see his name in several places on the box – here is a detail:

Nespekashuti's name is boxed in red

Nespekashuti’s name is boxed in red

We have a lot more to learn about Nespekashuti, and as far as conservation treatment goes, I have my work cut out for me.