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!

 

6500 year-old Ubaid skeleton in Artifact Lab

blog1On August 5, 2014, Penn Museum’s PR team issued a press release titled “6,500-Year-Old Skeleton Newly “Discovered” in the Penn Museum”. The story caught the public imagination and spread throughout world news media like wildfire. Thanks to popular demand, the skeleton will be spending the next few weeks in the Artifact Lab, getting some long-overdue TLC.

To learn more about his past, read this post on the Museum’s blog.

The Ubaid skeleton will be on partial view while on a working table inside the glass-enclosed lab space, with some images and information provided on a video screen. As soon as conservators complete their work documenting, cleaning, and stabilizing the skeleton, it will move to a display case in front of the lab; then visitors will have an opportunity to get a very up-close view.

While the skeleton is inside In the Artifact Lab and later on display, visitors will have frequent opportunities to meet with a physical anthropologist or informed physical anthropology student to ask questions. From Saturday, August 30 through Sunday, September 14 (exception: Labor Day Monday, when the Museum is open), an expert will be on hand from 11 am to noon, and again from 1:00 to 2:00 pm. From September 16 through International Archaeology Day on October 18, a physical anthropologist or student will be on hand Tuesday through Sunday (exception: Wednesdays) from 1:00 to 2:00 pm.

 

A different sort of unwrapping…

by Alexis North, a project conservator spending the summer working with the Buddhist Murals Project, but who also has a strong interest in Egyptian materials. Read more about her work on Egyptian objects at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, here.

If any of you have visited the Artifact Lab in person, you may have heard us talk about how it was once popular to open or unwrap mummies, to see the body inside. Of course, this is no longer common practice, and we use non-invasive techniques such as x-radiography or CT scanning to see underneath a mummy’s wrapping without causing any damage or disturbance to the mummy’s current condition.

However, sometimes we are able to perform a slightly different kind of unwrapping, when items are found in storage in aging, opaque, or otherwise unsuitable housing conditions. Such was the case with this mystery item:

E12443, before opening and treatment

E12443, before opening and treatment

While it may look like Sunday’s dinner fresh from the butcher shop, it is actually supposed to be an ibis mummy. However, it has been wrapped in layers of tissue paper and plastic and you cannot see what the object actually looks like. While this type of storage is not damaging to the object, the fact that you cannot see the mummy inside makes this type of wrapping unsuitable. We always prefer to create storage supports or housings that allow researchers to easily see the objects without excessive handling. Therefore, this guy came up to the Artifact Lab for a little modern-day unwrapping.

E12443, after removing the plastic and tissue but before treatment

E12443, after removing the plastic and tissue but before treatment

And what a good-looking mummy it is! While we don’t have a lot of information about the age of this mummy, the intricate wrapping, which uses strips of both dyed and undyed linen, is typical of later periods in Egypt. It is also in very good condition, being just slightly dirty on the surface and having a few small areas of damage to the linen.

Detail images showing (1) a separated piece of linen wrapping on the top of the mummy, (2) a section of linen on the back torn and folded over, and (3) areas of loss which expose the ends of the woven linen underneath

Detail images showing (1) a separated piece of linen wrapping on the top of the mummy, (2) a section of linen on the back torn and folded over, and (3) areas of loss which expose the ends of the woven linen underneath

After gently cleaning the surface of the mummy using a vacuum and soft-bristled brush, I stabilized the areas of lifted or broken linen using Japanese tissue mends. Thin strips of tissue were toned brown using acrylic paint, then adhered underneath the lifting or broken areas using 2.5% methylcellulose adhesive in deionized water. I was able to reattach the broken piece of linen at the top of the mummy, and several sections of lifting wrappings which would be in danger of breaking, without stabilization.

I also humidified and reflattened the folded flap of linen on the back of the mummy. The opening caused by the folded flap was allowing fragments of the inner linen layers to break off and fall out. I used another Japanese tissue mend with methylcellulose to hold the reshaped flap in place.

Before (left) and after (right) flattening and readhering the flap of linen on the back of the ibis mummy

Before (left) and after (right) flattening and readhering the flap of linen on the back of the ibis mummy

Here are some images of the ibis mummy after I completed its treatment. I know it doesn’t look very different, and that happens a lot when treating archaeological objects. My goal wasn’t to improve or restore the mummy in any way, just make sure it could be safely handled and stored without any further damage.

    Images of (1) the top of the mummy, (2) the proper right side of the mummy, and (3) a detail of the reattached linen strip, after treatment

Images of (1) the top of the mummy, (2) the proper right side of the mummy, and (3) a detail of the reattached linen strip, after treatment

My last step was to make a new storage tray so the mummy can be easily seen and examined, without any wrappings besides the ones it came with!

The ibis mummy in its new storage mount

The ibis mummy in its new storage mount

 

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.

 

Out with the old, in with the new

There are some new objects to see in the lab!

Just this week, we began returning some of our recently-treated objects to storage and exchanging them for some new stuff, including a painted wooden coffin (this is a photo of the coffin box without the lid – note the elaborate painted decoration on the interior):

coffina falcon coffin and “mummy” (I’m putting “mummy” in quotes here because this mummy looks like it’s a corn mummy, made by wrapping up a mixture of sand, grains, and plant fibers):

falconmummythese pieces of a painted wooden coffin board with two Wedjat eyes:

coffinboardand this ibis mummy, with exposed feathers!

ibismummyThere are some other things too, including some cartonnage and another animal mummy, which we’ll post photos of soon.

As always, these photos really don’t do these objects justice. You’ll have to come check them out in person! And we’re only just starting to examine them, so we’ll definitely post information as we learn more. If you have specific questions about any of these objects, please let us know!

 

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.

E12505_woodID

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.

Treating fragments of a Middle Kingdom painted wooden coffin

If you’ve visited the lab in the last few weeks you may have seen me, head bent at the binocular microscope, working away on fragments of a painted wooden coffin from Abydos. These fragments (7 in total) were excavated in 1901 and have been here at the museum ever since. As I described in a previous post, these boards were severely damaged by termites prior to excavation, and the painted surface, while very well-preserved in some areas, was cracked, flaking, and barely attached in places, not to mention covered with grime.

One of the coffin fragments, which features a portion of a frieze of objects that includes two vessels with spouts and a bolt of clothing.

A before treatment photograph of one of the coffin fragments, which features a portion of a frieze of objects that includes two vessels with spouts and a bolt of clothing.

On the board in the image above, the paint was actually in decent condition. After cleaning the surface with bits of a kneaded rubber eraser, I stabilized the edges around the paint losses with a 2% solution of methyl cellulose in water. With the help of an intern, we sorted through a box of much smaller fragments that presumably had become detached from the 7 larger boards at some point, and we found two small fragments of wood with painted decoration which belonged to this board. These fragments were adhered in place with a 1:1 mixture of 5% methyl cellulose and Jade 403, an ethylene vinyl acetate emulsion.

E12505emends

In this image the red arrows point out the two fragments which were adhered in place after cleaning and consolidation.

Here is a view of that area from the back after mending those fragments:

e12505e_backbeforemendingThe termite damage is evident from the back, and as you can see, the wood is very thin in this area in particular, only about 1mm thick along the join edges between the small fragments and the larger board. The small loss to the right of the upper fragment is an area where the wood and painted surface have been lost completely.

Because the wood is so thin and fragile, I decided to provide some support to this area, by first adhering a piece of Japanese tissue paper over the loss from the back with a 5% solution of methyl cellulose.

e12505e_backmend

A detail of the Japanese tissue paper support adhered over the loss

I then filled the loss and the small gaps along the join edges of that upper fragment from the front, using a fill mixture made from 5% methyl cellulose, glass microballoons, and powdered pigment.

e12505edetail

A detail shot showing the fill from the front

Here is an overall view of the board, after treatment:

E12505Edt02_blogThe fill mixture I used worked nicely, and I’m now using it to stabilize the edges of some of the lifting paint on the other coffin board fragments where the painted surface is in worse condition. I will post photos soon showing what the coffin boards look like before and after treatment.

 

Completing the treatment of Tawahibre’s coffin

Things have been pretty busy around here lately, and I almost forgot to post some updates about several projects. One project in particular is the treatment of Tawahibre’s coffin. We have been working on this 2-part painted wooden coffin in the lab for the last year, and we recently completed its treatment.

As you may remember, when the coffin first came up here, it was covered with a thick layer of dust and grime, the paint was badly flaking in areas, several large pieces of painted gesso were pulling away from the wood support, and there were large cracks throughout.

Before treatment photos (clockwise from left): upper half of coffin showing layer of dust and large cracks and losses; large piece of painted gesso partially detached from top of head; large loss on wig, showing old animal glue adhesive from a previous restoration

Before treatment photos (clockwise from left): upper half of coffin showing layer of dust and large cracks and losses; large piece of painted gesso partially detached from top of head; large loss on wig, showing old, shiny animal glue adhesive from a previous restoration

After cleaning the surface with a brush and vacuum, followed by cosmetic sponges, I consolidated the paint with a methyl cellulose solution, filled in cracks and gaps using Japanese tissue paper and a mixture of methyl cellulose bulked with cellulose powder and glass microballoons, and then toned the fills with acrylic paint. This work is explained in further detail in previous posts, which you can find by clicking on the links included in blue above.

fillingcracks

A detail shot of the wig showing an area with several large open cracks before and after filling with Japanese tissue paper and methyl cellulose/cellulose powder/glass microballoons mixture

Based on a discussion with our Egyptian section curators, I also made some aesthetic fills to mask some large losses, including 2 losses on the wig. We chose not to fill the losses on the nose and chin because filling these losses would require too much guess-work as to the original contours of these features.

Large loss on wig before (left), after application of Japanese tissue paper layer (middle), and after application of fill mixture (right)

Large loss on wig before (left), after application of Japanese tissue paper layer (middle), and during application of fill mixture (right)

Detail of the head and wig before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment, with losses in before treatment photo outlined in red

Detail of the head and wig before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment, with losses on the wig outlined in red. The larger loss on the right is the featured in the previous series of images.

I carried out similar work on the base of the coffin, and now both are complete:

Tawahibre's coffin lid before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

Tawahibre’s coffin lid before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

The coffin base before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

The coffin base before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

As you can see, we chose not to fill many of the losses, focusing instead on stabilization.

This work will enable future exhibition of the coffin, and just as importantly, it will make further study of the coffin possible. All along there have been some discrepancies between the name that has always been associated with the coffin (Tawahibre, a woman’s name) and a previous translation in 1946 of the hieroglyphic text on the coffin (which identified the name of a male court official, the son of J-se(t)-N-Ese). There has also been some confusion about the remains once housed in the coffin, which were previously identified as male, but in a 1975 autopsy the remains were confirmed as belonging to a female in her mid-30s. A bit confusing, but hopefully we’re now one step closer to getting this all straightened out!