Hello, goodbye

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

E12281_at01_compressed

E12281, after treatment

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

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

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

Brooklyn Museum female figure

 

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.

 

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!

 

Update from Abydos

A few weeks ago I wrote about Penn Museum Curator Joe Wegner and his team who are currently excavating in Abydos at the mortuary complex of Pharaoh Senwosret III. Recently the team has been battling exceedingly high temperatures and consistent loss of power (so no internet and water) but despite all of this, graduate student Kevin Cahail has been kind enough to continue sending me photos and information about their latest discoveries.

Many visitors to the Artifact Lab ask if mummies are still being discovered in Egypt. The answer is yes, and now I can point to the recent discovery of a mummy just outside of one of the tombs that was recently excavated.

View of the burial chamber from tomb CS.5

View of the burial chamber from tomb CS.5

The shot above was taken after excavation of a tomb (named CS.5) – this is actually the same tomb that contained the curious bricks with the dots in them that I included images of in my last post. Excavation of this tomb revealed that the burial had been long-since removed, but soon after excavation, a skull, and then the rest of a body, was found in the sand nearby. It appears that she(?) was at some point thrown out of her tomb by robbers.

Mummy upon discovery, before excavation (left) and after excavation (right)

Exposed skull found in the sand (left). Removal of the skull revealed the rest of the body, shown here after excavation (right)

Removing and transporting unexpected or unwieldy archaeological finds often requires a bit of resourcefulness. In order to move this mummy into a box for transport back to the dig house, Kevin recovered an old laundry detergent sack, which they then slid under the mummy,

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and used as a sling to lift the mummy into a box.

in boxReconstruction of the skull of this mummy is now underway.

In addition to the field work, the team also spends time in the lab, which sometimes includes minor conservation work. This shabti figure was found in two pieces:

shabtiKevin used Acryloid B-72, an acrylic adhesive commonly used in conservation for repairing ceramics (among many other things) to re-adhere the fragments:

Kevin holding the recently repaired shabti figure

Kevin holding the recently repaired shabti figure

As you can see, Joe, Kevin, and the rest of the team have been busy, and they only have about another week left in the field. As I hear more from them during their last days in Abydos, I will follow up with further information.

 

From the field

Those of you familiar with the Penn Museum know that we have a lot of ongoing research projects, not all of which are based here at the museum. Since the museum was founded, it has supported and initiated archaeological excavations around the world, and this work continues today.

In fact, we have a team out in the field right now – Egyptian Section Curator Joe Wegner recently headed back to the field with a small team of graduate students to continue his work excavating in Abydos at the mortuary complex of Pharaoh Senwosret III.

Excavations underway in Abydos

Excavations underway in Abydos

Excavation of a tomb in progress

Excavation of a tomb in progress

Abydos is located 300 miles south of Cairo and is the cult site of Osiris, king of the afterlife and god of the netherworld. It was a place of pilgrimage and considered sacred throughout Egypt’s 3000 year history. The Penn Museum excavations there are focused on the classical phase of the Osiris cult during the Middle Kingdom (Dynasties 11-13, ca. 1050-1650 BCE) and 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.

Senwosret III built the first hidden royal tomb there, abandoning the pyramid form and setting the stage for the later hidden tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

During the last field season, Joe’s team completed the construction of a cover building over the entrance to the tomb of Senwosret III. There are double iron doors to the left side, which lead down iron stairs set above the ancient mud-brick stairs down into the tomb.

The new tomb covering over the entrance to the tomb of Senwosret III (this photo was taken before the covering was plastered and painted to blend into the surrounding desert).

The new covering over the entrance to the tomb of Senwosret III (this photo was taken before it was plastered and painted to blend into the surrounding desert).

So far this season the team has been busy. One project is the continued excavation of newly-discovered tombs – one of which can be seen in the image below. In the photo, you can see the sloping passage which ends in a blocked doorway. It is evident that the tomb robbers who originally emptied this structure entered through the vault in the center of the image. To the right of the image is where the next chamber lies, through another door and down, and more excavation is required to enter this area of the tomb.

tomb 2_1One interesting feature of this tomb is that it seems that whoever made the bricks signed their work by impressing two fingers into the top of the wet mud before the brick dried (seen in the image below). Only one, seen in the center of image, has a single dot.

tomb 2 bricksThe team is also searching for fragments of artifacts which may help to indicate the date of this, and other tombs. I will continue to provide updates as they make new discoveries!

Special thanks to Kevin Cahail for sharing information and photos from the field.

Featured object series: falcon mummy

What’s to see in the Artifact Lab?

This is the first in a series of posts describing objects undergoing conservation treatment In the Artifact Lab.

This object appears to be a mummified falcon.

Mummified falcon, before treatment.

I say “appears to be” because we cannot be certain that there is a falcon, or any animal remains for that matter, under the wrappings. In Ancient Egypt, it is known that in addition to mummifying animals, “false” animal mummies were made-from the outside they look like they contain an animal but on the inside, there may only be a bundle of mud and straw, or just a bone or two, or some fur or feathers. These false mummies could have been made to deceive the buyer, but they may also have been made when there was a scarcity of that particular animal, and may have still been considered complete offerings.

Animal mummies were created for a variety of reasons-this article by Salima Ikram, the first in a recent issue of AnthroNotes published by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, summarizes the topic well, putting them into 5 categories: pets, food, sacred, votive, and “other.” The article explains that, yes, some animals were mummified because they worshipped, but many were mummified as offerings to specific dieties, and others because they were considered beloved pets.

This falcon mummy may have been created as an offering to the god Horus. It was excavated from Abydos in 1914 through the Egypt Exploration Fund (later Egypt Exploration Society) through financial support of the Penn Museum. Although the museum’s records do not include a specific date, it is likely that it dates to the Late or the Graeco-Roman Period-many animal mummies date to this time and the decorative linen wrappings seen on this object were popular during these periods as well.

This mummy is elaborately wrapped with strips of natural and dyed linen and details on the head and face are outlined in a brown/black paint. While the mummy is generally very well preserved, it is currently unstable because the head/neck area is partially detached and the linen strips at the feet are in poor condition-some are completely detached.

After fully documenting and researching this object, conservation treatment will include light surface cleaning, stabilization of the head/neck, and stabilization of the wrappings as needed. A storage/handling support has also been created to allow the mummy to be studied without needing to directly touch the object. This work will also allow the mummy to be safely x-rayed and/or CT-scanned. We will post updates on this object as we uncover more details and begin the treatment!