Treating fragments of a Middle Kingdom painted wooden coffin

If you’ve visited the lab in the last few weeks you may have seen me, head bent at the binocular microscope, working away on fragments of a painted wooden coffin from Abydos. These fragments (7 in total) were excavated in 1901 and have been here at the museum ever since. As I described in a previous post, these boards were severely damaged by termites prior to excavation, and the painted surface, while very well-preserved in some areas, was cracked, flaking, and barely attached in places, not to mention covered with grime.

One of the coffin fragments, which features a portion of a frieze of objects that includes two vessels with spouts and a bolt of clothing.

A before treatment photograph of one of the coffin fragments, which features a portion of a frieze of objects that includes two vessels with spouts and a bolt of clothing.

On the board in the image above, the paint was actually in decent condition. After cleaning the surface with bits of a kneaded rubber eraser, I stabilized the edges around the paint losses with a 2% solution of methyl cellulose in water. With the help of an intern, we sorted through a box of much smaller fragments that presumably had become detached from the 7 larger boards at some point, and we found two small fragments of wood with painted decoration which belonged to this board. These fragments were adhered in place with a 1:1 mixture of 5% methyl cellulose and Jade 403, an ethylene vinyl acetate emulsion.

E12505emends

In this image the red arrows point out the two fragments which were adhered in place after cleaning and consolidation.

Here is a view of that area from the back after mending those fragments:

e12505e_backbeforemendingThe termite damage is evident from the back, and as you can see, the wood is very thin in this area in particular, only about 1mm thick along the join edges between the small fragments and the larger board. The small loss to the right of the upper fragment is an area where the wood and painted surface have been lost completely.

Because the wood is so thin and fragile, I decided to provide some support to this area, by first adhering a piece of Japanese tissue paper over the loss from the back with a 5% solution of methyl cellulose.

e12505e_backmend

A detail of the Japanese tissue paper support adhered over the loss

I then filled the loss and the small gaps along the join edges of that upper fragment from the front, using a fill mixture made from 5% methyl cellulose, glass microballoons, and powdered pigment.

e12505edetail

A detail shot showing the fill from the front

Here is an overall view of the board, after treatment:

E12505Edt02_blogThe fill mixture I used worked nicely, and I’m now using it to stabilize the edges of some of the lifting paint on the other coffin board fragments where the painted surface is in worse condition. I will post photos soon showing what the coffin boards look like before and after treatment.

 

Completing the treatment of Tawahibre’s coffin

Things have been pretty busy around here lately, and I almost forgot to post some updates about several projects. One project in particular is the treatment of Tawahibre’s coffin. We have been working on this 2-part painted wooden coffin in the lab for the last year, and we recently completed its treatment.

As you may remember, when the coffin first came up here, it was covered with a thick layer of dust and grime, the paint was badly flaking in areas, several large pieces of painted gesso were pulling away from the wood support, and there were large cracks throughout.

Before treatment photos (clockwise from left): upper half of coffin showing layer of dust and large cracks and losses; large piece of painted gesso partially detached from top of head; large loss on wig, showing old animal glue adhesive from a previous restoration

Before treatment photos (clockwise from left): upper half of coffin showing layer of dust and large cracks and losses; large piece of painted gesso partially detached from top of head; large loss on wig, showing old, shiny animal glue adhesive from a previous restoration

After cleaning the surface with a brush and vacuum, followed by cosmetic sponges, I consolidated the paint with a methyl cellulose solution, filled in cracks and gaps using Japanese tissue paper and a mixture of methyl cellulose bulked with cellulose powder and glass microballoons, and then toned the fills with acrylic paint. This work is explained in further detail in previous posts, which you can find by clicking on the links included in blue above.

fillingcracks

A detail shot of the wig showing an area with several large open cracks before and after filling with Japanese tissue paper and methyl cellulose/cellulose powder/glass microballoons mixture

Based on a discussion with our Egyptian section curators, I also made some aesthetic fills to mask some large losses, including 2 losses on the wig. We chose not to fill the losses on the nose and chin because filling these losses would require too much guess-work as to the original contours of these features.

Large loss on wig before (left), after application of Japanese tissue paper layer (middle), and after application of fill mixture (right)

Large loss on wig before (left), after application of Japanese tissue paper layer (middle), and during application of fill mixture (right)

Detail of the head and wig before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment, with losses in before treatment photo outlined in red

Detail of the head and wig before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment, with losses on the wig outlined in red. The larger loss on the right is the featured in the previous series of images.

I carried out similar work on the base of the coffin, and now both are complete:

Tawahibre's coffin lid before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

Tawahibre’s coffin lid before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

The coffin base before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

The coffin base before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

As you can see, we chose not to fill many of the losses, focusing instead on stabilization.

This work will enable future exhibition of the coffin, and just as importantly, it will make further study of the coffin possible. All along there have been some discrepancies between the name that has always been associated with the coffin (Tawahibre, a woman’s name) and a previous translation in 1946 of the hieroglyphic text on the coffin (which identified the name of a male court official, the son of J-se(t)-N-Ese). There has also been some confusion about the remains once housed in the coffin, which were previously identified as male, but in a 1975 autopsy the remains were confirmed as belonging to a female in her mid-30s. A bit confusing, but hopefully we’re now one step closer to getting this all straightened out!

 

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!