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.

 

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