A different sort of unwrapping…

by Alexis North, a project conservator spending the summer working with the Buddhist Murals Project, but who also has a strong interest in Egyptian materials. Read more about her work on Egyptian objects at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, here.

If any of you have visited the Artifact Lab in person, you may have heard us talk about how it was once popular to open or unwrap mummies, to see the body inside. Of course, this is no longer common practice, and we use non-invasive techniques such as x-radiography or CT scanning to see underneath a mummy’s wrapping without causing any damage or disturbance to the mummy’s current condition.

However, sometimes we are able to perform a slightly different kind of unwrapping, when items are found in storage in aging, opaque, or otherwise unsuitable housing conditions. Such was the case with this mystery item:

E12443, before opening and treatment

E12443, before opening and treatment

While it may look like Sunday’s dinner fresh from the butcher shop, it is actually supposed to be an ibis mummy. However, it has been wrapped in layers of tissue paper and plastic and you cannot see what the object actually looks like. While this type of storage is not damaging to the object, the fact that you cannot see the mummy inside makes this type of wrapping unsuitable. We always prefer to create storage supports or housings that allow researchers to easily see the objects without excessive handling. Therefore, this guy came up to the Artifact Lab for a little modern-day unwrapping.

E12443, after removing the plastic and tissue but before treatment

E12443, after removing the plastic and tissue but before treatment

And what a good-looking mummy it is! While we don’t have a lot of information about the age of this mummy, the intricate wrapping, which uses strips of both dyed and undyed linen, is typical of later periods in Egypt. It is also in very good condition, being just slightly dirty on the surface and having a few small areas of damage to the linen.

Detail images showing (1) a separated piece of linen wrapping on the top of the mummy, (2) a section of linen on the back torn and folded over, and (3) areas of loss which expose the ends of the woven linen underneath

Detail images showing (1) a separated piece of linen wrapping on the top of the mummy, (2) a section of linen on the back torn and folded over, and (3) areas of loss which expose the ends of the woven linen underneath

After gently cleaning the surface of the mummy using a vacuum and soft-bristled brush, I stabilized the areas of lifted or broken linen using Japanese tissue mends. Thin strips of tissue were toned brown using acrylic paint, then adhered underneath the lifting or broken areas using 2.5% methylcellulose adhesive in deionized water. I was able to reattach the broken piece of linen at the top of the mummy, and several sections of lifting wrappings which would be in danger of breaking, without stabilization.

I also humidified and reflattened the folded flap of linen on the back of the mummy. The opening caused by the folded flap was allowing fragments of the inner linen layers to break off and fall out. I used another Japanese tissue mend with methylcellulose to hold the reshaped flap in place.

Before (left) and after (right) flattening and readhering the flap of linen on the back of the ibis mummy

Before (left) and after (right) flattening and readhering the flap of linen on the back of the ibis mummy

Here are some images of the ibis mummy after I completed its treatment. I know it doesn’t look very different, and that happens a lot when treating archaeological objects. My goal wasn’t to improve or restore the mummy in any way, just make sure it could be safely handled and stored without any further damage.

    Images of (1) the top of the mummy, (2) the proper right side of the mummy, and (3) a detail of the reattached linen strip, after treatment

Images of (1) the top of the mummy, (2) the proper right side of the mummy, and (3) a detail of the reattached linen strip, after treatment

My last step was to make a new storage tray so the mummy can be easily seen and examined, without any wrappings besides the ones it came with!

The ibis mummy in its new storage mount

The ibis mummy in its new storage mount

 

It’s hard work, but with lots of rewards

As I’ve said before on this blog, one of my favorite parts of my job is meeting our visitors on a daily basis. This kind of interaction is really rewarding for me, and I hope that the feeling is mutual for those who do get a chance to stop by the Artifact Lab during open window sessions. So you can imagine how pleased I was to find this in my mailbox yesterday:

quinn envelope_addressremovedAs soon as I saw this, I knew exactly who it was from. Last week I was visited by three brothers, Sean, Aidan, and Quinn – their Granddad brought them to the museum for a day, and after doing his homework, specifically came up to the Artifact Lab for our 11:15 open window session. They had lots of questions for me, and we talked for awhile about our animal mummies. I explained to them that we don’t need to unwrap these mummies to know what’s inside – x-rays show us that this rather nondescript mummy -

ibis mummy

- is definitely an ibis, indicated by the characteristic long curved beak which is clearly visible in x-radiographs taken from 2 different angles:

The ibis' beak, indicated here with red arrows, is seen in x-radiographs taken from two different angles.

The ibis’ beak is indicated here with red arrows

To illustrate this in the lab, we printed out one of these x-ray images along with a little drawing of an ibis, and we keep it next to the mummy for comparison. As soon as the youngest brother, Quinn, saw the picture, he quipped, “I wish I could color that!”. So I immediately handed it over to him and asked him if, when he was done coloring, he could share a photo of it with me to post on the blog. Well, he sure didn’t waste any time – not only did he send me his drawing (signed and everything):

Quinn drawingbut the brothers also included a very sweet, and beautifully illustrated thank you note.

quinn letter togetherWhat wonderful artists, and very thoughtful boys. Answering questions can be hard! But with visitors like this, it doesn’t feel like hard work-it’s just fun. Thank YOU Aidan, Sean, Quinn, and Granddad Dan for visiting me in the Artifact Lab and being the highlight of my day!