Out with the old, in with the…old

Since we opened in September 2012, visitors to the Artifact Lab have become accustomed to this view:

View into the Artifact Lab, with boards from Ahanakht's coffin pointed out with red arrows

View into the Artifact Lab, with boards from Ahanakht’s coffin pointed out with red arrows

The shelves lining the back wall of the lab have been mostly occupied with large cedar boards from the Middle Kingdom outer coffin of Ahanakht. We’ve written about this coffin before here, here, and here, and we’ve spent a lot of time in the lab examining, conserving, and studying the boards, alongside the Curator-in-charge of the Egyptian Section Dr. David Silverman and his graduate student Leah Humphrey.

Conservator Alexis North and Dr. Silverman reviewing details captured through reflectance transformation imaging (RTI)

Conservator Alexis North and Dr. Silverman reviewing details of the boards captured through reflectance transformation imaging (RTI)

Last week, the scenery in here changed quite a bit, as the boards were carefully packed:

Kevin Cahail secures one of the coffin boards to its custom-made palette in preparation for moving off-site

Curatorial Assistant Dr. Kevin Cahail secures one of the coffin boards to its custom-made palette in preparation for moving off-site

Large boards from Ahanakht's coffin packed and ready to be moved off-site

Large boards from Ahanakht’s coffin packed and ready to be moved off-site

Since the boards have been documented and conserved, they are moving off-site temporarily to make room for “new” things to come into the lab. These “new” pieces are actually being deinstalled from our Secrets and Science and Mummy Galleries, in order to retrofit those galleries to ensure that they will be secure during the construction project happening next door at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP).

Views into the Secrets and Science gallery, before deinstallation began

Views into the Secrets and Science gallery, before deinstallation began

Views into the Mummy Gallery, before deinstallation

Views into the Mummy Gallery, before deinstallation

Some of these objects and mummies will go back on display shortly, but need to be examined and conserved first, so they will be worked on in the Artifact Lab in the next few weeks to allow for reinstallation.

Details about the construction project at HUP and how it is affecting our museum have been described in some recent news articles, which you can find by following links that I’ve included at the end of this post.

For a couple days, the shelves in the lab were empty:

Conservator Alexis North working in the Artifact Lab with emptied shelves in the background

Conservator Alexis North working in the Artifact Lab with emptied shelves in the background

but we didn’t waste any time filling them back up again:

Shelves in the Artifact Lab filling up with new things

Shelves in the Artifact Lab filling up with new things

Note, this photo above was taken after day 1 of deinstallation; there will be more coming into the lab in the upcoming days.

We’ll post more about some of these “new” artifacts and mummies as we work on them in the next few weeks.

Penn Museum moves history (carefully) to make way for future

Demolition next door puts Penn Museum on shaky ground

Delicate process of preserving artifacts as things get shaky at UPenn Museum

Moving Marble: Penn Museum prepares for Penn Tower demolition

 

Animal mummy x-rays

The Artifact Lab has been a busy place lately (thanks in part to a big collections move project), and just last week we got a special delivery of some animal mummies from storage which have not been examined in a long time, and have never been x-rayed.

A cart with animal mummies, some which are still wrapped in tissue paper.

A cart with animal mummies, some which are still wrapped in tissue paper.

While everything has to move out of Egyptian storage, these animal mummies will not be moving offsite – we are finding a temporary home for them elsewhere in the museum. Nonetheless, this move is a chance to examine everything, to upgrade storage mounts, and to carry out minimal conservation treatment as needed.

Project conservator Alexis North photographs an ibis mummy in the Artifact Lab.

Project conservator Alexis North photographs an ibis mummy in the Artifact Lab.

A view of an ibis mummy during treatment to stabilize loose linen wrappings (the silver "kisses" are small weights)

A view of an ibis mummy during treatment to stabilize loose linen wrappings (the silver “kisses” are small weights)

So while we have these mummies in the lab, we thought we’d also take the opportunity to x-ray them using our new(ish) digital x-radiography equipment. There have been stories in the news recently about what x-rays and CT-scans have revealed about animal mummies in other collections and we’re interested in knowing how ours compare.

Alexis arranges an animal mummy on the x-ray digital capture plate below the x-ray tube.

Alexis arranges an animal mummy on the x-ray digital capture plate below the x-ray tube.

We will follow this post with some images of each of the mummies and what the radiographs revealed. Sorry to leave you hanging but I promise it will be worth the wait! Also stay tuned to the museum’s Facebook and Instagram accounts for another mystery mummy quiz!

Conserving a 6500 year-old skeleton from Ur

No, he’s not Egyptian, and no, he’s not a mummy, but somehow this 6500 year-old skeleton made his way into the Artifact Lab, and we are working on conserving his remains.

Thanks to recent media attention, he has drawn visitors to the museum, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Fortunately for our visitors, he is on view In the Artifact Lab every day the museum is open, until we complete the conservation treatment, which will be sometime in the next few weeks.

Just to give you an idea of what you might see if you visit the lab in the upcoming weeks, here are some photos taken by Phil and Diana Monslow, a Welsh couple who visited the museum on Thursday and promptly emailed their photos to us that same day.

Conservators Tessa de Alarcon and Nina Owczarek working on the Ubaid skeleton

Conservators Tessa de Alarcon and Nina Owczarek working on the Ubaid skeleton (with an Egyptian coffin from the New Kingdom in the background)

skeletondetail

A detail of the remains from the side, showing wax on the surface, soil, and burlap (modern, used to help lift the fragile remains from the site) below

Another shot of Nina and Tessa working on cleaning, mending, and consolidating the fragile remains

Another shot of Nina and Tessa working on cleaning, mending, and consolidating the fragile remains

Thanks Phil and Diana for your great shots!

 

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 and recorded using a device that is sensitive to infrared light. This phenomenon is called visible-induced infrared luminescence. Using a regular (visible) light source and a modified digital camera, 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.