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!

 

The Outer Coffin of Ahanakht – part 2

One of the boards from the inner coffin of Ahanakht, before treatment.

Previously I began to tell you about this multi-part artifact. Then, I was just starting to get acquainted with it. When conservators first look at any artifact, the first thing we think about is not where it’s from, not how old it is, not even what culture made it. The first and most important fact for conservators is what it’s made of. The material tells us what kind of problems it might have and what kind of treatments we can use or not use – it’s the starting point of everything we do.

The coffin boards are wood, with some paint applied. Four thousand year-old wood. Right away, that tells us something about what kind of wood it must be, since wood generally doesn’t survive so long in the archaeological record. Because there’s been a lot of research done on Egyptian materials, we can say with some confidence that the wood is cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani). Cedar is a prized wood because the trees produce chemicals that make them resistant to insect damage and various forms of rot.

A detail of the board showing construction details.


The first step of any treatment is careful examination. The coffin boards, despite being entombed thousands of years ago in the desert environment of Egypt and then brought to Philadelphia with its humid summers and desiccating winter heating seasons, appear to be in excellent condition for the most part; their most obvious problem being a thick coat of dust from uncovered storage for many decades. I documented the appearance of the board, noting its construction details, such as four wooden pegs and mitered edges. One curious feature was thin metal ribbons running in channels along the long axis of the board. I was unsure whether these were an original feature or something done in modern times to put the coffin back together. It seemed an unusually elaborate repair but the metal was in such good condition that I didn’t think it was 4000 years old. Even under a microscope, I couldn’t tell exactly what the metal was. There were slight traces of green corrosion, which usually means copper or copper alloy, but the metal was mostly dark grey and quite flexible, so it could be lead. I made a note to analyze it using our new portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer which has since happened and to do some research on Egyptian coffin technology. Dr. Joe Wegner, also an Associate Curator in the Egyptian Section, recommended a book about a similar coffin at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (The Secrets of Tomb 10b) and there I found this information: “the sides have beveled edges fastened together by dowels and copper ribbons“. So it looks like those metal ribbons are original. Perhaps their unusually excellent condition has something to do with the cedar around them.

During treatment, showing dirt partially removed and tools used for cleaning.


Treatment was relatively straightforward. I used a HEPA-filtered vacuum with variable speed control to remove the loose dust from the surface of the board. Conservators choose their cleaning methods based on the type of dirt to be removed and the substrate from which it is to be removed. ‘Dry’ cleaning methods (those not using liquids such as water or other solvents) are generally less likely to damage the artifact and are preferred wherever possible, although care must still be taken to ensure that only the dirt is removed and not any of the original surface. By using a very small vacuum attachment at low speed and monitoring the process closely using a magnifying visor, I was able to clean the surface safely. Not very glamorous but I’ve discovered that this artifact has a pretty important role in the history of archaeological science – see my post on the Museum’s blog for information on that!

Painted wooden coffin of Tawahibre

By now, many of you may be familiar with this object from it’s appearance in our recent media coverage:

Painted wooden coffin from the Late Period

This is a painted wood coffin from the Late Period, post-558 BC. It has been fairly inaccessible in storage until coming up to the Artifact Lab. Now that it’s up here, we’re realizing that it’s going to be a complex project, in more ways than one.

First of all, it’s a bit confusing who this coffin belonged to. In our records, is listed as the coffin of Tawahibre or Teker-Wah-Eb-Re. The mummy associated with the coffin was x-rayed in 1932 and examined in the 1970s and both times determined to be a woman in mid-adult life (about 40 years old). However, in 1946, the hieroglyphic text on the coffin was translated as identifying a male court official, the son of J-se(t)-N-Ese. Our curators are going to work to translate the text to see if we can figure out who the coffin belonged to…however…

The second complication is that, unfortunately, this coffin hasn’t aged particularly gracefully, and it is now very fragile and in poor condition. And even more unfortunately, the areas that contain much of the text are in the worst condition, with major losses to the painted surface.

Detail showing major paint loss across the foot area of the coffin

So, one of the first things we’ve done to improve the condition of the coffin and aid in translation is to remove years of accumulated surface dust using a soft-bristled brush and a HEPA-filtered vacuum. This made a big difference and already allows the text to be read more easily. I am now conducting cleaning tests to see how much more surface grime can be removed. I did some dry-cleaning (meaning cleaning without the use of solvents like water or alcohol) testing today using Groomstick, a natural rubber product similar in consistency to SillyPutty, and cosmetic sponges, and I’m pretty happy with the results. Look at how much more dirt I was able to remove with these products:

Partially cleaned surface (left) and bits of Groomstick and cosmetic sponges after dirt removal (right)

Next I’ll have to start addressing how to approach the stabilization of the fragile and flaking paint and gesso and unstable wood elements.

Posted by Molly