We aren’t making mummies…or are we?

One question I hear occasionally from visitors in the Artifact Lab is “are you making mummies?”. I always think that this is a funny question – there is one thing that we have plenty of at the museum, and that is objects in our collection. There is no need for us to make our own…or is there?

What's going on here? What could these possibly be for?

What’s going on here? What could these possibly be for?

We do sometimes make mock-ups of artifacts, for testing purposes or for exhibit or educational use, and I wrote a bit about this in my very first blog post on the Penn Museum blog, way back in September.

And now I can no longer say that the museum is not making mummies. While we may not be making mummies in the Artifact Lab, we do have someone on staff who has been known to make a mummy, or two, in his career. This someone is Ben Neiditz. And rather than saying much more about this, I thought I’d ask him a few questions, and post our Q&A on the blog. So read on to learn more about Ben’s fascinating, and super creative, work.

Real mummy or fake? You decide!

Real mummy or fake? You decide!

Hi Ben. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and what do you do at the museum?

I am a sculptor, designer, and builder and I work in the Exhibits department designing and building a range of different exhibit elements including casework, interactives, furniture, and artifact replicas.

How did you get into making artifact replicas?

Well, I studied sculpture and I am still making artwork outside of the museum, but my first replica for the museum was for the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit. We were prevented at the last minute from displaying the two mummies that were the centerpiece of the show and so I created two replicas. As luck would have it, I had been making desiccated corpses as part of my own sculptural practice and so I was well prepared to make replica mummies in the required time frame (very fast!). Most recently I made a set of replica codices for the exhibit Maya 2012: Lords of Time and I have just finished making another replica mummy – including a set of desiccated organs – that will be used in educational workshops about Egyptian mummification. 

Tell us more about this recent mummy project! How did you make the mummy and what materials did you use?

I started by casting a skull: I covered it in paper mache, let it dry and then cut off the paper shell and reattached the parts.

The "skeleton" of Ben's mummy

The “skeleton” of Ben’s mummy

I used skeletal and anatomical diagrams, photos of real mummies and my own body as reference for scale, proportion and texture. For the body, I started with a wood armature that I then “fleshed out” with paper and cardboard.

The body of the mummy taking shape

The body of the mummy taking shape

I coated the whole thing in paper mache and then I painted and textured the exterior with celluclay, dirt and wood glue to get the desired skin texture.

The "skin" in process of being applied (left) and a detail of the evisceration on the mummy's left side (right)

The “skin” in process of being applied (left) and a detail of the evisceration (right)

Do you have anything else interesting to share? What was the most interesting thing you learned from this?

I went to check out the mummification workshop in which the aforementioned mummy is used. This particular iteration of the workshop was being presented to a group of 6th graders and it was great! The kids get to poke brains made from jello and learn all about the system of religious beliefs that surrounds Egyptian mummification. I learned that in order to be admitted to the afterlife, your heart is put on a scale balanced against a feather. If your heart is too heavy, indicating a life lived wrongly, it is devoured by a crocodile-lion-hippopotamus and you are denied entry into the underworld.

Real mummy or fake? You decide!

The final product-the complete mummy with all of his organs and a scarab amulet placed on his chest.

Thanks Ben! What a cool project. The mummy looks great, and as Ben mentioned, is already being put to use for workshops here at the museum. The mummy has been dubbed “Mr. Ulysses Penn” (or Mr. U Penn). He will be featured in the next “Mummy Makers” workshop, which will take place on June 5th.

 

A technical study of a child sarcophagus

Casey analyzing the surface of the child sarcophagus using a portable XRF analyzer

Casey analyzing the surface of the child sarcophagus using a portable XRF analyzer. Photo by Vanessa Muros

 

I have a special treat for our readers today – I recently had an interesting discussion with Casey Mallinckrodt, a current graduate student in the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials (which is also my alma mater!).

As part of her graduate studies, Casey has been working on a rare example of an Egyptian child sarcophagus, and instead of recounting the conversation for everyone, I asked her if she’d be willing to answer a few questions for our blog. Read on to hear more about Casey and this fascinating project.

 

 

1. First, tell our readers a little more about yourself.

I am a second year MA student in the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials. This is a career shift for me having received an MFA in sculpture in 1988 and having had a career in fine arts and education. I did pre-program internships in conservation at the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History in New York before applying to this program.

I am working on this project with Dr. David A. Scott and Prof. Ellen Pearlstein, both of whom are faculty in our program. Marie Svoboda, a conservator of antiquities at the Getty Villa, and Dr. Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist at UCLA are advisors.

An overall view of the sarcophagus

A view of the upper half of the sarcophagus

2. Tell us more about this child sarcophagus that you’re working on and why it is so unusual (that’s assuming that it is!!) 

The sarcophagus (or coffin) lid is on loan for this project from the San Diego Museum of Man. It was given to the museum in 2001 and it dates to the Ptolemaic period, 305 – 30 BCE although the exact date of this object is not known. It is unusual because sarcophagi were costly and rarely made for children. This is supposed to be one of only seven from this period known to exist. It seems to have been for a girl, and scholars I consulted suggest she may have been a child wife, which would justify the expense. Many people have asked about the mummy and the base of the coffin but these are unknowns.

It is made of a carved out section of a tree trunk with pieces added to create the chest, face and foot. Wood dowels were used to secure the pieces in place.  The exterior is completely covered with a polychrome layer made up of a base of a brown granular paste, then a white “gesso” layer and the paint applied onto that. The interior is unpainted.

A side view of the sarcophagus in the UCLA/Getty labs

A side view of the sarcophagus in the UCLA/Getty labs

3. What is your ultimate goal for this project?

The project is a technical analysis of the structure and materials, and development of a treatment plan. The treatment goal is to stabilize the structure and fragile paint layer, and reduce or removal modern fills that may be damaging the original materials. If the museum approves I will carry out treatment  in selective areas to establish a protocol so the museum can continue the work after the coffin returns to San Diego in June.

4. Since I get asked this question almost every day, I’m going to turn around and ask you – what is the most interesting and/or unexpected thing that you’ve found so far in your work on the sarcophagus?

It is a fascinating project in so many ways, but two things come to mind. One involves the manufacture, and the other a mysterious surface condition.

The ancient Egyptians frequently reused parts of coffins and I have found evidence of reuse here.  X-rays reveal empty dowel holes that indicate changes in the structure, and there are modern metal screws holding the foot block in place.   

X-radiographs of the head (left) and foot (right) of the sarcophagus. Note the modern screws holding the foot together.

X-radiographs of the head (left) and foot (right) of the sarcophagus. Note the modern screws holding the foot together.

Scholars I have consulted find the carving of the face more consistent with earlier periods.  I am examining the types of wood and indications of changes in the construction, and analyzing the pigments, gesso, fill materials, and coatings to identify differences that might point to different sources for the different parts.

The most unexpected development was the emergence of small waxy exudates on the lower front of the “torso”.  I am doing chemical tests on samples, and FTIR (Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) is being carried out by Getty Conservation Institute Scientist Herant Khanjian to identify the substance and determine whether it poses a threat to the original materials. This is probably the result of a coating or consolidant that was put on the object, but there is no record of its treatment before SDMM acquired it.

 

Thanks Casey! This is a terrific project, and a great example of how conservation is often a very collaborative process, involving conservators, scientists, archaeologists, and other specialists.

I will be keeping up with Casey as her work progresses. For more information on the UCLA/Getty Conservation Program and other student projects, follow the links I’ve included in the text above.