A demotic jar

A pottery workshop (from LICHTHEIM Miriam, Ancient Egyptian literature, 1973)

A pottery workshop (from LICHTHEIM Miriam, Ancient Egyptian literature, 1973)

Among the objects that an archaeological conservator treats, a very important one regarding the quantity is ceramic. Ceramic artifacts are widespread on time and many very different places; a lot of (if not all) civilizations on Earth made ceramics, so if you haven’t met one of those yet in a museum, it’s only a matter of time!

The one we have in the Artifact Lab is an Egyptian jar, from one of the past Penn Museum’s excavations on this site. Jars were used to contain fluids and are covered inside with a mixture of water and clay, to make it waterproof.

Here is a picture of the fragments before any intervention:

The jar before treatment.

This ceramic is covered with inscriptions painted in black ink (most likely a carbon ink) and the writing appears to be demotic. The Egyptian writing knew three different forms: hieroglyphic, which is the one you’re used to see on monuments; hieratic, which is a simplification of hieroglyphs, allowing the scribes to write faster for their administrative work on papyrus or pottery and rock fragments; and the demotic is a simplification of the hieratic, used from the VIIth century B.C. It is one of the writing that you can see on the Rosetta Stone.

rosetta stone

Demotic writing on the Rosetta Stone.

Detail of the black inscription covering the jar.

Detail of the black inscription covering the jar.

This black ink is water soluble, meaning that water is highly prohibited to clean the inscribed areas !

Concerning its condition, the main problem of course is that the jar is broken into about 50 fragments. It was restored in the past so it still bears remains of an old adhesive on the edges and many fragments are still glued together. Moreover, the surface and the inscription are covered with dust and need to be cleaned.

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Example of a particularly dirty fragment. The inscription is barely visible.

The next step will be to remove the old adhesive and to put the fragments together again. Eventually, we may have to fill some gaps in the ceramic, so as its handling could be easier and safer.

Those steps will be more detailed in several blogposts to come !

 

X-rays and the statues eyes

left eyeIn a previous post, we told you that the two wooden heads were going to be X-rayed and CT-scanned, alongside with some other artifacts from the Lab.

In this post we will deal with what we learned about the wooden heads’ eyes from the X-radiographs only.

A lot of our readers will probably know what X-rays are, for they may have experienced them in a hospital. X-rays are also successfully used in Art and Archaeology (for a general overview and some examples, see SCHREINER et al, “X-rays in Art and Archaeology – An overview). The principle of the X-ray is to expose a material to x-ray energy of a particular wavelength. According to the molecular weight of the material, the x-rays will, or won’t, be allowed to go completely through it. The energy that does penetrate passes through to a detector.

In digital radiography, the data is then processed by a computer and, eventually, we obtain a picture where dense (high molecular weight) materials appear white and lighter ones (low molecular weight) are black.

X-ray photograph of E17911

X-ray photograph of E17911 – We can see a lot of termite tunnels and the big hole inside the head, on the right-hand side, and the shining eyes.

E17911, in profile - This picture allows us to see more clearly the structure of the eyes.

E17911, in profile – This picture allows us to see more clearly the structure of the eyes.

New Picture (2)

E17910 – Also helpful about the inserting of the eyes.

In these radiographs, we clearly see the structure of the inlaid eyes. In fact, those eyes are quite similar to those studied at the Louvre Museum on Kay’s statue (ZIEGLER, Les statues égyptiennes de l’Ancien Empire, Musée du Louvre, 1997, p.256). This statue is from the Vth Dynasty, not so far in time from our heads.

Eventually, we can conclude that the eyes are made of a metallic sheet soldered in the back, which is flat. It is shell-shaped and the hippo ivory is inserted inside. Then the black pupils (made of obsidian?) are placed in the ivory, maintained inside by an adhesive (resin ? plaster ?).

New Picture (3)

X-ray radiography photograph of Kay’s statue eyes (from ZIEGLER, 1997, p.256).

Structure of Kay's eyes (from ZIEGLER, 1997, p.259); the back of the metallic part is flat and the edges were folded so as to form the eyelids.

Structure of Kay’s eyes (from ZIEGLER, 1997, p.259); the back of the metallic part is flat and the edges were folded so as to form the eyelids.

Structure of Kay's eyes and identification of the materials we have on Adu's eyes (from ZIEGLER, 1997, p.259)

Structure of Kay’s eyes and identification of the materials we have on Adu’s eyes (from ZIEGLER, 1997, p.259)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fortunately, the Penn Museum has some inlaid eyes in storage, allowing us to figure out more clearly what we have on the heads.

New Picture (7)

The eye n.E6789B – Limestone and obsidian.

 

Back of the eye n.E12905A - Copper alloy.

Back of the eye n.E12905A – Copper alloy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Again, fortunately for us (yes, fortunately!), the Louvre Museum has a very interesting statue, also from the Old Kingdom, with missing eyes. This statue of a nobleman named Tcheti informs us on how the inlaid eyes were inserted into the wood.

Tcheti statue, Louvre Museum n.E11566 - Detail of the missing eyes.

Tcheti statue, Louvre Museum n.E11566 – Detail of the missing eyes.

We can see that a hole was cut in the wood, fitting the eyes’ size. We can suppose that an adhesive was used to prevent the eyes from falling off the statue.

As you can see, a conservation intervention, apart from treating the objects, can also allow us to study them more closely and to know them better.

We will talk about the CT-scan in a next post and, in the meantime, you’re more than welcome to visit us at the Lab or to post a comment below !

 

Flippin’ coffins

We’ve been threatening to do it, and this week we followed through on our promise – to flip over the base of Tawahibre’s coffin.

As readers know, we have been working on Tawahibre’s coffin lid, and recently lifted it away from the base. Once we removed the lid, we could see that the interior of the base was undecorated, with plaster smoothed over the wood joins. There was also some textile remaining, presumably from the mummy who once was inside.

inside tawahibre

An interior view of the base of Tawahibre’s coffin

While the interior is undecorated, we know the same isn’t true for the exterior, based on a photo recovered awhile back in the Archives. After a bit more digging in Archives recently, we found even more detailed photographs of the coffin lid and base, taken sometime before they were put on exhibit back in the 1930s.

tawahibre front and back

Image from the Archives showing the front of the coffin lid and the back of the coffin base

Recovering old images like this is exciting because they potentially have a lot to tell us. In this case, this photograph is a good record of what the condition of the coffin was like soon after it was acquired by the museum. Like in the exhibit photograph I had recovered earlier, I could see that a lot of the damage we’re seeing on the coffin lid today was present then. But there was no way of knowing, until this week, how the current condition of the coffin base compares to the condition seen in this photograph.

And I have to tell you, I was a bit worried – until just a few days ago, all I could see of the coffin base was from these views:

Detail views of the proper right and proper left sides of the coffin lid and base, before treatment

Detail views of the proper right and proper left sides of the coffin lid and base, before treatment

Those large chunks of plaster and paint on the wood support below weren’t very promising. I had a sinking feeling that a lot of the paint and plaster on the back of the coffin base was unstable as well, and going to fall away when we tried to lift and flip it over.

The first step in getting the coffin base flipped over was to stabilize the plaster and paint on the inside and sides of the base, as much as possible. I carried out this work using the same methyl cellulose adhesive solution and fill material mixture as I have been using on the lid.

Then we did a test lift, to see how stable it felt, and to determine if we needed to temporarily stabilize any areas on the back before turning it over.

test liftThe test lift was encouraging, so we decided just to go for it!

How many conservators do you need to flip over a coffin base? Eight, it turns out.

flipping over1Fortunately, the procedure went smoothly, smoothly enough that we even allowed our Public Relations Coordinator Tom Stanley post a video of us turning the base over on the museum’s Instagram account.

Once we turned the base over, we were rewarded by being able to see that the back is still remarkably well-preserved, with very little changes from when that old photograph was taken:

Tawahibre's base in the 1920s (left) and today (right)

Tawahibre’s base in the 1920s (left) and today (right)

Can you spot the differences in these two photographs? I’ll post another copy of this image soon, circling the changes that have occurred.

 

Looking inside our falcon mummy

Last Friday, 7 of us from our conservation department took a group of objects from the museum to the GE Inspection Technologies Customer Solutions Center in Lewistown, PA for x-radiography and CT scanning.

Our group gathered around the CT scanner, being operated by Becky Rudolph, GE's North American Radiography Sales Manager for Academia

Our group gathered around the CT scanner, being operated by Becky Rudolph, GE’s North American Radiography Sales Manager for Academia

Now, wait just a second, you might be thinking. Doesn’t Penn have its own x-ray and CT scanning equipment? Why did we have to take these objects all the way to Lewistown for this work? Good questions, and we have a good answer. We just received word that in early 2014, construction will begin on our new conservation labs, which will include a digital x-ray suite. We plan to purchase the x-ray unit from GE, so a visit to their facilities was a chance for us to demo the equipment using some of our own artifacts!

The object I was most eager to image was our falcon mummy. X-ray and CT (computed tomography) scanning technology allow us to “virtually unwrap” this mummy, helping us understand how it was made and what is inside (and as visitors to the lab have heard me say, we can’t assume that there are any falcon remains inside-we can only hope!).

The falcon mummy laying on its storage support on the x-ray plate (within a lead-lined room)

The falcon mummy lying on its storage support on the x-ray plate (within a lead-lined room)

The quickest way to get a peek inside the falcon mummy’s wrappings is by taking an x-ray image. Digital x-ray technology is amazing – with a push of a button, 135 kV (kilovolts, measurement of the voltage), 2.0 mA (millamperes, measurement of the current) and 4 seconds later, we saw this:

falcon xray annotatedHooray! In this first attempt, we could already see that there are bird remains inside. The bright white material concentrated in the center of the mummy wrappings is the skeletal remains. In radiographic images, materials that are denser appear white because they do not allow x-rays to pass through. Materials that are less dense (such as the textile wrappings surrounding the bird bones) appear darker, because the x-rays are penetrating and passing through these materials. We can see in the image above that there are no skeletal remains in the “head” and the “feet” of the falcon mummy – these areas appear to have been sculpted with fabric. The slightly brighter white area near the feet just reflects an overlap of textile in that area.

While we were excited by this image, it immediately prompted more questions. We can see bird bones, but where is the skull? How much of the bird body is present? Are there any clues as to how the body was prepared for mummification? To answer these questions, we turned to the CT scanner.

CT scanning uses x-rays to produce cross-sectional images of an object, which can then be combined to produce three-dimensional views. CT provides a much more detailed look inside objects, and better distinction between different materials.

The CT unit at GE does not look like a medical CT scanner that many people may be familiar with. To scan the falcon, we had to stand the mummy upright in its box, which we then secured to the rotating stage inside the CT chamber with masking tape.

Right: Lynn Grant and I taped the falcon mummy in his box to the stage inside the CT chamber. Left: another view of the falcon mummy's box secured inside the CT chamber.

Left: Lynn Grant and I taped the falcon mummy in its box to the stage inside the CT chamber Right: another view of the falcon mummy’s box secured inside the CT chamber

The CT scanning took a bit longer than 4 seconds, but again, produced much more detailed images. Here is what one of the cross-sections looks like:

falcon cross section annotatedIn this image, the bones are visible as the most radio-opaque materials (so they are bright white). We were also excited to see the feathers, clearly visible as little circles reflecting the cross-section of the feather shafts, which are hollow. The various layers of linen wrapping are also very clear – clear enough to count! But other details are not so immediately clear to us, including the presence of the skull, and exactly how the remains were prepared.

Here is a screen shot from the program we are using to view the CT images, showing 3 different cross-sections, and a basic 3D rendering of a section of the falcon mummy. In this 3D rendering, we can clearly see the falcon’s talons, circled in red!

falcon CT 3 views annotatedWe will need to spend time with the images, and consult other specialists, to better understand what the CT scans have revealed.

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UCLA/Getty graduate intern Alexis North and I puzzle over the CT images of the falcon mummy

We will follow up later with more images and interpretations of the falcon mummy CT scans, plus more about the other objects we were able to examine.

A special thank you to Becky Rudolph and Hank Rowe at GE for spending the day with us, and for their expertise!

 

X-ray excursion

If you stopped by the Artifact Lab this week, you might have noticed that our falcon mummy is no longer on display, and this sign in its place:

falcon signAs indicated on the sign, the falcon has been removed for x-radiography. This mummy has never been x-rayed before, and we’re interested in using this imaging technology to learn how it was made and if there are any falcon remains inside!

Along with the falcon, we’re also going to be x-raying/CT-scanning our (possibly headless) cat mummy, the wooden statue heads, and several other pieces.

We do not have the ability to x-ray and CT-scan objects here in the museum, so we will be taking these selected pieces for a little trip tomorrow. In preparation for their travels, they are securely packed, and ready for this exciting excursion!

The falcon mummy is secured inside its storage support and packed into a larger box for travel.

The falcon mummy is secured inside its storage support and packed into a larger box for travel.

We will update the blog with our findings soon after we return.

 

Let’s focus on the eyes.

eye

In a former post we saw that a conservator has to gather clues about an object’s past and do a lot of bibliographical research. Now let’s talk about the materials themselves and the amazing eyes of these two wooden heads.

During these last few weeks we have been busy trying to identify the materials used to make the eyes; we knew that there were three of them, one for the outer line (or eyelid), a second for the white part, and the third one for the black pupil. We first observed the eyes under a binocular microscope, which is the easiest way for a conservator to have a close look at an object.

Leica Picture

Wood is missing around the eyes, but it allows us to see more of the metal !

Leica Picture

Here is a pink-golden layer of copper that we can identify through the corrosion layers.

 

The material used for the eyelids was immediately identified as a copper alloy because of the green corrosion products observed on the surface. Moreover we can see the metallic pink-golden surface of the copper here and there. However, the metal could have also been silver with some copper impurities; indeed when two metals are combined or in contact with each other in a burial environment, the less precious metal preferentially corrodes (also called galvanic corrosion).

To know more about the chemical composition of this alloy, we carried out X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF), with the portable XRF device of the Lab.

Here are what the results look like:

E17911 - eye - bluefilter

Those peaks indicate what kind of elements we have in the metal. We learned that this is an arsenic-copper alloy, which is well-known for Egyptian artifacts. The other elements can be impurities in the metal or due to the burial environment of the objects.

Concerning the white material, the first thing we observed under the microscope was the lines in the material.

Leica Picture

Some detail of the lines.

IC800516

A clue for us was that we don’t see the lines across the entire surface, as we can see on the picture on the right (near the upper part of the pupil).

We first wondered if these lines indicated elephant ivory, since elephant ivory has unique features called Schreger lines. However, the lines in the whites of the eyes do not look like Schreger lines, which look more like cross-hatching. That’s why we then thought about tool marks; indeed, the Egyptian sometimes marked the material they used to make the white of inlaid eyes, to make them look more realistic. We quickly abandoned this theory because the pattern on the eyes is too regular and not spread across the entire surface.

So we returned to the idea that the material might be ivory, but what kind of ivory? We were lucky that our department recently acquired a complete set of ivory samples, so we could compare directly. It turned out that our eyes are made of hippo ivory. XRF analysis also revealed that the white is composed of calcium, which is coherent for ivory.

ivory

This is elephant ivory.

 

IC800527 - Copy

Here is an example of what hippo ivory looks like, with the entire surface covered with lines.

IC800522

Here is an area of the hippo ivory where we can see the limit between the lines and a smooth part.

Concerning the material used to make the black of the eyes, a few paths could be followed. According to the literature, Egyptians used obsidian, glass with a black substance on the back, or other black materials for the inlaid eye pupils. The microscopic observation of the wooden statue eyes revealed that the black material is translucent with tiny bubbles. This structure could indicate obsidian, which is a natural glass. Moreover, the Penn Museum has several spare eyes in storage; comparison with these known references confirmed that the pupils of the wooden heads are indeed made from obsidian.

Leica Picture

We will know more about the structure of the eyes by next week, since this Friday the heads are going to be X-rayed and CT-scanned !

 

First step for the heads

Last week I introduced you to two wooden statue heads that I’m working on and promised to share the step by step process of their conservation.

laura blog 2 image3

A first step in understanding these objects is gathering information about their past. As we said in the previous post, they are from Dendera and were discovered in 1898. The other questions were: Who discovered them? How and when did they arrive in Philadelphia? And more…

To address these questions, the best place to begin is the Museum Archives. I first checked Clarence Fisher’s field notebooks, since we know that he excavated in Dendera for the museum from 1915-1918, continuing the work begun by Charles Rosher and Flinders Petrie. An afternoon looking at (all!) of his notebooks revealed no leads. The other possibility was to refer to Petrie’s own field records; and here I found reference to the heads, or more precisely the “statuettes”, noted in his field notebook.

This page notes the “2 statuettes” at the foot of the coffin.
From Petrie Notebook n.15, p.30, courtesy and copyright of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

That mystery solved, we moved onto the next one. Included in the storage drawer with the wooden heads, we found a note indicating “2 wooden statuettes nearly consumed by white ants”.

laura blog 2 image2After a little more digging, I found that this was a quote from Petrie’s publication about Dendera, on p.10, paragraph 2…and the rest is still meaningless to us! In this publication Petrie indicates that the heads came from a secondary burial, belonging to a woman, under Adu II’s own funerary chamber.

Moreover, it unveiled a new clue: Petrie wrote that he discovered “statuettes” and not only their heads. That could imply the fact that they were still complete statues at the time of the excavation. It is possible that they were in such a poor condition that the archaeologist left the bodies and only took the heads. We definitely do not have any more parts of these statues in our collection – after checking, no “spare bodies” are registered in the Egyptian storerooms of the Penn Museum.

All of this may seem to be only details but it is essential information for a conservator: the fact that W.M.F. Petrie discovered the heads is highly interesting, because he most likely treated them in the field. He published a book where he explains his practical way of applying a “first-aid” treatment to damaged artifacts (Methods and aims in Archaeology, 1904) which may provide critical information for us! Indeed, knowing this will allow the conservator to be aware of what kind of material was added to the original object and how to deal with it.

My investigation into these old treatment materials will be the topic of a post to come!

 

About two wooden Egyptian heads…

“You have a wonderful job!” It’s a sentence that a conservator often hears. But what is really this incredible job? I propose to you to have a closer look at what a conservator usually does by following step by step the conservation of two artifacts recently arrived in the Artifact Lab.

Laura blogpost1Not really the glamorous objects you imagine when you think about Ancient Egypt, right? But they can reveal so many things to us.

Let’s begin with all what we knew when they arrived in the Lab: these artifacts are two Egyptian wooden statue heads. They bear remains of polychromy (blue and red painting) and have inlaid eyes. In their storage drawer were three labels: one quoting a publication about Dendera (the place where they were excavated) describing the heads, and two others mentioning a previous treatment in 1965 with an adhesive called Vinylite.  Other information about these objects came from our curators, who knew that the heads are from the site of Dendera, more precisely the mastaba of Adu II, excavated by Flinders Petrie, a famous British archaeologist. Moreover, the heads are from the Sixth dynasty (2374-2140 BCE). That’s all we knew about those two heads before beginning our work !

Let’s have a closer look at them…

Left: one of the wooden heads viewed in profile Right: a front view of the other wooden head

Left: one of the wooden heads viewed in profile.  Right: a front view of the other wooden head.

A long quest is ahead and we’re only starting to think about an appropriate conservation treatment. Indeed, before any scalpel reaches their surface, we need to gather as much information as possible about the artifacts. Stay tuned to hear more about our discoveries and the decisions that we make based on what we learn.

 

A new face in the lab

Last week I introduced you to our baby boy mummy, and this week I have another introduction to make. But unlike most of the Artifact Lab occupants, our newest addition is very much alive! Laura Galicier is a graduate student studying conservation at the University of Paris Pantheon-Sorbonne, and she recently arrived in Philadelphia to start a 7-month internship In the Artifact Lab.

Laura_microscope

Laura examining a wooden statue head under the binocular microscope

A couple of the things that you may wonder are, did she know that this internship would involve being on display all of the time, and, as a conservator-in-training, how does she feel about having to answer so many questions about Egypt? Well, the answer to the first question is that she was very well-aware of the open nature of the lab because she found out about us through this blog, and had seen photos of the lab and read about our daily interactions with the public. So she can’t say that she didn’t know what she was getting herself into!

Laura_openwindow

Laura is a quick-study, and is already doing a beautiful job of fielding questions from visitors during our open window sessions.

Furthermore, Laura is more knowledgeable than most conservators about Egypt, because before starting her conservation studies, she completed a Master’s in Archaeology with a specialization in Egyptology. She has also worked in Egypt, at the Karnak Temple Complex.

While she is here at the Penn Museum Laura will be working on several projects in the lab, one which will be the subject of her dissertation. I’m not going to say anything else about it here – I will let Laura tell you all about her work in an upcoming blogpost. In the meantime, I hope your curiosity is piqued by these images (above, at the microscope, and below) of her examining a pair of wooden statue heads. Expect to hear more about them from Laura here on the blog, and if you visit the lab, you may have a chance to chat with her about her projects.

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Laura positioning a wooden statue head under the portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer (pXRF)

Examinations of a baby boy mummy

I think it’s about time we introduce you to a special occupant of the Artifact Lab.

This baby boy mummy, who dates to the Third Intermediate Period (1075-656 BCE), has been in our collection since 1898, when he was donated to the museum by Dr. Henry Shurtleff.

Photograph of the baby boy mummy from the museum Archives

Photograph of the baby boy mummy ca. 1930

In the University’s 1898-1899 Annual Report of the Provost to the Board of Trustees, it states that Dr. Shurtleff presented the infant mummy to the museum on Christmas Day, as an “admirably preserved specimen and an interesting pathological subject”.

It seems that this mummy came into the collection unwrapped – he only has small amounts of textile preserved on his body (and there is currently no evidence that the cloth partially covering his body in the image above is related to his remains, but this remains to be determined). While the fact that he is unwrapped is unfortunate, it allows us to see how well preserved his remains are and evidence of how his body was mummified, including evisceration through an incision on the left side of his torso.

The open incision on the left side of his body reveals a mostly empty body cavity, containing small bundles of linen.

The open incision on the left side of his body reveals a mostly empty body cavity, containing small bundles of linen.

A CT scan in 2009 further reveals how this boy’s body was mummified, and also reveals damage not visible from the exterior. For example, it is clear that his brain was removed, likely through the nose (but due to the small side of his nasal bones it is not possible to see evidence of this). The scan also reveals a large hole in the left lower side of his skull, and the piece of missing bone resting inside his skull.

Two CT still images show the child mummy's skull with a piece of bone resting inside the cranium (left) and the hole on the lower left side (right).

Two CT still images show the child mummy’s skull with a piece of bone resting inside the cranium (left) and the hole created as a result of this loss (right).

Oddly, this damage to his skull is not visible from the exterior, but it may be the result of trauma. His cause of death has still not been determined, but this damage may provide a clue.

The information from the CT scan tells us that this child was less than 2 years of age when he died, based on the fact that his fontanelle (the soft spot) is still open, and also on the development of his teeth.

The open fontanelle on the top of the baby's head is indicated in these 2 images with blue arrows.

The open fontanelle on the top of the baby’s head is indicated in these 2 images with blue arrows.

The excellent preservation of his body is not the only remarkable thing about this baby boy. While examining his remains, we noticed traces of a green substance in areas, including on his face and fingers.

A detail of the green substance under the boy's right eye (left) and an overall view of the boy's face, highlighting the locations of the green substance in green (right)

Left: A detail of the green substance under the boy’s right eye. Right: An overall view of the boy’s face, highlighting the locations of the green substance in a brighter green color.

This substance resembles copper corrosion, and it may either be corrosion from copper that was once in contact with his body (during burial), or may be traces of a green copper-based pigment. How do we know this green substance is copper-based? We tested it with our portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer, which showed high peaks for copper in these areas.

While we’re still working to interpret some of this information, I can tell you one thing for certain: this baby boy mummy sure is special. And if you visit the lab, you just might catch a glimpse of him.