Treating fragments of a Middle Kingdom painted wooden coffin

If you’ve visited the lab in the last few weeks you may have seen me, head bent at the binocular microscope, working away on fragments of a painted wooden coffin from Abydos. These fragments (7 in total) were excavated in 1901 and have been here at the museum ever since. As I described in a previous post, these boards were severely damaged by termites prior to excavation, and the painted surface, while very well-preserved in some areas, was cracked, flaking, and barely attached in places, not to mention covered with grime.

One of the coffin fragments, which features a portion of a frieze of objects that includes two vessels with spouts and a bolt of clothing.

A before treatment photograph of one of the coffin fragments, which features a portion of a frieze of objects that includes two vessels with spouts and a bolt of clothing.

On the board in the image above, the paint was actually in decent condition. After cleaning the surface with bits of a kneaded rubber eraser, I stabilized the edges around the paint losses with a 2% solution of methyl cellulose in water. With the help of an intern, we sorted through a box of much smaller fragments that presumably had become detached from the 7 larger boards at some point, and we found two small fragments of wood with painted decoration which belonged to this board. These fragments were adhered in place with a 1:1 mixture of 5% methyl cellulose and Jade 403, an ethylene vinyl acetate emulsion.


In this image the red arrows point out the two fragments which were adhered in place after cleaning and consolidation.

Here is a view of that area from the back after mending those fragments:

e12505e_backbeforemendingThe termite damage is evident from the back, and as you can see, the wood is very thin in this area in particular, only about 1mm thick along the join edges between the small fragments and the larger board. The small loss to the right of the upper fragment is an area where the wood and painted surface have been lost completely.

Because the wood is so thin and fragile, I decided to provide some support to this area, by first adhering a piece of Japanese tissue paper over the loss from the back with a 5% solution of methyl cellulose.


A detail of the Japanese tissue paper support adhered over the loss

I then filled the loss and the small gaps along the join edges of that upper fragment from the front, using a fill mixture made from 5% methyl cellulose, glass microballoons, and powdered pigment.


A detail shot showing the fill from the front

Here is an overall view of the board, after treatment:

E12505Edt02_blogThe fill mixture I used worked nicely, and I’m now using it to stabilize the edges of some of the lifting paint on the other coffin board fragments where the painted surface is in worse condition. I will post photos soon showing what the coffin boards look like before and after treatment.