Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond…

While my colleagues are undertaking the exciting (and slightly daunting) task of conserving our 6500 year old Ubaid skeleton in the Artifact Lab, I am on my way to the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford to attend the conference “Understanding Egyptian Collections: Innovative display and research projects in museums.”

The conference will focus on innovative ways of conserving, displaying, understanding and interpreting Egyptian collections and will include presentations about the recent redevelopment of the Ashmolean’s Egyptian displays and conservation and research projects on Egyptian materials in museums around the world. I am speaking on the second day, about In the Artifact Lab, and about the experience of carrying out conservation on Egyptian mummies and objects in front of the public.

I’m looking forward to visiting the Ashmolean Museum for the first time, and for this opportunity to meet some of my colleagues and to hear first-hand about their exciting work. I will try to update the blog from the conference, but if you don’t hear from me, you’ll know I’m elbow-deep in conversations about conserving mummies and Egyptian artifacts!

 

6500 year-old Ubaid skeleton in Artifact Lab

blog1On August 5, 2014, Penn Museum’s PR team issued a press release titled “6,500-Year-Old Skeleton Newly “Discovered” in the Penn Museum”. The story caught the public imagination and spread throughout world news media like wildfire. Thanks to popular demand, the skeleton will be spending the next few weeks in the Artifact Lab, getting some long-overdue TLC.

To learn more about his past, read this post on the Museum’s blog.

The Ubaid skeleton will be on partial view while on a working table inside the glass-enclosed lab space, with some images and information provided on a video screen. As soon as conservators complete their work documenting, cleaning, and stabilizing the skeleton, it will move to a display case in front of the lab; then visitors will have an opportunity to get a very up-close view.

While the skeleton is inside In the Artifact Lab and later on display, visitors will have frequent opportunities to meet with a physical anthropologist or informed physical anthropology student to ask questions. From Saturday, August 30 through Sunday, September 14 (exception: Labor Day Monday, when the Museum is open), an expert will be on hand from 11 am to noon, and again from 1:00 to 2:00 pm. From September 16 through International Archaeology Day on October 18, a physical anthropologist or student will be on hand Tuesday through Sunday (exception: Wednesdays) from 1:00 to 2:00 pm.

 

A different sort of unwrapping…

by Alexis North, a project conservator spending the summer working with the Buddhist Murals Project, but who also has a strong interest in Egyptian materials. Read more about her work on Egyptian objects at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, here.

If any of you have visited the Artifact Lab in person, you may have heard us talk about how it was once popular to open or unwrap mummies, to see the body inside. Of course, this is no longer common practice, and we use non-invasive techniques such as x-radiography or CT scanning to see underneath a mummy’s wrapping without causing any damage or disturbance to the mummy’s current condition.

However, sometimes we are able to perform a slightly different kind of unwrapping, when items are found in storage in aging, opaque, or otherwise unsuitable housing conditions. Such was the case with this mystery item:

E12443, before opening and treatment

E12443, before opening and treatment

While it may look like Sunday’s dinner fresh from the butcher shop, it is actually supposed to be an ibis mummy. However, it has been wrapped in layers of tissue paper and plastic and you cannot see what the object actually looks like. While this type of storage is not damaging to the object, the fact that you cannot see the mummy inside makes this type of wrapping unsuitable. We always prefer to create storage supports or housings that allow researchers to easily see the objects without excessive handling. Therefore, this guy came up to the Artifact Lab for a little modern-day unwrapping.

E12443, after removing the plastic and tissue but before treatment

E12443, after removing the plastic and tissue but before treatment

And what a good-looking mummy it is! While we don’t have a lot of information about the age of this mummy, the intricate wrapping, which uses strips of both dyed and undyed linen, is typical of later periods in Egypt. It is also in very good condition, being just slightly dirty on the surface and having a few small areas of damage to the linen.

Detail images showing (1) a separated piece of linen wrapping on the top of the mummy, (2) a section of linen on the back torn and folded over, and (3) areas of loss which expose the ends of the woven linen underneath

Detail images showing (1) a separated piece of linen wrapping on the top of the mummy, (2) a section of linen on the back torn and folded over, and (3) areas of loss which expose the ends of the woven linen underneath

After gently cleaning the surface of the mummy using a vacuum and soft-bristled brush, I stabilized the areas of lifted or broken linen using Japanese tissue mends. Thin strips of tissue were toned brown using acrylic paint, then adhered underneath the lifting or broken areas using 2.5% methylcellulose adhesive in deionized water. I was able to reattach the broken piece of linen at the top of the mummy, and several sections of lifting wrappings which would be in danger of breaking, without stabilization.

I also humidified and reflattened the folded flap of linen on the back of the mummy. The opening caused by the folded flap was allowing fragments of the inner linen layers to break off and fall out. I used another Japanese tissue mend with methylcellulose to hold the reshaped flap in place.

Before (left) and after (right) flattening and readhering the flap of linen on the back of the ibis mummy

Before (left) and after (right) flattening and readhering the flap of linen on the back of the ibis mummy

Here are some images of the ibis mummy after I completed its treatment. I know it doesn’t look very different, and that happens a lot when treating archaeological objects. My goal wasn’t to improve or restore the mummy in any way, just make sure it could be safely handled and stored without any further damage.

    Images of (1) the top of the mummy, (2) the proper right side of the mummy, and (3) a detail of the reattached linen strip, after treatment

Images of (1) the top of the mummy, (2) the proper right side of the mummy, and (3) a detail of the reattached linen strip, after treatment

My last step was to make a new storage tray so the mummy can be easily seen and examined, without any wrappings besides the ones it came with!

The ibis mummy in its new storage mount

The ibis mummy in its new storage mount

 

Working In the Artifact Lab

by guest blogger Jessica Schwartz

I had always dreamed of becoming an archaeologist, but after meeting Molly Gleeson and working with her in the Artifact Lab, I now have a second love – archaeological conservation!

After traveling from my home in Atlanta to attend the Penn Museum Archaeology Camp for the last four years, it was last summer (2013) that I first had the opportunity to meet Molly. She saw me intently watching her every day, and took the time to introduce me to conservation of archaeological artifacts, and I became excited to learn more! Every day after camp ended, I rushed up to the Artifact Lab to talk with Molly and see what she was working on. After camp ended, I waited all year to have the chance to return to the Penn Museum in the summer and learn more about archaeological conservation. So, when I returned to the Penn Museum this July, 2014 for camp, I was very excited to see her again and, hopefully, even get a chance to work directly with her in the Artifact Lab.

I guess that dreams can come true, because I did have the opportunity to work together with Molly and also with other conservators, learning about conservation techniques for Egyptian mummies, textiles, scarabs, and even Chinese wall murals! Molly is a wonderful, patient and enthusiastic teacher, and she took the time to work with me on examining mummy cases, wooden coffin boards, an embalmed “falcon” (which may not really contain a falcon but plant materials instead), and even the remains of a 6000 year old mummy.

Jessica and Molly examine a Predynastic mummy in the Artifact Lab

Jessica and Molly examine a Predynastic mummy in the Artifact Lab

Molly explained the principles of archaeological conservation, including the importance of closely studying the object before working on it, determining what it is made of and its condition, working together with the archaeologists to find out its historical significance, and how and when it was stored. Then she uses a combination of scientific and artistic methods to determine how to stabilize the object for future preservation and study, and in some cases, to restore it to its previous condition. The entire time she records her findings the same way that a scientist records an experiment. Her work is a combination of archaeology, art history, chemistry, microscopy and science – it’s fascinating!

Molly introduced me to some of the other archaeological conservators working in the Artifact Lab. Sara worked together with me using the stereomicroscope examining fabric from a mummy wrapping – we discovered it was made of linen!

Jessica peering through the binocular microscope at a sample linen from a Predynastic mummy

Jessica peering through the binocular microscope at a sample of linen from a Predynastic mummy

Elizabeth taught me how to make impressions of scarabs (scarabs were popular amulets in Ancient Egypt – they often were inscribed with designs or hieroglyphs).

Making amulet impressions with Conservation Department pre-program intern Elizabeth Mauer

Making amulet impressions with Conservation Department pre-program intern Elizabeth Mauer

I also had the opportunity to see two pre-program interns – Cassia and Morgan – working with the large wall-sized Buddhist murals in the Chinese rotunda, and recording their condition before being conserved – much different from studying Egyptian artifacts! Although I asked many (too many!) questions, all of the conservators were kind and patient with me in explaining the answers.

I’ll be going back to the Penn Museum in a few months with my parents to attend the opening of a new exhibit, and when I return, you know where I’ll be… The Artifact Lab!

Jess_optivisor Jessica Schwartz is a budding archaeological conservator who lives with her parents in Atlanta, Georgia. She is 11 years old and attends The Children’s School.

 

Is there an archaeobotanist in the house?

Fortunately for us, the answer is yes.

Following up on my recent post about identifying the wood used to make this Middle Kingdom painted wooden coffin, I showed the images of the thin sections I cut from some detached wood fragments to Dr. Naomi Miller, our resident archaeobotanist. Dr. Miller typically deals with really degraded material, often tiny pieces of charcoal, so she was delighted to see that these samples showed enough information to make a more definite identification. AND, much to my delight, she confirmed my hunch that these boards are made of acacia.

Here are the images she used for comparison, found in Anatomy of European woods, by Fritz Hans Schweingruber.

acacia references

Reference images of Acacia cross-sections (left) and tangential sections (right)

And here they are, side-by-side with our samples:

wood comparison cross sections

In the cross-sections, we see pore multiples and uniseriate rays

wood comparison tangential sections

In the tangential sections, we see mostly uniseriate rays, with some biseriate rays.

We compared our samples’ images with images of ash and carob in the same book, since these were also candidates originally, but there were enough differences for us to exclude these as possibilities. It is possible that there is something that we are not considering, but I think that I’m convinced by this work that this coffin was made with acacia.