Conservation at the Penn Museum: the next generation

Our department temporarily gained a member last week, when aspiring conservator Jessica Schwartz returned to spend an afternoon with us.

Conservator Tessa de Alarcon shows Jessica an RTI (reflectance transformation imaging) file of a seal impression from Ur.

Conservator Tessa de Alarcon shows Jessica an RTI (reflectance transformation imaging) file of a fragment of a jar stopper from Ur. The seal impression is so worn, and RTI revealed that it actually has 2 different impressions on it.

Jessie, a 6th-grader from Atlanta, has been interested in archaeology for as long as she can remember, but after seeing us working In the Artifact Lab two summers ago, she redirected her energy to pursuing archaeological conservation. There aren’t many opportunities for 12-year olds to gain experience in conservation, so we thought that if she spent some time with us, she’d get a taste of what we do on a day-to-day basis.

The first time she worked with us, last summer, we spent some time looking at our Predynastic mummy Bruce, using our microscopes to identify materials, and making scarab amulet impressions, and she wrote about all of this on the blog, which you can find by following this link.

Last week she came for a return visit (her family was here for the opening of our new exhibition, Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, & Gold in Ancient Panama) and she kept pace with all of the activities of the afternoon, including discussing my ongoing treatment of Pinahsi, a New Kingdom mummy (she had a good eye for picking out where I had repaired the textile shroud!) and reviewing radiographs of some of our animal mummies.

Jar of dirty cotton swab tips

Jar of dirty cotton swab tips

One of the first questions Jessica asked me when she came into the lab was, “what is that container full of little bits of cotton for?”. I’m so glad she asked (it’s a cotton swab disposal jar), because it gave me the idea to teach her one of the most important skills for a conservator to have – rolling your own cotton swab! We make our own swabs for cleaning objects because it allows us to have more control over the size and shape of the swab and the amount of cotton, and it’s also a lot cheaper. Jessica was so pleased with learning this new technique – I told her it would take her far!


Jessie with a successfully-rolled swab

Jessie with a successfully-rolled swab

After working in the Artifact Lab for a bit, we went downstairs to our new digital x-ray lab* to review some animal mummy x-radiographs. I x-rayed the animal mummies just before Jessie’s visit, so this was an opportunity for us to learn from the radiographs together. (*We are super excited about our new digital x-radiography equipment and we are just starting to use it to examine objects in our collection. I have been meaning to write a post just about the equipment and some of the things it has already allowed us to do, so look for this in the near future.)

One of the mummies we x-rayed was this ibis mummy, which our graduate intern
Alexis North treated over the summer. As far as we know, this mummy had never been x-rayed before, so we really had no idea what the radiograph would reveal. Here are the 2 views we captured:

X-ray image taken from the top down. Exposure information: 30kV, 1mA, 6 seconds

X-radiograph taken from the top down. Exposure information: 30kV, 1mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.


X-ray image taken from the side. Exposure information: 35 kV, 1mA, 6 seconds

X-radiograph taken from the side. Exposure information: 35 kV, 1mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.

Both views clearly show that there are bird remains inside, and the side view shows the characteristic long, curved beak of the ibis really well. The radiographs also show the textile wrappings and even the materials in the storage support! But focusing on the bird remains, they seemed a little…sparse. So we consulted with the museum’s zooarchaeologist and teaching specialist Dr. Kate Moore. She brought us into her lab and showed us a complete heron skeleton (she doesn’t have an ibis skeleton, but a heron is very comparable in terms of size and the shape of the bones).


Dr. Kate Moore (far right) shows Tessa and Jessica a heron skeleton

Here is the complete skeleton, which Kate piled up on the table so that we could get a sense of how much volume those bones take up. After seeing these bones, we took another look at the x-radiograph, and realized that our ibis mummy only contained about half the bones of a complete skeleton (for starters, the pelvis is missing completely).

Heron bones

Heron bones with sharpie marker used for scale.

As you can see, we had a full afternoon, and we learned a lot together. Jessie had to fly back to Atlanta today to turn her attention back to her current full-time job, being a sixth grader, but we look forward to her next visit. While college, and conservation graduate school, are a bit far off in the future, we can already see that if Jessie ultimately decides to pursue conservation, she’s going to excel!


Working In the Artifact Lab

by guest blogger Jessica Schwartz

I had always dreamed of becoming an archaeologist, but after meeting Molly Gleeson and working with her in the Artifact Lab, I now have a second love – archaeological conservation!

After traveling from my home in Atlanta to attend the Penn Museum Archaeology Camp for the last four years, it was last summer (2013) that I first had the opportunity to meet Molly. She saw me intently watching her every day, and took the time to introduce me to conservation of archaeological artifacts, and I became excited to learn more! Every day after camp ended, I rushed up to the Artifact Lab to talk with Molly and see what she was working on. After camp ended, I waited all year to have the chance to return to the Penn Museum in the summer and learn more about archaeological conservation. So, when I returned to the Penn Museum this July, 2014 for camp, I was very excited to see her again and, hopefully, even get a chance to work directly with her in the Artifact Lab.

I guess that dreams can come true, because I did have the opportunity to work together with Molly and also with other conservators, learning about conservation techniques for Egyptian mummies, textiles, scarabs, and even Chinese wall murals! Molly is a wonderful, patient and enthusiastic teacher, and she took the time to work with me on examining mummy cases, wooden coffin boards, an embalmed “falcon” (which may not really contain a falcon but plant materials instead), and even the remains of a 6000 year old mummy.

Jessica and Molly examine a Predynastic mummy in the Artifact Lab

Jessica and Molly examine a Predynastic mummy in the Artifact Lab

Molly explained the principles of archaeological conservation, including the importance of closely studying the object before working on it, determining what it is made of and its condition, working together with the archaeologists to find out its historical significance, and how and when it was stored. Then she uses a combination of scientific and artistic methods to determine how to stabilize the object for future preservation and study, and in some cases, to restore it to its previous condition. The entire time she records her findings the same way that a scientist records an experiment. Her work is a combination of archaeology, art history, chemistry, microscopy and science – it’s fascinating!

Molly introduced me to some of the other archaeological conservators working in the Artifact Lab. Sara worked together with me using the stereomicroscope examining fabric from a mummy wrapping – we discovered it was made of linen!

Jessica peering through the binocular microscope at a sample linen from a Predynastic mummy

Jessica peering through the binocular microscope at a sample of linen from a Predynastic mummy

Elizabeth taught me how to make impressions of scarabs (scarabs were popular amulets in Ancient Egypt – they often were inscribed with designs or hieroglyphs).

Making amulet impressions with Conservation Department pre-program intern Elizabeth Mauer

Making amulet impressions with Conservation Department pre-program intern Elizabeth Mauer

I also had the opportunity to see two pre-program interns – Cassia and Morgan – working with the large wall-sized Buddhist murals in the Chinese rotunda, and recording their condition before being conserved – much different from studying Egyptian artifacts! Although I asked many (too many!) questions, all of the conservators were kind and patient with me in explaining the answers.

I’ll be going back to the Penn Museum in a few months with my parents to attend the opening of a new exhibit, and when I return, you know where I’ll be… The Artifact Lab!

Jess_optivisor Jessica Schwartz is a budding archaeological conservator who lives with her parents in Atlanta, Georgia. She is 11 years old and attends The Children’s School.



For over 10 years, our museum has organized an “Anthropologists in the Making” Summer Camp, and today we hosted 66 of these summer campers in the Artifact Lab for an afternoon of conservation training.

IALSummerCamp1This year the camp is being held over 8 weeks, with different themes each week, including Can you Dig it?, all about archaeology, and Visions and Dreams, which explores the significance of dreams and the roles of shamans and mystics (this one is coming up in August).

The camp theme this week is Mummies Unwrapped so of course we had to give the campers a taste (but not literally) of mummy conservation, in addition to what they are learning about mummies and ancient Egypt.

We organized 3 different activities for the 7-13 year olds (they were split into 2 groups according to age) to test their hand and observation skills. All 3 activities were created to mimic some of the work that we’ve been doing in the Artifact Lab, including:

– an excavation station, which challenged the campers to pick out the remains of a beaded shroud from a bin of mummy debris (similar to recovering PUM I’s beads)


– a cleaning station, where campers tried different cleaning tests to remove dirt from a painted ceramic tile (like the cleaning that we’ve been doing on our painted coffin of Tawahibre)


– a materials ID station, where the campers had the opportunity to examine “mystery” materials under magnification and then had to identify what they were looking at (an example of one of the material ID challenges we’ve encountered in the lab can be found here)

A camper compares reference materials to the magnified image of the "mystery" material on the monitor

A camper compares reference materials to the magnified image of the “mystery” material on the monitor

For each activity, we had the kids fill out worksheets to record their observations, to give them a sense of the documentation involved in our work. Before moving on to the next station, each camper needed to get their supervising conservator to sign off on their worksheet. On their way out the door, all campers received certificates declaring them “Junior Conservators for-the-day”.

certificateWe had lots of fun, not only preparing for the camp

Arts and crafts day in the Artifact Lab (left) and the painted tiles before "dirtying" them for the campers (right)

Arts and crafts day in the Artifact Lab (left) and the painted tiles before “dirtying” them for the campers (right)

but also working with the kids at each of the stations. We were impressed with their observations and how quickly they picked up on each activity (rolling swabs can be hard at first!). Special thanks to our Education Department and to all of the summer campers for increasing our department more than tenfold for the afternoon!



We aren’t making mummies…or are we?

One question I hear occasionally from visitors in the Artifact Lab is “are you making mummies?”. I always think that this is a funny question – there is one thing that we have plenty of at the museum, and that is objects in our collection. There is no need for us to make our own…or is there?

What's going on here? What could these possibly be for?

What’s going on here? What could these possibly be for?

We do sometimes make mock-ups of artifacts, for testing purposes or for exhibit or educational use, and I wrote a bit about this in my very first blog post on the Penn Museum blog, way back in September.

And now I can no longer say that the museum is not making mummies. While we may not be making mummies in the Artifact Lab, we do have someone on staff who has been known to make a mummy, or two, in his career. This someone is Ben Neiditz. And rather than saying much more about this, I thought I’d ask him a few questions, and post our Q&A on the blog. So read on to learn more about Ben’s fascinating, and super creative, work.

Real mummy or fake? You decide!

Real mummy or fake? You decide!

Hi Ben. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and what do you do at the museum?

I am a sculptor, designer, and builder and I work in the Exhibits department designing and building a range of different exhibit elements including casework, interactives, furniture, and artifact replicas.

How did you get into making artifact replicas?

Well, I studied sculpture and I am still making artwork outside of the museum, but my first replica for the museum was for the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit. We were prevented at the last minute from displaying the two mummies that were the centerpiece of the show and so I created two replicas. As luck would have it, I had been making desiccated corpses as part of my own sculptural practice and so I was well prepared to make replica mummies in the required time frame (very fast!). Most recently I made a set of replica codices for the exhibit Maya 2012: Lords of Time and I have just finished making another replica mummy – including a set of desiccated organs – that will be used in educational workshops about Egyptian mummification. 

Tell us more about this recent mummy project! How did you make the mummy and what materials did you use?

I started by casting a skull: I covered it in paper mache, let it dry and then cut off the paper shell and reattached the parts.

The "skeleton" of Ben's mummy

The “skeleton” of Ben’s mummy

I used skeletal and anatomical diagrams, photos of real mummies and my own body as reference for scale, proportion and texture. For the body, I started with a wood armature that I then “fleshed out” with paper and cardboard.

The body of the mummy taking shape

The body of the mummy taking shape

I coated the whole thing in paper mache and then I painted and textured the exterior with celluclay, dirt and wood glue to get the desired skin texture.

The "skin" in process of being applied (left) and a detail of the evisceration on the mummy's left side (right)

The “skin” in process of being applied (left) and a detail of the evisceration (right)

Do you have anything else interesting to share? What was the most interesting thing you learned from this?

I went to check out the mummification workshop in which the aforementioned mummy is used. This particular iteration of the workshop was being presented to a group of 6th graders and it was great! The kids get to poke brains made from jello and learn all about the system of religious beliefs that surrounds Egyptian mummification. I learned that in order to be admitted to the afterlife, your heart is put on a scale balanced against a feather. If your heart is too heavy, indicating a life lived wrongly, it is devoured by a crocodile-lion-hippopotamus and you are denied entry into the underworld.

Real mummy or fake? You decide!

The final product-the complete mummy with all of his organs and a scarab amulet placed on his chest.

Thanks Ben! What a cool project. The mummy looks great, and as Ben mentioned, is already being put to use for workshops here at the museum. The mummy has been dubbed “Mr. Ulysses Penn” (or Mr. U Penn). He will be featured in the next “Mummy Makers” workshop, which will take place on June 5th.