The treatment of (half of ) a yellow coffin

This week, we finally finished the treatment of the lower half of our 21st/early 22nd Dynasty yellow coffin.

A view of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

A view of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

The treatment mostly involved cleaning the interior surfaces to remove dust using a soft brush and HEPA-filtered vacuum, and cosmetic sponges. Here’s another view to give you a better sense of just how much grime had accumulated in the interior of the coffin:

A detail of the head of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

A detail of the head of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

There was also a fair amount of flaking and lifting paint, which needed to be stabilized. We used 1-2% methylcellulose in 50:50 water/ethanol to consolidate flaking paint, and Japanese tissue paper and 5% methylcellulose to fill gaps.

In the course of the treatment, I have also continued to research the significance of the holes drilled into the bottom of the coffin, which can clearly be seen in the overall images at the top of this post, but here is another look:

An overall shot of the coffin bottom, with a detail of 4 of the holes below.

An overall shot of the coffin bottom, with a detail of 4 of the holes.

I’m anxious to start working on the lid of this coffin, which will inevitably provide more information about this object and it’s history. We should be able to bring the lid from storage up to the lab sometime this summer, and I’ll post images of it as soon as it arrives. In the meantime, I have enjoyed researching these types of coffins and finding images of similar ones in other collections (like this one at the Petrie Museum, this one at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and this “remuddled” coffin at Stanford University) which is helping me gain a better understanding of these coffins and the contexts in which they were made.

Looking inside Nespekashuti

A few weeks ago I introduced you to Nespekashuti, a New Kingdom mummified man who we recently removed from display in our mummy room for conservation treatment. Even though we’ve had Nespekashuti and his coffin since 1893, we have very little information in our database about him. Working on his remains in the Artifact Lab is providing an opportunity to take a much closer look and to learn more about him.

Overall view of Nespekashuti before treatment

Overall view of Nespekashuti before treatment

One of the first things we decided to do was to x-ray his remains using our new digital radiography equipment. Although Nespekashuti looks pretty well-wrapped (despite his teeth being exposed), this is what we see under the wrappings:

X-ray of Nespekashuti (image created by stitching several x-rays together)

X-ray of Nespekashuti (image created by stitching several radiographs together)

As you can see, there are some big empty spaces (areas that are completely black), especially the neck and upper chest area, and there are areas where bones are completely disarticulated and appear to be piled on top of each other. We’re not really sure why this would be, but we have some ideas. Dr. Janet Monge, our physical anthropologist, is currently taking a closer look at the x-ray images in order to draw some conclusions about the bones and their condition, which may help us better understand why they are a bit of a jumbled mess…not unlike another mummy we recently treated and x-rayed, Pinahsi.

In the meantime, I’ve started the conservation treatment, which I’ll be sure to report on as I make progress.

A tiny mystery mummy

Yesterday we x-rayed mummies of 2 extremes: a full-sized human mummy (Nespekashuti), and a tiny mystery mummy:

mystery mummy

This tiny mummy is about 2″ wide and 5″ long, and easily fits into one of my hands.

We already had the x-ray tube warmed up for capturing images of Nespekashuti, so we figured we’d zap this little mummy while we were at it, to find out what is underneath those wrappings. We had lots of guesses, but ultimately, none of us guessed correctly.

Here is one of the x-ray images:

An x-ray image of our tiny mystery mummy

An x-ray image of our tiny mystery mummy

We had 3 conservators in the room when this image popped up on the computer screen, and we were immediately puzzled. Bird? Definitely not. Crocodile? No. Mouse? Nope. Cat? Again, a no. Could it be a…dog? We knew that the 3 of us non-experts couldn’t say anything with any certainly, so we called in the big guns…in the form of zooarchaeologist Dr. Kate Moore, who has helped us with some of our other animal mummies in the past.

Dr. Moore spent some time looking at the images, and then looking at some x-ray images of immature dogs (puppies!). She was troubled by a few things, including the fact that we can’t see any teeth and that the animal appears to have only 1 leg, also the length of the spine and front paws/feet, but ultimately concluded, based on the x-ray images that we captured, that this is indeed a puppy, who died right around the time it was born.

Based on its size, I don’t think any of us expected this tiny mummy to contain a dog, but it’s not surprising that we would have a dog mummy in our collection, since millions have been found in Egypt, notably in the Dog Catacombs of Saqqara. And this isn’t the only puppy mummy in our collection – if you visit the museum, you can see Hapi-puppy on exhibit, displayed at the feet of his owner, Hapi-men, both of which have been CT-scanned. A CT-scan of our newly-discovered puppy mummy would provide greater detail and a better understanding of this tiny animal, and would help make a more certain identification. We’ll be sure to update the blog with any new findings if we are able to do some more imaging.

 

ARCE’s 66th Annual Meeting

Last week, I attended the 66th Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), which was in Houston, Texas. I was invited by Dr. David Silverman, Curator-in-Charge of the Egyptian Section, to speak on a panel on the Bersheh funerary equipment of Ahanakht, which we have been working on here in the Artifact Lab. When the Artifact Lab opened in fall 2012, we began working on this material, which included conservation and a full transcription, translation, and analysis of the inscribed texts.

The panel at ARCE included Dr. Silverman, who spoke about the discoveries that he has made about Ahanakht’s funerary equipment, including translations of the texts on the outer coffin and the discovery of canopic box pieces, previously thought to be pieces of an offering box, or additional pieces of the coffins. Leah Humphrey, a PhD student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, presented her work on the transcription and translation of the edge inscriptions on the outer coffin boards. I spoke about the conservation of the boards, and the technical study that we have carried out to better understand their materials and technology (my presentation was co-authored by Alexis North, another conservator in our department).

Leah Humphrey, presenting at the ARCE annual meeting

Leah Humphrey, presenting at the ARCE annual meeting

In addition to our panel, there were two sessions devoted to ongoing work in Abydos, which included presentations by Dr. Josef Wegner, who spoke about the recent discovery of the pharaoh Senebkay, Dr. Jane Hill, who presented the forensic examination of Senebkay’s remains, and two Penn graduate students, Paul Verheist and Shelby Justl, who spoke about projects related to the excavations and finds from the recent seasons in Abydos.

It was my first time attending the conference, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing all the talks and meeting lots of new people. A PDF containing the full list of speakers and abstracts (in the 2015 abstract booklet) can be found here.

While in Houston, I also had the opportunity to visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), and in particular, their recently-installed Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Entrance to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Entrance to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Another view of one of the galleries in the Hall of Ancient Egypt

Another view of one of the galleries in the Hall of Ancient Egypt

The exhibit was very impressive, and consists of objects from the HMNS collection, but also large loans from institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Michael C. Carlos Museum, and the Egyptian collection at Chiddingstone Castle. I was especially interested to see some objects similar to those I have worked on or am working on in the Artifact Lab, including this falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, which is similar to our own corn mummy and coffin:

A falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum

A falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum

and the coffin of Neskhons, made of painted wood, from the Third Intermediate Period, and similar to the painted wooden coffin currently in the lab:

The coffin of Neskhons, on loan to HMNS from a private collection

The coffin of Neskhons, on loan to HMNS from a private collection

I left the ARCE meeting feeling invigorated to return to work, not only because I was relieved that my presentation was behind me, but mostly because of the new things that I learned, arming me with new resources, questions, and directions to take in my own projects. I think this is the best that you can hope for when attending a conference!

 

Meet Nespekashuti

When we returned Pinahsi to exhibit on Monday, we swapped him for another mummy in the same case, a mummified man named Nespekashuti.

Nespekashuti's coffin lid (far left) and Nespekashuti in his coffin box (at foot of lid)

Nespekashuti’s coffin lid (far left) and Nespekashuti in his coffin box (at foot of lid)

Unlike Pinahsi, we actually have Nespekashuti’s coffin (see image above), and we brought him into the lab in the coffin box. The lid will remain on exhibit for the meantime, but it will eventually also come to the Artifact Lab for treatment.

We have had Nespekashuti since 1893 – his remains and coffin were purchased from Emile Brugsch, a German Egyptologist and assistant curator at the time at the Bulaq Museum (now the Egyptian Museum).

Nespekashuti in his coffin in the lab.

Nespekashuti in his coffin in the lab.

We know this mummy’s name because the following is written on his coffin: “of the singing-master of Min, Nespekashuti, son of the singing-master of Min, Nespeneb…”. We can see his name in several places on the box – here is a detail:

Nespekashuti's name is boxed in red

Nespekashuti’s name is boxed in red

We have a lot more to learn about Nespekashuti, and as far as conservation treatment goes, I have my work cut out for me.

 

Goodbye old pal

My family has a tradition that we honor at the beginning of every school year that we call “goodbye old pals.” As kids, it was a way to celebrate the start of the new school year and, maybe for our parents, the fact that we weren’t going to be around the house as much (but don’t worry – they always threw us a “hello old pals” party at the end of the school year). Well, today I’m throwing myself and Pinahsi, our New Kingdom mummy from Abydos, our own little goodbye old pals party here in the Artifact Lab, because he is leaving the lab on Monday to go back on exhibit in our Secrets and Science gallery.

Pinahsi has been in the lab for several months for conservation treatment and documentation. I’ve already written a bit about the treatment here and here, but I’ll provide a summary below using some of the before and after treatment images.

The treatment of Pinahsi’s remains was limited to the external wrappings – nothing, with the exception of a very light surface cleaning, was done to any of the exposed human remains (and only his feet are exposed). The goal of treatment was to stabilize the wrappings that were susceptible to further damage and deterioration. After surface cleaning, tears in the linen were repaired with tiny strips of Japanese tissue paper and methyl cellulose adhesive, all carried out from the underside of the linen.

During Japanese tissue and methyl cellulose repair (left) and after (right).

During Japanese tissue and methyl cellulose repair (left) and after mends were complete (right).

After tear repair, very fragile areas were encapsulated with nylon bobbinett, toned with acrylic paint to blend in with the original linen.

Before encapsulation with nylon bobbinet (left) and after (right).

Before encapsulation with nylon bobbinett (left) and after (right).

Here are some overall before and after treatment images. The difference is pretty subtle, but that was pretty much the goal – to stabilize what’s there using the least invasive methods possible.

Overall view from above of Pinahsi before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

Overall view from above of Pinahsi before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

View from the right side of Pinahsi before (above) and after (below) conservation treatment.

View from the right side of Pinahsi before (above) and after (below) conservation treatment.

Notice the new support board under Pinahsi in the after treatment image above. This board will eliminate most direct handling of his remains, and will also provide support for his remains while on exhibit. This additional protection will also help to prevent further deterioration of the linen wrappings.

With Pinahsi stabilized and on his new support board, we were able to safely move him down to our new digital x-ray lab, and with the assistance of Dr. Janet Monge and Dr. Morrie Kricun, Conservator Tessa de Alarcon and I captured a complete set of x-ray images. While full interpretation of the images is underway, I will share a few of the initial findings that were impossible not to miss.

First, we can confirm that this is a mummified man, who was around the age of 30 when he died. We can determine sex from looking at the skull and pelvis:

X-ray images of Pinahsi's head (left) and abdomen/pelvis (right).

X-ray images of Pinahsi’s head (left) and abdomen/pelvis (right).

Age is determined by examining the condition of the bones and teeth.

You may notice some things that are out of place, like the teeth that appear to be in the cranial cavity and the ribs and vertebrae where they shouldn’t be, and the pelvis askew.

X-ray images of Pinahsi's skull and abdomen, labeled with elements that are out of place. Note the very tiny pins - these are actually part of the new storage support, being used to secure the fabric to the board - they're not part of Pinahsi at all!

X-ray images of Pinahsi’s skull and abdomen, labeled with elements that are out of place. Note the very tiny pins – these are actually part of the new storage support, being used to secure the fabric to the board – they’re not part of Pinahsi at all!

Another observation of note is that Pinahsi’s arms are crossed over his chest.

X-ray image of Pinahsi's chest and arms.

X-ray image of Pinahsi’s chest and arms.

This arm position was generally not seen until the New Kingdom, when it was reserved for royalty. Does that mean that Pinahsi was part of a royal family? Maybe! But maybe not. We’ll need to do some research to answer this, and to try to understand why his remains are so disturbed under the wrappings. I’ll share information as we learn more.

Well, Pinahsi old pal, it’s been an honor to have you in the lab. I’m glad that we were able to spend this time together, and I’m also happy to know that our work is not complete, so we have more fun times to look forward to!

 

Wilfred/a’s many mysteries

Last week, we moved our mummy Wilfred/a from the Artifact Lab down to our new digital x-ray lab to capture some x-ray images and hopefully get to the bottom of the male/female debate.

Wilfreda after treatment

Wilfred/a after treatment

Above is an overall after treatment image of Wilfred/a. The goal of the treatment was to get this mummy out of the original packing materials, to assess and document the remains, and to house them in a way that they can safely be moved to our x-ray room for imaging, and then returned to storage. If plans are made to exhibit Wilfred/a in the future, further treatment can be carried out at that point, but for now, this mummy is stabilized and will be much more accessible for research.

We were excited to x-ray Wilfred/a’s remains, but while we are used to x-raying ceramics, wooden artifacts, metals, and other types of cultural materials, x-raying human remains is not something that any of us in the conservation department specialize in, so we brought in some experts to help us with this task: Dr. Janet Monge, Keeper and Curator-in-Charge of the Museum’s Physical Anthropology Section, and Dr. Morrie Kricun, Emeritus Professor of Radiology, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, it was Dr. Monge and Dr. Kricun’s initial examination of Wilfred/a’s remains and some old 1932 x-ray radiographs that made us think that this mummy may be female, rather than male.

With the assistance of Dr. Monge and Dr. Kricun, Conservator Tessa de Alarcon and I captured a complete sets of x-ray images of Wilfred/a. And the really cool thing about having a digital system is that we can capture the images in seconds, and see the results immediately. While full interpretation of the images is underway, I will share a couple of the findings that are quite interesting.

First, let’s clear up the debate and start addressing this mummy by the appropriate pronoun. This mummy is female, and therefore we’ll call her Wilfreda from now on (or until someone proposes a new, more appropriate name). Determining that Wilfreda is female was possible by a thorough examination of her pelvis. There are a few other possibly very cool findings related to the fact that she’s female, but I’m going to wait on the full interpretation before sharing any other details about this on the blog.

Secondly, we knew that Wilfreda’s head was missing, but what we didn’t realize was this:

wilfredanofeet

X-ray radiograph of Wilfreda’s lower legs and (missing) feet. Exposure: 65kv 5ma 6 seconds

Her feet are missing! From the outside, it is obvious that the wrappings around the feet were disturbed at some point, but it wasn’t possible to see until these x-rays were taken that the feet are totally gone. In this next image, which we captured to better see the linen wrappings, you can clearly see where the feet would have been:

45kV 5ma 6 seconds

Exposure: 45kv 5ma 6 seconds

The weird thing about this is that her feet were there when the 1932 x-rays were taken:

wilfredaoldxrays

2 different x-ray images captured in 1932, clearly showing the feet of the mummy.

Where have her feet gone? We don’t know. This is now a new mystery.

Just in case any of you are following this blog very closely, and are wondering if the feet could have been lost somewhere inside the old crate (pictured below), the answer is no, but some other things of interest did turn up in there.

wilfredascrate

Buried in the old padding of the crate, we found the following:

Wilfredasbox

  • a Keuffel & Esser Co. 1903 Catalog of drawing materials and surveying instruments
  • 4 tickets that say: “Only for School Children – Not Transferable. Barakat’s Lecture, on BIBLE LANDS, illustrated by ancient curiosities used 1800 years ago, and costumes worn 4000 years ago. ADMIT ____ who will Bring this and Five cents.” (I’ve neglected to write about him on the blog but Wilfreda was originally in the possession of Professor Elias Barakat, who, for about a decade, traveled around the US lecturing about the ancient world, with Wilfreda as one of his “curiosities.” His wife donated Wilfreda to the museum in 1911.)
  • Rubber stamps, for printing announcements, etc., one of them with Barakat’s name
  • small wooden dowels
  • a piece of cartonnage
  • fragments of wood, textile, paper, plant materials, seeds.

Leave it to Wilfreda to keep a few surprises from us. We’ll post more about the x-ray interpretations once we know more, and continue to try to put the pieces of these mysteries together.

As us anything! (on our Reddit AMA)

We open our windows in the lab twice daily, inviting our visitors to ask us anything, so why not open our windows just a bit wider, inviting anyone on the Internet to fire questions at us? We are doing just that, tomorrow, from 11:00-12:30 EST on reddit.com. I must confess that other than perusing Reddit a few times last fall while I, along with much of the rest of the world, listened to the first season of Serial, I have no experience using Reddit. According to it’s Wikipedia page, Reddit is an “entertainment, social networking, and news website” and content entries are organized by areas of interest called “subreddits.” One of the most popular subreddits is IAmA (“I am A”) where a user may post “AMAs” (Ask Me Anything).

So tomorrow, Wednesday March 11, from 11:00-12:30, Lynn Grant and I will be online for our very own AMA with the title “We are museum conservators working with ancient Egyptian artifacts in full public view, at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Ask us anything!

Tom Stanley, our intrepid Public Relations/Social Media Coordinator, set the AMA up, and posted instructions on how to find us on Reddit tomorrow if you’d like to follow along or ask us a question. You can find the blogpost with instructions by following this link.

Looking forward to hearing from you tomorrow!

In celebration of International Women’s Day

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. I have been thinking about how to recognize this occasion, and the fact that March is Women’s History Month, In the Artifact Lab. First, I would be remiss not to note the Egyptian women represented here on exhibit, including Tawahibre (via her painted wooden coffin lid), Nefrina (by her painted cartonnage mask), Tanwa (a 5-year old mummified girl), and 2 unknown Roman-period women – one whose head is on exhibit, and another represented by her painted plaster funerary mask.

From left to right: Tawahibre, Nefrina, Tanwa, unknown woman's head, unknown woman's funerary mask

From left to right: Tawahibre, Nefrina, Tanwa, unknown woman’s head, unknown woman’s funerary mask

But there are some other very important women that you’ll see In the Artifact Lab as well – including the other 4 conservators in our department, Head Conservator Lynn Grant, Julie Lawson, Nina Owczarek, and Tessa de Alarcon, Research Associate Dr. Marie-Claude Boileau, and many post-graduate fellows, graduate and pre-program interns, and volunteers. Sometimes you’ll see women outside of our department working with us, such as Egyptian Section Associate Curator Jen Wegner and Assistant Keeper Jean Walker, and Dr. Janet Monge, Curator and Keeper of the Physical Anthropology Section, and we also collaborate with many women both within and outside the museum. To highlight just some of these terrific colleagues, check out the slideshow below:

 

I would have liked to include a few other women in this slideshow who we work with regularly, but unfortunately I don’t have photos of them working in the lab – notably Dr. Gretchen Hall and Dr. Naomi Miller. And then there are the women who work in other departments in the museum – I was going to make a list, but then I realized that we collaborate with all of the departments in important ways.

We are also very grateful for the women who have come before us at the museum, and I hope/plan to write another post later this month focusing on one person in particular who helped pave the way for the women not only in our museum, but in our field.

Happy International Women’s Day!

A closer look at one of our feathered friends

We have an ibis mummy in the lab, which is revealing itself to us in an unusual way.

Unlike most animal mummies in our collection, we can actually see the ibis’ remains – in this case, its feathers! It is unfortunate that the linen wrappings were damaged in the past, but this damage does provide a unique look under the bandages.

ibiswithfeathers

Ibis mummy, 97-121-19, from Thebes, Late Period (ca. 664-332 BCE).

While x-ray radiography revealed that there is indeed an ibis inside (the beak is a dead giveaway), the feathers provide further clues about this bird that was mummified approximately 2500 years ago.

Radiograph taken from the top down. Exposure information: 35kV, 5mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.

Radiograph taken from the top down. Exposure information: 35kV, 5mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.

When researching ibis mummies, I read again and again about the African Sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) being mummified, but there were other types of ibis in Egypt, including the Glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and the Northern Bald ibis (Geronticus eremita). I don’t know if evidence has been found that these other types of ibis were mummified, but I do know that I shouldn’t immediately assume that this particular ibis mummy contains the remains of an African Sacred ibis.

So, let’s look at the feathers, and what we can learn from them. The feathers that are exposed appear to be contour feathers that may be part of one of the wings. There are a few completely detached feather fragments in this area, so I was able to take a closer look at one small fragment under the microscope.

ibisfeatherlabeled

Left: ibis feather 7.5X magnification. Right: ibis feather 50X magnification.

The most obvious feature to note, even without a microscope, is the coloration. This feather is white and black. The African Sacred ibis has a very beautiful, distinctive, black and white plumage, so in this case the color alone may be enough to identify species.

If we can’t rely on color, what else can we learn from this feather fragment? Well, we can see that it is part of a pennaceous (rather than plumulaceous, or downy) feather, the parts of which I’ve labeled in the above images. To take an even closer look at these elements, I used our polarizing light microscope and was able to see the tiny hooklets on the barbules, which “zip” the barbules, and therefore the barbs, together.

Ibis feather 100X magnification.

Ibis feather 100X magnification.

The barbules of feathers can be used for identification of species, but usually barbules from plumulaceous feathers are used, as they have a very different and distinct appearance. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to any plumulaceous feathers from this ibis mummy, so this may be as far as I can go at the moment. There are other researchers, both within the field of Egyptology, but mostly in ornithology, who have spent much more time looking at ibis feather structure than I have, and of course there is DNA research, so we may learn more in the future about this ibis mummy and its feathers.

I have a special place in my heart for birds and feathers, since before coming to the Penn Museum, I worked on an extensive project on feather coloration as part of a collaborative research effort between UCLA and the Getty Conservation Institute. Click on the links below to find out more about this work:

A Collaborative Study of California Featherwork

California Featherwork: Considerations for Examination and Preservation

And to learn more about feather structure, start by following this link: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds: Feather Structure