First step for the heads

Last week I introduced you to two wooden statue heads that I’m working on and promised to share the step by step process of their conservation.

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A first step in understanding these objects is gathering information about their past. As we said in the previous post, they are from Dendera and were discovered in 1898. The other questions were: Who discovered them? How and when did they arrive in Philadelphia? And more…

To address these questions, the best place to begin is the Museum Archives. I first checked Clarence Fisher’s field notebooks, since we know that he excavated in Dendera for the museum from 1915-1918, continuing the work begun by Charles Rosher and Flinders Petrie. An afternoon looking at (all!) of his notebooks revealed no leads. The other possibility was to refer to Petrie’s own field records; and here I found reference to the heads, or more precisely the “statuettes”, noted in his field notebook.

This page notes the “2 statuettes” at the foot of the coffin.
From Petrie Notebook n.15, p.30, courtesy and copyright of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

That mystery solved, we moved onto the next one. Included in the storage drawer with the wooden heads, we found a note indicating “2 wooden statuettes nearly consumed by white ants”.

laura blog 2 image2After a little more digging, I found that this was a quote from Petrie’s publication about Dendera, on p.10, paragraph 2…and the rest is still meaningless to us! In this publication Petrie indicates that the heads came from a secondary burial, belonging to a woman, under Adu II’s own funerary chamber.

Moreover, it unveiled a new clue: Petrie wrote that he discovered “statuettes” and not only their heads. That could imply the fact that they were still complete statues at the time of the excavation. It is possible that they were in such a poor condition that the archaeologist left the bodies and only took the heads. We definitely do not have any more parts of these statues in our collection – after checking, no “spare bodies” are registered in the Egyptian storerooms of the Penn Museum.

All of this may seem to be only details but it is essential information for a conservator: the fact that W.M.F. Petrie discovered the heads is highly interesting, because he most likely treated them in the field. He published a book where he explains his practical way of applying a “first-aid” treatment to damaged artifacts (Methods and aims in Archaeology, 1904) which may provide critical information for us! Indeed, knowing this will allow the conservator to be aware of what kind of material was added to the original object and how to deal with it.

My investigation into these old treatment materials will be the topic of a post to come!

 

About two wooden Egyptian heads…

“You have a wonderful job!” It’s a sentence that a conservator often hears. But what is really this incredible job? I propose to you to have a closer look at what a conservator usually does by following step by step the conservation of two artifacts recently arrived in the Artifact Lab.

Laura blogpost1Not really the glamorous objects you imagine when you think about Ancient Egypt, right? But they can reveal so many things to us.

Let’s begin with all what we knew when they arrived in the Lab: these artifacts are two Egyptian wooden statue heads. They bear remains of polychromy (blue and red painting) and have inlaid eyes. In their storage drawer were three labels: one quoting a publication about Dendera (the place where they were excavated) describing the heads, and two others mentioning a previous treatment in 1965 with an adhesive called Vinylite.  Other information about these objects came from our curators, who knew that the heads are from the site of Dendera, more precisely the mastaba of Adu II, excavated by Flinders Petrie, a famous British archaeologist. Moreover, the heads are from the Sixth dynasty (2374-2140 BCE). That’s all we knew about those two heads before beginning our work !

Let’s have a closer look at them…

Left: one of the wooden heads viewed in profile Right: a front view of the other wooden head

Left: one of the wooden heads viewed in profile.  Right: a front view of the other wooden head.

A long quest is ahead and we’re only starting to think about an appropriate conservation treatment. Indeed, before any scalpel reaches their surface, we need to gather as much information as possible about the artifacts. Stay tuned to hear more about our discoveries and the decisions that we make based on what we learn.

 

A new face in the lab

Last week I introduced you to our baby boy mummy, and this week I have another introduction to make. But unlike most of the Artifact Lab occupants, our newest addition is very much alive! Laura Galicier is a graduate student studying conservation at the University of Paris Pantheon-Sorbonne, and she recently arrived in Philadelphia to start a 7-month internship In the Artifact Lab.

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Laura examining a wooden statue head under the binocular microscope

A couple of the things that you may wonder are, did she know that this internship would involve being on display all of the time, and, as a conservator-in-training, how does she feel about having to answer so many questions about Egypt? Well, the answer to the first question is that she was very well-aware of the open nature of the lab because she found out about us through this blog, and had seen photos of the lab and read about our daily interactions with the public. So she can’t say that she didn’t know what she was getting herself into!

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Laura is a quick-study, and is already doing a beautiful job of fielding questions from visitors during our open window sessions.

Furthermore, Laura is more knowledgeable than most conservators about Egypt, because before starting her conservation studies, she completed a Master’s in Archaeology with a specialization in Egyptology. She has also worked in Egypt, at the Karnak Temple Complex.

While she is here at the Penn Museum Laura will be working on several projects in the lab, one which will be the subject of her dissertation. I’m not going to say anything else about it here – I will let Laura tell you all about her work in an upcoming blogpost. In the meantime, I hope your curiosity is piqued by these images (above, at the microscope, and below) of her examining a pair of wooden statue heads. Expect to hear more about them from Laura here on the blog, and if you visit the lab, you may have a chance to chat with her about her projects.

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Laura positioning a wooden statue head under the portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer (pXRF)

Examinations of a baby boy mummy

I think it’s about time we introduce you to a special occupant of the Artifact Lab.

This baby boy mummy, who dates to the Third Intermediate Period (1075-656 BCE), has been in our collection since 1898, when he was donated to the museum by Dr. Henry Shurtleff.

Photograph of the baby boy mummy from the museum Archives

Photograph of the baby boy mummy ca. 1930

In the University’s 1898-1899 Annual Report of the Provost to the Board of Trustees, it states that Dr. Shurtleff presented the infant mummy to the museum on Christmas Day, as an “admirably preserved specimen and an interesting pathological subject”.

It seems that this mummy came into the collection unwrapped – he only has small amounts of textile preserved on his body (and there is currently no evidence that the cloth partially covering his body in the image above is related to his remains, but this remains to be determined). While the fact that he is unwrapped is unfortunate, it allows us to see how well preserved his remains are and evidence of how his body was mummified, including evisceration through an incision on the left side of his torso.

The open incision on the left side of his body reveals a mostly empty body cavity, containing small bundles of linen.

The open incision on the left side of his body reveals a mostly empty body cavity, containing small bundles of linen.

A CT scan in 2009 further reveals how this boy’s body was mummified, and also reveals damage not visible from the exterior. For example, it is clear that his brain was removed, likely through the nose (but due to the small side of his nasal bones it is not possible to see evidence of this). The scan also reveals a large hole in the left lower side of his skull, and the piece of missing bone resting inside his skull.

Two CT still images show the child mummy's skull with a piece of bone resting inside the cranium (left) and the hole on the lower left side (right).

Two CT still images show the child mummy’s skull with a piece of bone resting inside the cranium (left) and the hole created as a result of this loss (right).

Oddly, this damage to his skull is not visible from the exterior, but it may be the result of trauma. His cause of death has still not been determined, but this damage may provide a clue.

The information from the CT scan tells us that this child was less than 2 years of age when he died, based on the fact that his fontanelle (the soft spot) is still open, and also on the development of his teeth.

The open fontanelle on the top of the baby's head is indicated in these 2 images with blue arrows.

The open fontanelle on the top of the baby’s head is indicated in these 2 images with blue arrows.

The excellent preservation of his body is not the only remarkable thing about this baby boy. While examining his remains, we noticed traces of a green substance in areas, including on his face and fingers.

A detail of the green substance under the boy's right eye (left) and an overall view of the boy's face, highlighting the locations of the green substance in green (right)

Left: A detail of the green substance under the boy’s right eye. Right: An overall view of the boy’s face, highlighting the locations of the green substance in a brighter green color.

This substance resembles copper corrosion, and it may either be corrosion from copper that was once in contact with his body (during burial), or may be traces of a green copper-based pigment. How do we know this green substance is copper-based? We tested it with our portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer, which showed high peaks for copper in these areas.

While we’re still working to interpret some of this information, I can tell you one thing for certain: this baby boy mummy sure is special. And if you visit the lab, you just might catch a glimpse of him.