The jar is gone !

Example of an Egyptian jar, complete (XVIIIth Dynasty).

Example of an Egyptian jar, complete (XVIIIth Dynasty).

After making some fills on the Egyptian demotic jar, two other steps remained to complete the treatment.

First: painting the fills. The goal is to tone the fills with a color matching the general shade of the ceramic, so as it doesn’t catch your eye when you’re looking at it from a few feet away. It has to be clearly distinguishable if you get a closer look.

Here is the result:

Untitled-2 Let’s have a closer view:

Untitled-3

Untitled-4

View of the 4 areas of the jar that were filled and toned.

Second step: making a storage box. The basic rules about storage-making are quite simple. The materials used to make the storage must be chemically neutral towards the object and their ageing must not threaten its condition. For example, some materials can deteriorate in a short-term time period and cause chemical reactions with the artifact they are supposed to protect, causing alterations.  That’s why conservators use materials that were approved by testing them, like submitting them to specific temperature or humidity settings. More details about storage materials can be found following this link.

To prevent this situation from happening, acid-free paper and cardboard, polyethylene foam and fabric, and other well-known conditioning materials are preferred.

Then, each object being different, the storage needs to be adapted to its needs (size, weight, material sensitivity…) but also to the room available in the storeroom itself ! Concerning the jar, it was about allowing its safe and easy handling and preventing it from rolling.  According to its weight, the cardboard used had to be quite strong.

Left: the box has a front side that opens and a small compartment (on the right) to store fragments that couldn't be glued to the jar.   On the right: The box with the front side closed.

Left: the box has a front side that opens and a small compartment (on the right) to store fragments that couldn’t be glued to the jar.
Right: The box with the front side closed.

The mount, so as the jar can safely be pulled out of the box.

The mount, so as the jar can safely be pulled out of the box.

Left: the jar in its new storage box... Right: ...ready to go back to the Egyptian storeroom.

Left: the jar in its new storage box…
Right: …ready to go back to the Egyptian storeroom.

Here ends the conservation treatment of the jar; it was brought back to the storerooms last week. But we still have new projects in the Lab !

The wooden heads, paraffin and a lamp.

Example of the burial environment of two wooden Egyptian  Statues in Saqqara (from HARVEY, Wooden statues of the Old Kingdom, plate I).

Example of the burial environment of two wooden Egyptian
Statues in Saqqara (from HARVEY, Wooden statues of the Old Kingdom, plate I).

The cleaning of the two heads is now in progress, and almost finished on the head with the wig.

But first, let’s talk about the main problem concerning those heads: paraffin. Thanks to W.M. Flinders Petrie’s publication about his preservation practices in the field (PETRIE, Methods and aims in archaeology), we knew in advance what to expect. He wrote that he used paraffin wax, almost at its melting point, to impregnate wooden objects that were very damaged. Using paraffin for that purpose, and on many other materials, was very common from the 19th to the first decades of the 20th century. Thanks to it we have artifacts instead of wood powder, which nevertheless presents some issues !

As far as we know, the heads were found very decayed and couldn’t be lifted from the ground. To facilitate their removal, the paraffin was spread on them while still half buried. That explains the current condition of the surface: here the paraffin takes several shapes.

White deposits (seen in photos below) on the surface are due to an application of paraffin in a non-optimal? environment. Indeed, the paraffin is brought to its boiling point and is supposed to remain warm enough to flow far inside the porous material. If it doesn’t, you might obtain something like this :

White deposits on the surface, due to the precipitation of paraffin applied in the field.

White deposits on the surface, due to the precipitation of paraffin applied in the field (magnification x10 and x25).

 

Those deposits cover the eyelids and the polychromy too (magnification x12,5  and x50).

Those deposits cover the eyelids and the polychromy too (magnification x12,5 and x50).
On the left: Yes, this yellowish tube-shaped material is paraffin !

 

More paraffin, covering the red polychromy on E17910 (magnification x25 and x20).

More paraffin, covering the red polychromy on E17910 (magnification x25 and x20).

And here is what the surface looks like:

Detailed view of the surface, similar on both heads (magnification x12,5 and x50)

Detailed view of the surface, similar on both heads (magnification x12,5 and x50).

Sediment (sand, quartz), and some vegetal particles, were stuck to the surface and it has never been cleaned since the discovery in 1898. The general texture can be described with a single word: waxy ! The paraffin was spread on the entire object, including the surrounding sediment. That’s why we have so much sand, quartz and organic elements included in the paraffin layer. That is particularly a problem for a conservator because the layers on an object generally have different textures that help us understanding the general stratigraphy. It also helps to guide the cleaning.

Several methods of cleaning were possible, all involving mechanical work, with a scalpel and requiring many hours of work ! The subtle aspect of this treatment is that we don’t want to completely remove the paraffin because it seems to hold what remains of the wood together. It’s like a shell of paraffin and inside is the wood, its cells completely disorganized as the CT-scan helps to figure out.

CT-scan picture of E17911, showing the damaged structure of the wood.

CT-scan picture of E17911, showing the damaged structure of the wood.

Here is what wood is supposed to look like when well-preserved:

Example of the CT-scan of a Japanese wooden statue from the 18th century CE, conserved at the Field Museum, Chicago. The wood growth rings are clearly visible and the structure appears to be in very good condition.

Example of the CT-scan of a Japanese wooden statue from the 18th century CE, conserved at the Field Museum, Chicago.
The wood growth rings are clearly visible and the structure appears to be in very good condition.

So, removing the paraffin would be both dangerous for the object and impossible. It was decided to remove, as far as possible, the layer that prevents us from knowing what the real condition of the object is. And it certainly hides more polychromy, especially on the head E17911. Cleaning tests indicated that in addition to mechanical cleaning, other cleaning methods are needed to reduce the paraffin on the surface.

First possibility: solvents. After trying several, it appeared that it wasn’t the best solution because this method was slow, not so efficient and penetration of the solvent into the material can’t be controlled.

Second possibility: heat. This More precisely a lamp with a bulb that provides warmth. Once warm, the paraffin melts and is much easier to remove mechanically. However cleaning the polychromy has to be carried out when the object is “cool” because of its fragility. This is the cleaning method that was ultimately chosen.

General view of the heating process.

General view of the heating process.

And many things were hidden under that waxy layer…

What do the conservators do when they’re *not* in the Artifact Lab?

Molly Gleeson, the primary project conservator for the Artifact Lab is on vacation so, if you come by over the next little while, one of the other staff conservators (Julie Lawson, Nina Owczarek and I – Lynn Grant) will be taking turns being the Conservator on Duty. While there, we work on the same sorts of projects that Molly does but you might wonder what we do when it’s not our turn in the fishbowl. With a collection of over a million artifacts, there’s plenty to keep three (or even 30, if we just had room) busy. Because Penn Museum’s collections are so large, we have to prioritize what we work on. The conservation treatments we’re working on right now are mostly for objects going on exhibition (mainly Native American artifacts for an exhibition opening in a year), or on loan (we loan artifacts to Museums all over the world; this fall we’ve worked on objects going to New York, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Spain, Amsterdam, Switzerland, and Taiwan, to name just a few) or artifacts being photographed for publication.

One of the places conservator Lynn Grant spent time recently: an art storage warehouse in Connecticut where some of our collections were stored (white crates).

In addition, we work very closely with other Museum staff on preventative conservation (see Molly’s earlier blog post, to keep our collections in the best possible condition. This means monitoring storage conditions, artifacts on exhibition, advising on materials used in display, and many other tasks. These don’t always happen in the Museum, either. We conservators often act as couriers, accompanying artifacts as they travel to make sure that they receive the proper care. One recent courier trip I did has a certain amount of overlap with work in the Artifact lab, since it involved an Ancient Egyptian tomb chapel.

One block (the false door) from the offering chapel of Kapure. This single limestone block weighs over 9000 pounds.

The late Old Kingdom offering chapel of Kapure from Saqqara (dating to ca. 2300 B.C.) was once part of this high ranking official’s mudbrick mastaba tomb. The interior of the chapel was lined with limestone blocks beautifully decorated with carved and painted scenes representing the deceased seated at a table of offerings and receiving funerary provisions. Part of the chapel of Kapure is on display in the Museum’s Lower Egyptian Gallery. The rest, which was part of a traveling exhibition in the late 1990s, has been in storage in Connecticut since 2000. This was supposed to be a temporary situation but it’s gone on for longer than we ever expected and now that there is a suitable storage facility here in Philadelphia, we decided to bring the tomb chapel closer to home. Why wouldn’t we just bring it back to the Museum, you ask? Well, it’s kind of big and very unwieldy. There were 8 crates, the heaviest of which weighed over 9000 lbs. We hope to be able to reinstall it in our Egyptian Galleries before too much longer but until then, it will stay in specialized art storage.

My colleagues in adventure, Bob Thurlow (left) and Jen Wegner, get ready to to work on our crated limestone blocks.

Getting it there was a bit of an adventure. Three Museum staff members: Bob Thurlow of the Registrar’s Office, Dr. Jen Wegner of the Egyptian Section, and myself, traveled to the warehouse where it was stored in Connecticut. There we had to open each crate; document the current condition of the blocks inside both with digital photography and written descriptions; check that the crates were still in good enough condition to protect the artifacts during transit; make any necessary improvements to the crates; then oversee the loading of the crates on to a very large truck; follow the truck to the new warehouse; and finally supervise the unloading and placement of the crates there. This all took two-and-a-half days and meant long hours working in an unheated warehouse – in November.

Art handlers and warehouse men load the false door crate on to the truck, using the big forklift (the smaller one couldn’t lift the 9000 lb weight). The crate fit with about 2 inches to spare – a tribute to Bob Thurlow’s excellent planning and preparation.

Jen Wegner explaining the finer points of the false door block to two of the warehouse employees just before we put the lid back on and prepared to take it back to Philadelphia.

This is not the glamorous part of our jobs! Still, it needed to be done and it was a great chance to get up close and personal with some gorgeous Egyptian funerary art. Working with Jen Wegner was a treat as she was able to tell us what we were looking at and read the inscriptions. I’m sure Jen got tired of me asking what various symbols were, especially since most of them seemed to be bread – apparently Egyptian funerals were a carb-fest!

posted by Lynn Grant

In the Artifact Lab-Week 1

And what a week it has been! We are officially moved in to our new conservation lab, up on the 3rd floor of the museum and work is now underway in the Artifact Lab.

A view of the Artifact Lab from the entrance to the gallery

Since we opened on Sunday, we’ve spent the week getting situated in our new lab, preparing our work space, tools, and materials, and starting to examine several of the objects we’ll be working on over the next few months. We have a fascinating variety of objects in the lab-including mummified human remains, mummified animals, and funerary items such as painted and inscribed coffins and coffin boards (parts of coffins). These objects have spent many years in storage, some of them since being acquired by the museum over 100 years ago. One of the huge advantages of working on them in the new Artifact Lab is that we have the space, suitable lighting, and proper equipment to thoroughly examine and research these objects, and in the last few days, it quickly became clear that in several cases, we have our work cut out for us.

This painted wood coffin, for instance, is going to be a major project-

Wood coffin dating to the Late Period (post 558 BCE). Notice the heavy layer of grime and significant cracks in the paint and gesso layers.

It’s surface is heavily obscured by dust and grime, and it also has significant structural issues as well, including severe cracks that extend though the paint, gesso and wood and significant losses to the painted surface. We can already tell that this will be a project that will be ongoing in the lab for awhile.

Oh, and in addition to our regular conservation lab work, did I mention that we’ve spent a lot of time this week speaking with the public? Our work will always be visible to anyone who stops by-our Head Conservator Lynn Grant appropriately refers to the space as a fishbowl-there is literally, nowhere to hide (and if there was I wouldn’t tell you). But twice a day, 11:15am and 2:00pm Tuesday-Friday and 1:00pm and 3:30pm Saturday and Sunday, we open the windows to answer questions and speak about our work. We also have the advantage of using our new Smartboard to show additional images-photos showing the progress of our work and images collected through research. 

We use this Smartboard for presentations and also for communicating to visitors when we are working.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts featuring some of the objects that we’ll be working on in the Artifact Lab, and some of our latest discoveries!