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.


Unwrapping mummies?

If there is one thing that I try to emphasize to visitors to the Artifact Lab, it is that we are NOT unwrapping or cutting open mummies. While this type of examination may have been appropriate and acceptable in the past (think PUM I) we don’t do this anymore. As you may gather from the title of this blog and our project, we are focusing on the conservation of our mummies, and we do this by aiming to use non-invasive and reversible examination and treatment techniques as much as possible. Our ability to carry out our work with much less interventive procedures than those used in the past is due in part to advances in technology. And when you see what is possible with new technology, you can see why autopsying mummies just doesn’t, errr…cut it.

Take, for example, one of our mummies that was CT-scanned back in 2009.

Hapi-Men on display in the Secrets and Science exhibit

Hapi-Men on display in the Secrets and Science exhibit (Hapi-Puppy is by his feet!)

As part of a larger CT-scanning project funded by the National Science Foundation, Hapi-Men, along with his puppy (Hapi-Puppy) was CT-scanned at the Department of Radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) (a special thanks to Felicia Williams and Erica Durham for this work!).

Although Hapi-Men had been x-rayed in the past, this type of examination is limited in that it does not provide much detail of any of the preserved soft tissue and other materials (like amulets) included in the mummy’s wrappings. But CT-scans can help reveal these details, and they also allow for 3D reconstructions, like the one you can see below, created by Penn graduate Samantha Cox under the supervision of Dr. Janet Monge.

CT-scanning, combined with other imaging techniques such as photogrammetry and laser scanning, leads to some pretty amazing virtual representations of mummies. Most recently, such work has been carried out in a collaborative effort between The Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, a group of Swedish visualization researchers, FARO (a 3D technology company) and Autodesk (a software company focusing on 3D design). This collaboration has resulted not only in the capture of new information for researchers, but the creation of an interactive exhibition for museum visitors, scheduled to open in Stockholm in February 2014. The interactive part of the exhibit, created using Inside Explorer will allow both museum staff and visitors to use simple gestures to virtually unwrap the mummies and to explore their multiple burial components.

You can read more about this exciting project, and see several images and videos of the process by following this link.

Our current work to conserve the mummies and funerary items In the Artifact Lab will stabilize some of these fragile objects enough to allow us to CT-scan them, and hopefully so that we can create some of our very own interactive exhibition features in the future.


Reimagining an ancient Egyptian material

Have you checked out our In the News section of this blog? Periodically, we try to update this page with some interesting articles related to our Egyptian collection, stories about projects and discoveries in Egypt, and even our own lab highlighted in the press.

One of the more recent stories that we’ve posted is about a new discovery related to Egyptian blue, one of the world’s first synthetic pigments. The ancient Egyptians made it by heating together copper, silica (sand), lime (calcium oxide) and an alkali such as natron (sodium sesquicarbonate) and it is found on objects from as early as the 4th Dynasty through to the Roman Period. We see this pigment on artifacts here in the lab, including Tawahibre’s coffin (and for more details read our blogpost on how we know this.)

A detail of Tawahibre's coffin. Based on analysis, this pigment has been determined to be Egyptian blue.

A detail of Tawahibre’s coffin. Based on analysis, this pigment has been determined to be Egyptian blue.

One thing that has been discovered about Egyptian blue is that it has luminescent properties-this luminescence cannot be seen in normal light conditions, but can be detected using infrared light. Using an infrared light source, it is possible to not only positively identify Egyptian blue using a completely non-invasive technique, but it is also possible to discover very small traces of Egyptian blue pigment on surfaces of objects. The British Museum provides a great overview of this phenomenon on their website. It is our hope that we might be able to try this technique to examine some of the artifacts in our collection.

A painted wood uraeus on display in our Upper Egypt gallery. The paint has not been analyzed, but based on appearance the blue is most likely Egyptian blue. Examination with an IR source could confirm this.

A painted wood uraeus on display in our Upper Egypt gallery. The paint has not been analyzed, but based on appearance the blue is most likely Egyptian blue. Examination with an IR light source could confirm this.

Furthermore, it is now understood that this luminescence is produced by the nanostructure of the pigment – scientists have discovered that the calcium copper silicate in Egyptian blue can be broken into nanosheets, which produce infrared radiation similar to beams that communicate between TVs and remote controls and car door locks. It is now being envisioned that these nanosheets could be used for future near-infrared-based medical imaging techniques and security ink formulations!! Talk about a new life for such an ancient material.

You can read and hear more about this by following this link to our In the News section of this blog. Have you read or heard about something recently that you think we should share on our blog? Leave a comment here and we’ll try to incorporate these suggestions whenever possible.