I spy with my little eye…

A long time ago I posted an image of our Mummy Gallery, circa 1930s. Well, I find myself returning to this photograph again and again as I work on new objects in the lab.

The "Mummy Room" ca. 1935

The “Mummy Room” ca. 1935

Can you find two of the objects that we’re working on right now, the beautifully preserved painted wooden coffin and the shabti box and shabits, all from the New Kingdom? Here are images of these objects, just to help you out:

Overall view of the interior of the coffin from above

Overall view of the interior of the coffin from above

The shabti box and one of its associated shabtis

The shabti box and one of its associated shabtis

Did you find them? I’ll post the image of the mummy room below, with these objects circled in red.

mummy room with coffin and shabtis circledAnd here is a cropped version of this image, to better show these objects:

31011_mummyroom_1935-croppedWhile it’s just cool to see an image of these objects in a previous display, it’s also helpful to me as a conservator. I can see how they were mounted for exhibit (the coffin is standing upright, the shabtis are on little platforms) and I can also get a sense of condition at this time (for instance, the middle lid of the shabti box is missing in this image, and I can see some losses to the painted surface as well).

I’m am nearly finished working on the shabti box and shabtis, and the coffin will also be completed this year, so we will finally be able to put these objects back on exhibit.

Coming up next week, I will be posting some multispectral images of the shabti box and shabtis, which is helping us better understand the original colors and also to see some of the painted details, which are now largely obscured by the orange pistacia resin varnish.


Consolidating a painted wooden shabti

This one-minute video captures what I did at work today, times about 250.

Shabti paint consolidation (click on the link to view the video)

To put it into context, I was working on this painted wooden shabti, which I’ve mentioned on the blog before.

The area blocked out in yellow is the area I'm working on in the video.

The area blocked out in yellow is the area I’m working on in the video.

Here is a still shot of the area I’m working on in the video, taken at 10x magnification using our binocular microscope:

IC800006The paint is actively flaking in many areas on this object. In the video, you can see me applying a 2% solution of methyl cellulose in water by brush to a loose flake of paint, and then after allowing the flake to relax, tapping it into place using a silicone colour shaper. It’s slow-going, but it’s working!


A new challenge in the lab

I am always pleased to see returning visitors to the Artifact Lab. And of course, people who have been here before want to know, what’s new? Visiting the lab is the best way to find out about our latest projects and progress, but this blog is the next best thing.

So, what is new around here? Well, I’ll let you take a look for yourself:

shabti boxThis object was featured in the “What in the World” series on the museum’s Facebook page this week. There were a wide range of guesses as to what this is; my favorites being a breadbox, an Egyptian mail box, a papyrus organizer, a holder for cat mummies, and an ancient Egyptian Matchbox-car garage.

Seriously though, this is a shabti box. Here is a shabti box that is similar in style, at the British Museum. Shabti boxes were used to house shabti figures. Shabtis were included in burials as servant figures that would carry out heavy work on behalf of the deceased. They were depicted as mummified and were inscribed with spells which, when recited, magically caused them to come to life and perform work for the deceased in the afterlife. Here are 3 shabtis that were originally housed in our shabti box:

shabtisThe shabti box and shabtis are made of wood, covered with a thin layer of gesso, and painted. They are in the lab for treatment because their surfaces are actively flaking. Not only is the paint flaking, but there is a yellow-orange coating over the painted surface that is badly flaking as well.

This yellow-orange coating is applied over the entire surface of the shabtis and the box (inside and out), and it is very thick in areas.

A detail of the shabti box showing areas where the coating is particularly thick (pointed out here with the red arrows).

A detail of the shabti box showing areas where the coating is particularly thick (pointed out here with the red arrows).

My first question is, what is this coating? Is it an original varnish or is it a later restoration?

The box and the shabtis date to the New Kingdom, ca. 1200 BCE. We know that varnishes such as those containing pistacia resin were used on painted wood in the New Kingdom, and these varnishes often appear yellow, although they may not have been yellow when first applied. We also know that these varnishes were applied unevenly – the application of the pistacia resin varnish has even been described as “messy” and it is acknowledged that its purpose was not an aesthetic one, but rather intended to make such objects more divine, or suitable for the afterlife (Serpico and White 2001). This description may help explain the rather sloppy appearance of the yellow-orange varnish on our shabti box and figures.

We cannot, however, discount the idea that this coating may be a later restoration. We know that archaeologists frequently stabilized artifacts in the field to allow for their safe recovery. Materials such as paraffin wax, gelatin, shellac, and cellulose nitrate have been used for this purpose in the field or once the objects found their way into museum collections (like the wooden heads Laura has been working on).

There are several ways in which we can try to determine what this coating is and when it may have been applied. We already have some clues, but we’ll share those in an upcoming post. Stay tuned for updates as we learn more!


Update from Abydos

A few weeks ago I wrote about Penn Museum Curator Joe Wegner and his team who are currently excavating in Abydos at the mortuary complex of Pharaoh Senwosret III. Recently the team has been battling exceedingly high temperatures and consistent loss of power (so no internet and water) but despite all of this, graduate student Kevin Cahail has been kind enough to continue sending me photos and information about their latest discoveries.

Many visitors to the Artifact Lab ask if mummies are still being discovered in Egypt. The answer is yes, and now I can point to the recent discovery of a mummy just outside of one of the tombs that was recently excavated.

View of the burial chamber from tomb CS.5

View of the burial chamber from tomb CS.5

The shot above was taken after excavation of a tomb (named CS.5) – this is actually the same tomb that contained the curious bricks with the dots in them that I included images of in my last post. Excavation of this tomb revealed that the burial had been long-since removed, but soon after excavation, a skull, and then the rest of a body, was found in the sand nearby. It appears that she(?) was at some point thrown out of her tomb by robbers.

Mummy upon discovery, before excavation (left) and after excavation (right)

Exposed skull found in the sand (left). Removal of the skull revealed the rest of the body, shown here after excavation (right)

Removing and transporting unexpected or unwieldy archaeological finds often requires a bit of resourcefulness. In order to move this mummy into a box for transport back to the dig house, Kevin recovered an old laundry detergent sack, which they then slid under the mummy,


and used as a sling to lift the mummy into a box.

in boxReconstruction of the skull of this mummy is now underway.

In addition to the field work, the team also spends time in the lab, which sometimes includes minor conservation work. This shabti figure was found in two pieces:

shabtiKevin used Acryloid B-72, an acrylic adhesive commonly used in conservation for repairing ceramics (among many other things) to re-adhere the fragments:

Kevin holding the recently repaired shabti figure

Kevin holding the recently repaired shabti figure

As you can see, Joe, Kevin, and the rest of the team have been busy, and they only have about another week left in the field. As I hear more from them during their last days in Abydos, I will follow up with further information.