The jar is gone !

Example of an Egyptian jar, complete (XVIIIth Dynasty).

Example of an Egyptian jar, complete (XVIIIth Dynasty).

After making some fills on the Egyptian demotic jar, two other steps remained to complete the treatment.

First: painting the fills. The goal is to tone the fills with a color matching the general shade of the ceramic, so as it doesn’t catch your eye when you’re looking at it from a few feet away. It has to be clearly distinguishable if you get a closer look.

Here is the result:

Untitled-2 Let’s have a closer view:

Untitled-3

Untitled-4

View of the 4 areas of the jar that were filled and toned.

Second step: making a storage box. The basic rules about storage-making are quite simple. The materials used to make the storage must be chemically neutral towards the object and their ageing must not threaten its condition. For example, some materials can deteriorate in a short-term time period and cause chemical reactions with the artifact they are supposed to protect, causing alterations.  That’s why conservators use materials that were approved by testing them, like submitting them to specific temperature or humidity settings. More details about storage materials can be found following this link.

To prevent this situation from happening, acid-free paper and cardboard, polyethylene foam and fabric, and other well-known conditioning materials are preferred.

Then, each object being different, the storage needs to be adapted to its needs (size, weight, material sensitivity…) but also to the room available in the storeroom itself ! Concerning the jar, it was about allowing its safe and easy handling and preventing it from rolling.  According to its weight, the cardboard used had to be quite strong.

Left: the box has a front side that opens and a small compartment (on the right) to store fragments that couldn't be glued to the jar.   On the right: The box with the front side closed.

Left: the box has a front side that opens and a small compartment (on the right) to store fragments that couldn’t be glued to the jar.
Right: The box with the front side closed.

The mount, so as the jar can safely be pulled out of the box.

The mount, so as the jar can safely be pulled out of the box.

Left: the jar in its new storage box... Right: ...ready to go back to the Egyptian storeroom.

Left: the jar in its new storage box…
Right: …ready to go back to the Egyptian storeroom.

Here ends the conservation treatment of the jar; it was brought back to the storerooms last week. But we still have new projects in the Lab !

A new challenge in the lab

I am always pleased to see returning visitors to the Artifact Lab. And of course, people who have been here before want to know, what’s new? Visiting the lab is the best way to find out about our latest projects and progress, but this blog is the next best thing.

So, what is new around here? Well, I’ll let you take a look for yourself:

shabti boxThis object was featured in the “What in the World” series on the museum’s Facebook page this week. There were a wide range of guesses as to what this is; my favorites being a breadbox, an Egyptian mail box, a papyrus organizer, a holder for cat mummies, and an ancient Egyptian Matchbox-car garage.

Seriously though, this is a shabti box. Here is a shabti box that is similar in style, at the British Museum. Shabti boxes were used to house shabti figures. Shabtis were included in burials as servant figures that would carry out heavy work on behalf of the deceased. They were depicted as mummified and were inscribed with spells which, when recited, magically caused them to come to life and perform work for the deceased in the afterlife. Here are 3 shabtis that were originally housed in our shabti box:

shabtisThe shabti box and shabtis are made of wood, covered with a thin layer of gesso, and painted. They are in the lab for treatment because their surfaces are actively flaking. Not only is the paint flaking, but there is a yellow-orange coating over the painted surface that is badly flaking as well.

This yellow-orange coating is applied over the entire surface of the shabtis and the box (inside and out), and it is very thick in areas.

A detail of the shabti box showing areas where the coating is particularly thick (pointed out here with the red arrows).

A detail of the shabti box showing areas where the coating is particularly thick (pointed out here with the red arrows).

My first question is, what is this coating? Is it an original varnish or is it a later restoration?

The box and the shabtis date to the New Kingdom, ca. 1200 BCE. We know that varnishes such as those containing pistacia resin were used on painted wood in the New Kingdom, and these varnishes often appear yellow, although they may not have been yellow when first applied. We also know that these varnishes were applied unevenly – the application of the pistacia resin varnish has even been described as “messy” and it is acknowledged that its purpose was not an aesthetic one, but rather intended to make such objects more divine, or suitable for the afterlife (Serpico and White 2001). This description may help explain the rather sloppy appearance of the yellow-orange varnish on our shabti box and figures.

We cannot, however, discount the idea that this coating may be a later restoration. We know that archaeologists frequently stabilized artifacts in the field to allow for their safe recovery. Materials such as paraffin wax, gelatin, shellac, and cellulose nitrate have been used for this purpose in the field or once the objects found their way into museum collections (like the wooden heads Laura has been working on).

There are several ways in which we can try to determine what this coating is and when it may have been applied. We already have some clues, but we’ll share those in an upcoming post. Stay tuned for updates as we learn more!

 

Ungluing, re-gluing and filling the jar.

Statuette of an egyptian potter at work (beginning of  the 2nd mill. B.C).

Statuette of an egyptian potter at work (beginning of the 2nd mill. B.C).

The next step for the Egyptian jar was un-gluing all the fragments …to glue them together again.

We had two different cases: fragments that remained adhered together and fragments that were already separated, bearing remains of an old adhesive on their edges. The old adhesive had to be removed since it had many negative issues. First, it prevented the fragments from being joined back together by creating an unnecessary thickness at their junction. Moreover, when reconstructing the ceramic, the old adhesive prevents the fragments from fitting together well.

This old adhesive had a light brown color and after a few tests, it was found to swell when warm water was applied on it.

Here is what it looked like:

Detail of the break edge of one of the fragments, after applying water steam.

Detail of the break edge of one of the fragments, after applying water steam.

To remove the adhesive from the break edges, we used a Preservation Pencil, a tool looking like a pen and emitting water steam. Once softened, the adhesive was very easily removed with a scalpel or a brush.

And here is the result :

The same fragment edge after the removal of the old adhesive.

The same fragment edge after the removal of the old adhesive.

For the fragments still adhered together, it was a little more difficult since the water had to penetrate inside the jar but not too much because of the water-soluble ink on the surface. Compresses, or poultices, of water were applied on the interior of the ceramic, to cover the breaks. Most of the fragmentsfell apart quite quickly contrary to areas where the jar was very thick.

Now the building could begin ! … well almost since it was necessary to plan precisely how to proceed and in which order to arrange the fragments. First, we had to find where each of them was going, to estimate the losses. For that purpose every fragment was given a number and they were located on a map so as to keep track of their location.

The map; the numbers were indicated on the fragments with blue scotch tape.

The map; the numbers were indicated on the fragments with blue scotch tape.

Then the gluing really began, using the conservator’s favorite adhesive: Paraloid B72, diluted in acetone.

First steps of the gluing.

First steps of the gluing.

The more the jar grew, the more it needed a support, first on the outside, since its bottom is rounded….

A good support was provided by this bucket filled with glass balloons, heavy enough to stabilize the jar.

A good support was provided by this bucket filled with glass balloons, heavy enough to stabilize the jar.

…then on the inside to prevent it from collapsing on itself because of some particularly heavy fragments.

The jar was growing and needed internal support; the white material inside is a plastic bag filled with polyethylene fiber.

The jar was growing and needed internal support; the white material inside is a plastic bag filled with polyethylene fiber.

Losses in the ceramic had to be filled at the same time as the gluing to provide structural support to the jar and prevent it from collapsing.  Moreover those areas to fill would have been difficult to reach once the gluing was complete.

There was one large loss that definitely needed to be filled since one of the surrounding fragments was holding by only a few millimeters to another one.

Filling this area was a bit tricky. The fill material needed a support to be applied on the jar. Japanese tissue paper was glued inside of it and strengthened by applying several layers of Paraloid B72. It also needed to be shaped according to the curve of the jar.

On the left: The area to be filled.                        On the right: Japanese tissue paper used as a support to hold the fill material.

On the left: The area to be filled.  On the right: Japanese tissue paper used as a  support to hold the fill material.

On the left: The inside of the jar with the "tricky fragment" held in place by the japanese tissue paper.   On the right: Applying the fill material.

On the left: The inside of the jar with the “tricky fragment” held in place by the japanese tissue paper. On the right: Applying the fill material.

The fill material used is a mixture of Paraloid B72 and glass micro-balloons, looking like a very light white powder; plaster is also traditionally used to fill losses, but glass micro-balloons are lighter and don’t bring any salts to the ceramic. That kind of fill is also reversible and completely neutral towards the ceramic.

Here’s the fill once finished and polished with a heat spatula, ready to be painted.

The fill almost finished: the building can go on.

The fill almost finished: the building can go on.

More fills and building to come in a next post !