Coolness vs. cuteness

We have been carrying out our work in front of the public here in the Artifact Lab for nearly 4 years now. Despite the fact that visitors can peer in from various points around the room and watch us working for as long as they have the patience for it, it’s not always clear what we are doing, especially when the work is very detailed and only requires us to make the smallest of movements for hours on end (several of us have overheard museum visitors quietly whispering “is she real?”).

So even though we are “demystifying” our work by bringing it out in full public view, we sometimes have to rely on labels, signs, a slideshow we have running here in the lab, and, hey! this blog, to describe what it is we are doing.

For example, I have been working on this Ptolemaic pectoral cartonnage piece, and most recently started backing and filling losses and tears in the linen support. Most of what I’ve done so far is really difficult to see or appreciate, even though I’m working right by one of the lab windows.

Detail image before (left) and after (right) filling a loss

Detail image before (left) and after (right) filling a loss

These images above show a detail of an area that I backed and filled. There is nothing elaborate or dramatic about this work. As you can see, the fills are small and subtle, mimicking the surrounding areas of paint loss. These repairs were made by backing the losses with Japanese tissue paper and filling with a mixture of Klucel G, alpha cellulose powder, glass microballoons, and powdered pigments.

There are a few areas that I could not access from the front, so I decided to flip the piece over to continue the treatment. In order to protect some fragile areas while the piece is turned over, I temporarily faced them with small pieces of Japanese tissue impregnated with Paraloid B-72.

A detail of the upper half of the pectoral showing facing in progress

Below, you can see what the piece looks like from the reverse. Unfortunately, this means that for the time being, visitors will not be able to see the beautiful painted decoration.

Reverse of E352

Reverse of E352

But have no fear! We have other interesting things on view, and to keep us company as we do this detailed, subtle work. We have our mummy Hapi-Men, who is front-and-center in the middle of the lab, and for those visitors who may not see the “coolness factor” of the mummies, there is this little guy who is currently sitting right by one of the lab’s windows:

E11474: Ptolemaic cartonnage cat head from Abydos

E11474: Ptolemaic cartonnage cat head from Abydos

Because who can resist a cute kitten? We sure can’t, which is why we figure that if this adorable kitty is in the window, even if our work doesn’t appear particularly exciting at the moment, there will be something interesting for everyone to see (and the cat head actually does need treatment and a new storage support, so he is up here for a real reason too!).

Reattaching a mangled “ear”

If you read our blogposts back in February and March about x-raying our animal mummies (see Animal Mummies: contents revealed part I and part II) you will see that the cat mummy we x-rayed actually has no cat remains inside the wrappings. Here is the image of the cat mummy and radiograph:

50-17-1: mummy paired with radiograph

50-17-1: mummy paired with radiograph

Just because there is no cat inside, it doesn’t mean that we don’t treat it just like any of our other animal mummies. (And it doesn’t mean that these empty mummies were any less significant in ancient times either – check out this article which we’ve linked to in previous posts about the Manchester Museum and University of Manchester project which found that 1/3 of the 800 mummies they imaged have no remains inside.)

In the case of this cat mummy, it was in the lab for treatment so that it could be reinstalled in our Secrets and Science gallery. One of its major problems was that its right ear was mangled and partially detached.

Two views of the cat mummy's head, with red arrows pointing to the mangled ear

Two views of the cat mummy’s head, with red arrows pointing to the mangled ear

Repairing this area was slightly complicated because so much original material had been lost. I ended up flipping the cat mummy over and working on it from the back, and secured the ear using Japanese tissue paper toned with acrylic paint, adhered with 5% methylcellulose in deionized water.

Our little kitty patient wrapped in tissue paper and being supported on its belly for treatment

Our little kitty patient wrapped in tissue paper and being supported on its belly during treatment

This treatment worked well and will prevent further damage in that area in the future.

Two views of the cat mummy's head after treatment

Two views of the cat mummy’s head after treatment

Besides the ear, there were unraveling and torn areas of linen wrappings that needed to be secured. These areas were stabilized with strips of nylon bobbinet, toned with acrylic paint. The bobbinet was secured with hair silk toned with acrylic paint.

Overall view of the cat mummy before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

Overall view of the cat mummy before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

It doesn’t show up so well in some of these images, so here is a detail of the cat’s face, just because it’s so cute!

Detail of 50-17-1

Detail of 50-17-1

This cat mummy is now happily reinstalled in the Secrets and Science gallery, so you can see it anytime you visit the museum.

Animal mummies: contents revealed part II

This is a follow-up to my last blogpost, where I posted some side-by-side images of animal mummies and their x-rays. In this post I’m going to explain what we think we’re seeing in the radiographs.

Let’s start with one of the easiest ones:

50-17-1: mummy paired with radiograph

50-17-1: mummy paired with radiograph

This one is really easy. While the mummy is made to look like a cat, we can clearly see that there are no cat remains, or any remains, inside. All we see inside are very small straight pins, which were pushed into the linen wrappings in 1980 to keep them from unraveling. We know this happened in 1980 because it is noted in an old conservation report. A good example of an ancient “fake”!

The next one is also fairly easy to interpret.


E12438: mummy from the side, paired with radiograph

We thought this was an ibis mummy, and sure enough, we see an entire ibis inside the wrappings. The GIF above highlights the distinctive skull and beak of the ibis in red.

You could say that the next one, which appears to be a crocodile mummy, has a couple extra special surprises inside:


E17631: mummy from above, paired with radiograph

There are 3 baby crocodiles under the wrappings! The GIF above highlights the 3 skulls in red.

Next we have what appears to be a falcon mummy, but what we see inside is harder to interpret:


E12441: mummy paired with radiograph

Upon close inspection, we can see 2 separate, and very small birds inside. In the GIF above, the red outlines the skulls and beaks and the blue outlines the bodies. We don’t think that these birds are falcons, or even birds of prey at all. They look much more like doves or pigeons (based on examination of comparative specimens with zooarchaeologist Dr. Kate Moore). It’s possible that this mummy was never meant to represent a falcon at all – the jury is still out on this one.

Lastly, we have the tiniest mummy of the bunch:


E12435: mummy from the side, paired with radiograph

There is an animal inside, and it looks like its body is upside-down. It is very difficult to make out, but we can see its front teeth and its long tail. This one definitely called for the expertise of Dr. Moore, who brought up some comparative specimens from her collection. Ultimately, it was the teeth that convinced her that what we see inside this little mummy is a shrew.

Dr. Moore holding a tiny shrew skull

Dr. Moore holding a tiny shrew skull

To the ancient Egyptians, the shrew represented the nocturnal side of Horus. Here is a link to an image of a similar shrew mummy in the collection at the Brooklyn Museum.

Our fun with animal mummies never ends! For more information about where these mummies came from, check our their catalog records in our Collections Database:

50-17-1: Cat mummy

E17631: Crocodile mummy

E12441: Falcon mummy

E12438: Ibis mummy

E12435: Shrew mummy

Vampire mummy?!?

In the last couple days we found out a bit more about one of the animal mummies we recently x-rayed.

The clue is related to one of the cat mummies, which came into the lab looking like this:

CG2015-4-9 in (not original) coffin

CG2015-4-9: cat mummy in (not original) coffin

First of all, you might be asking yourselves, how did we keep this amazing detail from you before? This mummy was previously stored in an creepy/wonderful vampire coffin with a glass cover (not original to the mummy). It was sealed inside the coffin, presumably to make it more attractive (?) for collection/sale. In order to get a better look at the mummy and carry out treatment, conservator Alexis North had to remove it from the coffin. Once it was out , we could see that the head had been intentionally cut off.

CG2015-4-9, view from top showing where head was cut off and exposing bones inside

CG2015-4-9, view from top showing where head was cut off and exposing bones inside

Inside the coffin, Alexis found some bits of bones, including this:

Portion of a maxilla (upper jaw), including teeth, 10X magnification.

Portion of a maxilla (upper jaw), including teeth, 10X magnification

This is a portion of the maxilla (upper jaw) of a cat with some linen and even some fur still attached! Based on it’s size and the fact that the incisor is not fully erupted, we* estimate that this belonged to a kitten that was only a few weeks old when it died. The size of the bones corresponds well with the size of the kitten’s body we saw in the x-radiograph. Here’s that image again, showing how small the kitten is in relation to the size of the mummy:

The radiograph shows that there is only a tiny kitten under the wrappings of this cat mummy.

Left: Cat mummy. Right: Radiograph of the cat mummy, which shows that there is only a tiny kitten under the wrappings.

There are other bits of the skull that we found inside the coffin too. We’re not sure when the head was removed, but afraid that the head may have been cut off to fit the mummy into the vampire coffin. We’ve made a new box for the mummy, one that is both more appropriate for this object and for the museum environment, and that will certainly be more protective.

Cat mummy in a new storage enclosure

Cat mummy in a new storage enclosure

*Special thanks to Dr. Kate Moore for her expertise and time!

What’s inside those animal mummies?

Last week we x-rayed 8 animal mummies from our collection. These mummies were previously in storage and are in the Artifact Lab for much needed treatment and storage upgrades. As you can see in the images below, some of them are incredibly fragile with extensive damage. X-radiography is completely non-invasive and is one of the best tools we can use to study these mummies.

Recently we heard that researchers at the Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester found that about 1/3 of their mummies are “fakes” (and we use this word rather loosely – read the article in the link to find out more).

How do ours measure up? Well, even though we have a much smaller sample size, we found our stats to be a little bit better – 7 of the 8 that we just x-rayed contain animal remains, and one contains the remains of 3 animals, so the number of animals actually outnumbers the number of mummies in this instance!

Below we’ve posted paired images of the animal mummies and their radiographs. Our initial findings are written in the captions for each image. See if you can figure each one out, and if you see something that doesn’t make sense or something that we haven’t explained, please write into the comments below this post and we’ll follow up! All radiographs were captured with a GE Inspection and Sensing Eresco 65MF4 tube on a digital x-ray detector at 35kV 6mA for 6 seconds.

Cat mummy (left) and x-ray image (right) showing a complete cat body inside.

L-55-13: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing a complete cat body inside.


97-121-27: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis in the lower 2/3 of the wrappings.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing a fragmented ibis body inside.

97-121-28: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing fragmented ibis remains inside.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside.

E3539: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside, plus an extra bone and part of the ibis beak.

E3541: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside, plus an extra bone and part of the ibis beak lying outside the mummy bundle.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing nothing inside the wrappings.

CG2015-4-1080: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing nothing inside the wrappings (it was likely intended to be a hawk or falcon mummy).


CG2015-4-9: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing a young kitten in the upper half of the wrappings, missing its head.


97-121-8: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing at least 3 snakes inside (scale not included, but this mummy is about the length and width of an iphone).

We love ugly objects too!

Last week, I posted some photos of a beautiful stola coffin lid that I’m working on at the moment, and I mentioned that this lid might be my new favorite object. I now somehow feel a need to post images of some objects that aren’t necessarily as pretty, but I want to assure you that we’ll give them just as much lovin’ here in the conservation lab.

A Nubian jar, ca. 100 BCE-300 CE and ivory horn protectors from Kerma (Sudan), ca. 1650-1550 BC

A Nubian jar, ca. 100 BCE-300 CE and ivory horn protectors, Kerma (Sudan), ca. 1650-1550 BCE

A cat mummy head, unwrapped, Thebes, ca. 664-332 BCE

Cat mummy head, unwrapped, Thebes,                 ca. 664-332 BCE

Sections of a beaded mummy shroud covered in wax

Sections of a beaded mummy shroud covered in wax, Egypt, exact site and date unknown

I also feel the need to mention that I don’t just love pretty objects. My most favorite “object” that I’ve worked on here in this lab in not an object at all, but a mummy – our Predynastic mummy Bruce, and I don’t think anyone would call him pretty. But please don’t take that the wrong way (I don’t think he would be offended either). My interest in him goes way beyond his looks.

I promise to post photos of what the objects in the images above look like before they leave the conservation lab. Conservator Alexis North will be working on these pieces (along with some help from our interns) in the upcoming weeks.

This post was inspired in part by a great blogpost on the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s blog, “Ugly Object of the Month“. Enjoy!


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.


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.


Losing it and faking it: investigations into our animal mummies

Hello! I’m Anna O’Neill, a summer intern working in the Conservation Department at the Penn Museum. I’m currently studying to get my MSc in Conservation Practice from Cardiff University in Wales. This summer, I’ve been helping Molly in the Artifact Lab a few days a week and she asked me to write a little bit about one of my projects.

The Egyptians often made votive animal mummies—small, mass-produced animal mummies that pilgrims could offer to the gods. Cats were especially popular as they represented Bastet, the cat-headed goddess of protection, fertility and motherhood. The Penn Museum has several cat mummies in their collection. A few are below:

cat mummiesWe recently started working on E16205, a cat mummy from Abydos (seen below in the image on the left). It was excavated in 1901-02 through the Egypt Exploration Fund through financial support of the Penn Museum, and dates to ca. 381-343 BCE. The linen wrappings are in bad shape—loose, torn and powdery—but that is the least of its problems. After a light cleaning, it became clear that something was missing.

overhead and vertebraAs you can see in the image on the upper right, the linen is damaged and there is a bone exposed at one end of the cat mummy. Zooarchaeologist and Penn professor Dr. Kate Moore confirmed that it’s a cervical vertebra visible at the narrower end of the wrappings.

Dr. Kate Moore examines the exposed cat mummy bone

Dr. Kate Moore examines the exposed cat mummy bone

Animal mummies occasionally lose their heads, as the neck is the weakest point of attachment to the body. Back in March, Molly wrote about our falcon mummy’s floppy head.

In the hope that maybe the head had simply been misplaced, we sent an email to Egyptian Section curator Jen Wegner. A few hours later, Jen turned up in the Artifact lab, smiling and toting a small, tissue-wrapped package. Inside was this little beauty:

Cat head 3quarterIt is evident that this head does not match our cat mummy’s body. The colors and weaves of the linen are different, and the head has carefully articulated features while the body is rather haphazardly wrapped. But the main difference is that there doesn’t appear to be any cat parts within the sculpted wrappings! Inside, the mask contains bundles of linen and resin, but no bones that we could see. A quick look at the records for the head showed that it was X-radiographed in the 1980s and contains “no bony skull”. It is a fake—but an ancient one!

Cat head above below

Additional views of the cat mummy head from above (left) and below (right)

Faking mummies, particularly animal mummies, was not uncommon in ancient Egypt. The materials to make a mummy, like myrrh and natron, were costly. Instead of embalming, the expense could go towards elaborate wrapping and detailing. Once the linen was in place, a religious pilgrim wouldn’t know whether or not there was an actual mummy inside. Several other Penn Museum animal mummies were X-radiographed along with the false head, and it turned out that the middle cat mummy in the image at the very top of this post doesn’t contain any skeletal matter, either. A clue is in the shape of its body—it is wide at the top and narrow at the feet, upside-down in comparison to the real cats.

So, were the mummy-makers pulling the, ahem, linen, over devotees’ eyes?  It is unclear whether the pilgrims knew that the votive mummies they offered to the gods were impostors, and nor do we know if it mattered. The qualities represented by the animal sacrificed may have been more important than its physical body. This way, a fake mummy representing the “idea” of a cat was an equally valid gift as the mummy of a real cat.

We’re disappointed that we can’t reunite our cat mummy body with its head, but Molly and I are going to work to stabilize the wrappings so that it can be CT-scanned and studied. In the meantime, it’s been interesting to see which of the Penn Museum’s votive mummies are real and which are (ancient) fakes.