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.


Wood ID

I’m currently treating 7 fragments of a painted wooden coffin from Abydos. Lately, many of our visitors have been asking what kind of wood was used to make this coffin. This has actually been a question that we have been asking ourselves, and we are trying to see if we can come up with an answer.

In ancient Egypt, large timbers for coffin-making were scarce, so the wood was either imported from places like the Mediterranean, the Near East, or from other parts of Africa, or the Egyptians would cobble together smaller pieces of wood from local sources. Based on previous studies, we have a finite list of types of wood that are known to have been used, but from there we need to move to looking at the object itself.

These images show the exposed wood on the side (left) and back (right) of one of the coffin fragments. Can you guess what type of wood this might be?

These images show the exposed wood on the side (left) and back (right) of one of the coffin boards. Can you guess what type of wood this might be?

As conservators, we are educated not only in object treatment, but in the analysis of objects, and the examination of tiny fragments of objects, like plant and textile fibers, wood, and pigments. But many of us don’t do wood ID all that often, so it can take awhile to get set up, to re-orient ourselves to what we’re seeing in the samples, etc. AND it requires a sample, which we don’t often have access to. Fortunately, for me, I have some already detached samples from these boards and access to someone who does this type of work more frequently, archaeobotanist Dr. Naomi Miller, so I turned to her to help me with this work.

Dr. Miller looked at the samples I had and selected one that looked promising, due to the exposed cross-section on one end. I mounted this sample under our binocular microscope and took a photo, to help her study it further and compare to known reference samples.


The wood fragment with exposed cross section, 60X magnification

From this sample, Dr. Miller was able to determine that this is a hardwood, based on the presence of clearly visible rays and thick-walled pores, many of which are radially paired (pointed out below).

Slide4Based on these features and the known types of hardwoods used in ancient Egypt, this helped narrow down the likely possibilities to Common ash (Fraxinus excelsior L.), Carob (Ceratonia siliqua L.) and Acacia (Acacia sp.). Dr. Miller considered other types but ultimately excluded willow (Salix), oak (Quercus), elm (Ulmus) and sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus) due to either the presence or absence of certain features.

In an attempt to further narrow down the possibilities, I cut thin sections from the sample that Dr. Miller examined, from the cross-section and tangential surfaces, and wet-mounted them on glass slides. Looking at these thin sections with our polarizing light microscope (PLM), I was able to see some of these features a bit more clearly.

Cross-section, 50X magnification

Cross-section, 50X magnification

In the cross-section above, the pores are visible as solitary or paired, and mostly uniseriate (1-cell wide) rays are visible. The tangential section also shows mostly uniseriate rays, but some bi-seriate rays are visible as well.

Tangential section, 50X magnification

Tangential section, 50X magnification

Cutting these sections from the wood sample, which was quite degraded, was difficult and unfortunately I’m not really able to pick out many other features from the sections that I examined. I will have to get Dr. Miller to weigh in on this again, but in the meantime, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’m leaning toward this wood being acacia. One thing I forgot to mention is that the wood of the coffin board fragments is a deep red-brown color. Acacia is known for being a red, hard, and durable wood, and while it produces small timbers, we know that it was used for coffin-making, among other things.

Peptide Mass Fingerprinting (PMF)

Motivated to learn more about the fur and animal hair found in our Predynastic mummy bundle, I popped up to Boston yesterday for a workshop entitled “Identifying collagen-based materials in cultural objects using peptide mass fingerprinting“.

The workshop was organized by a group at Harvard, including the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in collaboration with the Straus Center for Conservation at the Harvard Art Museums and the Harvard FAS Division of Science. The team received NCPTT funding for a project to develop a new application of an analytical technique called peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF).

PMF uses mass spectrometry to analyze very tiny samples of proteinaceous objects and identify the mammalian source to the species level. It actually can be used to analyze materials made of collagen and keratin, but the group at Harvard is focusing on collagen-based materials. The procedure essentially breaks up the protein into smaller peptides, and the mass of the peptides is measured using a mass spectrometer such as a MALDI-TOF. The peptide masses are compared to known reference samples, which allow for identification. This type of analysis falls under the category of proteomics, or the large-scale study of proteins, and it is sometimes referred to by this name as well.

The Harvard project is focused on applying this technique to objects made of gut, skin, sinew, and membrane from Alaska, the Northwest Coast, Northern California, and the High Plains. Another goal of the project is to bring this type of analysis, which typically takes place in large industrial or academic labs, to museum labs. You can learn more about the project on their blog.

The workshop included 3 presentations by the project’s primary analytical investigator/scientist Dr. Dan Kirby, project research associate Madeline Corona, and Kress fellow Ellen Promise. Between the 3 of them, they covered how PMF works, what it can tell you, and how it is applied to cultural artifacts, using a project on Alaskan kayaks as a case study.

After Q&A led by Peabody Museum conservator T. Rose Holdcraft, we were led on a tour of the Peabody conservation lab, where we were able to feast our eyes on some of the impressive Native Alaskan objects that they are investigating as part of the project.
A view of the Peabody Museum conservation lab, with several Native Alaskan skin and gut objects on view

A view of the Peabody Museum conservation lab, with several Native Alaskan objects on view

We also toured the impressive Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Lab, where we had a chance to see the Bruker MALDI TOF/TOF instrument and a demonstration of how samples are prepped for analysis.
The Bruker MALDI-TOF/TOF instrument and Madeline Corona demonstrating sample prep

The Bruker MALDI-TOF/TOF instrument and Madeline Corona demonstrating sample prep

The sample prep area showing the equipment used, including the MALDI plate (lower right)

The sample prep area showing the equipment used, including the MALDI plate (lower right)

Here at Penn, we are excited by this technique – not only for the minute sample size required (the samples used are just barely detectable to the naked eye) but also for its accessibility. We have a lot of animal-based materials in our collection and we are hoping to pursue using PMF to analyze these materials. Actually, we are already working to see if its possible to use this technique to identify the sources of the fur and basketry hair fibers from our Predynastic mummy, thanks to help from Smithsonian MCI fellow Caroline Solazzo, whose work focuses on keratin-based materials. PMF supposedly works on all types of samples, including those that are very old and/or are in poor condition, so we thought we’d put this to the test by starting with samples from our oldest Egyptian mummy (he’s well over 6000 years old). We will let you know how it seems to work.

A side note – a quick trip to Boston wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Museum of Fine Arts. I spent most of my time there ogling the Ancient Egypt exhibits, admiring the massive, yet delicately decorated and inscribed coffin boards of Djehutynakht’s outer coffin (same time period and style as Ahanakht’s coffin)

The interior of the lid of Governor Djehutynakht's outer coffin (left) and detail of the false door (right)

The interior of the lid of Governor Djehutynakht’s outer coffin (left) and detail of the false door (right)

and many of the other treasures of this collection, such as this bead net dress made of faience and gold from the 4th Dynasty.
Detail of a 4th Dynasty beadnet dress (ca. 2551-2528 BCE)

Detail of a 4th Dynasty beadnet dress (ca. 2551-2528 BCE)

Breathtaking, really. I also found this shabti in a miniature coffin very charming.
Shabti of Queen Neferu with  miniature coffin, from Deir el-Bahri, tomb of Queen Neferu, 11th Dynasty (ca. 2061-2010 BCE)

Shabti of Queen Neferu with miniature coffin, from Deir el-Bahri, tomb of Queen Neferu, 11th Dynasty (ca. 2061-2010 BCE)

And while the MFA does not have conservators working in a gallery, as we are doing here at Penn, they do have some great “behind the scenes” galleries, one with interactives that engage visitors to think about conservation ethics and decision making. One of my favorites was an example using Maya Cylinder vases, examining condition issues and treatment decisions.

Some screen shots of the Maya vase example in the MFA's "behind the scenes" gallery

Some screen shots of the Maya vase example in one of the MFA’s “behind the scenes” galleries

All in all, a great trip. We’ll keep you updated on the whole peptide mass fingerprinting technique and how we might be able to use this for our collection.


More about our Predynastic mummy

Last year we posted some information about Bruce, our Predynastic mummy (and the oldest Egyptian mummy in the museum) here in the lab. Bruce has been on ongoing project, but he is often tucked toward the back of the lab unless we are actively working on him. While he’s often not front-and-center, when visitors enter the gallery and they catch a glimpse of him, they know that he’s special, even if they don’t know what he is, exactly.

Bruce on his cart, near the back of the lab, as viewed through the Artifact Lab windows.

Bruce, near the back of the lab, as viewed through the Artifact Lab windows.

As soon as he is spotted, I am often asked “what is that?” “is that a mummy?” and “what are you doing with him?”. In conservation, we are not always actively treating objects (or in this case, mummies); some of our projects involve close examination and study of objects (often referred to as technical studies). These technical studies may be a precursor to conservation treatment, but they may also be independent of treatment.

We are not currently carrying out conservation treatment on Bruce. Our focus at the moment is careful examination and some analysis, in consultation with other specialists. At the moment, we are focusing on trying to identify the type of animal hide that he’s wrapped in:

The red arrows are pointing out pieces of the animal skin bag wrapped around Bruce.

The red arrows are pointing out pieces of the animal skin bag wrapped around the mummy.

and also the animal hairs used to make the finely woven baskets included in his burial bundle:

E16229_basketsThese baskets are actually made of plant and animal fibers – the baskets are twined, and the passive elements (or warps) are made of plant fibers, while the active elements (wefts) are made of light and dark animal hairs. We know that the wefts are animal hairs based on our examination of these fibers using our polarized light microscope (PLM).

Views of the light-colored hair (left) and a cross-section of the hair (right) at 100X magnification

Views of the light-colored basketry fiber at 10X (upper right), at 50X (lower left), and a cross-section (lower right) at 200X magnification

Views of the darker hair (left) and a cross-section of the hair (right) at 100X magnification

Views of the darker basketry fiber at 10X (upper right), at 100 X (lower left), and a cross-section (lower right) at 200X magnification

Sometimes animal hair can be identified based on the features observed under a microscope, by comparing the unknown hairs to known reference samples. Some great animal hair ID sources on the web include this great resource on the FBI website and the Alaskan Fur ID website.

While we can clearly see that these fibers from the basket are animal hairs, we have not been able to identify them based on microscopy alone, so we are pursuing other analytical methods of identification, such as peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF). PMF uses a mass spectrometer to analyze the peptides in a proteinaceous sample, which can identify mammalian material to the species level using a micro-sized sample. Next week, I am attending a collagen identification workshop at Harvard, where I will learn more about PMF and its application to cultural artifacts.

We are excited by the possibilities this technique offers – being able to identify the skin(s) Bruce is wrapped in and the materials used to make the baskets found in his bundle will add to our understanding of very early technologies and funerary practices in Egypt. We will certainly share our findings as we learn more.


Investigating the shabti box coating

Last month, I wrote about a new challenge in the lab, otherwise known as this shabti box and its associated shabtis:

front compressedAt first the box came into the lab with 3 shabtis, and then we found that there were 3 more in storage that may belong with the box as well. 4 of the shabtis are very similar in appearance whereas the other 2 are slightly different, so they may actually not be associated after all. Can you spot the 2 different shabtis?

2 of these things are not like the others...

2 of these things are not like the others…

All of these objects are made of wood, gesso, and paint. And as you can see, all of them have an orange-yellow coating on their surfaces. In my last post I posed the questions “what is this coating?” “is it an original varnish or is it a later restoration?”. My initial guesses were that it is either an original pistacia resin varnish, a later cellulose nitrate (or other old restoration adhesive) coating, or a combination of the two.

Well, there are several things we can do to try to answer these questions and to narrow down the possibilities. One of the first things I did was to look at these objects very carefully using our binocular microscope. I could see that the coating was applied unevenly, especially on the box, and that it is actively cracking and flaking. Another thing that I noticed was that there are areas on the box where the paint is lost and where the coating extends over the loss onto the gesso below.

A detail shot of one side of the shabti box - the yellow arrows are indicating areas where the coating extends over an area of paint loss onto the gesso.

A detail shot of one side of the shabti box – the yellow arrows are indicating where the coating extends over areas of paint loss onto the gesso.

Usually, this would indicate that the coating was applied after the damage occurred (so sometime after excavation, either in the field or soon after coming to the museum). So this is one clue, but doesn’t really answer my questions.

Next, I examined the shabti figures under ultraviolet (UV) light. In conservation we routinely use UV examination to characterize materials and to distinguish old restoration materials from original materials – for instance, shellac, used historically to repair objects, exhibits a characteristic bright orange fluorescence under UV. (For a great explanation of UV, along with some interesting images, check out this post on UV examination by my colleague Allison Lewis, conservator at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.)

The coating on the box and the shabtis has a yellow-orange appearance under UV – but not the bright orange that we expect to see from shellac.

shabti UV

4 shabti figures under UV light

So UV examination was helpful (it eliminated shellac as a possibility) but didn’t answer my questions either.

Next, I did a microchemical spot test on a couple of the previously detached flakes of the coating. We’ve used spot-testing before in the lab – the last time I wrote about it was in reference to the mystery fibers on Tawahibre’s coffin. In this case, I carried out a spot test for nitrates using diphenylamine (according to instructions in Material Characterization Tests for Objects of Art and Archaeology). Using this test, a sample containing nitrates will turn blue once a solution of diphenylamine/sulfuric acid is added. Below you can see the result of the test on one of the coating flakes from the shabti box (left) and the test on a control sample of cellulose nitrate adhesive (right).

Left: coating sample from the box after spot test (negative result) Right: control cellulose nitrate adhesive after spot test (positive result)

Left: coating sample from the box after spot test (negative result) Right: cellulose nitrate control after spot test (positive result)

Based on these results, it seems that the coating does not contain cellulose nitrate. This does not mean that the coating does not contain another recently-added adhesive. We have a few other ways of narrowing down the possibilities even further, and I will write about our continued work on this in my next post.


X-rays and the statues eyes

left eyeIn a previous post, we told you that the two wooden heads were going to be X-rayed and CT-scanned, alongside with some other artifacts from the Lab.

In this post we will deal with what we learned about the wooden heads’ eyes from the X-radiographs only.

A lot of our readers will probably know what X-rays are, for they may have experienced them in a hospital. X-rays are also successfully used in Art and Archaeology (for a general overview and some examples, see SCHREINER et al, “X-rays in Art and Archaeology – An overview). The principle of the X-ray is to expose a material to x-ray energy of a particular wavelength. According to the molecular weight of the material, the x-rays will, or won’t, be allowed to go completely through it. The energy that does penetrate passes through to a detector.

In digital radiography, the data is then processed by a computer and, eventually, we obtain a picture where dense (high molecular weight) materials appear white and lighter ones (low molecular weight) are black.

X-ray photograph of E17911

X-ray photograph of E17911 – We can see a lot of termite tunnels and the big hole inside the head, on the right-hand side, and the shining eyes.

E17911, in profile - This picture allows us to see more clearly the structure of the eyes.

E17911, in profile – This picture allows us to see more clearly the structure of the eyes.

New Picture (2)

E17910 – Also helpful about the inserting of the eyes.

In these radiographs, we clearly see the structure of the inlaid eyes. In fact, those eyes are quite similar to those studied at the Louvre Museum on Kay’s statue (ZIEGLER, Les statues égyptiennes de l’Ancien Empire, Musée du Louvre, 1997, p.256). This statue is from the Vth Dynasty, not so far in time from our heads.

Eventually, we can conclude that the eyes are made of a metallic sheet soldered in the back, which is flat. It is shell-shaped and the hippo ivory is inserted inside. Then the black pupils (made of obsidian?) are placed in the ivory, maintained inside by an adhesive (resin ? plaster ?).

New Picture (3)

X-ray radiography photograph of Kay’s statue eyes (from ZIEGLER, 1997, p.256).

Structure of Kay's eyes (from ZIEGLER, 1997, p.259); the back of the metallic part is flat and the edges were folded so as to form the eyelids.

Structure of Kay’s eyes (from ZIEGLER, 1997, p.259); the back of the metallic part is flat and the edges were folded so as to form the eyelids.

Structure of Kay's eyes and identification of the materials we have on Adu's eyes (from ZIEGLER, 1997, p.259)

Structure of Kay’s eyes and identification of the materials we have on Adu’s eyes (from ZIEGLER, 1997, p.259)











Fortunately, the Penn Museum has some inlaid eyes in storage, allowing us to figure out more clearly what we have on the heads.

New Picture (7)

The eye n.E6789B – Limestone and obsidian.


Back of the eye n.E12905A - Copper alloy.

Back of the eye n.E12905A – Copper alloy.












Again, fortunately for us (yes, fortunately!), the Louvre Museum has a very interesting statue, also from the Old Kingdom, with missing eyes. This statue of a nobleman named Tcheti informs us on how the inlaid eyes were inserted into the wood.

Tcheti statue, Louvre Museum n.E11566 - Detail of the missing eyes.

Tcheti statue, Louvre Museum n.E11566 – Detail of the missing eyes.

We can see that a hole was cut in the wood, fitting the eyes’ size. We can suppose that an adhesive was used to prevent the eyes from falling off the statue.

As you can see, a conservation intervention, apart from treating the objects, can also allow us to study them more closely and to know them better.

We will talk about the CT-scan in a next post and, in the meantime, you’re more than welcome to visit us at the Lab or to post a comment below !


Looking inside our falcon mummy

Last Friday, 7 of us from our conservation department took a group of objects from the museum to the GE Inspection Technologies Customer Solutions Center in Lewistown, PA for x-radiography and CT scanning.

Our group gathered around the CT scanner, being operated by Becky Rudolph, GE's North American Radiography Sales Manager for Academia

Our group gathered around the CT scanner, being operated by Becky Rudolph, GE’s North American Radiography Sales Manager for Academia

Now, wait just a second, you might be thinking. Doesn’t Penn have its own x-ray and CT scanning equipment? Why did we have to take these objects all the way to Lewistown for this work? Good questions, and we have a good answer. We just received word that in early 2014, construction will begin on our new conservation labs, which will include a digital x-ray suite. We plan to purchase the x-ray unit from GE, so a visit to their facilities was a chance for us to demo the equipment using some of our own artifacts!

The object I was most eager to image was our falcon mummy. X-ray and CT (computed tomography) scanning technology allow us to “virtually unwrap” this mummy, helping us understand how it was made and what is inside (and as visitors to the lab have heard me say, we can’t assume that there are any falcon remains inside-we can only hope!).

The falcon mummy laying on its storage support on the x-ray plate (within a lead-lined room)

The falcon mummy lying on its storage support on the x-ray plate (within a lead-lined room)

The quickest way to get a peek inside the falcon mummy’s wrappings is by taking an x-ray image. Digital x-ray technology is amazing – with a push of a button, 135 kV (kilovolts, measurement of the voltage), 2.0 mA (millamperes, measurement of the current) and 4 seconds later, we saw this:

falcon xray annotatedHooray! In this first attempt, we could already see that there are bird remains inside. The bright white material concentrated in the center of the mummy wrappings is the skeletal remains. In radiographic images, materials that are denser appear white because they do not allow x-rays to pass through. Materials that are less dense (such as the textile wrappings surrounding the bird bones) appear darker, because the x-rays are penetrating and passing through these materials. We can see in the image above that there are no skeletal remains in the “head” and the “feet” of the falcon mummy – these areas appear to have been sculpted with fabric. The slightly brighter white area near the feet just reflects an overlap of textile in that area.

While we were excited by this image, it immediately prompted more questions. We can see bird bones, but where is the skull? How much of the bird body is present? Are there any clues as to how the body was prepared for mummification? To answer these questions, we turned to the CT scanner.

CT scanning uses x-rays to produce cross-sectional images of an object, which can then be combined to produce three-dimensional views. CT provides a much more detailed look inside objects, and better distinction between different materials.

The CT unit at GE does not look like a medical CT scanner that many people may be familiar with. To scan the falcon, we had to stand the mummy upright in its box, which we then secured to the rotating stage inside the CT chamber with masking tape.

Right: Lynn Grant and I taped the falcon mummy in his box to the stage inside the CT chamber. Left: another view of the falcon mummy's box secured inside the CT chamber.

Left: Lynn Grant and I taped the falcon mummy in its box to the stage inside the CT chamber Right: another view of the falcon mummy’s box secured inside the CT chamber

The CT scanning took a bit longer than 4 seconds, but again, produced much more detailed images. Here is what one of the cross-sections looks like:

falcon cross section annotatedIn this image, the bones are visible as the most radio-opaque materials (so they are bright white). We were also excited to see the feathers, clearly visible as little circles reflecting the cross-section of the feather shafts, which are hollow. The various layers of linen wrapping are also very clear – clear enough to count! But other details are not so immediately clear to us, including the presence of the skull, and exactly how the remains were prepared.

Here is a screen shot from the program we are using to view the CT images, showing 3 different cross-sections, and a basic 3D rendering of a section of the falcon mummy. In this 3D rendering, we can clearly see the falcon’s talons, circled in red!

falcon CT 3 views annotatedWe will need to spend time with the images, and consult other specialists, to better understand what the CT scans have revealed.


UCLA/Getty graduate intern Alexis North and I puzzle over the CT images of the falcon mummy

We will follow up later with more images and interpretations of the falcon mummy CT scans, plus more about the other objects we were able to examine.

A special thank you to Becky Rudolph and Hank Rowe at GE for spending the day with us, and for their expertise!


Investigation of a mummy bead “coating”

While we continue to work on the conservation of PUM I‘s remains, we also have been taking this opportunity to carry out some analysis on the residues and substances preserved on his wrappings and on the beads that once made up his beaded burial shroud.

Since the last time we wrote about these beads, we have recovered even more in the conservation process; we now have a total of 35 beads – all either tubular or circular in shape. As we wrote about in a previous post, all of the beads are covered with concretions, mostly a brown, waxy material. Here is an image of one of the beads before cleaning, and after partial exploratory cleaning, revealing the beautiful blue color of the bead:

A tubular bead before (left) and after (right) exploratory cleaning to remove the residue on the surface ( 10X magnification)

A tubular bead before (left) and after (right) exploratory cleaning to remove the residue on the surface ( 10X magnification)

This material does not appear to be dirt or accumulated debris from the mummy. But, it can be removed rather easily from the beads, especially with the help of some mineral spirits, which suggested to me that it is some sort of wax.

Based on this information, I was suspecting that either this material was related to a substance applied to the beads to help the beaded shroud stay in place at the time of burial (but we have yet to locating any research supporting this theory – it was more common to sew or tie these beaded shrouds in place) or that it is related to a substance applied to the shroud at the time of discovery, to assist with the removal of the shroud.

In conservation, when it comes to investigating unknown, likely organic substances, there are several analytical techniques that can be helpful. One of these techniques is Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy. FTIR works by exposing a sample to infrared radiation, which causes the sample to selectively absorb radiation, depending on the molecules present. The individual peaks in the resulting absorption spectrum can be analyzed or the spectrum can be compared to reference spectra to help characterize or identify a material.

We provided a small sample of our “bead coating” to Gretchen Hall, a consulting scholar in the Biomolecular Archaeology lab here at the museum. She ran the sample for us and provided the resulting spectrum and interpretation. Here is the spectrum produced by our sample:

E2813A_FTIR_beadThis spectrum shows that the sample is mostly organic as evidenced by the dominant peaks in the 2900 cm-1 region which are characteristic of C-H bond stretches.  In addition, there were many peaks in the “fingerprint” 1800-1000 cm-1 region where various organic molecules absorb. The absorption around 1730 cm-1 (due to C-O double bond stretches) suggests organic acids are present, possibly from resins or beeswax. Both of these families of compounds would also have bands around 1470 (a O-H bending absorption) which are seen in our sample. Importantly, the sample also shows a strong band around 720-730 cm-1 (due to the C-H in long hydrocarbon chains) which is only present in beeswax.

For comparison, here is our bead coating sample spectrum displayed just below the spectrum for a standard beeswax:

E2813A_FTIRBased on this analysis, our “bead coating” sample likely contains some beeswax, which is consistent with our observations of the solubility and consistency of the material as well. It is known that beeswax was used in ancient Egypt – as an adhesive, a sealant, a binding medium, and in the mummification process. Bees were considered by the Egyptians to be precious insects with magical and economic prestige, and these values would have extended to their wax (Ikram and Dodson 1998).

For a more definite identification of our sample, the next step would be to analyze the material using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS).

Special thanks to the Biomolecular Archaeology Lab and Dr. Gretchen Hall for running this sample and providing the analysis.


Mystery fiber update

A quick update on our mystery fiber (see my previous post for details):

Today I decided to do a chemical spot-test to see if I could determine if the fiber was cellulose or protein-based. Chemical spot tests are inexpensive, generally simple procedures that conservators may use to characterize materials on artifacts. These spot tests are often carried out on small samples removed from artifacts using chemical reagents. In the case of my mystery fiber, I cut a small piece off of one of the fiber samples I previously examined under the microscope-this small piece was enough for a spot test, and there was no need to remove more material from the coffin in order to do this.

The first test I chose to carry out was the Biuret test for protein (according to instructions in Material Characterization Tests for Objects of Art and Archaeology), using copper(II) sulfate. After placing a drop of copper (II) sulfate solution on the sample, I waited for a few minutes, then soaked up the excess solution and added a drop of sodium hydroxide solution to the sample. It immediately turned purple (see below), which indicates the presence of protein (and just in case it’s not clear on your screen, believe me, it is purple!).

Magnified image of the sample used for the protein spot test. The purple hue indicates a positive reaction for presence of protein. 50X magnification

What this means is still unclear, but it’s another clue. It is possible that my earlier comparison of this fiber to sinew was not a bad suggestion! But it’s also possible that this fiber was coated in a protein-based glue before it was incorporated into the gesso (or something like this).

This calls for further investigation!



Mystery fiber

In a recent blog post I mentioned that I am working on the painted coffin of Tawahibre, which has fibers mixed into the ground layer (gesso). In my examination prior to starting treatment, I had noted these fibers, and observed that they are present all over the coffin lid, mixed into the ground layer just below the painted surface. They are exposed in many places where there are losses-here is an image of one area where the surface of the coffin is badly damaged, revealing these fibers:

Fibers visible in the ground layer of the painted coffin lid

There are quite a lot of these fibers in some areas (as seen in the photo above), and then in others, there are very few. They are found in areas where the ground is thick and also where it is applied very thinly. They are not arranged in any particular way-they appear to have been mixed haphazardly into the ground. The fibers are light brown in color, and while most of them are very stiff, they react almost immediately to moisture, becoming very flexible when wet. I had initially assumed that these were plant fibers-possibly flax-but they always seemed a bit odd, and to be honest, these fibers remind me a little bit of sinew (animal tendon).

As I have been working on the coffin, several of these fibers “presented themselves to me” for sampling-meaning, as I’ve been working to stabilize some of the areas with these fibers, a couple became detached, allowing me to investigate them further using PLM. So far I have looked at 2 samples, and both look the same. I prepared the fibers by mounting each one on a glass slide with water. When looking at them in plane-polarized light, they look like this:

Two different fibers from the coffin ground layer viewed at 50X magnification

I didn’t really know what I was seeing-it was difficult to pick out any really distinguishable features, so I then viewed both fibers under crossed polars. This is what I saw:

Same two fibers viewed under crossed polars at 50X magnification

What the heck is that? I’ve never seen anything like this before. When I showed this to a few other people, the first reaction has been-it looks like a worm! And it totally does. This very regular banding pattern has got to be characteristic of something-I just don’t know what.

I thought I had a lead last week-I found this image in a book, showing a bundle of sisal fibers with a commonly-seen spiral element:

Sisal sample showing a characteristic spiral element. Image from “Color Atlas and Manual of Microscopy for Criminalists, Chemists, and Conservators” by Nicholas Petraco and Thomas Kubic, p. 94.

However, just last week I obtained a sisal sample from one of the Winterthur art conservation graduate students and I’m pretty sure that’s not what I have. The sisal sample looks distinctly different to me-here it is in both plane polarized light and under crossed polars:

Sisal reference viewed at 400X magnification in plane polarized light (left) and crossed polars (right). Also, note the difference in magnification between these fibers, viewed at 400X, as opposed to the coffin mystery fibers above, viewed at 50X.

For the moment, I’m stumped. But I’m continuing to investigate this and to get input from colleagues, and I’m open to suggestions/ideas! I’ll also certainly provide more information when I know more. To be continued…