Meet Wilfred

I swear, sometimes I think we’re just trying to outdo ourselves. There has been a whirlwind of activity lately – in the museum, in the conservation department, and in the Artifact Lab. Between “finding” a 6500 year-old skeleton in storage, to moving into our new conservation suite, it’s been so busy that I haven’t been very good about writing updates (but I promise to post some of the stuff about our new digs and equipment on the blog soon). Just when I thought things were settling down, this mysterious crate showed up at my door:

Wilfred crate

Okay, so at this point, it wasn’t a complete mystery – I knew what was in that crate (more or less) because last summer, some brave souls in the Egyptian Section managed to get this crate down from a very high shelf in storage. Once it was down, they found this note pinned to the top of the box:

Wilfred label

Well, hello, Wilfred. As you can see, the team was very happy with themselves afterward, even if they had to get a little dirty in the process.

"Team Wilfred" (Dr, Joe Wegner, Jean Walker, Jamie Kelly)

“Team Wilfred” (Egyptian Section Associate Curator Dr. Josef Wegner, Assistant Keeper Jean Walker, and volunteer Jamie Kelly). Photo by innocent bystander Dr. Jen Wegner

So who/what is Wilfred, exactly? Well, inside the crate we found this:

Wilfred crate open

It’s an old, dirty mattress, with a wooden stick resting on top. And inside that mattress, we found…

wilfred in crate

A mummy! A badly damaged, but nonetheless very well-preserved mummy.The upper half of the body is where most of the damage is visible, exposing the human remains underneath, while the lower half appears pretty well-wrapped.

Today, my colleagues and I hoisted Wilfred out of the crate onto a temporary support. Here is what he looks like, sitting out on a table in the lab:

Wilfred on table

And there’s more. But I won’t write any more about him in this post, except to say that no, this isn’t the first time he’s been studied since coming to the museum in 1911 (he was x-rayed in the 1930s), but it is the first time that any of us here at the museum are really getting a good look at him.

There will be much more to follow…so stay tuned!

 

Tawahibre, front and center

As promised, Tawahibre’s coffin lid is now on display, front and center, in the Artifact Lab.

Tawahibre's coffin lid on display at the entrance to the Artifact Lab

Tawahibre’s coffin lid on display at the entrance to the Artifact Lab

Getting this Late Period painted wooden coffin lid ready for display required months of treatment to clean the surface and to stabilize the flaking paint, powdery and crumbly gesso, and loose wood components. I blogged rather extensively about the treatment – follow this link to view some of my previous posts.

Here are some treatment images that were posted on the museum’s Facebook page last week, showing details of the head/upper body before, during, and after treatment:

E885CbeforeduringafterCome visit Tawahibre in the lab, where you can examine the coffin lid up-close, read the conservation treatment report (which includes some materials identification reports), see more before, during, and after treatment images, and discuss the treatment with the conservator during open window times.

 

Hello, goodbye

We have had a very special object in the Artifact Lab for a few weeks – this Predynastic ritual vessel in the shape of a woman:

E12281_at01_compressed

E12281, after treatment

This vessel was excavated at Abydos, and we estimate that it is at least 5000 years old.
Here is a view of the vessel from the top:

E12281_at06_compressedI have worked almost exclusively on organic materials in the Artifact Lab, so getting to work on this ceramic was a nice diversion. Conservation treatment, which involved some light surface cleaning and minor mending, was requested because this object will be featured in an upcoming publication. It will leave the lab today, but I didn’t want it to leave without posting an image of it on the blog! Once the publication comes out, I’ll be sure to include a link to it.

In the meantime, to learn more, follow this link to check out a video discussion of a similar vessel, in the collection at the Brooklyn Museum:

Brooklyn Museum female figure

 

I spy with my little eye…

A long time ago I posted an image of our Mummy Gallery, circa 1930s. Well, I find myself returning to this photograph again and again as I work on new objects in the lab.

The "Mummy Room" ca. 1935

The “Mummy Room” ca. 1935

Can you find two of the objects that we’re working on right now, the beautifully preserved painted wooden coffin and the shabti box and shabits, all from the New Kingdom? Here are images of these objects, just to help you out:

Overall view of the interior of the coffin from above

Overall view of the interior of the coffin from above

The shabti box and one of its associated shabtis

The shabti box and one of its associated shabtis

Did you find them? I’ll post the image of the mummy room below, with these objects circled in red.

mummy room with coffin and shabtis circledAnd here is a cropped version of this image, to better show these objects:

31011_mummyroom_1935-croppedWhile it’s just cool to see an image of these objects in a previous display, it’s also helpful to me as a conservator. I can see how they were mounted for exhibit (the coffin is standing upright, the shabtis are on little platforms) and I can also get a sense of condition at this time (for instance, the middle lid of the shabti box is missing in this image, and I can see some losses to the painted surface as well).

I’m am nearly finished working on the shabti box and shabtis, and the coffin will also be completed this year, so we will finally be able to put these objects back on exhibit.

Coming up next week, I will be posting some multispectral images of the shabti box and shabtis, which is helping us better understand the original colors and also to see some of the painted details, which are now largely obscured by the orange pistacia resin varnish.

 

Consolidating a painted wooden shabti

This one-minute video captures what I did at work today, times about 250.

Shabti paint consolidation (click on the link to view the video)

To put it into context, I was working on this painted wooden shabti, which I’ve mentioned on the blog before.

The area blocked out in yellow is the area I'm working on in the video.

The area blocked out in yellow is the area I’m working on in the video.

Here is a still shot of the area I’m working on in the video, taken at 10x magnification using our binocular microscope:

IC800006The paint is actively flaking in many areas on this object. In the video, you can see me applying a 2% solution of methyl cellulose in water by brush to a loose flake of paint, and then after allowing the flake to relax, tapping it into place using a silicone colour shaper. It’s slow-going, but it’s working!

 

Sizing up our child mummy

Everyone loves Tanwa, our child mummy, but a lot of people ask about her size. “Isn’t she kind of small for a 5-year-old?” they’ll ask. Without knowing a whole lot of 5-year-olds myself, I usually say, yes, I guess, but you have to remember that she’s wrapped really tightly and that people were generally smaller in stature 2000 years ago. We also don’t know how she died, so theoretically, her size could have been affected by a disease or something that eventually caused her to die. But the truth is, I don’t know how she compares to the size of kids today.

But today I had the perfect opportunity to size her up, and a willing subject, my niece Luisa. Luisa is “almost 4-years-old” (this is a direct quote). We held Luisa up next to Tanwa for a little height comparison.

luisa and tanwaLuisa is the tallest in her class and she’s “almost four”, and she’s just about the same height as Tanwa. So I would say that Tanwa isn’t so short after all. What do you think?

 

Views inside a painted wooden coffin

It is impossible not to see this object when you enter the Artifact Lab, as it’s front and center, and immediately impressive, due to its well-preserved painted details:

view of lab with coffin with arrowThis is the lower-half of a late New Kingdom painted wooden coffin, that recently came up to the Artifact Lab. Our visitors are always commenting on how vibrant the colors are, and that is mostly based on what they can see from the exterior. But the interior of this coffin is fully decorated, and arguably even more impressive, and I promised some people this week that I’d post photos of the interior soon. Here they are:

Overall view of the interior of the coffin from above

Overall view of the interior of the coffin from above

coffin right side

View of the right side

coffin left side

View of the left side

View of the interior, top of the coffin

View of the interior, top of the coffin

The only areas on the coffin that are not decorated are the exterior of the back, and both sides of the foot/base.

All in all, this coffin is in great condition, but it needs some treatment, including surface cleaning and stabilization of the wood and paint in some areas.

There are also a few mysterious things about it, in particular, these drilled holes in the back – what the heck are these all about?

There are 8 rows of holes drilled through the back of the coffin

There are 8 rows of holes drilled through the back of the coffin

Stay tuned as we investigate further.

 

More on Madame Rubinstein

Helena Rubinstein built her life and her wealth on beauty, so it should come as no surprise that she was attracted to this stunning Ptolemaic cartonnage funerary mask and it’s related pieces, which we are working on in the Artifact Lab.

Rubinstein was known as a great art collector (she bought pieces by the truckload, according to this article in the New Yorker) and she decorated her many homes with modern art, as well as artwork and antiquities from all over the world (she amassed an especially large collection of African art). When I found out that these cartonnage pieces in our collection had once been in the possession of the Madame, as she preferred to be called, I was hoping that I’d be able to find a photo of them on display in one of her homes.

Rubinstein, photographed in 1951, with some selections from her Africa and Oceania collection on display

Rubinstein, photographed in 1951, with some pieces from her Africa and Oceania collection. Image from “Over the Top: Helena Rubinstein: Extraordinary style, beauty, art, fashion” by Suzanne Slesin, 2003.

While I found many photos showing the interior of her homes, I didn’t catch a glimpse of the funerary mask in any of them. And it’s possible that she never had it, or the rest of the cartonnage, on display at all.

Based on letters found in our Archives, I found out that we ended up receiving these pieces as a gift from Mme. Rubinstein through the Carlebach Gallery in New York. The gallery owner, Julius Carlebach, acted as the intermediary for the donation, which was given to the museum while Dr. Rudolf Anthes was Curator of the Egyptian Section, under the directorship of Froelich Rainey. In his letter offering the cartonnage pieces to the museum, Carlebach noted that he was sorry that Madame Rubinstein had no further information about them.

But I did find something interesting in Froelich Rainey’s thank you note to Mme. Rubinstein.

UPMAA_Rainey_Page_2The letter is a little confusing because he refers to the mask as a mummy portrait, but I’m sure he’s talking about the cartonnage. As you can see, he mentions that the lower section would be included in the museum’s television program “What in the World”. “What in the World” was a Peabody Award-winning television program, where Rainey moderated a panel of experts trying to identity artifacts, while viewers were given clues to the answer (it ran for 14 years and by the early 1960s it was one of the oldest programs on television!). The episode featuring the cartonnage aired on May 23, 1953.

Unfortunately, as far as we know, only a few episodes of this show have survived, not including this 1953 episode. Those that we do have are now digitized and on the museum’s YouTube channel (follow this link to view them). Is there any way we might be able to find the one featuring Mme. Rubinstein’s gift? It seems unlikely, but I’d love to think that it is possible.

In the meantime, we’ll be doing our own investigations on these pieces right here in the Artifact Lab, and we’ll report on the blog as we learn more and make decisions on treatment.

Special thanks to Alex Pezzati, our Senior Archivist, for his help in locating these documents.

 

A gift from a late, great, beauty magnate

Some of the newest objects to come into the Artifact Lab are pieces of cartonnage which are related to this beautiful funerary mask, currently on exhibit in our Upper Egyptian gallery:

53-20-1A A funerary mask made of gilded cartonnage, currently on display in our Upper Egyptian gallery.

53-20-1A A funerary mask made of gilded cartonnage, currently on display in our Upper Egyptian gallery

Here are the pieces of cartonnage currently in the lab:

53.20.1bt01_compAnd here is a detail of the chest covering, adhered to fine linen with a black resinous material:

53.20.1bt03_chestcoveringAll of the pieces are unfortunately nailed down to the painted wooden (contemporary) support below. I’ve been working on documenting the cartonnage and getting the nails out, so that I can better evaluate the condition of these pieces.

I also have been doing some background research on these pieces, and found that, unlike most of the objects that I work on in the lab which are from excavations or which were collected early on in the museum’s history, this cartonnage assemblage was donated to us by cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein. Rubinstein, who is known for her wildly successful brand of cosmetics, and who, when she died, was one of the world’s richest women, was also an art collector. I’m not sure exactly how she wound up buying these pieces and then how they ended up here at the museum, but I’m heading over to the Archives now to see what I might learn there. More on this soon!

 

 

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!