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.

 

A new face in the lab

Last week I introduced you to our baby boy mummy, and this week I have another introduction to make. But unlike most of the Artifact Lab occupants, our newest addition is very much alive! Laura Galicier is a graduate student studying conservation at the University of Paris Pantheon-Sorbonne, and she recently arrived in Philadelphia to start a 7-month internship In the Artifact Lab.

Laura_microscope

Laura examining a wooden statue head under the binocular microscope

A couple of the things that you may wonder are, did she know that this internship would involve being on display all of the time, and, as a conservator-in-training, how does she feel about having to answer so many questions about Egypt? Well, the answer to the first question is that she was very well-aware of the open nature of the lab because she found out about us through this blog, and had seen photos of the lab and read about our daily interactions with the public. So she can’t say that she didn’t know what she was getting herself into!

Laura_openwindow

Laura is a quick-study, and is already doing a beautiful job of fielding questions from visitors during our open window sessions.

Furthermore, Laura is more knowledgeable than most conservators about Egypt, because before starting her conservation studies, she completed a Master’s in Archaeology with a specialization in Egyptology. She has also worked in Egypt, at the Karnak Temple Complex.

While she is here at the Penn Museum Laura will be working on several projects in the lab, one which will be the subject of her dissertation. I’m not going to say anything else about it here – I will let Laura tell you all about her work in an upcoming blogpost. In the meantime, I hope your curiosity is piqued by these images (above, at the microscope, and below) of her examining a pair of wooden statue heads. Expect to hear more about them from Laura here on the blog, and if you visit the lab, you may have a chance to chat with her about her projects.

Laura_pxrf

Laura positioning a wooden statue head under the portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer (pXRF)

Sundays in the Lab with Julie…or Tessa… or Lynn… or….

Posted by Lynn Grant

This handsome fellow is visiting the Artifact Lab from the Near Eastern Section.  He's being prepped to go on loan.  Museum number: 29-20-3

This handsome fellow is visiting the Artifact Lab from the Near Eastern Section. He’s being prepped to go on loan. Museum number: 29-20-3

Wonderful as she is, Project Conservator Molly Gleeson can’t be working in the Artifact Lab all the days the Museum is open. When she isn’t (most often Sundays), other Museum Conservators take turns working in the ‘fishbowl’ so there will still be conservation work for visitors to see. When we started this, ten months ago, the plan was for us to work on some of Egyptian mummies and related funerary goods along with Molly. As time has gone by some issues have arisen to make this more difficult. First, there are fewer tasks that we can do to contribute toward ongoing Artifact Lab treatments when we’re only here a day or two a month. Second, we often have deadlines to meet on other projects that mean we have to use our time in the Artifact Lab to work on those projects.

So, sometimes you’ll see Artifact Lab conservators working on objects that aren’t mummies, related funerary goods, or even Egyptian. In the next few weeks you’ll see me working on Near Eastern objects going on loan to the Hallie Ford Museum in Oregon, or on Amazonian artifacts destined for Penn Museum’s upcoming exhibit, YEAR OF SOUND: Hollywood in the Amazon at Penn Museum. Julie may be working on African artifacts for rotation into our Imagine Africa gallery.

A notice board at the front of the lab will indicate when non-Egyptian artifacts are being worked on in the Artifact Lab

A notice board at the front of the lab will indicate when non-Egyptian artifacts are being worked on in the Artifact Lab

If you’re interested in knowing more about the other objects you’re seeing, you can
– ask the conservator on duty about them during open window hours, or
– check the notice board in the front of the lab, which will have basic information on the objects being worked on, including their object numbers. For more indepth information, you can use your internet-ready device to look them up on the Museum’s website.

For all you Mummy Maniacs and Egyptian Aficionados, not to worry: there will still be plenty for you to see in the Artifact Lab and on the Smart Board. During open window hours, all the conservators on duty will be ready to answer your questions about the Egyptian materials as well as what they’re currently working on. And, never forget, you can always send your questions to this blog or email them to conservation@pennmuseum.org.

Ancient Egypt is all around us

Talk about job perks – earlier this week a group of us from the Egyptian section and the Conservation department took a little field trip to downtown Philadelphia to visit the old Wanamaker building (first department store in Philadelphia, now a Macy’s) and the Masonic Temple. These two buildings may not immediately make you think of Egypt or mummies, however, if you have been keeping up with the blog you’ll know that one of our mummies was donated to us by John Wanamaker, founder of Wanamaker’s Department Store. You can read more about that in a previous post by following this link.

But the Egypt connection we were exploring on this trip is the fact that both the old Wanamaker’s building and the Masonic Temple have Egyptian architectural elements. The Egyptian room at the Masonic Temple is something that more people may be familiar with.

A shot from inside the Egyptian Room at the Masonic Temple.

A shot from inside the Egyptian Room at the Masonic Temple.

The Egyptian Room is an incredible, ornately decorated meeting space in the Temple. It was completed in 1889 (apparently the interiors took over 35 years to finish, and you can really appreciate this when you’re standing inside those rooms-it’s impossible to take everything in during 1 visit). The room is flanked by 12 huge columns and both the columns and the walls are intricately painted and ornamented to depict scenes similar to those found the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs and temples.

A detail of one of the columns depicting the face of Hathor, goddess of love and motherhood.

A detail of one of the columns depicting the face of Hathor, goddess of love and motherhood.

Nothing in that room was left undecorated, including the ceiling, which it is painted blue and has a solar disk placed on the east end, representing Aten, the sun. Emanating from the disk are rays tipped with little hands each holding an ankh (the symbol of life).

A detail of the sun disk on the ceiling

A detail of the sun disk on the ceiling. Note that the intersections of the ceiling crossbeams have ancient mason-marks – these are some of the only non-Egyptian motifs in the room!

Our curator Dr. Jen Wegner has spent some time in this room AND translated all of the hieroglyphs, so she can attest to the fact that it is all very authentic. It is really quite a wonderful space, and the best part is that the Temple offers tours to the public and virtual tours on their website (although as I said, these photos really don’t represent the rich colors and details very well – you should really visit in person if you can).

Much less accessible to the public, and virtually forgotten by many at this point, is the Egyptian Hall in the old Wanamaker’s Building. I learned about the Egyptian Hall from Rick Seifert, who visited the Artifact Lab recently and we immediately made a connection. Rick is the Historian of the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ and when he found out that our mummy PUM I came to us from John Wanamaker, we exchanged information and he extended this special invitation for us to see what’s left of the Egyptian Hall. Built in 1910, unfortunately only remnants of this room remain-much of it has been dismantled and built into/over since the store changed hands in the 1990s.

Before entering the Hall, signs of it are visible – here we see Hathor again, adorning the top of a column just outside:

Hathor wanamakersThen Rick led us into the Hall, essentially at the mezzanine level – the lower level is sealed off with a drop ceiling and any elements that may be remaining below are obscured. But what we could see gave us an idea of what the Hall may have once looked like:

It is possible to see the tops of the columns which surround the room. The details were more recently repainted, but you get a sense of what the colors may have been.

It is possible to see the tops of the columns which surround the room. The columns were recently repainted, but you get a sense of what the colors may have been.

There are also some gorgeous details in the ceilings:

The ceilings are decorated with winged sun disks and empty cartouches. The original glass set into the ceilings is now gone.

The ceilings are decorated with winged sun disks and empty cartouches. The original glass set into the ceilings is now gone.

And in the railings:

railingsIt is unfortunate that so much of the Hall has been dismantled – and so recently! To get a sense of it’s former glory, there are some nice images in this old postcard and this photograph from the 1920s.

So just in case you think that we might get enough of this stuff at the Penn Museum – it’s impossible. We were eating this up! Special thanks to Rick Seifert and to John at the Masonic Temple for these opportunities to explore ancient Egypt right here in Philadelphia.

 

It’s hard work, but with lots of rewards

As I’ve said before on this blog, one of my favorite parts of my job is meeting our visitors on a daily basis. This kind of interaction is really rewarding for me, and I hope that the feeling is mutual for those who do get a chance to stop by the Artifact Lab during open window sessions. So you can imagine how pleased I was to find this in my mailbox yesterday:

quinn envelope_addressremovedAs soon as I saw this, I knew exactly who it was from. Last week I was visited by three brothers, Sean, Aidan, and Quinn – their Granddad brought them to the museum for a day, and after doing his homework, specifically came up to the Artifact Lab for our 11:15 open window session. They had lots of questions for me, and we talked for awhile about our animal mummies. I explained to them that we don’t need to unwrap these mummies to know what’s inside – x-rays show us that this rather nondescript mummy -

ibis mummy

- is definitely an ibis, indicated by the characteristic long curved beak which is clearly visible in x-radiographs taken from 2 different angles:

The ibis' beak, indicated here with red arrows, is seen in x-radiographs taken from two different angles.

The ibis’ beak is indicated here with red arrows

To illustrate this in the lab, we printed out one of these x-ray images along with a little drawing of an ibis, and we keep it next to the mummy for comparison. As soon as the youngest brother, Quinn, saw the picture, he quipped, “I wish I could color that!”. So I immediately handed it over to him and asked him if, when he was done coloring, he could share a photo of it with me to post on the blog. Well, he sure didn’t waste any time – not only did he send me his drawing (signed and everything):

Quinn drawingbut the brothers also included a very sweet, and beautifully illustrated thank you note.

quinn letter togetherWhat wonderful artists, and very thoughtful boys. Answering questions can be hard! But with visitors like this, it doesn’t feel like hard work-it’s just fun. Thank YOU Aidan, Sean, Quinn, and Granddad Dan for visiting me in the Artifact Lab and being the highlight of my day!