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.


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!


What’s the deal with Pinahsi’s feet?

I think we can all agree that our mummy Pinahsi’s feet need a little TLC.

A detail of Pinahsi's feet

A detail of Pinahsi’s feet before treatment

A long time ago, the wrappings around his feet were damaged, exposing his toes. His toes are very well-preserved, despite the fact that 2 toes on the left foot are missing.

The second toe on each of his feet is lifted away from the others, and we have been debating whether this distortion was caused by the feet being tightly wrapped during mummification (which they were) or whether this distortion was caused by a condition Pinahsi had during his lifetime (I’m leaning toward the second possibility).

A view of the toes from the side

A view of the toes from the side

In any case, I thought it was about time his feet received a little bit of attention.

While I can’t do anything for those crooked toes, I am able to address the damaged linen and resin-coated linen wrappings around his feet. I repaired a few tears in the linen with Japanese tissue paper and 5% methyl cellulose, and then I wrapped the feet in the most damaged area with nylon bobbinett, toned to match the surrounding material with acrylic paint. Visually, the difference is subtle, but I can assure you that the feet are going to be much less prone to continued deterioration now that the damaged linen is stabilized and protected.

Details of the feet before (left) and after (right) treatment.

Details of the feet before (left) and after (right) treatment.

The back of the feet before (left) and after (right) treatment.

The bottom of the feet before (left) and after (right) treatment.

In the images above, you can probably pick out the band of bobbinett – it’s more visible on the bottom than on the top. When you get really close to the feet, the bobbinett is really obvious.

Detail of the top of the feet, showing the bobbinett overlay.

Detail of the top of the feet, showing the bobbinett overlay.

In our efforts to strike this balance between making our work more or less invisible, while also wanting to make sure that the new materials we add are easily distinguished from the original, we often refer to the “six-foot/six-inch” rule – at six feet, our work is not obvious but at six inches you will be able to see it. In this case, it is my hope that when the mummy is on display and viewed through the display case, the bobbinett I add will not be distracting to the viewer, but when you look for it, you’ll be able to pick it out.

Now I’m about to tackle the damaged linen on Pinahsi’s body. Just yesterday, we lifted Pinahsi up onto some Ethafoam support blocks, to allow me to access the damaged areas on the mummy’s sides and back.

Pinahsi raised up on Ethafoam blocks.

Pinahsi raised up on Ethafoam blocks.

I will provide updates as I complete more of the treatment!


Another new mummy in the lab

We have another new mummy in the lab, and we may actually know this one’s name (unlike Wilfred, or Wilfreda, who has that nickname for some unknown reason).

E16221, Mummified man from Abydos

E16221, Mummified man from Abydos

According to our database, and the original catalog card, this is a mummified man named Pinahsi. He was excavated in 1901-02 from Abydos by Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie, and dates to the 19th Dynasty. The mummy doesn’t appear to be mentioned in Petrie’s Abydos publications, but there is a note on the catalog card that he may be related to the owner of the stela “Pa-asi” which is mentioned in his publication, and was found by Petrie in the Osiris temple at Abydos. I’m uncertain how this stela and the mummy are linked, but I’m hoping that this may become more clear once we access related information in our Archives.

Pinahsi has been on display in our Mummy Gallery since 1990, and we removed him from display for some much-needed conservation treatment. When the mummy came into the lab, I guessed that he dated to the New Kingdom, because the wrappings on the head look nearly identical to those on this disembodied head (below) that we worked on in the lab last year.

E2162, New Kingdom (22nd Dynasty) mummy head

E2162, New Kingdom (22nd Dynasty) mummy head

Fortunately for Pinahsi, we have his whole body, which is wrapped in many layers of linen, ranging from coarser to very fine weave, and some of the uppermost layers are impregnated with resin (just as we see on the mummy head above). Pinahsi is very heavy, which indicates just how much of this resin was used in the process of mummifying him.


Detail of the head and upper half of Pinahsi’s body, showing resin-soaked linen around the head, and severe insect damage on the linen over the chest

We’ll be working on stabilizing his linen wrappings in areas where they are torn and detaching, and we will make a new support for him before he returns to exhibit.


Detail of Pinahsi’s feet. The linen is badly damaged in this area, exposing the toes. One visitor remarked yesterday that it looked like he was trying to wriggle out of his wrappings!

We will also x-ray his remains again; they were x-rayed back in the 1930s and you can see one of these images by clicking here, which shows that Pinahsi has amulets included in his wrappings. Hopefully with our new digital x-radiography equipment, we’ll be able to capture even better images of these amulets and his remains.

To catch a glimpse of Pinahsi before he goes back on display, visit the Artifact Lab – every day the museum is open over the holiday, we will have someone working in the lab between the open window hours, which are 11:15-11:45 and 2:00-2:30 Tuesday – Friday, and 12:30-1:00 and 3:30-4:00 Saturday and Sunday.


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, 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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Fragmentary painted coffin from Abydos

If you are a member of the museum, you may have already seen some information about these painted coffin board fragments in the most recent issue of Expedition magazine:

E12505_2These fragments, which date to the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2000-1700 BCE), were excavated from the North Cemetery of Abydos in 1901 by John Garstang. The museum supported Garstang’s work through the Egypt Exploration Fund.

Despite the severe insect damage, the preservation of the painted details on these fragments is remarkable.

This fragment features 3 usekh collars, which were often reserved for nobility. Beside each collar is a mankhet, or counterpoise. The hieroglyphs above are the names of each of the collars, which are slightly different.

This fragment features 3 usekh collars, which were often reserved for nobility. Beside each collar is a mankhet, or counterpoise. The hieroglyphs above are the names of each of the collars, which are slightly different.

A detail of the usekh en nebti, the collar of the two mistresses that incorporates the uraeus and the vulture

A detail of the usekh en nebti, the collar of the two mistresses that incorporates the uraeus
and the vulture (7.5x magnification)

These coffin board fragments have never been exhibited, and our renewed interest in them is due to the fact that we are currently excavating tombs from the same time period in South Abydos, including the funerary complex of Senwosret III. You can read a lot more about this project in the recent Expedition issue and on the museum blog by following this link.

In order to exhibit the coffin fragments, they need some extensive conservation treatment. Their surfaces are dirty, the paint is cracked, cupped and lifting from the wood support, and is very fragile, and some of the boards are structurally unstable due to the extensive insect damage.

We are currently working on these boards in the lab, and we have made some good progress. We are cleaning the painted surfaces with a kneaded rubber eraser. The eraser can be shaped to a fine point, and working under the binocular microscope, it is possible to remove the dirt from most of the painted surface without disturbing the fragile paint.

We are using kneaded erasers (left) to clean the delicate painted surface of these coffin boards (right)

We are using kneaded erasers (left) to clean the delicate painted surface of these coffin boards (right)

Some areas of paint need to be stabilized before they can be cleaned. After testing a variety of adhesive solutions, I settled on my old friend methyl cellulose, a 2% solution of methyl cellulose in water to be exact, to consolidate fragile areas.

Paint consolidation is being carried out under the microscope with a fine brush

Paint consolidation is being carried out under the microscope with a fine brush

I am now working on testing some fill materials, both to stabilize the edges of lifting paint and also to stabilize the fragile wood. I will post an update as soon as I make some decisions and proceed with this part of the treatment!


Wrapping up the cat mummy

Speaking of Abydos, let’s get back to our cat mummy, which was excavated from a cemetery there back in 1901-02. Our summer intern Anna O’Neill will describe how she carried out the conservation treatment on this very fragile object:

Hello again.  You may remember that last time I wrote about this cat mummy, I got a little distracted.  But this time I’d like to focus on the treatment process.  Many of our mummies are in remarkably good condition, with wrappings that are stable and that can withstand handling (albeit with care).  Not so with this cat.

cat mummy 1When plant-based fibers age, the cellulose that gives them structure decays and the fibers become brittle.  Badly aged linen can fall apart at the lightest touch, leaving loose fragments and powder on the surface of the object.  The linen on top of this cat mummy was torn and obscured by dust, but the real problem was underneath.  Prior to treatment, Molly and I carefully turned the mummy a little so we could see below—and quickly (but gently) put it back!  As you can see in the image below, the layers of linen were falling apart and the threads that had criss-crossed the layers were broken and hanging off.

cat mummy 2We decided to wrap the mummy in nylon netting, which would hold everything in place while keeping the surface visible.  This would be a non-invasive, completely reversible process that would allow the mummy to be safely handled and studied.

Before wrapping, I gave the mummy a light surface cleaning with a variable-speed HEPA-filtered vacuum.  Using a nozzle attachment fitted with a screen, I carefully removed the powder on the top of the mummy.  The linen—though torn—was still soft and flexible, like modern fabric.

cat mummy 3Then, I toned the netting to match the color of the mummy using acrylic paint.  Once the paint was dry, I positioned the netting across the top of the mummy and pinned it in place.  The flip was simple but nerve-wracking—we knew from our quick peek earlier that the underside was in bad shape, but we didn’t know to what extent.  With Molly’s help, I turned the mummy over so that all of the powder, torn linen and broken threads were now on top.

cat mummy 4Since the thick layer of compressed linen powder completely obscured the wrappings below, I again vacuumed the mummy, using a screen to filter out the powder while keeping everything else in place.  A vacuum may seem like an odd conservation tool (I got some weird looks as I hoovered the cat), but with the filter over the nozzle and variable suction control, there’s no danger of sucking up the entire object.

cat mummy 5

The underside of the mummy after cleaning. It may not look like much, but it’s better!

With the underside of the cat finally visible, I sewed the netting up the middle using a flat-felled seam.  As the name implies, this created a neat seam with a flat profile.

cat mummy 6

Overall view of the underside of the cat mummy (after treatment)

Overall view of the top of the cat mummy (after treatment)

Overall view of the top of the cat mummy (after treatment)

Now that the linen wrappings are encapsulated, the little cat mummy can be handled and studied, and it can (hopefully) be x-radiographed this fall.  It still may not have its head, but at least it won’t be losing any more of itself any time soon.


A final report from Abydos

Back in June, we provided an update from the Penn excavations at the mortuary complex of Pharaoh Senwosret III in Abydos. The team has since returned from the field, and graduate student Kevin Cahail generously passed along some photos showing what the project looked like as they were wrapping up in the field. Just as a reminder, the project has concentrated on three principal areas: (1) the subterranean tomb of pharaoh Senwosret III; (2) the mortuary temple and associated structures dedicated to the cult of Senwosret III; and (3) the urban remains of the Middle Kingdom town at South Abydos. You can read a bit more about the project in our first post.

After excavations are complete, the team documents the site by setting up a huge wooden ladder in the middle of the desert, climbing up it, standing at the top, and taking photos. Kevin mentioned that its a great view, but that he did have to put quite a bit of trust into his Egyptian compatriots to hold the ladder steady.

01 Site Photo MethodAnd this is what the view looks like – here is a shot of part of the Cemetery S excavations of 2013:

02 Cemetery SThe mound in the background is mastaba S10 of the Late Middle Kingdom. Three tombs are visible from left to right, CS.8, CS.4, and CS.5. These three tombs date to the New Kingdom.

Following their excavations in the town site of Wah-sut, grad students Paul Verhelst and Shelby Justl are seen here drawing brick plans of the exposed architecture:

03 Paul and Shelby  drawingIn the background the workers begin the process of backfilling the excavated areas.

This shot shows the excavations in the Temple Cemetery, Tomb TC.19:

04 TC19 excavationThis one-room vaulted tomb with a rectangular entrance shaft had been looted in the months before the team arrived in 2013. Despite this, they did recover a fragment from a yellow-type coffin showing the lower portion of some standing gods:

05 TC19 Coffin fragand a wooden coffin hand applique with painted rings:

06 TC19 Coffin handThe last tomb they excavated was TC.20, a tomb which the team discovered belonged to a Scribe by the name of Horemheb.

07 TC20 OverviewTo the left is an overview of the tomb showing a heavy-walled entrance shaft, an antechamber, and in the foreground, the burial chamber.

A third vaulted chamber to the right below the sand remains unexcavated.  The team plans to tackle this next season.







To give you a sense of the size of this tomb, here is a photo of Joe Wegner taking a photo of Kevin from inside TC.20.  Kevin is standing in the entrance shaft, and Joe is in the burial chamber:

08 Joe in TC20And here is a final group photo of the excavation team standing on the recently completed cover building over the tomb of Senwosret III:

09 Final Group PhotoIt was a busy field season and the team intends to return this winter, conditions permitting. We will continue to provide updates on this blog as their project progresses!