Flippin’ coffins

We’ve been threatening to do it, and this week we followed through on our promise – to flip over the base of Tawahibre’s coffin.

As readers know, we have been working on Tawahibre’s coffin lid, and recently lifted it away from the base. Once we removed the lid, we could see that the interior of the base was undecorated, with plaster smoothed over the wood joins. There was also some textile remaining, presumably from the mummy who once was inside.

inside tawahibre

An interior view of the base of Tawahibre’s coffin

While the interior is undecorated, we know the same isn’t true for the exterior, based on a photo recovered awhile back in the Archives. After a bit more digging in Archives recently, we found even more detailed photographs of the coffin lid and base, taken sometime before they were put on exhibit back in the 1930s.

tawahibre front and back

Image from the Archives showing the front of the coffin lid and the back of the coffin base

Recovering old images like this is exciting because they potentially have a lot to tell us. In this case, this photograph is a good record of what the condition of the coffin was like soon after it was acquired by the museum. Like in the exhibit photograph I had recovered earlier, I could see that a lot of the damage we’re seeing on the coffin lid today was present then. But there was no way of knowing, until this week, how the current condition of the coffin base compares to the condition seen in this photograph.

And I have to tell you, I was a bit worried – until just a few days ago, all I could see of the coffin base was from these views:

Detail views of the proper right and proper left sides of the coffin lid and base, before treatment

Detail views of the proper right and proper left sides of the coffin lid and base, before treatment

Those large chunks of plaster and paint on the wood support below weren’t very promising. I had a sinking feeling that a lot of the paint and plaster on the back of the coffin base was unstable as well, and going to fall away when we tried to lift and flip it over.

The first step in getting the coffin base flipped over was to stabilize the plaster and paint on the inside and sides of the base, as much as possible. I carried out this work using the same methyl cellulose adhesive solution and fill material mixture as I have been using on the lid.

Then we did a test lift, to see how stable it felt, and to determine if we needed to temporarily stabilize any areas on the back before turning it over.

test liftThe test lift was encouraging, so we decided just to go for it!

How many conservators do you need to flip over a coffin base? Eight, it turns out.

flipping over1Fortunately, the procedure went smoothly, smoothly enough that we even allowed our Public Relations Coordinator Tom Stanley post a video of us turning the base over on the museum’s Instagram account.

Once we turned the base over, we were rewarded by being able to see that the back is still remarkably well-preserved, with very little changes from when that old photograph was taken:

Tawahibre's base in the 1920s (left) and today (right)

Tawahibre’s base in the 1920s (left) and today (right)

Can you spot the differences in these two photographs? I’ll post another copy of this image soon, circling the changes that have occurred.

 

First step for the heads

Last week I introduced you to two wooden statue heads that I’m working on and promised to share the step by step process of their conservation.

laura blog 2 image3

A first step in understanding these objects is gathering information about their past. As we said in the previous post, they are from Dendera and were discovered in 1898. The other questions were: Who discovered them? How and when did they arrive in Philadelphia? And more…

To address these questions, the best place to begin is the Museum Archives. I first checked Clarence Fisher’s field notebooks, since we know that he excavated in Dendera for the museum from 1915-1918, continuing the work begun by Charles Rosher and Flinders Petrie. An afternoon looking at (all!) of his notebooks revealed no leads. The other possibility was to refer to Petrie’s own field records; and here I found reference to the heads, or more precisely the “statuettes”, noted in his field notebook.

This page notes the “2 statuettes” at the foot of the coffin.
From Petrie Notebook n.15, p.30, courtesy and copyright of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

That mystery solved, we moved onto the next one. Included in the storage drawer with the wooden heads, we found a note indicating “2 wooden statuettes nearly consumed by white ants”.

laura blog 2 image2After a little more digging, I found that this was a quote from Petrie’s publication about Dendera, on p.10, paragraph 2…and the rest is still meaningless to us! In this publication Petrie indicates that the heads came from a secondary burial, belonging to a woman, under Adu II’s own funerary chamber.

Moreover, it unveiled a new clue: Petrie wrote that he discovered “statuettes” and not only their heads. That could imply the fact that they were still complete statues at the time of the excavation. It is possible that they were in such a poor condition that the archaeologist left the bodies and only took the heads. We definitely do not have any more parts of these statues in our collection – after checking, no “spare bodies” are registered in the Egyptian storerooms of the Penn Museum.

All of this may seem to be only details but it is essential information for a conservator: the fact that W.M.F. Petrie discovered the heads is highly interesting, because he most likely treated them in the field. He published a book where he explains his practical way of applying a “first-aid” treatment to damaged artifacts (Methods and aims in Archaeology, 1904) which may provide critical information for us! Indeed, knowing this will allow the conservator to be aware of what kind of material was added to the original object and how to deal with it.

My investigation into these old treatment materials will be the topic of a post to come!

 

From the Archives

The Penn Museum Archives is an incredible resource for us here at the museum.

A view into the Penn Museum Archives

A view into the Penn Museum Archives

When we begin working on objects in the conservation lab, we carry out preliminary research, which often includes searching for related materials in the Archives. Among the materials we may be interested in are archaeological field notes, letters between curators and archaeologists or collectors about the acquisition of specific artifacts, and old photographs.

Recently, Senior Archivist Alex Pezzati scanned some images for me, including this one, a shot of the Egyptian “Mummy Gallery” in 1935.

31011_mummyroom_1935_compressed

I was excited to see some of the artifacts we’re working on in the Artifact Lab right now in this photo. Can you pick some of them out? In the image below I’ve circled some of them in red.

The objects circled in red above are either being worked on in the Artifact lab or are on display in our accompanying exhibit

The objects circled in red above are either being worked on in the Artifact lab or are on display in our accompanying exhibit

These old exhibition photographs can be extremely valuable to conservators. Not only does this particular image tell us that certain artifacts were definitely on display, and when (which may not be recorded elsewhere), but it also shows us how they were displayed. In some cases, seeing the way that artifacts were previously displayed may help to explain damage, such as excessive fading on one side or adhesive residues left behind by an old mount. We can often make good guesses about this type of damage, but it’s always nice to have some proof!

What particularly excited me about this photograph is that it shows the coffin of Tawahibre in the gallery. We are currently working on this coffin in the lab, but it is still too fragile to separate the lid from the base to allow for examination of both pieces individually.

The coffin of Tawahibre in the Artifact Lab.

The coffin of Tawahibre in the Artifact Lab.

Just recently, Curator Dr. Jen Wegner was up in the lab and we were discussing the coffin and some of my observations, and she wondered out loud if the back had any text written on it. I had wondered the same thing myself but I knew that until we carried out further work, we wouldn’t be able to know.

BUT, since this 1935 photograph shows both the lid and the base of the coffin on display, we don’t have to wait any longer!

The lid and the base of Tawahibre's coffin, side by side in the Mummy Gallery in 1935.

The lid and the base of Tawahibre’s coffin, side by side in the Mummy Gallery in 1935.

As you can see in the above image, there is writing on the back! Now only if we could just hasten the conservation treatment so we can examine it for ourselves…

Another thing that is useful about this image is that is shows that much of the damage we’re seeing on the coffin today was present in 1935. This includes both major structural damage and extensive paint loss in areas. It is likely that the coffin came into our collection with this damage, which is somehow reassuring to me. I will also note this in my documentation.

Tawahibre's coffin in 1935 (left) and today (right). Much of the major damage we see today had already occurred by 1935. To highlight this, I've circled some of the damaged areas in red in both images.

Tawahibre’s coffin in 1935 (left) and today (right). Much of the major damage we see today had already occurred by 1935. To highlight this, I’ve circled some of the damaged areas in red in both images.

We continue to plug away on the treatment of the coffin and we are hoping to soon reach the point where we can separate the lid. I will provide an update shortly about some of the more recent work we have been carrying out on this artifact!