High tech/low tech

We often talk about how we try to take advantage of new technologies whenever possible as part of the conservation examination and treatment of objects. It’s those new technologies that help us continue to learn and do more with objects that we have had for 100+ years. For example, even though x-ray radiography has been around since the late 19th century (see this image of the first radiograph ever captured in 1895) there have been major advances since then, including the development of computed tomography (CT-scanning) and digital radiography, so we frequently re-image objects that were x-rayed in the past to capture even more details (see this blogpost to see the recent radiographs we captured of our mummy Nespekashuti).

There are also many other new technologies that we use on a regular basis (at least in some instances), including our portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer (pXRF), our Mini-Crimescope, our Lynton laser cleaner, just to name a few.

Ron Almagno, a Forensic Instruments Specialist, shows our department some of the features of our Mini-Crimescope.

Ron Almagno, a Forensic Instruments Specialist, shows our department some of the features of our Mini-Crimescope.

But there are just as many, if not more, instances when the low-tech method or solution makes the most sense and gives the best, or just as satisfactory, results. I can provide many examples of this, but the latest low-tech approach that I’m taking in the Artifact Lab is figuring out how to examine and work on Nespekashuti and his coffin base.

I decided to tackle the treatment of Nespekashuti’s coffin before dealing with his remains. After working on all of the areas I could reach while it was sitting on a table, I realized that I needed access to the underside of the coffin. When I’ve worked on the back of other coffins, I first work on the exposed side and then flip the coffin over and work on the back (see a previous blogpost (including video footage!) Flippin’ coffins). The only problem with Nespekashuti and his coffin is that he is still inside, and I’m not ready to take him out yet (or ever…more on what I’m thinking about how to best preserve his remains in a future post). So, the best way to get at the underside was to put the coffin up on sawhorses, padded with Volara polyethylene foam.

Nespekashuti in his coffin up on sawhorses in the Artifact Lab.

Nespekashuti in his coffin up on sawhorses in the Artifact Lab.

This immediately allowed me to see some of the painted decoration on the underside, which I had never seen before:

Detail of the back of Nespekashuti's coffin

Detail of the back of Nespekashuti’s coffin

I’ll work on the areas that are exposed and then I can move the sawhorses around to document and work on the areas that are obscured at the moment.

I’ve started to stabilize the flaking gesso, lifting linen, and paint in the areas I can access, and I’m securing these areas while they dry with plastic wrap, silicone-release Mylar, pieces of Volara foam, archival board, and weights.

Detail of an area being secured with plastic wrap, foam, archival board, and weights.

Detail of an area being secured with plastic wrap, foam, archival board, and weights.

So there is nothing high-tech about what I’m doing with Nespekashuti in the lab at the moment, BUT the treatment will eventually allow us to do more high-tech things with him, like CT-scanning, multispectral imaging…and anything else that we can gain access to that may help us learn more about him.

 

Tawahibre all tied up

When I wrote about the fantastic image we retrieved from our Archives a couple weeks ago showing our Mummy Gallery in 1935, I promised to provide an update on the treatment progress on Tawahibre’s coffin.

Well, why don’t I start with this:

A view of Tawahibre's coffin from above

A view of Tawahibre’s coffin from above

While you may not be sure what you’re looking at here, this looks like progress, doesn’t it? I’ll tell you what you are seeing – the coffin is tied in several places with cotton twill tape, holding small pieces of white Volara foam and blueboard (acid-free, lignin-free corrugated board) in place against the coffin surface.

A detail of the Volara foam and blueboard held in place with cotton twill tape

A detail of the Volara foam and blueboard held in place with cotton twill tape

The purpose of this system, other than looking kind of intriguing, is to place select pressure in areas on the coffin (whenever I say this I always think of the useful book The Gentle Art of Applied Pressure-the title speaks for itself). As I have described previously, the coffin is pretty distorted in areas, due to the fact that many of the individual wood elements have separated and moved apart and that the plaster has separated from the wood substrate. We are trying to realign these pieces as much as possible using humidification with a Preservation Pencil, which allows us to direct a small stream of warm humidified air in select areas, which helps the plaster and wood relax a bit and encourages movement. Once we get an area to move sufficiently, we then apply pressure to the area to hold everything in place.

Here Nina is directing a stream of humidified air with the Preservation Pencil and I am applying pressure with my hands.

Here Nina is directing a stream of humidified air with the Preservation Pencil and I am applying pressure with my hands.

We’re also continuing to consolidate the painted surface and readhere loose pieces of plaster and wood.

We don't usually work in teams, but yesterday we had a little group humidification and consolidation party!

This treatment has been a team effort, and yesterday we had a little group humidification and consolidation party!

While we’re making progress and becoming pretty comfortable with the coffin and the treatment, there are still some scary areas to deal with. This is an area that I’ll be tackling next:

A detail of a badly damaged area on the coffin, showing significant cracking and flaking and detached and displaced fragments

A detail of a badly damaged area on the coffin, showing significant cracking and flaking and detached and displaced fragments

Wish us luck as we continue this work!

A step a- “head”: improving storage for our mummified heads

As I mentioned previously, we have severalĀ mummified heads in the Artifact Lab. Luckily, all of them are stable and do not require much in the way of conservation treatment – instead we have focused on examination, documentation, and some light surface cleaning, and in one case, the removal of an old exhibit armature.

We have a lot of things going on at the moment, so thankfully, I’ve gotten some help with this work. A couple weeks ago we had a group of 5 undergraduate art conservation students from the University of Delaware in the lab – they spent the month of January interning in our department on a project focused on documenting and cleaning a group of Arctic boats in storage.

Ellen Nigro and Rebecca Selig condition reporting a kayak

They wrapped up that project a day early, and so on the last day of their internship, they got to work on something totally different – and several of them elected to help condition report one of the heads.

Rebecca Cruz, Emily Cummins, and David Brickhouse examining a mummified head

After fully documenting the heads and carrying out any necessary treatment, our main goal is to construct new storage mounts for these remains. Our Egyptian storage areas are fairly packed with artifacts, and because of this, many things are stored in a way that makes them hard to access or see without a lot of handling.

An example of artifacts wrapped nicely in acid-free tissue in a drawer – unfortunately, there is a lot of handling required to see these objects

New storage supports will improve access and provide better protection for these remains. Our plan is to make handling trays for the heads, which can then be housed within custom-made boxes.

An example of a handling tray, made using acid-free corrugated board and Volara polyethylene foam

I’m getting some help with this as well – Artifact Lab intern Melissa Miller has been working on the first tray and box.

Melissa working on creating a custom-made box for one of the heads

We will be sure to post photos once we’ve completed them!