A Complete View and a Complete Treatment: Conservation of the Roman Period Mummy Mask

After using humidification and four extra hands, the mask is now unfolded! This complete view of the object provides us a wonderful opportunity to look at the materials used in construction and allowed treatment to finally move forward.

Before jumping into treatment, I had the opportunity to perform Multispectral Imaging (MSI) on the mask, allowing us to analyze some of the pigments non-destructively and with great results.

E2462. From left to right: Visible light, Ultraviolet illumination, Visible induced IR luminescence

E2462.
From left to right: Visible light, Ultraviolet illumination, Visible induced IR luminescence

Under ultraviolet illumination, a bright pink fluorescence was visible (middle), indicating the use of a madder lake pigment in the cheeks and to accentuate the face and hands. I also used visible induced IR luminescence to pinpoint the use of Egyptian Blue pigment in the crown, jewelry, and green leaves (right, Egyptian Blue highlighted in pink). This is a material commonly found in Roman period Egyptian artifacts.

In addition to finding out some of the materials used, I also completed full documentation of the object. Although some of the surface is still intact, the paint layer is in poor condition with areas of flaking and powdering. There is also a large loss to the textile along with some smaller tears and holes.

E2462 During treatment detail of flaking paint

E2462 During treatment detail of flaking paint

As my first order of business, the paint needed to be stabilized. This paint, like many other Egyptian painted surfaces, is sensitive to water and adhesives can cause staining and darkening. This meant a lot of testing was required to find the perfect adhesive for the job.

Using both testing panels and small, discrete areas of the surface, I tested adhesives until I found funori, a seaweed-based polysaccharide. This material preserved the matte and light tones of both the paint and ground layers.

Amaris Sturm, summer intern, consolidating surface of E2462

Amaris Sturm, summer intern, consolidating surface of E2462

As treatments usually go, you sometimes get unexpected bumps along the way. As I was consolidating I discovered that the flesh tones in the face and hands were significantly more sensitive to the water-based adhesive. I quickly had to rethink my approach, ultimately using a methyl cellulose in 50:50 ethanol: water for the hands, face, and larger flakes in the yellow framing the face.

Once consolidation was complete, I moved on to the next hurdle: the molded mud plaster mask. A large gap is present between the fragmented mud plaster crown and the textile below. To support the plaster and its mends, I made a removable fill of carved Volara foam and Japanese tissue, all toned with Golden acrylic paints to make the supports more discrete.

Removable fills to support the heavy mud plaster crown in E2462

Removable fills to support the heavy mud plaster crown in E2462

Fragmented, actively shifting, and detached mud plaster was mended with a 40% AYAT in acetone applied by brush and syringe. Unstable and weightbearing cracks and gaps were filled with a 25% AYAT in acetone that was bulked with microballoons and toned with dry pigments. Fill material was applied with syringed, shaped with a brush and wooden skewer, and  smoothed with a little bit of acetone. A thin toning layer of acrylic paint was applied to fills to make them a warmer tone, but still distinguishable from original material.

Filling compromised gaps on E2462

Filling compromised gaps on E2462

And with that, the treatment is complete! The mask is now stable and will be returned to storage safe and sound.

E2462 Before treatment (left) and After treatment (left)

E2462 Before treatment (left) and after treatment (right)

  • Amaris Sturm is a second-year graduate student in the Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She recently completed her summer internship in the Penn Museum’s conservation labs.

New Mask in the Lab

Amaris Sturm is a second-year graduate student in the Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She is currently completing a summer internship in the Penn Museum’s conservation labs.

I’m excited to introduce a new addition to the objects in the Artifact Lab! This Roman period Egyptian mummy mask and shroud, likely from 220 – 250 AD and excavated from Deir el-Bahri in the late 19th century, will be one of my primary treatment projects during my summer at the Penn Museum.

E2462- Overall before treatment

E2462- Overall before treatment

Meant to be placed over the upper body of a mummy, this mask is constructed of multiple pieces of coarsely woven linen sewn into a long shroud.  At the top of the shroud is a hollow, molded mud plaster mask in the form of a man’s face with a jeweled crown. The entire front surface has a white ground with colorful painted decoration. Additionally, gilding is present on fragments of the crown.

Sadly, the mask was folded at some point in its history, obscuring most of the linen shroud. Although there are no records of the complete decorated surface and little is known about the history of the mask in our collection, other similar examples from Deir el-Bahri give great insight into what may be hidden beneath the folds.

Comparable mask in the Louvre collection

Comparable mask from the Louvre collection

Comparable examples, including this mask from the Louvre, show the continuation of the man’s white tunic with a goblet in one hand and a plant stem in the other. A lower register is likely present containing Sokar, a falcon-headed god, on a boat and flanked by two jackals. One jackal is visible on an exposed corner of the Penn Museum’s mask.

E2462- Crown before treatment

E2462- Molded mud plaster crown before treatment

Apart from being folded, the mask has other condition issues that will be treated over the course of my summer internship. The textile support of the crown has sagged, causing the mud plaster to break and crumble. Additionally, the exposed painted surface is flaking and the linen fabric has started to tear and unravel.

I hope to start treatment in this coming week and unfold the shroud, allowing us to better understand the construction, decoration, and condition of this mummy mask. Check back to see what it revealed and for more on the mask’s treatment!

Sources:

Panel Portrait of a Man. Louvre Museum. Accessed June 25, 2016. http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/panel-portrait-man

Riggs, C. 2000. Roman Period Mummy Masks from Deir el-Bahri. From The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 86. Egypt Exploration Society. 121-144.

Progress update on the stola coffin treatment

For the past few weeks, it has been full steam ahead on the treatment of the stola coffin lid. The lid is made of smaller pieces of wood joined together, then covered generously in areas with a thick layer of coarse mud plaster, followed by a thin layer of a finer mud plaster, followed by paint and a varnish. There are also raised details that were built up with gesso before painting.

This large piece of painted mud plaster (detached from the foot of the coffin, seeing on the left) is 11 cm thick.

This large piece of painted mud plaster (detached from the foot of the coffin, seen on the left) is 11 cm thick.

This area of damage clearly shows the wood substrate (green arrow), coarse mud plaster (blue arrow), and finer mud plaster (red arrow).

This area of damage clearly shows the wood substrate (green arrow), coarse mud plaster (blue arrow), and finer mud plaster (red arrow).

The two major condition problems on the coffin are found in the mud plaster layers: the coarse mud plaster has lost cohesion and in many places has separated from the wood below, and the finer mud plaster has also lost cohesion, so much so that it has deteriorated to a fine powder in places. I have spent over 150 hours so far readhering detached plaster, consolidating the powdery plaster, and realigning and stabilizing loose fragments on the coffin. Today I’m posting a few before and after treatment details to show the progress.

Here are before and after details of the top of the head showing an area where I had to readhere some large fragments of painted plaster:

Top of the head before (left), during (center), and after (right) reattaching painted plaster fragments

Top of the head before (left), during (center), and after (right) reattaching painted plaster fragments

Here are before and after details of the left eye showing the consolidation of exposed powdery mud plaster:

Detail of losses near the left eye before, showing powdery mud plaster (left) and after cleaning and consolidation of the mud plaster in the losses

Detail of losses near the left eye before, showing powdery mud plaster (left) and after cleaning and consolidation of the mud plaster in the losses (right)

And here is an area on the side of the head where I found that some fragments were previously attached in incorrect places. They were repaired long ago (with no documentation) with an adhesive that is soluble in warm water. I reversed the old repairs and found the correct locations for the fragments. I’ve outlined the fragments in their incorrect locations in the before treatment image on the right, below:

Detail of treatment on the side of the head before, with misplaced fragments outlined in pink (left), and after respositioning (right)

Detail of treatment on the side of the head before, with misplaced fragments outlined in pink (left), and after respositioning (right)

I still have lots of work to do before the treatment is complete, but I’m making good progress! I hope to be finished with the treatment early in the new year.

A closer look at our stola coffin lid

In my last post about this late 21st/early 22nd stola coffin lid, I referred to it as eye candy.

Overall before treatment image of the stola coffin lid, L-55-16B

Overall before treatment image of the stola coffin lid, L-55-16B.

This coffin is beautiful, and we could discuss how nice it is to look at all day. But in this post, I’m going to focus on some of the more subtle, somewhat less-attractive (but perhaps even more interesting) features that I’ve discovered about this coffin lid as I’ve begun to work on it. In fact, on Friday I spent awhile discussing some of these details with a group of conservators and interns from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). As I mentioned in my last post, although this coffin has been on long-term loan to us since the 1930s, it still technically belongs to the PMA, so I am carrying out my treatment in close consultation with one of their objects conservators.

Penn Museum conservator Alexis North (far right) discusses a cat mummy with the PMA conservators and interns.

Penn Museum conservator Alexis North (far right) discusses a cat mummy with the PMA conservators and interns.

I always appreciate the opportunity for professional exchange, and I was happy to be able to discuss my plan, including materials and approaches with them. This discussion energized me to get started with the treatment, and that is exactly what I did, almost as soon as they left.

One thing that I noticed in my initial examination is that this coffin lid has been worked on before. There are residues of old adhesives in areas, including an adhesive mixed with a sawdust-like material, especially around the foot of the coffin.

Adhesive residues on an area of exposed wood.

Adhesive residues on an area of exposed wood near the foot.

I have seen these same types of repairs on at least one other coffin in our collection, and while there is no documentation of them, I am suspicious that this treatment was carried out in our museum soon after we acquired this coffin, but long before our conservation lab was established 49 years ago.

The foot of the coffin has another type of repair as well – there are 2 brackets that are held on with screws on the underside of the foot, apparently to secure some of the wood components. This whole area moves when handled, so the brackets and screws will have to come off so that I can better assess what is going on.

Detail of the foot of the coffin, showing the brackets used in an old repair.

Detail of the foot of the coffin, showing the brackets used in an old repair.

There is some very powdery material associated with areas of damage, especially on the face, which appears to be partially due to deterioration of the mud plaster, but also may be due to insect activity. I’ll have to investigate this further over the course of the treatment.

Detail of the powdery material near the left eye.

Detail of the powdery material near the left eye.

And then there are some materials included in the mud plaster, including some course linen threads and even a leaf, which I am documenting as I work to clean the surface.

Detail of a detached piece of mud plaster with linen thread inclusions.

Detail of a detached piece of mud plaster with coarse linen thread inclusions.

L-55-16B_detail7

Detail of an area of damage, which exposes a small corner of what appears to be a leaf caught in the mud plaster.

The next time I post images of this coffin lid, it should be a lot cleaner, as I plan to complete the initial surface cleaning within the next week. More soon about this, and other observations and developments in the treatment.

 

Outside of the box: freeing a wall painting fragment from its frame

Exciting day in the Artifact Lab! We finally freed this wall painting fragment from its old frame-a frame that it has been in since before coming into our collection in 1925.

Wall painting fragment from Deir el-Medina, before treatment

You can read a bit more about this object in a previous post by following this link.

For the last several weeks I have been preparing for this task – I have spent a lot of time examining the painting, documenting its condition, and analyzing the materials used in its construction. I have carried out some cleaning tests and consolidated much of the painted surface. I also dug out a lot of the cracked and loose plaster surrounding the painting, so that I could fully understand how the painting was set into the frame.

A detail of the bottom of the wall painting with most of the surrounding (modern) plaster removed

All of this was necessary in order to carry out the somewhat daunting task of removing the painting from a frame that has done a great job of protecting it for close to 100 years. It had decidedly reached its useful lifespan though, which is why it needed to be removed. Removing the frame was also going to be the only way for me to evaluate the stability of the wall painting and its more recently applied (modern) plaster backing, and also offered the opportunity to do a more thorough examination of the mud plaster substrate.

When I decided that I was ready to try to remove the frame, I still wanted some moral support (and an extra set of hands and eyes), so I asked my co-worker, Penn Museum conservator Nina Owczarek, to come up and help me. And boy, was Nina more than ready for this-apparently she couldn’t wait to do a little destruction.

“This is why I am a conservator” Nina said as she pried off one of the frame elements with a twinkle in her eye.

After weeks of careful preparation-any guesses as to how long it took us to get the frame apart? Armed with just a screwdriver and a metal spatula, we managed to get it off with relative ease in less than 15 minutes. That frame was ready to come apart, and we didn’t need to use a saw to do it (thank goodness) which is what I had been expecting.

Here is the final result:

The wall painting lying next to its frame-bits of the paper and modern plaster from the side of the frame have fallen off to one side

And here are a couple views from the side, showing the thickness of the original mud plaster, and the plaster backing underneath, set onto a piece of plywood.

Two views of the wall painting, with bits of plaster and paper still partially adhered to one side

In the end, even though it got my heart pumping a little bit, it wasn’t really that nerve-racking after all – all of that preparation paid off! And Nina and I deemed it totally high-five worthy. I’m looking forward to working on this tomorrow, and to moving forward with this treatment.

 

Wall painting fragment from Deir el-Medina

Let’s take a closer look at another object undergoing conservation treatment In the Artifact Lab.

Wall painting fragment from Deir el-Medina, Egypt

This is a wall painting fragment from a tomb wall in Deir el-Medina, located near the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. It dates to 1150 BCE. The painting substrate is a mud plaster mixed with straw, and the surface is painted to depict the standing figure of a diety in profile. At some point in the past, this fragment was set into a wood frame and encased in plaster.

The first step in the conservation process is to document the condition of the wall painting. Using Photoshop and a tablet computer, a condition map was created to highlight areas of loss, major breaks, and loose elements.

A basemap showing condition issues including major breaks and loose pieces (see key on right).

After recording its condition, I then started investigating the materials and methods used to mount and frame it. The wall painting fragment appears to be backed and surrounded with Plaster of Paris and set into a wood frame with beautiful dovetail joints.

Detail showing corner of frame with dovetail joints

At first, we thought that one option might be to leave it as is, but it was immediately evident that the plaster surrounding the painting was cracked and loose in areas. After prying some of the loose plaster away, I found that luckily, the plaster seen around the outside of the painting is only a thin skim coat layer, and that paper was used as a barrier layer in places between the painting and the plaster. I was hoping that it would be newspaper, providing clues as to when and where the framing occurred, but unfortunately, so far all I’ve found is plain paper.

Detail photographs showing bottom of painting with plaster skim coat partially removed (left) and fragments of paper and plaster removed from frame (right)

I did find one clue, however, hidden on the inside of the frame-a sticker reading “DOUANE  PARIS  CENTRAL”. There is a portion of an identical sticker on the back of the frame, but it is much harder to read. A Google search of these words led me to conclude that this might be a customs sticker. Why there would be a customs sticker on the inside of the frame is unclear, but from this evidence, as well as the fact that we know that this painting was purchased from Joseph Brummer, a dealer who ran galleries in Paris and New York, we can assume that this painting was mounted and framed before it was purchased by the museum in 1925.

We will continue examining and carrying out research on the wall painting fragment to understand its current condition problems, and also how we will approach stabilizing it for future display. We will provide updates as we work on this object!

– by Molly