Observations of a stola coffin lid

As if there is not enough up here (see our recent post about the Egyptian storage move and associated conservation work), this week we brought another quite large object into the lab, and it might be my new favorite object up here.

The lid of our yellow stola coffin

The lid of our* yellow stola coffin

This is the lid that belongs to the late 21st/22nd Dynasty yellow coffin base which we recently treated here in the Artifact Lab. Due to its previous location in storage, I hadn’t been able to take a close look at it until this week. Now that I’ve gotten to spend a few days with the lid, I’ll tell you that it’s total eye candy. If you were impressed by the painted decoration on the base, the lid will give you even more to get excited about.

I only just started to examine and document the lid and I will continue to update the blog as I work on this object, so today I’m just going to mention a few things about it, and some of my favorite details so far.

First of all, you may have noticed that I referred to this as a “stola” coffin in the image caption above. The term “stola” refers to the narrow red band depicted on the coffin that encircles the neck and crosses over the chest and over the oversize collar. Both the presence of the stola and the oversize collar have been recognized as distinctive of the late 21st/early 22nd Dynasty (see other examples and explanations here and here, and special thanks to Dr. Kara Cooney at UCLA for information as well).

The figure depicted on this coffin used to have a beard, which is now missing, but there is a hole in the chin indicating that it was once there.

Detail of the hole in the chin

Detail of the hole in the chin

The arms are depicted as being crossed over the chest and the hands are made of separate pieces of wood. The hands on this coffin are clenched and I have read that this is reserved for male coffins while females are depicted with hands open and lying on their chests. I’m assuming the fisted hands mean that this coffin belonged to a man, but I’ll have to check with our Egyptologists to confirm, since I cannot translate any of the text myself. I also really like the fact that the thumbnails are painted in:

Detail of the left hand

Detail of the left hand and thumb

What else can I say about it? Well, it is beautifully painted and also varnished just like the base with a yellow-colored pistacia resin. This pistacia resin causes many of the areas painted blue to appear green:

Much of the blue lines on the wig appear green, but in areas where there is no varnish, you can see the blue color of the paint.

Many of the lines on the wig appear green, but in areas where there is no varnish you can see the blue color of the paint.

There is a thick layer of dust on the surface of the coffin, but I can tell it’s going to clean up well. Check out the embossed details in this raking light image, which were built up with gesso:

Detail of the embossed designs on the central part of the lid

Detail of the embossed designs on the central part of the lid

This is going to be a fun object to work on! I’m looking forward to getting started with the treatment.

* I should clarify that this coffin technically belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) but has been on long-term loan to us for nearly a century. We received this coffin as part of an exchange of objects between our 2 institutions in the 1930s. I am carrying out the treatment in close consultation with the conservators at the PMA.

The treatment of (half of) a yellow coffin

This week, we finally finished the treatment of the lower half of our 21st/early 22nd Dynasty yellow coffin.

A view of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

A view of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

The treatment mostly involved cleaning the interior surfaces to remove dust using a soft brush and HEPA-filtered vacuum, and cosmetic sponges. Here’s another view to give you a better sense of just how much grime had accumulated in the interior of the coffin:

A detail of the head of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

A detail of the head of the interior of the coffin before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

There was also a fair amount of flaking and lifting paint, which needed to be stabilized. We used 1-2% methylcellulose in 50:50 water/ethanol to consolidate flaking paint, and Japanese tissue paper and 5% methylcellulose to fill gaps.

In the course of the treatment, I have also continued to research the significance of the holes drilled into the bottom of the coffin, which can clearly be seen in the overall images at the top of this post, but here is another look:

An overall shot of the coffin bottom, with a detail of 4 of the holes below.

An overall shot of the coffin bottom, with a detail of 4 of the holes.

I’m anxious to start working on the lid of this coffin, which will inevitably provide more information about this object and it’s history. We should be able to bring the lid from storage up to the lab sometime this summer, and I’ll post images of it as soon as it arrives. In the meantime, I have enjoyed researching these types of coffins and finding images of similar ones in other collections (like this one at the Petrie Museum, this one at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and this “remuddled” coffin at Stanford University) which is helping me gain a better understanding of these coffins and the contexts in which they were made.

Tawahibre, front and center

As promised, Tawahibre’s coffin lid is now on display, front and center, in the Artifact Lab.

Tawahibre's coffin lid on display at the entrance to the Artifact Lab

Tawahibre’s coffin lid on display at the entrance to the Artifact Lab

Getting this Late Period painted wooden coffin lid ready for display required months of treatment to clean the surface and to stabilize the flaking paint, powdery and crumbly gesso, and loose wood components. I blogged rather extensively about the treatment – follow this link to view some of my previous posts.

Here are some treatment images that were posted on the museum’s Facebook page last week, showing details of the head/upper body before, during, and after treatment:

E885CbeforeduringafterCome visit Tawahibre in the lab, where you can examine the coffin lid up-close, read the conservation treatment report (which includes some materials identification reports), see more before, during, and after treatment images, and discuss the treatment with the conservator during open window times.

 

I spy with my little eye…

A long time ago I posted an image of our Mummy Gallery, circa 1930s. Well, I find myself returning to this photograph again and again as I work on new objects in the lab.

The "Mummy Room" ca. 1935

The “Mummy Room” ca. 1935

Can you find two of the objects that we’re working on right now, the beautifully preserved painted wooden coffin and the shabti box and shabits, all from the New Kingdom? Here are images of these objects, just to help you out:

Overall view of the interior of the coffin from above

Overall view of the interior of the coffin from above

The shabti box and one of its associated shabtis

The shabti box and one of its associated shabtis

Did you find them? I’ll post the image of the mummy room below, with these objects circled in red.

mummy room with coffin and shabtis circledAnd here is a cropped version of this image, to better show these objects:

31011_mummyroom_1935-croppedWhile it’s just cool to see an image of these objects in a previous display, it’s also helpful to me as a conservator. I can see how they were mounted for exhibit (the coffin is standing upright, the shabtis are on little platforms) and I can also get a sense of condition at this time (for instance, the middle lid of the shabti box is missing in this image, and I can see some losses to the painted surface as well).

I’m am nearly finished working on the shabti box and shabtis, and the coffin will also be completed this year, so we will finally be able to put these objects back on exhibit.

Coming up next week, I will be posting some multispectral images of the shabti box and shabtis, which is helping us better understand the original colors and also to see some of the painted details, which are now largely obscured by the orange pistacia resin varnish.

 

Out with the old, in with the new

There are some new objects to see in the lab!

Just this week, we began returning some of our recently-treated objects to storage and exchanging them for some new stuff, including a painted wooden coffin (this is a photo of the coffin box without the lid – note the elaborate painted decoration on the interior):

coffina falcon coffin and “mummy” (I’m putting “mummy” in quotes here because this mummy looks like it’s a corn mummy, made by wrapping up a mixture of sand, grains, and plant fibers):

falconmummythese pieces of a painted wooden coffin board with two Wedjat eyes:

coffinboardand this ibis mummy, with exposed feathers!

ibismummyThere are some other things too, including some cartonnage and another animal mummy, which we’ll post photos of soon.

As always, these photos really don’t do these objects justice. You’ll have to come check them out in person! And we’re only just starting to examine them, so we’ll definitely post information as we learn more. If you have specific questions about any of these objects, please let us know!

 

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.

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!

 

Opening Tawahibre’s coffin

I don’t think many people will argue with me about this – a day at work (heck, a day in my life!) can’t really get more exciting than opening a 2500+ year old Egyptian coffin. For the last several months, we have been carrying out treatment to stabilize the loose wood, crumbling gesso, and flaking and powdery paint on the lid of Tawahibre’s coffin. While there is still a lot of aesthetic work to carry out, we finally got the lid to a point where we deemed it stable enough to remove it from it’s base.

Removing the lid from an incredibly fragile 2500+ year old coffin doesn't happen without a lot of planning and discussions ahead of time.

Removing the lid from an incredibly fragile 2500+ year old coffin doesn’t happen without a lot of planning and discussions ahead of time.

Okay, okay, so, the coffin has been opened before, and we knew that there wasn’t a mummy inside anymore (she’s down in storage), but opening the coffin was monumental nonetheless, as the lid hadn’t been removed in decades and we didn’t really know what we would find inside.

Fortunately, we were able to lift and move it without any problems:

DSC_0765DSC_0771DSC_0776(they really make it look like a breeze, don’t they?)

And now the lid is safely resting on a new palette, and the interior of the coffin is revealed to us for the first time:

Tawahibre lid and base separated

Yup, just another day in the Artifact Lab. We’ll fill you in later about what we’re learning and what’s going to happen next.

 

 

From the Archives

The Penn Museum Archives is an incredible resource for us here at the museum.

A view into the Penn Museum Archives

A view into the Penn Museum Archives

When we begin working on objects in the conservation lab, we carry out preliminary research, which often includes searching for related materials in the Archives. Among the materials we may be interested in are archaeological field notes, letters between curators and archaeologists or collectors about the acquisition of specific artifacts, and old photographs.

Recently, Senior Archivist Alex Pezzati scanned some images for me, including this one, a shot of the Egyptian “Mummy Gallery” in 1935.

31011_mummyroom_1935_compressed

I was excited to see some of the artifacts we’re working on in the Artifact Lab right now in this photo. Can you pick some of them out? In the image below I’ve circled some of them in red.

The objects circled in red above are either being worked on in the Artifact lab or are on display in our accompanying exhibit

The objects circled in red above are either being worked on in the Artifact lab or are on display in our accompanying exhibit

These old exhibition photographs can be extremely valuable to conservators. Not only does this particular image tell us that certain artifacts were definitely on display, and when (which may not be recorded elsewhere), but it also shows us how they were displayed. In some cases, seeing the way that artifacts were previously displayed may help to explain damage, such as excessive fading on one side or adhesive residues left behind by an old mount. We can often make good guesses about this type of damage, but it’s always nice to have some proof!

What particularly excited me about this photograph is that it shows the coffin of Tawahibre in the gallery. We are currently working on this coffin in the lab, but it is still too fragile to separate the lid from the base to allow for examination of both pieces individually.

The coffin of Tawahibre in the Artifact Lab.

The coffin of Tawahibre in the Artifact Lab.

Just recently, Curator Dr. Jen Wegner was up in the lab and we were discussing the coffin and some of my observations, and she wondered out loud if the back had any text written on it. I had wondered the same thing myself but I knew that until we carried out further work, we wouldn’t be able to know.

BUT, since this 1935 photograph shows both the lid and the base of the coffin on display, we don’t have to wait any longer!

The lid and the base of Tawahibre's coffin, side by side in the Mummy Gallery in 1935.

The lid and the base of Tawahibre’s coffin, side by side in the Mummy Gallery in 1935.

As you can see in the above image, there is writing on the back! Now only if we could just hasten the conservation treatment so we can examine it for ourselves…

Another thing that is useful about this image is that is shows that much of the damage we’re seeing on the coffin today was present in 1935. This includes both major structural damage and extensive paint loss in areas. It is likely that the coffin came into our collection with this damage, which is somehow reassuring to me. I will also note this in my documentation.

Tawahibre's coffin in 1935 (left) and today (right). Much of the major damage we see today had already occurred by 1935. To highlight this, I've circled some of the damaged areas in red in both images.

Tawahibre’s coffin in 1935 (left) and today (right). Much of the major damage we see today had already occurred by 1935. To highlight this, I’ve circled some of the damaged areas in red in both images.

We continue to plug away on the treatment of the coffin and we are hoping to soon reach the point where we can separate the lid. I will provide an update shortly about some of the more recent work we have been carrying out on this artifact!

 

 

New discoveries

When “In the Artifact Lab: Conservation of Egyptian Mummies” was envisioned, we knew that there were a lot of unknowns – the idea was that this would be a working lab, so we would be carrying out much of the work that normally goes on behind-the-scenes to prepare objects for exhibition, in full public view. Many of the artifacts selected for examination and conservation in the lab had not been examined very closely for a long time. What we did know is that we needed to do a whole lot more research, documentation, and conservation on these pieces before they would be ready for display.

We're not just trying to look good-we're actually working!

We’re not just trying to look good-we’re actually working!

Anyone who has been following this blog knows that we have made several discoveries about some of these artifacts – the discovery of the fact that our mummy PUM I had a beaded shroud, for instance. Another artifact, or assemblage of artifacts actually, that we knew we’d be learning much more about is the outer coffin of Ahanakht.

One of the boards from Ahanakht's outer coffin, showing the side covered with columns of Hieratic inscriptions.

One of the boards from Ahanakht’s outer coffin, showing the side covered with columns of Hieratic inscriptions.

We currently have 15 pieces (all dissembled) from this coffin up in the Artifact Lab, and 2 more are on exhibit. We also have Ahanakht’s inner coffin, which is assembled and on exhibit here on the 3rd floor of the museum as well.

Ahanakht's inner coffin on exhibit in the museum

Ahanakht’s inner coffin on exhibit in the museum

Previously on this blog we posted some photos of some of the smaller “coffin boards” – or at least, that’s what we thought they were. There are 4 of these smaller boards and they were acquired with the other pieces of the outer and inner coffins. They are made of the same wood, have similar bands of hieroglyphs on one side, and have similar construction methods as the larger boards.

3 smaller pieces previously thought to be part of the outer coffin

3 smaller pieces previously thought to be part of the outer coffin

These boards haven’t required extensive conservation – so other than some examination and very minor treatment, most of the work on them so far has been curatorial.

Curator Dr. David Silverman has been working with Penn graduate student Leah Humphrey to transcribe and translate all of the inscribed text on the coffin boards. Dr. Silverman has determined from the text on 3 of the smaller boards that they are actually a part of a canopic box, not a coffin. These wooden containers usually were square in shape and held 4 jars, each of which had one of the 4 mummified parts of the deceased: the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines. The 4th small board, however, remains problematic since its dimensions make it clear that it does not belong to either of the 2 coffins of Ahanakht. In addition, its size and the nature of the text inscribed on it, make it also clear that it is not part of the canopic box. Its text indicates that it is part of yet another coffin.

Examination of one of the canopic box pieces and the "mystery" board underway

Examination of one of the canopic box pieces and the “mystery” board underway

Research progresses in the hopes that we can figure out where/what the 4th mystery piece is from. This particular project is a good example of how “In the Artifact Lab” is an exciting and sometimes perplexing work-in-progress.