A recap of Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I just returned to work after 2 fascinating days of Death Salon: Mutter Museum, an event filled with presentations, speaker panels, Q&A sessions, murder ballads, a Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, and Death Quizzo.

Ask a Mortician! at Death Salon: Mutter Museum

Ask a Mortician! at Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I have attended many conferences, but none quite like this one. There were a wide variety of speakers presenting on topics related to death, how different cultures deal with death (both past and present), and our relationship to death and mortality. I spoke on the first day about my work on the mummies here at the Penn Museum – mostly about how we treat them today and how this has changed over time, using examples including PUM I, our baby boy mummy, Wilfred/a, and Nespekashuti. But you’ve heard about all of them before. Let me provide a brief outline of all of the other speakers, with links as appropriate.

  • Dr. Marianne Hamel is a medical examiner who spoke about what it’s really like to be a forensic pathologist vs. what you see on TV. She also was a consultant for the wildly popular podcast Serial and co-founder of Death Under Glass, which also had a booth at the Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, selling watches, umbrellas, notepads, etc. featuring beautiful forensic microscopic images.
  • Alexis Jeffcoat (Chemical Heritage Foundation) and Emma Stern (Laurel Hill Cemetery) spoke about the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery and their efforts to make Laurel Hill a place for the living as well as for the dead, with vibrant community programming.
  • Ryan Matthew Cohn spoke about historical skeletal preparations and models of the human body, along with his own work to make exploded and dissected skulls.
  • A panel discussion about American death spaces with Colin Dickey about the battlefields of the American Civil War and Bess Lovejoy on Hart Island: The World’s Biggest Tax-Funded Cemetery. I had never heard of Hart Island before, where unclaimed bodies and bodies of the poor and stillborn are soon to number one million. There are recent efforts to document the burials and transfer jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department.
  • Evi Numen, Mutter Museum exhibitions manager, spoke about the Curious Story of One-Eyed Joe and the 1867 Anatomy Act, discussing the struggle to legislate cadaver dissection and ownership.
  • Dr. Paul Koudounaris (a now 5-time Death Salon speaker!), who has extensively researched charnel houses and ossuaries, discussed various cultures’ relationships with the dead. He specifically shared information about Indonesian communities who mummify family members and exhume them each year to care for and celebrate them, and sometimes even keep them in their homes.
  • A panel discussion about anthropodermic bibliopegy (books bound in human skin) with Mutter Museum Curator Anna Dhody, analytical chemist Dr. Daniel Kirby, Juniata College Chemistry Chair Dr. Richard Hark, and Death Salon Director and USC medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom. Their project is aimed at surveying and creating an inventory of books bound in human skin, and they are using peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) to determine this. So far they have tested 22 books – 12 are actually human, while the others are sheep, cow, and even faux skin. The Mutter has the largest known collection in the world, with 5 authentic human skin books.
  • A presentation by Sarah Troop about the rituals and art of child death in Mexico. She discussed the tradition, which used to be practiced in many Latin American countries, where dead children become a hybrid between saints and angels called angelitos, and the most famous angelito, Miguel Angel Gaitan from Argentina, who died in 1967.
  • Dr. Norma Bowe discussed her death class at Kean University which she has been teaching for 15 years and has a 3-year wait list. She uses experiential learning in the class and they make several field trips, including to a hospice care facility, a Ronald McDonald house, a funeral home, a cemetery, a maximum security prison, a crematory, and a medical examiners office. A book has been written about her called The Death Class and its currently being turned into a TV show.
  • Elizabeth Harper spoke about incorrupt saints, which apparently aren’t very easy to identify just by looking at them. Her presentation included images of saints she’s visited and a little game of “Incorrupt or Nah”.
  • Artist David Orr presented his work photographing human skulls from the Mutter Museum collection and mirroring one side to create perfectly symmetrical results. This project, Perfect Vessels, can be viewed on his website.
  • Penn physician Dr. Erin Lockard spoke about death from the doctor/daughter perspective in a conversation with Death Salon Director Megan Rosenbloom. She shared her experiences both as a physician who specializes in geriatric medicine and how experiencing her mother’s illness and end of life has affected her work.
  • Mutter Museum Director Dr. Robert Hicks gave a presentation entitled Exquisite Corpses: Our Dialog with the Dead in Museums. He spoke about our relationship and discomfort around post-mortem imagery, and how other cultures are ahead of us in terms of articulating an aesthetic of death, decay, and mortality.
  • Christine Colby discussed the issues for transgender people in how to preserve their identity in death and and the work that is being carried out to assist transgender people and their families and friends.
  • The formal presentations of the conference concluded with a session entitled Ask a Mortician LIVE. Two morticians, Sheri Booker and Caitlin Doughty (Death Salon co-founder), fielded audience questions about their work.

The talks were incredibly interesting and often quite inspiring (and even tear-provoking), and there was an enthusiastic audience of at least 200 people by my count (probably more). The engaging day-time programming was supplemented by some terrific evening events, including behind-the-scenes tours of the Mutter, a Death Ball with a performance of 15th-century funerary music by The Divine Hand Ensemble, murder ballad performances, and a Death Quizzo. This conference had some of the best opportunities for people-watching too. Unfortunately I didn’t capture many photos but if you’re interested you can see some on the Death Salon Instagram account.

Mysterious bits from Nespekashuti

I’ve written before about mysterious things we’ve found during conservation treatment of our mummies (see this blogpost about the stuff we found at the bottom of Wilfreda’s crate). As I’ve been working on Nespekashuti, I’ve found some puzzling little bits at the bottom of his coffin and caught in his linen wrappings.

Here are a couple piles of detached and in most cases completely deteriorated linen, which needed to be removed as I’ve worked on Nespekashuti:

Piles of deteriorated linen wrappings and other materials removed from Nespekashuti during conservation treatment.

Piles of deteriorated linen wrappings and other materials removed from Nespekashuti and his coffin during conservation treatment.

In these piles, I found the mysterious bits. Some of these things I can recognize, but figuring out exactly what they are and how and why they got there is another story.

Here are some photomicrographs:

Feathers found with  Nespekashuti, 7.5X magnification

Feathers found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

This first one is easy – these are feathers, of course – little grey plumaceous body feathers from who knows what kind of bird. There are some good resources out there for identifying feathers (see more info at the very bottom of our Learn More! page) but for little feathers like this, and non-experts like me, we need to resort to microscopic analysis by an expert from another institution in order to attempt identification. I did take some photomicrographs of the barbules from one of these feathers, which may be their most diagnostic feature, but again, I lack the experience necessary to make sense of what I’m seeing through the microscope. Just for fun, this is what the barbules look like:

Barbules of one feather found with Nespekashuti, 200x magnification.

Barbules of one feather found with Nespekashuti, 200x magnification.

We also found these:

Bird bones found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

Bird bones found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

and this:

Two fused bird vertebrae found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

Two fused bird vertebrae found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

These two images above show some tiny bones that were found in Nespekashuti’s coffin. I consulted Dr. Kate Moore, zooarchaeologist and Teaching Specialist in the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM). She confirmed that these are bird bones, and the second image shows two articulated bird vertebrae. Dr. Moore told me that upon her initial inspection, she thinks that they may have gone through a digestive tract (think:owl pellets, and that dissection you may have done in grade school!).

And then I found a bunch of this stuff:

Found with Nespekashuti - these look like mouse or rat droppings, 7.5X magnification

Found with Nespekashuti – these look like mouse or rat droppings, 7.5X magnification

These things look a lot like mouse or rat droppings, and there’s little bits of hair caught in some of them. No one said that working on mummies is for the faint of heart!

I also found some bits of cotton, tiny pieces of wood and plant materials, and even some broken glass. We can think of lots of good stories to explain why this stuff would be found with Nespekashuti, but in the end we’re not really sure. Like I said, we are reaching out to some experts about the feathers, so I’ll keep you posted if we learn more – identifying the feathers would be exciting, and could help explain how they got there!

Is there an archaeobotanist in the house?

Fortunately for us, the answer is yes.

Following up on my recent post about identifying the wood used to make this Middle Kingdom painted wooden coffin, I showed the images of the thin sections I cut from some detached wood fragments to Dr. Naomi Miller, our resident archaeobotanist. Dr. Miller typically deals with really degraded material, often tiny pieces of charcoal, so she was delighted to see that these samples showed enough information to make a more definite identification. AND, much to my delight, she confirmed my hunch that these boards are made of acacia.

Here are the images she used for comparison, found in Anatomy of European woods, by Fritz Hans Schweingruber.

acacia references

Reference images of Acacia cross-sections (left) and tangential sections (right)

And here they are, side-by-side with our samples:

wood comparison cross sections

In the cross-sections, we see pore multiples and uniseriate rays

wood comparison tangential sections

In the tangential sections, we see mostly uniseriate rays, with some biseriate rays.

We compared our samples’ images with images of ash and carob in the same book, since these were also candidates originally, but there were enough differences for us to exclude these as possibilities. It is possible that there is something that we are not considering, but I think that I’m convinced by this work that this coffin was made with acacia.


Wood ID

I’m currently treating 7 fragments of a painted wooden coffin from Abydos. Lately, many of our visitors have been asking what kind of wood was used to make this coffin. This has actually been a question that we have been asking ourselves, and we are trying to see if we can come up with an answer.

In ancient Egypt, large timbers for coffin-making were scarce, so the wood was either imported from places like the Mediterranean, the Near East, or from other parts of Africa, or the Egyptians would cobble together smaller pieces of wood from local sources. Based on previous studies, we have a finite list of types of wood that are known to have been used, but from there we need to move to looking at the object itself.

These images show the exposed wood on the side (left) and back (right) of one of the coffin fragments. Can you guess what type of wood this might be?

These images show the exposed wood on the side (left) and back (right) of one of the coffin boards. Can you guess what type of wood this might be?

As conservators, we are educated not only in object treatment, but in the analysis of objects, and the examination of tiny fragments of objects, like plant and textile fibers, wood, and pigments. But many of us don’t do wood ID all that often, so it can take awhile to get set up, to re-orient ourselves to what we’re seeing in the samples, etc. AND it requires a sample, which we don’t often have access to. Fortunately, for me, I have some already detached samples from these boards and access to someone who does this type of work more frequently, archaeobotanist Dr. Naomi Miller, so I turned to her to help me with this work.

Dr. Miller looked at the samples I had and selected one that looked promising, due to the exposed cross-section on one end. I mounted this sample under our binocular microscope and took a photo, to help her study it further and compare to known reference samples.


The wood fragment with exposed cross section, 60X magnification

From this sample, Dr. Miller was able to determine that this is a hardwood, based on the presence of clearly visible rays and thick-walled pores, many of which are radially paired (pointed out below).

Slide4Based on these features and the known types of hardwoods used in ancient Egypt, this helped narrow down the likely possibilities to Common ash (Fraxinus excelsior L.), Carob (Ceratonia siliqua L.) and Acacia (Acacia sp.). Dr. Miller considered other types but ultimately excluded willow (Salix), oak (Quercus), elm (Ulmus) and sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus) due to either the presence or absence of certain features.

In an attempt to further narrow down the possibilities, I cut thin sections from the sample that Dr. Miller examined, from the cross-section and tangential surfaces, and wet-mounted them on glass slides. Looking at these thin sections with our polarizing light microscope (PLM), I was able to see some of these features a bit more clearly.

Cross-section, 50X magnification

Cross-section, 50X magnification

In the cross-section above, the pores are visible as solitary or paired, and mostly uniseriate (1-cell wide) rays are visible. The tangential section also shows mostly uniseriate rays, but some bi-seriate rays are visible as well.

Tangential section, 50X magnification

Tangential section, 50X magnification

Cutting these sections from the wood sample, which was quite degraded, was difficult and unfortunately I’m not really able to pick out many other features from the sections that I examined. I will have to get Dr. Miller to weigh in on this again, but in the meantime, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’m leaning toward this wood being acacia. One thing I forgot to mention is that the wood of the coffin board fragments is a deep red-brown color. Acacia is known for being a red, hard, and durable wood, and while it produces small timbers, we know that it was used for coffin-making, among other things.

More about our Predynastic mummy

Last year we posted some information about Bruce, our Predynastic mummy (and the oldest Egyptian mummy in the museum) here in the lab. Bruce has been on ongoing project, but he is often tucked toward the back of the lab unless we are actively working on him. While he’s often not front-and-center, when visitors enter the gallery and they catch a glimpse of him, they know that he’s special, even if they don’t know what he is, exactly.

Bruce on his cart, near the back of the lab, as viewed through the Artifact Lab windows.

Bruce, near the back of the lab, as viewed through the Artifact Lab windows.

As soon as he is spotted, I am often asked “what is that?” “is that a mummy?” and “what are you doing with him?”. In conservation, we are not always actively treating objects (or in this case, mummies); some of our projects involve close examination and study of objects (often referred to as technical studies). These technical studies may be a precursor to conservation treatment, but they may also be independent of treatment.

We are not currently carrying out conservation treatment on Bruce. Our focus at the moment is careful examination and some analysis, in consultation with other specialists. At the moment, we are focusing on trying to identify the type of animal hide that he’s wrapped in:

The red arrows are pointing out pieces of the animal skin bag wrapped around Bruce.

The red arrows are pointing out pieces of the animal skin bag wrapped around the mummy.

and also the animal hairs used to make the finely woven baskets included in his burial bundle:

E16229_basketsThese baskets are actually made of plant and animal fibers – the baskets are twined, and the passive elements (or warps) are made of plant fibers, while the active elements (wefts) are made of light and dark animal hairs. We know that the wefts are animal hairs based on our examination of these fibers using our polarized light microscope (PLM).

Views of the light-colored hair (left) and a cross-section of the hair (right) at 100X magnification

Views of the light-colored basketry fiber at 10X (upper right), at 50X (lower left), and a cross-section (lower right) at 200X magnification

Views of the darker hair (left) and a cross-section of the hair (right) at 100X magnification

Views of the darker basketry fiber at 10X (upper right), at 100 X (lower left), and a cross-section (lower right) at 200X magnification

Sometimes animal hair can be identified based on the features observed under a microscope, by comparing the unknown hairs to known reference samples. Some great animal hair ID sources on the web include this great resource on the FBI website and the Alaskan Fur ID website.

While we can clearly see that these fibers from the basket are animal hairs, we have not been able to identify them based on microscopy alone, so we are pursuing other analytical methods of identification, such as peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF). PMF uses a mass spectrometer to analyze the peptides in a proteinaceous sample, which can identify mammalian material to the species level using a micro-sized sample. Next week, I am attending a collagen identification workshop at Harvard, where I will learn more about PMF and its application to cultural artifacts.

We are excited by the possibilities this technique offers – being able to identify the skin(s) Bruce is wrapped in and the materials used to make the baskets found in his bundle will add to our understanding of very early technologies and funerary practices in Egypt. We will certainly share our findings as we learn more.


Investigating the shabti box coating

Last month, I wrote about a new challenge in the lab, otherwise known as this shabti box and its associated shabtis:

front compressedAt first the box came into the lab with 3 shabtis, and then we found that there were 3 more in storage that may belong with the box as well. 4 of the shabtis are very similar in appearance whereas the other 2 are slightly different, so they may actually not be associated after all. Can you spot the 2 different shabtis?

2 of these things are not like the others...

2 of these things are not like the others…

All of these objects are made of wood, gesso, and paint. And as you can see, all of them have an orange-yellow coating on their surfaces. In my last post I posed the questions “what is this coating?” “is it an original varnish or is it a later restoration?”. My initial guesses were that it is either an original pistacia resin varnish, a later cellulose nitrate (or other old restoration adhesive) coating, or a combination of the two.

Well, there are several things we can do to try to answer these questions and to narrow down the possibilities. One of the first things I did was to look at these objects very carefully using our binocular microscope. I could see that the coating was applied unevenly, especially on the box, and that it is actively cracking and flaking. Another thing that I noticed was that there are areas on the box where the paint is lost and where the coating extends over the loss onto the gesso below.

A detail shot of one side of the shabti box - the yellow arrows are indicating areas where the coating extends over an area of paint loss onto the gesso.

A detail shot of one side of the shabti box – the yellow arrows are indicating where the coating extends over areas of paint loss onto the gesso.

Usually, this would indicate that the coating was applied after the damage occurred (so sometime after excavation, either in the field or soon after coming to the museum). So this is one clue, but doesn’t really answer my questions.

Next, I examined the shabti figures under ultraviolet (UV) light. In conservation we routinely use UV examination to characterize materials and to distinguish old restoration materials from original materials – for instance, shellac, used historically to repair objects, exhibits a characteristic bright orange fluorescence under UV. (For a great explanation of UV, along with some interesting images, check out this post on UV examination by my colleague Allison Lewis, conservator at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.)

The coating on the box and the shabtis has a yellow-orange appearance under UV – but not the bright orange that we expect to see from shellac.

shabti UV

4 shabti figures under UV light

So UV examination was helpful (it eliminated shellac as a possibility) but didn’t answer my questions either.

Next, I did a microchemical spot test on a couple of the previously detached flakes of the coating. We’ve used spot-testing before in the lab – the last time I wrote about it was in reference to the mystery fibers on Tawahibre’s coffin. In this case, I carried out a spot test for nitrates using diphenylamine (according to instructions in Material Characterization Tests for Objects of Art and Archaeology). Using this test, a sample containing nitrates will turn blue once a solution of diphenylamine/sulfuric acid is added. Below you can see the result of the test on one of the coating flakes from the shabti box (left) and the test on a control sample of cellulose nitrate adhesive (right).

Left: coating sample from the box after spot test (negative result) Right: control cellulose nitrate adhesive after spot test (positive result)

Left: coating sample from the box after spot test (negative result) Right: cellulose nitrate control after spot test (positive result)

Based on these results, it seems that the coating does not contain cellulose nitrate. This does not mean that the coating does not contain another recently-added adhesive. We have a few other ways of narrowing down the possibilities even further, and I will write about our continued work on this in my next post.


Mystery fiber update

A quick update on our mystery fiber (see my previous post for details):

Today I decided to do a chemical spot-test to see if I could determine if the fiber was cellulose or protein-based. Chemical spot tests are inexpensive, generally simple procedures that conservators may use to characterize materials on artifacts. These spot tests are often carried out on small samples removed from artifacts using chemical reagents. In the case of my mystery fiber, I cut a small piece off of one of the fiber samples I previously examined under the microscope-this small piece was enough for a spot test, and there was no need to remove more material from the coffin in order to do this.

The first test I chose to carry out was the Biuret test for protein (according to instructions in Material Characterization Tests for Objects of Art and Archaeology), using copper(II) sulfate. After placing a drop of copper (II) sulfate solution on the sample, I waited for a few minutes, then soaked up the excess solution and added a drop of sodium hydroxide solution to the sample. It immediately turned purple (see below), which indicates the presence of protein (and just in case it’s not clear on your screen, believe me, it is purple!).

Magnified image of the sample used for the protein spot test. The purple hue indicates a positive reaction for presence of protein. 50X magnification

What this means is still unclear, but it’s another clue. It is possible that my earlier comparison of this fiber to sinew was not a bad suggestion! But it’s also possible that this fiber was coated in a protein-based glue before it was incorporated into the gesso (or something like this).

This calls for further investigation!



Mystery fiber

In a recent blog post I mentioned that I am working on the painted coffin of Tawahibre, which has fibers mixed into the ground layer (gesso). In my examination prior to starting treatment, I had noted these fibers, and observed that they are present all over the coffin lid, mixed into the ground layer just below the painted surface. They are exposed in many places where there are losses-here is an image of one area where the surface of the coffin is badly damaged, revealing these fibers:

Fibers visible in the ground layer of the painted coffin lid

There are quite a lot of these fibers in some areas (as seen in the photo above), and then in others, there are very few. They are found in areas where the ground is thick and also where it is applied very thinly. They are not arranged in any particular way-they appear to have been mixed haphazardly into the ground. The fibers are light brown in color, and while most of them are very stiff, they react almost immediately to moisture, becoming very flexible when wet. I had initially assumed that these were plant fibers-possibly flax-but they always seemed a bit odd, and to be honest, these fibers remind me a little bit of sinew (animal tendon).

As I have been working on the coffin, several of these fibers “presented themselves to me” for sampling-meaning, as I’ve been working to stabilize some of the areas with these fibers, a couple became detached, allowing me to investigate them further using PLM. So far I have looked at 2 samples, and both look the same. I prepared the fibers by mounting each one on a glass slide with water. When looking at them in plane-polarized light, they look like this:

Two different fibers from the coffin ground layer viewed at 50X magnification

I didn’t really know what I was seeing-it was difficult to pick out any really distinguishable features, so I then viewed both fibers under crossed polars. This is what I saw:

Same two fibers viewed under crossed polars at 50X magnification

What the heck is that? I’ve never seen anything like this before. When I showed this to a few other people, the first reaction has been-it looks like a worm! And it totally does. This very regular banding pattern has got to be characteristic of something-I just don’t know what.

I thought I had a lead last week-I found this image in a book, showing a bundle of sisal fibers with a commonly-seen spiral element:

Sisal sample showing a characteristic spiral element. Image from “Color Atlas and Manual of Microscopy for Criminalists, Chemists, and Conservators” by Nicholas Petraco and Thomas Kubic, p. 94.

However, just last week I obtained a sisal sample from one of the Winterthur art conservation graduate students and I’m pretty sure that’s not what I have. The sisal sample looks distinctly different to me-here it is in both plane polarized light and under crossed polars:

Sisal reference viewed at 400X magnification in plane polarized light (left) and crossed polars (right). Also, note the difference in magnification between these fibers, viewed at 400X, as opposed to the coffin mystery fibers above, viewed at 50X.

For the moment, I’m stumped. But I’m continuing to investigate this and to get input from colleagues, and I’m open to suggestions/ideas! I’ll also certainly provide more information when I know more. To be continued…