Exploring the painted surface of three coffin fragments

Last week, I wrote about x-raying the fragments of a painted wooden coffin, as part of the conservation treatment. The radiographs helped us see what is under the painted surface. We then turned to the painted surface itself. Through cleaning, we revealed how beautiful and well-preserved the decoration is. I described the cleaning process (and linked to a short video showing the process!) in a previous post.

E12617beforeaftercleaning

E12617A-C coffin fragments before (left) and after (right) cleaning

While it was impossible to see the full range of colors on the boards before cleaning, after cleaning we could see that there were several different colors used to decorate the surface, including two different yellows, red, green, black, and paint that appears black but where it is abraded/damaged looks blue. After much experience working on ancient Egyptian painted wooden artifacts, I knew enough to suspect that some of the paint that appears black is actually Egyptian blue.

It appears that there is a lot of black paint here, but not all of this paint was originally black. The yellow arrows point to black paint while the red arrows point to areas that I believe were originally blue.

It appears that there is a lot of black paint here, but not all of this paint was originally black. The yellow arrows point to black paint while the red arrows point to areas that were originally blue.

If you’ve been reading our blog, you are probably very familiar with one of our favorite photography techniques for Egyptian material, visible-induced infrared luminescence imaging. I have written about it previously, where I explain the process and the equipment we use (follow this link to the post).

Sure enough, it worked beautifully to confirm, and to allow us to see the Egyptian blue on this object:

E12617normaIRfalsecolor

Image of the coffin boards in normal light (left), Visible-induced infrared luminescence image (center), False color image (right). Click on the image to see a full-screen version.

All of the darkened/altered Egyptian blue shows up as bright white in the center image above, and the red areas in the false color image on the right help to further visualize where the blue is in relation to the rest of the painted design. Gotta love this technique!

So that’s great for determining the presence and location of Egyptian blue. But what about some of the other colors? I was particularly curious about the two different yellows and the green. In the case of the yellows, are they two different pigments? And as for the green, which pigment(s) were used to produce this color? Without (for the moment – more about that later) knowing the exact time period of this object, I knew there could be at least a couple different options, including Egyptian green (or green frit), and green earth.

To gather more information about these pigments, I carried out portable x-ray fluorescence analysis (pXRF) in select areas on the boards. I collected data from the following areas, marked with colored X’s in the image below:

pXRF analysis locations, with elements detected listed in order of peak height, from large to small

pXRF analysis locations, with elements detected listed in order of relative peak height, from large to small

As you can see, I labeled the image with the findings from the pXRF analysis. It looks like the two different yellows are indeed two different pigments: the darker, more orange-yellow paint contains primarily calcium and iron, suggesting that this is an ochre, while the brighter yellow paint contains calcium, arsenic, and iron. The relatively large amount of arsenic suggests that this yellow was produced using orpiment (arsenic sulfide).

The green paint also contains arsenic, as well as calcium, copper, and iron. So it appears that the green was produced by mixing an arsenic-containing material (orpiment?) with a copper-containing pigment. Due to the lack of any visible-induced IR luminescence in the green areas, I don’t think that these areas could contain any Egyptian blue, so perhaps the green was made by mixing orpiment with Egyptian green. And as you can see, the blue paint does not contain any arsenic, but does contain calcium, copper, and iron, which we expect to find in areas painted with Egyptian blue. Further analysis will be necessary to determine exactly which pigments were used in the yellow and green areas, but we have discovered a lot using these completely non-invasive techniques!

In my next post about this object, I hope to write about the translation and interpretation, for which I’ll need to consult with the museum’s Egyptologists. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about green pigments on ancient Egyptian objects, and more applications of multispectral imaging on Egyptian objects, check out this really great video presentation by Kelsey Museum Conservator Carrie Roberts (originally presented at the 2014 ASOR Annual Meeting):

Green Pigments: Exploring Changing in the Egyptian Pigment Palette from the Late to Roman Periods through Multispectral Imaging and Technical Analysis

X-raying fragments of a painted wooden coffin

I recently completed the treatment of these coffin board fragments.

E12617A-C, boards from a painted wooden coffin, before treatment

E12617A-C, boards from a painted wooden coffin, before treatment

In addition to the cleaning, which I blogged about before, the treatment involved stabilization of loose and powdery gesso and paint, filling losses where needed for structural support, and x-radiography, multispectral imaging, and portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) analysis. It has also enabled a translation of the text. I’m going to write a few shorter posts to highlight the different components of this project, starting with the x-radiography.

During my initial examination of the boards, I could see that the boards represent just a portion of the front, head end of the coffin. The rest of this side of the coffin would have continued much further to the left, but at some point these pieces were cut down and finished off on the left side to a smooth edge. This is most evident when you look at the hieroglyphic text, which obviously should continue to the left.

I could see that these 3 boards were originally joined with wooden dowels, because there are wooden dowels protruding from the join edges. I also noted some large cracks in the painted surface of the largest (center) piece in the image above, which led me to realize that this central piece was made of more than 1 piece of wood. I turned to x-radiography to get a better understanding of what is going on below the surface.

Here is a composite image showing the radiographs of the 3 boards:

E12617A-C x-ray image

E12617A-C x-ray image

The dowels joining the 3 pieces together are very clear in the x-ray image above. There are some darker (almost black) areas, which represent the holes that were drilled out for inserting the dowels. The denser (whiter) areas within those voids are the wooden dowels themselves. I’ve outlined these areas in green in the image below.

E12617xraymapped-1The x-ray image also helps clarify how the center piece is constructed, with 3 pieces of wood, which I’ve outlined in red above. Where those 3 pieces of wood join correspond directly with the cracks observed in the painted surface on the exterior.

Also visible in the x-ray image are two small nails driven into the lower edge of the bottom board. These nails are historic additions, likely added at the time when the boards were cut down and modified, although their purpose is unknown.

In my next post, I’ll focus on what cleaning, pXRF, and multispectral imaging has revealed about the painted surface, and I’ll include some after-treatment images.

 

We love ugly objects too!

Last week, I posted some photos of a beautiful stola coffin lid that I’m working on at the moment, and I mentioned that this lid might be my new favorite object. I now somehow feel a need to post images of some objects that aren’t necessarily as pretty, but I want to assure you that we’ll give them just as much lovin’ here in the conservation lab.

A Nubian jar, ca. 100 BCE-300 CE and ivory horn protectors from Kerma (Sudan), ca. 1650-1550 BC

A Nubian jar, ca. 100 BCE-300 CE and ivory horn protectors, Kerma (Sudan), ca. 1650-1550 BCE

A cat mummy head, unwrapped, Thebes, ca. 664-332 BCE

Cat mummy head, unwrapped, Thebes,                 ca. 664-332 BCE

Sections of a beaded mummy shroud covered in wax

Sections of a beaded mummy shroud covered in wax, Egypt, exact site and date unknown

I also feel the need to mention that I don’t just love pretty objects. My most favorite “object” that I’ve worked on here in this lab in not an object at all, but a mummy – our Predynastic mummy Bruce, and I don’t think anyone would call him pretty. But please don’t take that the wrong way (I don’t think he would be offended either). My interest in him goes way beyond his looks.

I promise to post photos of what the objects in the images above look like before they leave the conservation lab. Conservator Alexis North will be working on these pieces (along with some help from our interns) in the upcoming weeks.

This post was inspired in part by a great blogpost on the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s blog, “Ugly Object of the Month“. Enjoy!

 

Observations of a stola coffin lid

As if there is not enough up here (see our recent post about the Egyptian storage move and associated conservation work), this week we brought another quite large object into the lab, and it might be my new favorite object up here.

The lid of our yellow stola coffin

The lid of our* yellow stola coffin

This is the lid that belongs to the late 21st/22nd Dynasty yellow coffin base which we recently treated here in the Artifact Lab. Due to its previous location in storage, I hadn’t been able to take a close look at it until this week. Now that I’ve gotten to spend a few days with the lid, I’ll tell you that it’s total eye candy. If you were impressed by the painted decoration on the base, the lid will give you even more to get excited about.

I only just started to examine and document the lid and I will continue to update the blog as I work on this object, so today I’m just going to mention a few things about it, and some of my favorite details so far.

First of all, you may have noticed that I referred to this as a “stola” coffin in the image caption above. The term “stola” refers to the narrow red band depicted on the coffin that encircles the neck and crosses over the chest and over the oversize collar. Both the presence of the stola and the oversize collar have been recognized as distinctive of the late 21st/early 22nd Dynasty (see other examples and explanations here and here, and special thanks to Dr. Kara Cooney at UCLA for information as well).

The figure depicted on this coffin used to have a beard, which is now missing, but there is a hole in the chin indicating that it was once there.

Detail of the hole in the chin

Detail of the hole in the chin

The arms are depicted as being crossed over the chest and the hands are made of separate pieces of wood. The hands on this coffin are clenched and I have read that this is reserved for male coffins while females are depicted with hands open and lying on their chests. I’m assuming the fisted hands mean that this coffin belonged to a man, but I’ll have to check with our Egyptologists to confirm, since I cannot translate any of the text myself. I also really like the fact that the thumbnails are painted in:

Detail of the left hand

Detail of the left hand and thumb

What else can I say about it? Well, it is beautifully painted and also varnished just like the base with a yellow-colored pistacia resin. This pistacia resin causes many of the areas painted blue to appear green:

Much of the blue lines on the wig appear green, but in areas where there is no varnish, you can see the blue color of the paint.

Many of the lines on the wig appear green, but in areas where there is no varnish you can see the blue color of the paint.

There is a thick layer of dust on the surface of the coffin, but I can tell it’s going to clean up well. Check out the embossed details in this raking light image, which were built up with gesso:

Detail of the embossed designs on the central part of the lid

Detail of the embossed designs on the central part of the lid

This is going to be a fun object to work on! I’m looking forward to getting started with the treatment.

* I should clarify that this coffin technically belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) but has been on long-term loan to us for nearly a century. We received this coffin as part of an exchange of objects between our 2 institutions in the 1930s. I am carrying out the treatment in close consultation with the conservators at the PMA.

Wax on, wax off

In my last post, I briefly described the Egyptian storage move project currently underway. And I also promised to feature some of the objects that are in the lab as a part of this project. As conservators, we get excited by lots of things, so I really can’t post images of every single object that comes into the lab, but we will try to post as much as we can here, on Twitter, and on the museum’s Facebook page.

Earlier this week, Alexis brought a drawer of beadwork up to the lab, and this is one of the pieces she found in that drawer:

A piece of beaded fringe that recently came to the Artifact Lab for conservation/re-housing.

A piece of beaded fringe that recently came to the Artifact Lab for conservation/re-housing.

Huh. Not the prettiest object I’ve ever seen. But just wait…

Partially cleaned beadwork

Partially cleaned beadwork

Under that dark material (which is wax) the beadwork is beautiful! We actually see a lot of beadwork in our collection that has been coated with wax, which has now discolored to a dark brown, completely obscuring the colors of the beads. Coating beads with wax was a method used by archaeologists to remove beadwork from mummies during excavation, in order to maintain the correct arrangement of the beads, since the original linen threads were usually mostly deteriorated. In the case of this beadwork, shown above, it was not only waxed, but affixed to a piece of cardboard. Alexis is currently cleaning the wax off the beads and she will eventually re-house this piece for safe transport to the off-site storage location.

Another cool detail – she found this, written on the back of the cardboard:

HapimenbeadsIt says: “E16220B. Bead fringe of Hapi-men, Pl. LXXIX Abydos. From mummy buried with his dog.” This small piece of beadwork belongs to our mummy Hapi-Men, who is currently on exhibit with his dog! Hapi-Men and Hapi-puppy were excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie from Abydos in 1902. You can read more about Hapi-Men and some of our research about him here and here.

 

Treasures from Egyptian storage

If you have visited the Artifact Lab in the last couple weeks, you may have noticed that we have a few more objects out than usual, and often, an additional conservator working in here.

A few objects that were brought to the Artifact Lab recently for conservation treatment before they are moved off-site.

A few objects (stone, cartonnage, ceramics) that were brought to the Artifact Lab recently for conservation treatment before they are moved off-site.

The new objects were recently brought up from Egyptian storage by conservator Alexis North, who was previously here as a graduate intern, and now is working as the new Project Conservator for the inventory and move of our Egyptian collections to an off-site facility.

Due to construction that will be happening at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), which is adjacent to the museum, certain storerooms and galleries will be affected and as a result, the entire Egyptian collection in storage (with some exceptions) must be moved off-site for the duration of the project. This move requires a new inventory of the collection and also that everything be examined and stabilized, through conservation treatment and/or packing solutions, which will benefit the collection greatly. In addition, emptying the Egyptian storerooms will allow us to carry out a much-needed renovation of these areas, so that when the collections return, they will be housed in a much better protective environment.

We will try to feature some of the more interesting objects that come up to the lab as a part of this project on the blog, but if you do have a chance to stop by the Artifact lab this summer, you’ll be in for a treat, I assure you, because we will be working on some pretty amazing things.

This faience beaded collar is just one of the beautiful beaded objects that came into the lab recently as part of the move project.

This faience beaded collar is just one of the beautiful beaded objects that came into the lab recently as part of the move project.

 

The treatment of (half of) a yellow coffin

This week, we finally finished the treatment of the lower half of our 21st/early 22nd Dynasty yellow coffin.

A view of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

A view of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

The treatment mostly involved cleaning the interior surfaces to remove dust using a soft brush and HEPA-filtered vacuum, and cosmetic sponges. Here’s another view to give you a better sense of just how much grime had accumulated in the interior of the coffin:

A detail of the head of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

A detail of the head of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

There was also a fair amount of flaking and lifting paint, which needed to be stabilized. We used 1-2% methylcellulose in 50:50 water/ethanol to consolidate flaking paint, and Japanese tissue paper and 5% methylcellulose to fill gaps.

In the course of the treatment, I have also continued to research the significance of the holes drilled into the bottom of the coffin, which can clearly be seen in the overall images at the top of this post, but here is another look:

An overall shot of the coffin bottom, with a detail of 4 of the holes below.

An overall shot of the coffin bottom, with a detail of 4 of the holes.

I’m anxious to start working on the lid of this coffin, which will inevitably provide more information about this object and it’s history. We should be able to bring the lid from storage up to the lab sometime this summer, and I’ll post images of it as soon as it arrives. In the meantime, I have enjoyed researching these types of coffins and finding images of similar ones in other collections (like this one at the Petrie Museum, this one at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and this “remuddled” coffin at Stanford University) which is helping me gain a better understanding of these coffins and the contexts in which they were made.

Looking inside Nespekashuti

A few weeks ago I introduced you to Nespekashuti, a New Kingdom mummified man who we recently removed from display in our mummy room for conservation treatment. Even though we’ve had Nespekashuti and his coffin since 1893, we have very little information in our database about him. Working on his remains in the Artifact Lab is providing an opportunity to take a much closer look and to learn more about him.

Overall view of Nespekashuti before treatment

Overall view of Nespekashuti before treatment

One of the first things we decided to do was to x-ray his remains using our new digital radiography equipment. Although Nespekashuti looks pretty well-wrapped (despite his teeth being exposed), this is what we see under the wrappings:

X-ray of Nespekashuti (image created by stitching several x-rays together)

X-ray of Nespekashuti (image created by stitching several radiographs together)

As you can see, there are some big empty spaces (areas that are completely black), especially the neck and upper chest area, and there are areas where bones are completely disarticulated and appear to be piled on top of each other. We’re not really sure why this would be, but we have some ideas. Dr. Janet Monge, our physical anthropologist, is currently taking a closer look at the x-ray images in order to draw some conclusions about the bones and their condition, which may help us better understand why they are a bit of a jumbled mess…not unlike another mummy we recently treated and x-rayed, Pinahsi.

In the meantime, I’ve started the conservation treatment, which I’ll be sure to report on as I make progress.

Meet Nespekashuti

When we returned Pinahsi to exhibit on Monday, we swapped him for another mummy in the same case, a mummified man named Nespekashuti.

Nespekashuti's coffin lid (far left) and Nespekashuti in his coffin box (at foot of lid)

Nespekashuti’s coffin lid (far left) and Nespekashuti in his coffin box (at foot of lid)

Unlike Pinahsi, we actually have Nespekashuti’s coffin (see image above), and we brought him into the lab in the coffin box. The lid will remain on exhibit for the meantime, but it will eventually also come to the Artifact Lab for treatment.

We have had Nespekashuti since 1893 – his remains and coffin were purchased from Emile Brugsch, a German Egyptologist and assistant curator at the time at the Bulaq Museum (now the Egyptian Museum).

Nespekashuti in his coffin in the lab.

Nespekashuti in his coffin in the lab.

We know this mummy’s name because the following is written on his coffin: “of the singing-master of Min, Nespekashuti, son of the singing-master of Min, Nespeneb…”. We can see his name in several places on the box – here is a detail:

Nespekashuti's name is boxed in red

Nespekashuti’s name is boxed in red

We have a lot more to learn about Nespekashuti, and as far as conservation treatment goes, I have my work cut out for me.

 

Goodbye old pal

My family has a tradition that we honor at the beginning of every school year that we call “goodbye old pals.” As kids, it was a way to celebrate the start of the new school year and, maybe for our parents, the fact that we weren’t going to be around the house as much (but don’t worry – they always threw us a “hello old pals” party at the end of the school year). Well, today I’m throwing myself and Pinahsi, our New Kingdom mummy from Abydos, our own little goodbye old pals party here in the Artifact Lab, because he is leaving the lab on Monday to go back on exhibit in our Secrets and Science gallery.

Pinahsi has been in the lab for several months for conservation treatment and documentation. I’ve already written a bit about the treatment here and here, but I’ll provide a summary below using some of the before and after treatment images.

The treatment of Pinahsi’s remains was limited to the external wrappings – nothing, with the exception of a very light surface cleaning, was done to any of the exposed human remains (and only his feet are exposed). The goal of treatment was to stabilize the wrappings that were susceptible to further damage and deterioration. After surface cleaning, tears in the linen were repaired with tiny strips of Japanese tissue paper and methyl cellulose adhesive, all carried out from the underside of the linen.

During Japanese tissue and methyl cellulose repair (left) and after (right).

During Japanese tissue and methyl cellulose repair (left) and after mends were complete (right).

After tear repair, very fragile areas were encapsulated with nylon bobbinett, toned with acrylic paint to blend in with the original linen.

Before encapsulation with nylon bobbinet (left) and after (right).

Before encapsulation with nylon bobbinett (left) and after (right).

Here are some overall before and after treatment images. The difference is pretty subtle, but that was pretty much the goal – to stabilize what’s there using the least invasive methods possible.

Overall view from above of Pinahsi before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

Overall view from above of Pinahsi before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

View from the right side of Pinahsi before (above) and after (below) conservation treatment.

View from the right side of Pinahsi before (above) and after (below) conservation treatment.

Notice the new support board under Pinahsi in the after treatment image above. This board will eliminate most direct handling of his remains, and will also provide support for his remains while on exhibit. This additional protection will also help to prevent further deterioration of the linen wrappings.

With Pinahsi stabilized and on his new support board, we were able to safely move him down to our new digital x-ray lab, and with the assistance of Dr. Janet Monge and Dr. Morrie Kricun, Conservator Tessa de Alarcon and I captured a complete set of x-ray images. While full interpretation of the images is underway, I will share a few of the initial findings that were impossible not to miss.

First, we can confirm that this is a mummified man, who was around the age of 30 when he died. We can determine sex from looking at the skull and pelvis:

X-ray images of Pinahsi's head (left) and abdomen/pelvis (right).

X-ray images of Pinahsi’s head (left) and abdomen/pelvis (right).

Age is determined by examining the condition of the bones and teeth.

You may notice some things that are out of place, like the teeth that appear to be in the cranial cavity and the ribs and vertebrae where they shouldn’t be, and the pelvis askew.

X-ray images of Pinahsi's skull and abdomen, labeled with elements that are out of place. Note the very tiny pins - these are actually part of the new storage support, being used to secure the fabric to the board - they're not part of Pinahsi at all!

X-ray images of Pinahsi’s skull and abdomen, labeled with elements that are out of place. Note the very tiny pins – these are actually part of the new storage support, being used to secure the fabric to the board – they’re not part of Pinahsi at all!

Another observation of note is that Pinahsi’s arms are crossed over his chest.

X-ray image of Pinahsi's chest and arms.

X-ray image of Pinahsi’s chest and arms.

This arm position was generally not seen until the New Kingdom, when it was reserved for royalty. Does that mean that Pinahsi was part of a royal family? Maybe! But maybe not. We’ll need to do some research to answer this, and to try to understand why his remains are so disturbed under the wrappings. I’ll share information as we learn more.

Well, Pinahsi old pal, it’s been an honor to have you in the lab. I’m glad that we were able to spend this time together, and I’m also happy to know that our work is not complete, so we have more fun times to look forward to!