What is under the paraffin ?

Egyptian wooden statue of Ka-Aper, also named  the Sheikh-el-beled, from the Vth Dynasty, decorated with inlaid eyes.

Egyptian wooden statue of Ka-Aper, also named
the Sheikh-el-beled, from the Vth Dynasty,
decorated with inlaid eyes.

Quite a while ago, we dealt with the treatment chosen for the two Egyptian wooden heads and now it’s time to talk about its results. Let’s focus on the cleaning of the surface: the goal was to remove the paraffin that certainly masked other remains of the painted layer.

First of all, we have to talk about the notion of original surface and original level.

> The original surface is composed of the original materials, before they were buried and underwent an alteration process. Concerning the heads, it corresponds to the paint layer they were decorated with.

> The original level is a layer of altered material that took the place of the original material but remained at the same level as the original surface. A good way to understand this is to think about a fossil: it is no longer the original animal, insect or plant made of flesh, bones, shell that it used to be…but you can still identify its shape since it was precisely petrified by another material. That’s what we can call the original level of an object surface.

Nouvelle image (2)It was necessary to define what the original level was on the heads, so as to know how deep the cleaning could go. It had to keep its meaning regarding the object itself. The paint layer was a good clue since these colored patches were all that remained from the original surface. As far as we could see, the rest of the surface was more or less corresponding to the original level. Indeed, there was no important gap between the painted areas and the present surface.

Sans titre - 1

Original surface and original level near the wig of E17911, x7.5 magnification.

Another issue with paraffin was to think about how much of it we wanted to remove. Indeed, this sticky layer seemed to be what was holding the elements of the current surface together. That was especially true about the painted areas. Concerning the wood, we could only suppose that the paraffin had penetrated inside on a few millimeters only (thanks to a few articles that were published and gave estimations of paraffin migration inside archaeological wood) since we had no way to obtain an accurate estimation of this. Therefore, we didn’t want to remove it completely from the wood because it could threaten its stability and cause the wood to crumble.

That’s why the cleaning began with the known rather than with the unknown: the painted areas were cleaned from the paraffin that covered them. Thus, we could see their real extent. However, the pigments remain stuck in a thin paraffin layer but their legibility was improved, as you can see on these pictures:

Pictures of E17911’s right cheek before and after cleaning, x7.5.

Pictures of E17911’s right cheek before and after cleaning, x7.5 magnification

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Pictures of E17910’s chin before and after cleaning, x7.5 magnification.

E17910’s right eye, before and after cleaning.

E17910’s right eye, before and after cleaning.

Then began the exploration of the unknown side of the heads, meaning the rest of the surface, where the presence of areas of paint was only a supposition.

This part of the work was really the longest since we couldn’t know what to expect under the paraffin and sediment layer. Some days, only a centimeter square could be cleaned ! Cleaning was carried out using a binocular microscope, in order to see precisely what happened under the scalpel blade and to be able to stop whenever it was necessary.

We found some new paint areas, generally rather small, sometimes buried under a rather important depth of sediment.

Example of two new painted areas on E17911, on the wig (on the left) and next to the right ear (on the right).

Example of two new painted areas on E17911, on the wig (on the left) and next to the right ear (on the right).

The biggest surprise happened with E17910 :

E17910 before and after treatment: a wig is now visible.

E17910 before and after treatment: a wig is now visible.

Close-up on the wig on the right part of E17910.

Close-up on the wig on the right part of E17910.

E17910’s face before and after, with other remains of a wig.

E17910’s face before and after, with other remains of a wig.

The cleaning allowed us to reveal a wig on the right side of E17910 and some other elements belonging to it on the face. We now know more details about the heads and they are almost able to be studied.

See you at our next post to learn more about the remaining steps of this treatment.

  • Carole Brodkin

    Kate,
    I’m sure you know that acrylic paint can be thinned to a transparent state. However, the most common way of doing this is to dilute the pigment with water until it becomes transparent. When that is done the pigment can not easily adhere to a surface because it doesn’t have enough resin. You may also know that there is a resin medium commonly used by airbrush artist that is colorless and doesn’t need to be thinned with water to be transparent. When it dries the pigment can easily adhere to a surface due to the amount of resin in the transparent medium.

    I have found this medium to be a wonderful tool in my art. In your valuable and delicate work it may work or it may not be of use. Just thought I would pass it along.