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.

 

Conservators-in-training

For over 10 years, our museum has organized an “Anthropologists in the Making” Summer Camp, and today we hosted 66 of these summer campers in the Artifact Lab for an afternoon of conservation training.

IALSummerCamp1This year the camp is being held over 8 weeks, with different themes each week, including Can you Dig it?, all about archaeology, and Visions and Dreams, which explores the significance of dreams and the roles of shamans and mystics (this one is coming up in August).

The camp theme this week is Mummies Unwrapped so of course we had to give the campers a taste (but not literally) of mummy conservation, in addition to what they are learning about mummies and ancient Egypt.

We organized 3 different activities for the 7-13 year olds (they were split into 2 groups according to age) to test their hand and observation skills. All 3 activities were created to mimic some of the work that we’ve been doing in the Artifact Lab, including:

- an excavation station, which challenged the campers to pick out the remains of a beaded shroud from a bin of mummy debris (similar to recovering PUM I’s beads)

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- a cleaning station, where campers tried different cleaning tests to remove dirt from a painted ceramic tile (like the cleaning that we’ve been doing on our painted coffin of Tawahibre)

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- a materials ID station, where the campers had the opportunity to examine “mystery” materials under magnification and then had to identify what they were looking at (an example of one of the material ID challenges we’ve encountered in the lab can be found here)

A camper compares reference materials to the magnified image of the "mystery" material on the monitor

A camper compares reference materials to the magnified image of the “mystery” material on the monitor

For each activity, we had the kids fill out worksheets to record their observations, to give them a sense of the documentation involved in our work. Before moving on to the next station, each camper needed to get their supervising conservator to sign off on their worksheet. On their way out the door, all campers received certificates declaring them “Junior Conservators for-the-day”.

certificateWe had lots of fun, not only preparing for the camp

Arts and crafts day in the Artifact Lab (left) and the painted tiles before "dirtying" them for the campers (right)

Arts and crafts day in the Artifact Lab (left) and the painted tiles before “dirtying” them for the campers (right)

but also working with the kids at each of the stations. We were impressed with their observations and how quickly they picked up on each activity (rolling swabs can be hard at first!). Special thanks to our Education Department and to all of the summer campers for increasing our department more than tenfold for the afternoon!

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