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.