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…