Working In the Artifact Lab

by guest blogger Jessica Schwartz

I had always dreamed of becoming an archaeologist, but after meeting Molly Gleeson and working with her in the Artifact Lab, I now have a second love – archaeological conservation!

After traveling from my home in Atlanta to attend the Penn Museum Archaeology Camp for the last four years, it was last summer (2013) that I first had the opportunity to meet Molly. She saw me intently watching her every day, and took the time to introduce me to conservation of archaeological artifacts, and I became excited to learn more! Every day after camp ended, I rushed up to the Artifact Lab to talk with Molly and see what she was working on. After camp ended, I waited all year to have the chance to return to the Penn Museum in the summer and learn more about archaeological conservation. So, when I returned to the Penn Museum this July, 2014 for camp, I was very excited to see her again and, hopefully, even get a chance to work directly with her in the Artifact Lab.

I guess that dreams can come true, because I did have the opportunity to work together with Molly and also with other conservators, learning about conservation techniques for Egyptian mummies, textiles, scarabs, and even Chinese wall murals! Molly is a wonderful, patient and enthusiastic teacher, and she took the time to work with me on examining mummy cases, wooden coffin boards, an embalmed “falcon” (which may not really contain a falcon but plant materials instead), and even the remains of a 6000 year old mummy.

Jessica and Molly examine a Predynastic mummy in the Artifact Lab

Jessica and Molly examine a Predynastic mummy in the Artifact Lab

Molly explained the principles of archaeological conservation, including the importance of closely studying the object before working on it, determining what it is made of and its condition, working together with the archaeologists to find out its historical significance, and how and when it was stored. Then she uses a combination of scientific and artistic methods to determine how to stabilize the object for future preservation and study, and in some cases, to restore it to its previous condition. The entire time she records her findings the same way that a scientist records an experiment. Her work is a combination of archaeology, art history, chemistry, microscopy and science – it’s fascinating!

Molly introduced me to some of the other archaeological conservators working in the Artifact Lab. Sara worked together with me using the stereomicroscope examining fabric from a mummy wrapping – we discovered it was made of linen!

Jessica peering through the binocular microscope at a sample linen from a Predynastic mummy

Jessica peering through the binocular microscope at a sample of linen from a Predynastic mummy

Elizabeth taught me how to make impressions of scarabs (scarabs were popular amulets in Ancient Egypt – they often were inscribed with designs or hieroglyphs).

Making amulet impressions with Conservation Department pre-program intern Elizabeth Mauer

Making amulet impressions with Conservation Department pre-program intern Elizabeth Mauer

I also had the opportunity to see two pre-program interns – Cassia and Morgan – working with the large wall-sized Buddhist murals in the Chinese rotunda, and recording their condition before being conserved – much different from studying Egyptian artifacts! Although I asked many (too many!) questions, all of the conservators were kind and patient with me in explaining the answers.

I’ll be going back to the Penn Museum in a few months with my parents to attend the opening of a new exhibit, and when I return, you know where I’ll be… The Artifact Lab!

Jess_optivisor Jessica Schwartz is a budding archaeological conservator who lives with her parents in Atlanta, Georgia. She is 11 years old and attends The Children’s School.

 

Ask the conservator!

Since the Artifact Lab opened on September 30, we (meaning my fellow Penn Museum conservators and myself) have spoken to hundreds of people who have visited the exhibit during our open hours (Tues-Fri @ 11:15am and 2:00pm, Sat-Sun @ 1:00pm and 3:30pm). Being the full-time conservator in the Artifact Lab, I get to talk to lots of our visitors, and I have to say that it has been one of the most fun parts of my job.

Chatting with visitors during a Q&A time in the Artifact Lab

I particularly love it when people ask me questions. Many of these questions are about Egypt-and because I am not an Egyptologist, I have spent a bit of time looking things up, asking our curators, and often saying “I don’t know, but I’ll see what I can find out.” We try to post answers to some of the frequently asked questions here on our blog, and we encourage you to ask questions via this blog well, by leaving them at the end of any of our posts, or in the comments box at the end of the FAQs page.

But many questions are about conservation, and this is an area that I can talk a LOT more about. One conservation-related question that I have heard a lot lately is “what are you going to use to repair that object, and will you use the same materials as the original?”. This is a great question, and gives me the opportunity to talk a bit about conservation decision-making and ethics.

There is a lot to consider when making decisions about how to repair objects and what materials to use. No two objects are exactly alike, so what works for one object may not work for another that is very similar.

One of the first things to consider is the nature of the object-what is it made out of and what is its condition (and why does it need conservation treatment)? We are always looking to choose treatment materials that are compatible with the original materials of the object and that will provide the strength, cohesion, etc. that the object needs.

That being said, we also use materials and methods for treatment that make our work easily distinguishable from the original object. For example, many conservation treatments involve filling losses in objects with new materials and coloring the fills to blend with the surrounding original materials. When carrying out this work, many conservators use an approach known as the rule of “6 Feet, 6 Inches”-meaning that when an object is viewed at 6 feet the repair is not visible but at 6 inches it is easy to distinguish from the original. We also document all of our treatments thoroughly in written reports and photographs, so that in the future it will be clear what has been done.

Another factor when choosing treatment materials is their long-term aging properties-we don’t want to use anything that discolors or becomes brittle over time (such as Duco cement) or will be very difficult, if not impossible, to remove later (like Elmer’s glue!!).

There is a LOT more to say on this topic, and as we put up new posts about ongoing projects we we will try to include information about the decision-making process. In the meantime-Ask the Conservator! Let us know if you have a question-either come visit us during our open window times or leave us a question here!

In the Artifact Lab-Week 1

And what a week it has been! We are officially moved in to our new conservation lab, up on the 3rd floor of the museum and work is now underway in the Artifact Lab.

A view of the Artifact Lab from the entrance to the gallery

Since we opened on Sunday, we’ve spent the week getting situated in our new lab, preparing our work space, tools, and materials, and starting to examine several of the objects we’ll be working on over the next few months. We have a fascinating variety of objects in the lab-including mummified human remains, mummified animals, and funerary items such as painted and inscribed coffins and coffin boards (parts of coffins). These objects have spent many years in storage, some of them since being acquired by the museum over 100 years ago. One of the huge advantages of working on them in the new Artifact Lab is that we have the space, suitable lighting, and proper equipment to thoroughly examine and research these objects, and in the last few days, it quickly became clear that in several cases, we have our work cut out for us.

This painted wood coffin, for instance, is going to be a major project-

Wood coffin dating to the Late Period (post 558 BCE). Notice the heavy layer of grime and significant cracks in the paint and gesso layers.

It’s surface is heavily obscured by dust and grime, and it also has significant structural issues as well, including severe cracks that extend though the paint, gesso and wood and significant losses to the painted surface. We can already tell that this will be a project that will be ongoing in the lab for awhile.

Oh, and in addition to our regular conservation lab work, did I mention that we’ve spent a lot of time this week speaking with the public? Our work will always be visible to anyone who stops by-our Head Conservator Lynn Grant appropriately refers to the space as a fishbowl-there is literally, nowhere to hide (and if there was I wouldn’t tell you). But twice a day, 11:15am and 2:00pm Tuesday-Friday and 1:00pm and 3:30pm Saturday and Sunday, we open the windows to answer questions and speak about our work. We also have the advantage of using our new Smartboard to show additional images-photos showing the progress of our work and images collected through research. 

We use this Smartboard for presentations and also for communicating to visitors when we are working.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts featuring some of the objects that we’ll be working on in the Artifact Lab, and some of our latest discoveries!