Conserving Egyptian Collections, day 2

Day 2 of Understanding Egyptian Collections at the Ashmolean featured 11 speakers (including myself), and the papers covered a wide range of topics.

The front entrance of the Ashmolean Museum

The front entrance of the Ashmolean Museum

I didn’t take any photos during the talks, so I have less visual content to share for this post. For ease of sharing the information about the presentations, I’m going to list the talks here, with speakers names, titles, and brief remarks (all of the talks over the 2 days deserve way more attention than I give them here and in my previous post – hopefully a publication will result – see more about this below). Several of the talks had co-authors, but I’m only listing the co-authors names if they were present at the meeting.

  • “Evolving Attitudes: past and present treatment of Egyptian Collections of the Oriental Institute.” Alison Whyte, Associate Conservator, Oriental Institute. Alison shared many old archival photos which have helped conservators understand old restorations, and make decisions about how to revisit the conservation of objects that have been in their collection for a long time. Alison also shared the project of the guest curator Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer of the special exhibit “Between Heaven and Earth – Birds in Ancient Egypt“. Rozenn’s work included CT-scanning and making a 3D print of an eagle mummy, and 3D replicas of its skeletal remains. She brought a 3D print of the eagle mummy to show us, but unfortunately it got lost on her way to the conference along with the rest of her luggage! Let’s hope that it eventually turns up.
  • “Mummy case saved by LEGO: a collaborative approach to conservation of an Ancient Egyptian cartonnage.” Sophie Rowe, Conservator, and Julie Dawson, Senior Assistant Keeper, Conservation, Fitzwillliam Museum, University of Cambridge. LEGOI was familiar with this project due to the fact that it was prominently featured in the news last year. This project was a collaboration between conservators and engineering student David Knowles, who designed a structure to support a cartonnage coffin upside-down during treatment, and devised a plan to use LEGO structures to provide long-term support for the coffin from the interior. To the right is an image of the LEGO structure (it looks a little different from the LEGOs we’re all familiar with).
  • “The importance of technical analysis and research for the conservation and display of archaeological garments.” Anne Kwaspen, Conservator of the Archaeological Textile Collection, Katoen Natie. I had never heard of Katoen Natie before – it is a company based in Antwerp that has invested in collecting art, through a program called HeadquARTers. They have a collection of archaeological textiles from the art market and private collectors. Anne discussed the study and conservation of their Egyptian wool and linen tunics, and their approach to display.
  • “Problems and possibilities for the Petrie Museum’s pottery display.” Susanna Pancaldo, Senior Conservator, UCL Museums and Collections. Susanna spoke about recent upgrades to the pottery room at the Petrie Museum. Their pottery room has approximately 3400 objects on display in 36 cases, and was suffering from issues with light, extremes in relative humidity and temperature, lack of mounts and damaging mounts, lack of space, and outdated/minimal labels. In 2014 they received funding to make improvements, including new lighting, new interpretive information, the addition of an introductory showcase showing Petrie’s sequence dating technique, and to carry out conservation surveys and treatments, among other things.
  • “Innovations for the display of Dynastic textiles using existing designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Emilia Cortes, Conservator, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Emilia’s presentation focused on the remounting of Egyptian textiles on exhibit to allow for easier access. She showed how she was able to modify existing mounts for elaborate, intricate objects, including this incredible floral collar from Tutankhamun’s embalming cache. Her retrofits included the innovative use of food-grade silicone for preventing movement of objects on exhibit.
  • “King Menkaure in Motion: the metamorphosis of a Monolithic royal sculpture from the Old Kingdom.” Susanne Gansicke, Conservator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Susanne described the monumental task of moving their King Menkaure statue from one gallery to another within the Museum of Fine Arts. With 2 years lead time, they were able to do gamma radiography of the sculpture in the gallery to help prepare and make decisions about the move, which involved setting the statue on a lifting frame, with 12 wheels attached, and then moving it with the assistance of 2 lifts. It was a very thoughtful project and an impressive feat!
  • “On not exhibiting a corpse: the Mummy Chamber, Brooklyn Museum.” Lisa Bruno, Head Objects Conservator, Brooklyn Museum of Art. In preparation for the museum’s new “Mummy Chamber“, conservators at the Brooklyn Museum worked on 2 unwrapped mummies, Pa-seba-khai-en-ipet and an anonymous man. The anonymous man, who was methodically unwrapped in the late 1950s, with the procedures documented in the book Wrapped for Eternity, was rewrapped in the conservation lab for display. The decision was made not to display the remains of Pa-seba-khai-en-ipet due to his poor condition, and ultimately, because displaying his remains would mean displaying a corpse, not a mummy.
  • “Reflecting on Egyptian Pigments: the use of Fibre Optic Reflectance Spectroscopy (FORS) for pigment analysis at the Fitzwilliam Museum.” Jennifer Marchant, Antiquities Conservator, and Abigail Granville, Pigment Analyst, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. Jennifer and Abigail discussed their use of FORS to analyze pigments using a FieldSpec 4 spectroradiometer, which measures in the UV/visible/near IR range. They are building their own reference library, and finding that it is useful as an initial non-invasive examination method, and may be used in the examination of varnishes and binding media as well.
  • “A case for keeping: the life and afterlife of ritual metal statuary in Ancient Egypt.” Deborah Schorsch, Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Deborah spoke about examples of Egyptian metal statues in collections around the world that show evidence of reworking for various reasons, often for the purpose of the object serving a new ritual function, or removing details in order to retire objects. One example she spoke about at length was the copper and gold Hierakonpolis falcon in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This statue had 4 different phases, with new material being added in each phase of its life.
  • “Bringing it all together In the Artifact Lab: Conservation, research, display, interpretation.” (Me! I spoke about working on Egyptian material and mummies in a public space, and some of the unique interactions and investigations that we have carried out as a result of the working environment.)
  • “Ancient Worlds: Open data, mobile web, haptics, digital touch.” Stephen Devine, Digital Communications Officer, and Sam Sportun, Collection Care Manager/Senior Conservator, Manchester Museum. Stephen and Sam introduced us all to Haptic technology and how it is being used at the Manchester Museum to allow visitors to “handle” artifacts. They also spoke at length about the importance of mobile technology and the development of an app to allow visitors to explore and provide feedback about their Ancient Worlds exhibit.

Ashmolean Head of Conservation Mark Norman gave the closing remarks, and expressed their interest in producing a publication from the conference. All of the talks were also filmed, and the conference organizers are planning on making the talks available via iTunesU.

I also should mention that there were several posters at the conference, which were presented on a monitor as a slideshow, and the poster presenters were given ipads to share their “posters” during the breaks. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t have a chance to see several of the posters, so I’m hoping this content will be made available in the future as well!

It was a short, but very worthwhile trip to Oxford. I hope to have the opportunity to return soon.

Christ Church buildings as seen from Tom Quad

Christ Church buildings as seen from Tom Quad

6500 year-old Ubaid skeleton in Artifact Lab

blog1On August 5, 2014, Penn Museum’s PR team issued a press release titled “6,500-Year-Old Skeleton Newly “Discovered” in the Penn Museum”. The story caught the public imagination and spread throughout world news media like wildfire. Thanks to popular demand, the skeleton will be spending the next few weeks in the Artifact Lab, getting some long-overdue TLC.

To learn more about his past, read this post on the Museum’s blog.

The Ubaid skeleton will be on partial view while on a working table inside the glass-enclosed lab space, with some images and information provided on a video screen. As soon as conservators complete their work documenting, cleaning, and stabilizing the skeleton, it will move to a display case in front of the lab; then visitors will have an opportunity to get a very up-close view.

While the skeleton is inside In the Artifact Lab and later on display, visitors will have frequent opportunities to meet with a physical anthropologist or informed physical anthropology student to ask questions. From Saturday, August 30 through Sunday, September 14 (exception: Labor Day Monday, when the Museum is open), an expert will be on hand from 11 am to noon, and again from 1:00 to 2:00 pm. From September 16 through International Archaeology Day on October 18, a physical anthropologist or student will be on hand Tuesday through Sunday (exception: Wednesdays) from 1:00 to 2:00 pm.

 

A different sort of unwrapping…

by Alexis North, a project conservator spending the summer working with the Buddhist Murals Project, but who also has a strong interest in Egyptian materials. Read more about her work on Egyptian objects at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, here.

If any of you have visited the Artifact Lab in person, you may have heard us talk about how it was once popular to open or unwrap mummies, to see the body inside. Of course, this is no longer common practice, and we use non-invasive techniques such as x-radiography or CT scanning to see underneath a mummy’s wrapping without causing any damage or disturbance to the mummy’s current condition.

However, sometimes we are able to perform a slightly different kind of unwrapping, when items are found in storage in aging, opaque, or otherwise unsuitable housing conditions. Such was the case with this mystery item:

E12443, before opening and treatment

E12443, before opening and treatment

While it may look like Sunday’s dinner fresh from the butcher shop, it is actually supposed to be an ibis mummy. However, it has been wrapped in layers of tissue paper and plastic and you cannot see what the object actually looks like. While this type of storage is not damaging to the object, the fact that you cannot see the mummy inside makes this type of wrapping unsuitable. We always prefer to create storage supports or housings that allow researchers to easily see the objects without excessive handling. Therefore, this guy came up to the Artifact Lab for a little modern-day unwrapping.

E12443, after removing the plastic and tissue but before treatment

E12443, after removing the plastic and tissue but before treatment

And what a good-looking mummy it is! While we don’t have a lot of information about the age of this mummy, the intricate wrapping, which uses strips of both dyed and undyed linen, is typical of later periods in Egypt. It is also in very good condition, being just slightly dirty on the surface and having a few small areas of damage to the linen.

Detail images showing (1) a separated piece of linen wrapping on the top of the mummy, (2) a section of linen on the back torn and folded over, and (3) areas of loss which expose the ends of the woven linen underneath

Detail images showing (1) a separated piece of linen wrapping on the top of the mummy, (2) a section of linen on the back torn and folded over, and (3) areas of loss which expose the ends of the woven linen underneath

After gently cleaning the surface of the mummy using a vacuum and soft-bristled brush, I stabilized the areas of lifted or broken linen using Japanese tissue mends. Thin strips of tissue were toned brown using acrylic paint, then adhered underneath the lifting or broken areas using 2.5% methylcellulose adhesive in deionized water. I was able to reattach the broken piece of linen at the top of the mummy, and several sections of lifting wrappings which would be in danger of breaking, without stabilization.

I also humidified and reflattened the folded flap of linen on the back of the mummy. The opening caused by the folded flap was allowing fragments of the inner linen layers to break off and fall out. I used another Japanese tissue mend with methylcellulose to hold the reshaped flap in place.

Before (left) and after (right) flattening and readhering the flap of linen on the back of the ibis mummy

Before (left) and after (right) flattening and readhering the flap of linen on the back of the ibis mummy

Here are some images of the ibis mummy after I completed its treatment. I know it doesn’t look very different, and that happens a lot when treating archaeological objects. My goal wasn’t to improve or restore the mummy in any way, just make sure it could be safely handled and stored without any further damage.

    Images of (1) the top of the mummy, (2) the proper right side of the mummy, and (3) a detail of the reattached linen strip, after treatment

Images of (1) the top of the mummy, (2) the proper right side of the mummy, and (3) a detail of the reattached linen strip, after treatment

My last step was to make a new storage tray so the mummy can be easily seen and examined, without any wrappings besides the ones it came with!

The ibis mummy in its new storage mount

The ibis mummy in its new storage mount

 

Treating fragments of a Middle Kingdom painted wooden coffin

If you’ve visited the lab in the last few weeks you may have seen me, head bent at the binocular microscope, working away on fragments of a painted wooden coffin from Abydos. These fragments (7 in total) were excavated in 1901 and have been here at the museum ever since. As I described in a previous post, these boards were severely damaged by termites prior to excavation, and the painted surface, while very well-preserved in some areas, was cracked, flaking, and barely attached in places, not to mention covered with grime.

One of the coffin fragments, which features a portion of a frieze of objects that includes two vessels with spouts and a bolt of clothing.

A before treatment photograph of one of the coffin fragments, which features a portion of a frieze of objects that includes two vessels with spouts and a bolt of clothing.

On the board in the image above, the paint was actually in decent condition. After cleaning the surface with bits of a kneaded rubber eraser, I stabilized the edges around the paint losses with a 2% solution of methyl cellulose in water. With the help of an intern, we sorted through a box of much smaller fragments that presumably had become detached from the 7 larger boards at some point, and we found two small fragments of wood with painted decoration which belonged to this board. These fragments were adhered in place with a 1:1 mixture of 5% methyl cellulose and Jade 403, an ethylene vinyl acetate emulsion.

E12505emends

In this image the red arrows point out the two fragments which were adhered in place after cleaning and consolidation.

Here is a view of that area from the back after mending those fragments:

e12505e_backbeforemendingThe termite damage is evident from the back, and as you can see, the wood is very thin in this area in particular, only about 1mm thick along the join edges between the small fragments and the larger board. The small loss to the right of the upper fragment is an area where the wood and painted surface have been lost completely.

Because the wood is so thin and fragile, I decided to provide some support to this area, by first adhering a piece of Japanese tissue paper over the loss from the back with a 5% solution of methyl cellulose.

e12505e_backmend

A detail of the Japanese tissue paper support adhered over the loss

I then filled the loss and the small gaps along the join edges of that upper fragment from the front, using a fill mixture made from 5% methyl cellulose, glass microballoons, and powdered pigment.

e12505edetail

A detail shot showing the fill from the front

Here is an overall view of the board, after treatment:

E12505Edt02_blogThe fill mixture I used worked nicely, and I’m now using it to stabilize the edges of some of the lifting paint on the other coffin board fragments where the painted surface is in worse condition. I will post photos soon showing what the coffin boards look like before and after treatment.

 

Completing the treatment of Tawahibre’s coffin

Things have been pretty busy around here lately, and I almost forgot to post some updates about several projects. One project in particular is the treatment of Tawahibre’s coffin. We have been working on this 2-part painted wooden coffin in the lab for the last year, and we recently completed its treatment.

As you may remember, when the coffin first came up here, it was covered with a thick layer of dust and grime, the paint was badly flaking in areas, several large pieces of painted gesso were pulling away from the wood support, and there were large cracks throughout.

Before treatment photos (clockwise from left): upper half of coffin showing layer of dust and large cracks and losses; large piece of painted gesso partially detached from top of head; large loss on wig, showing old animal glue adhesive from a previous restoration

Before treatment photos (clockwise from left): upper half of coffin showing layer of dust and large cracks and losses; large piece of painted gesso partially detached from top of head; large loss on wig, showing old, shiny animal glue adhesive from a previous restoration

After cleaning the surface with a brush and vacuum, followed by cosmetic sponges, I consolidated the paint with a methyl cellulose solution, filled in cracks and gaps using Japanese tissue paper and a mixture of methyl cellulose bulked with cellulose powder and glass microballoons, and then toned the fills with acrylic paint. This work is explained in further detail in previous posts, which you can find by clicking on the links included in blue above.

fillingcracks

A detail shot of the wig showing an area with several large open cracks before and after filling with Japanese tissue paper and methyl cellulose/cellulose powder/glass microballoons mixture

Based on a discussion with our Egyptian section curators, I also made some aesthetic fills to mask some large losses, including 2 losses on the wig. We chose not to fill the losses on the nose and chin because filling these losses would require too much guess-work as to the original contours of these features.

Large loss on wig before (left), after application of Japanese tissue paper layer (middle), and after application of fill mixture (right)

Large loss on wig before (left), after application of Japanese tissue paper layer (middle), and during application of fill mixture (right)

Detail of the head and wig before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment, with losses in before treatment photo outlined in red

Detail of the head and wig before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment, with losses on the wig outlined in red. The larger loss on the right is the featured in the previous series of images.

I carried out similar work on the base of the coffin, and now both are complete:

Tawahibre's coffin lid before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

Tawahibre’s coffin lid before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

The coffin base before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

The coffin base before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

As you can see, we chose not to fill many of the losses, focusing instead on stabilization.

This work will enable future exhibition of the coffin, and just as importantly, it will make further study of the coffin possible. All along there have been some discrepancies between the name that has always been associated with the coffin (Tawahibre, a woman’s name) and a previous translation in 1946 of the hieroglyphic text on the coffin (which identified the name of a male court official, the son of J-se(t)-N-Ese). There has also been some confusion about the remains once housed in the coffin, which were previously identified as male, but in a 1975 autopsy the remains were confirmed as belonging to a female in her mid-30s. A bit confusing, but hopefully we’re now one step closer to getting this all straightened out!

 

Fragmentary painted coffin from Abydos

If you are a member of the museum, you may have already seen some information about these painted coffin board fragments in the most recent issue of Expedition magazine:

E12505_2These fragments, which date to the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2000-1700 BCE), were excavated from the North Cemetery of Abydos in 1901 by John Garstang. The museum supported Garstang’s work through the Egypt Exploration Fund.

Despite the severe insect damage, the preservation of the painted details on these fragments is remarkable.

This fragment features 3 usekh collars, which were often reserved for nobility. Beside each collar is a mankhet, or counterpoise. The hieroglyphs above are the names of each of the collars, which are slightly different.

This fragment features 3 usekh collars, which were often reserved for nobility. Beside each collar is a mankhet, or counterpoise. The hieroglyphs above are the names of each of the collars, which are slightly different.

A detail of the usekh en nebti, the collar of the two mistresses that incorporates the uraeus and the vulture

A detail of the usekh en nebti, the collar of the two mistresses that incorporates the uraeus
and the vulture (7.5x magnification)

These coffin board fragments have never been exhibited, and our renewed interest in them is due to the fact that we are currently excavating tombs from the same time period in South Abydos, including the funerary complex of Senwosret III. You can read a lot more about this project in the recent Expedition issue and on the museum blog by following this link.

In order to exhibit the coffin fragments, they need some extensive conservation treatment. Their surfaces are dirty, the paint is cracked, cupped and lifting from the wood support, and is very fragile, and some of the boards are structurally unstable due to the extensive insect damage.

We are currently working on these boards in the lab, and we have made some good progress. We are cleaning the painted surfaces with a kneaded rubber eraser. The eraser can be shaped to a fine point, and working under the binocular microscope, it is possible to remove the dirt from most of the painted surface without disturbing the fragile paint.

We are using kneaded erasers (left) to clean the delicate painted surface of these coffin boards (right)

We are using kneaded erasers (left) to clean the delicate painted surface of these coffin boards (right)

Some areas of paint need to be stabilized before they can be cleaned. After testing a variety of adhesive solutions, I settled on my old friend methyl cellulose, a 2% solution of methyl cellulose in water to be exact, to consolidate fragile areas.

Paint consolidation is being carried out under the microscope with a fine brush

Paint consolidation is being carried out under the microscope with a fine brush

I am now working on testing some fill materials, both to stabilize the edges of lifting paint and also to stabilize the fragile wood. I will post an update as soon as I make some decisions and proceed with this part of the treatment!

 

Consolidating and reconstructing glass objects

* A new post from former Artifact Lab graduate intern Laura Galicier, contributing from a distance in Paris!

Reconstruction of a fish-shaped vessel from ancient Afghanistan (picture from a video of the British Museum, that can be viewed at https://www.britishmuseum.org/channel/exhibitions/2011/afghanistan/video_glass_blowing.aspx

Reconstruction of a fish-shaped vessel from ancient Afghanistan
- picture from a video on the British Museum website, that can be viewed by  following this link

Two glass objects from Cyprus were previously introduced to you. After an initial examination, several treatment steps were decided.

First, the surface showed evidence of delamination and was slightly flaking. We chose to consolidate the surface because if this destructive process went on it could lead to the complete loss of the object. An acrylic resin (Paraloid B72, that you’re now pretty familiar with) in acetone was chosen to do this light stabilization.

Then, we tried to see if the pieces from each object could be built up. We found that while the jug (n.63-1-196) would be able to reconstructed, the fragments of the bowl (n.63-200) didn’t fit together.

On the right: the glass jug    On the left: the glass bowl

The glass jug                                                                         The glass bowl

So the building work for the jug began! We had to find where every fragment was supposed to go. If you read our blogpost about the Egyptian Demotic jar, you’ll realize that building up a glass object is very different. Of course, the size of these glass fragments is considerably smaller than the jar fragments. Besides, the edges of a ceramic are irregular, which can help with reassembly, whereas the edges of glass are smooth.

Glass fragments glued together

Glass fragments glued together

In terms of thickness, a glass object can be very irregular, especially after deterioration, such as delamination of the surface. Generally, you hope that two fragments of similar thickness belong to the same area of the object, but with glass, delamination makes it possible for two fragments of very different thickness to fit together. Moreover, compared to ceramic, glass fragments have a very different way to adjust to each other.

Despite these differences, the methodology to reconstruct glass and ceramic has some similarities: it is necessary to map out the joins so as to know precisely where each fragment goes.

After a bit of work the fragments were put in the order to be joined.

The fragments arranged in the right order

The fragments arranged in the right order

Then, the fragments were temporarily reconstructed using scotch tape. Taping the joins clarifies where each fragment goes and exactly in which order to build them up. This order isn’t always the most obvious but if it isn’t respected, a fragment could prevent another one to fit.

The fragments were built together with scotch tape.

The fragments were built together with scotch tape.

Then, the scotch tape was removed and the fragments were glued with an adhesive (Paraloid B72). Three groups of fragments were reconstructed: fragments of the top, fragments of the bottom and a few fragments that should be placed in-between. The in-between fragments couldn’t be glued to the top or to the bottom because there’s a wide gap between them and the other fragments. This is why it was necessary to make fills so as to support these before going any further.

The three groups of fragments reconstructed and glued together.

The three groups of fragments reconstructed and glued together.

The fills will be explained in a post to come!

 

Back together again

Okay, I promised to write about the shabti box investigation in my next post, but before I do that, I have to share something exciting with all of you:

PUM I, our Third Intermediate Period mummy who was autopsied back in 1972, is back together again!

PUM I, before treatment in his coffin

PUM I, before treatment in his coffin

When he came into the lab, we didn’t realize how much he had been cut apart, and the extent to which his remains and linen wrappings had deteriorated. We have spent a lot of time examining this mummy, researching his history including his autopsy, cleaning the deteriorated linen and human remains, identifying and inventorying the remains (thanks to Penn undergraduate Christine Lugrine), and conserving the linen wrappings.

The conservation work on his remains is nearly complete, and he will soon leave the Artifact Lab. Come visit the lab for one last glimpse, and check out the before and after photos below.

Overall shot of PUM I before and after conservation

Overall shot of PUM I before and after conservation

View from the top of PUM I (with head removed) before and after conservation

View from the top of PUM I, with head removed, before conservation (with remains in plastic bag inside the chest cavity) and after conservation (with Ethafoam supports filling out chest cavity)

Inside the chest cavity of PUM I before and after conservation

Inside the chest cavity of PUM I before and after conservation (with Ethafoam supports)

Another view looking inside PUM I before and after conservation

Another view looking inside PUM I before and after conservation (with Ethafoam supports)

Remains removed during autopsy before and after conservation/re-housing

Remains removed during autopsy before and after conservation/re-housing

 

 

The jar is gone !

Example of an Egyptian jar, complete (XVIIIth Dynasty).

Example of an Egyptian jar, complete (XVIIIth Dynasty).

After making some fills on the Egyptian demotic jar, two other steps remained to complete the treatment.

First: painting the fills. The goal is to tone the fills with a color matching the general shade of the ceramic, so as it doesn’t catch your eye when you’re looking at it from a few feet away. It has to be clearly distinguishable if you get a closer look.

Here is the result:

Untitled-2 Let’s have a closer view:

Untitled-3

Untitled-4

View of the 4 areas of the jar that were filled and toned.

Second step: making a storage box. The basic rules about storage-making are quite simple. The materials used to make the storage must be chemically neutral towards the object and their ageing must not threaten its condition. For example, some materials can deteriorate in a short-term time period and cause chemical reactions with the artifact they are supposed to protect, causing alterations.  That’s why conservators use materials that were approved by testing them, like submitting them to specific temperature or humidity settings. More details about storage materials can be found following this link.

To prevent this situation from happening, acid-free paper and cardboard, polyethylene foam and fabric, and other well-known conditioning materials are preferred.

Then, each object being different, the storage needs to be adapted to its needs (size, weight, material sensitivity…) but also to the room available in the storeroom itself ! Concerning the jar, it was about allowing its safe and easy handling and preventing it from rolling.  According to its weight, the cardboard used had to be quite strong.

Left: the box has a front side that opens and a small compartment (on the right) to store fragments that couldn't be glued to the jar.   On the right: The box with the front side closed.

Left: the box has a front side that opens and a small compartment (on the right) to store fragments that couldn’t be glued to the jar.
Right: The box with the front side closed.

The mount, so as the jar can safely be pulled out of the box.

The mount, so as the jar can safely be pulled out of the box.

Left: the jar in its new storage box... Right: ...ready to go back to the Egyptian storeroom.

Left: the jar in its new storage box…
Right: …ready to go back to the Egyptian storeroom.

Here ends the conservation treatment of the jar; it was brought back to the storerooms last week. But we still have new projects in the Lab !

A new challenge in the lab

I am always pleased to see returning visitors to the Artifact Lab. And of course, people who have been here before want to know, what’s new? Visiting the lab is the best way to find out about our latest projects and progress, but this blog is the next best thing.

So, what is new around here? Well, I’ll let you take a look for yourself:

shabti boxThis object was featured in the “What in the World” series on the museum’s Facebook page this week. There were a wide range of guesses as to what this is; my favorites being a breadbox, an Egyptian mail box, a papyrus organizer, a holder for cat mummies, and an ancient Egyptian Matchbox-car garage.

Seriously though, this is a shabti box. Here is a shabti box that is similar in style, at the British Museum. Shabti boxes were used to house shabti figures. Shabtis were included in burials as servant figures that would carry out heavy work on behalf of the deceased. They were depicted as mummified and were inscribed with spells which, when recited, magically caused them to come to life and perform work for the deceased in the afterlife. Here are 3 shabtis that were originally housed in our shabti box:

shabtisThe shabti box and shabtis are made of wood, covered with a thin layer of gesso, and painted. They are in the lab for treatment because their surfaces are actively flaking. Not only is the paint flaking, but there is a yellow-orange coating over the painted surface that is badly flaking as well.

This yellow-orange coating is applied over the entire surface of the shabtis and the box (inside and out), and it is very thick in areas.

A detail of the shabti box showing areas where the coating is particularly thick (pointed out here with the red arrows).

A detail of the shabti box showing areas where the coating is particularly thick (pointed out here with the red arrows).

My first question is, what is this coating? Is it an original varnish or is it a later restoration?

The box and the shabtis date to the New Kingdom, ca. 1200 BCE. We know that varnishes such as those containing pistacia resin were used on painted wood in the New Kingdom, and these varnishes often appear yellow, although they may not have been yellow when first applied. We also know that these varnishes were applied unevenly – the application of the pistacia resin varnish has even been described as “messy” and it is acknowledged that its purpose was not an aesthetic one, but rather intended to make such objects more divine, or suitable for the afterlife (Serpico and White 2001). This description may help explain the rather sloppy appearance of the yellow-orange varnish on our shabti box and figures.

We cannot, however, discount the idea that this coating may be a later restoration. We know that archaeologists frequently stabilized artifacts in the field to allow for their safe recovery. Materials such as paraffin wax, gelatin, shellac, and cellulose nitrate have been used for this purpose in the field or once the objects found their way into museum collections (like the wooden heads Laura has been working on).

There are several ways in which we can try to determine what this coating is and when it may have been applied. We already have some clues, but we’ll share those in an upcoming post. Stay tuned for updates as we learn more!