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

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!


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.

Coming Soon: Nefrina’s Mummy Mask

In 2011 I had the privilege to work on the mummy mask shown below, and I am excited that it will soon be on display In the Artifact Lab! Since this mask will be a new addition to the gallery, it seems fitting the mask have an introduction to the blog as well.

mask croppedFunerary masks, like this one, were placed over the wrapped mummy as an idealized representation of the deceased. This mask is made of cartonnage which is a complex composite material. It was made by wrapping a head shaped core (probably made from mud or straw) with layers of linen and papyrus impregnated with glue. The exterior of the mask was then covered with plaster and painted. To help you visualize the stratigraphy of the mask, here is a diagram:


A diagram showing the multiple layers that make up Nefrina’s mask, with the inner linen layer represented in blue at the bottom and the outer paint layer(s) represented in black at the top

The face of this mask has a slightly different preparation from the rest of the head, as it has gold leaf and required a predatory layer called red bole.  Bole is a fine clay ground layer that is applied before putting down gold leaf as it creates a richer color and provides a good surface for burnishing the gold. Once finished, the mask would have been removed from the core and be ready for use.

This mask belonged to a woman from the Ptolemaic period (300-30 BC) named Nefer-iin-e (Nefrina). Nefrina’s mummy and coffin are on display at the Reading Public Museum, just about an hour from Philadelphia in Reading, PA, and it is from the translation of the text on her coffin that her name is known in addition to information about her parents. Her father, Irthrrw (Irethorrou) and mother, Ir(ty)-r-w (Irty-rou), both served in the temple for the Egyptian fertility god Min.

The Reading Public Museum has made this great video where you can learn more about Nefrina:

In 2012 the mask was reunited with the coffin and mummy at the Reading Public Museum for the first time in 82 years as part of an exhibit called Nefrina’s World. Now that the mask is back at the Penn Museum, we are excited that it is going to be on display here too! Once it is in the gallery we will follow up with a post about it’s conservation treatment.

– posted by Tessa De Alarcon