Confidentially, not so much

Hi everyone. Lynn Grant, Head Conservator here. Last fall, with a certain amount of hoopla, we started a series called ‘Conservation Confidential‘ which was a once-weekly version of the Digital Daily Dig. Well, it was fun but it was a lot more work than we’d expected and we’re already operating at reduced capacity thanks to the need for distancing. Also, we got very few questions. So, in this new year, we’ll be doing the Conservation Confidential on the last Friday of each month (Final Friday). In the meantime, we’ll try to be more proactive about blog posts and will seek other ways to connect with our virtual and on-site visitors (The Museum reopens this Friday) As always, if you want to chat with the conservators, use the Ask Us link in this blog.

A Puzzle without all the Pieces: Treating Papyri

By Jessica Byler

The condition survey of our papyri collection is complete – I counted almost 4,300 fragments of papyrus and vellum, more than we realized were there! The papyrus ranged in size from a few millimeters to 9 feet long. Now, I have moved on to treating a few of the papyri that will be on display in the new Egyptian galleries.

Many of the papyri are sandwiched between pieces of Mylar. Static from Mylar can lift off friable ink or even split the two layers of the papyrus fibers and damage the papyrus. In order to safely remove the papyrus, I use a MinION 2 Ionizing Blower to eliminate the static charge. After removing the papyrus from the Mylar, I can then remove old repairs, realign fragments and fibers that are out of place, and apply new tissue paper bridges. Using a light box can help me identify joins and keep fragments in alignment. Papyrus fibers have different thicknesses, widths, and orientations, so transmitted light from a light box reveals the unique fiber pattern.

Left: Removing papyrus (49-11-1) from a Mylar enclosure using an ionizing blower
Right: Using a light box to realign fragments

Let’s look at one papyrus I am currently treating: a Temple robbery papyrus (49-11-1), dated to the 20th Dynasty or 11th century BCE. Along with removing old materials that might harm or obscure the papyrus, a key reason I am treating this particular document is to make sure the joins are right. It is fragmentary and there have been several treatment campaigns to repair it using a variety of materials, including Scotch tape, Japanese tissue, and Document Repair Tape.

Temple robbery papyrus (49-11-1), before treatment

I removed the old repairs where possible and reassessed the location of the fragments. At some point, several of the fragments have become misaligned or detached. In several instances, the fragments were just slightly out of line and could easily be nudged back into place. However, I quickly noticed some issues with a long fragment on the far left (on the right in the photo of the back below), and a small rectangular fragment at the bottom.

Left: detail of the back of the right section before treatment
Right: Section under transmitted light from a light box, with red arrows pointing to the two fragments in the wrong spot

On the long fragment, there are ink marks either side of the join which do not meet up. If the fragment was in the correct location, you would expect the writing to extend over the break. On the smaller fragment, the color, curvature, and thickness were different than the surrounding fragments. Using transmitted light, it is clear the fibers of these fragments do not actually line up correctly. Although at first glance they might not look out of place, they clearly do not belong there.

Left: Detail of front, with red arrows pointing to ink which does not meet up
Right: Detail under transmitted light, with red arrows showing that the fibers do not line up

The long fragment has two lines of writing at the top, so the number of locations it could join was limited. The small fragment at the bottom did not have any writing on it, so it was harder to determine its orientation and position. To add to this complicated puzzle, these pieces also might not join to any of the extant fragments.

Left: Detail of back during treatment, with the two fragments, indicated with red arrows, properly aligned
Right: Detail of back during treatment, with red arrows pointing the two fragments, and blue arrows pointing to some of the new bridges; areas of white residue from the old materials is also visible

Thankfully, their proper locations were easy to find using a light box. As you can see in the detail photos above, the fibers of the papyrus were a perfect match. The tissue paper bridges I used were around the size of a grain of rice and are clearly visible but blend in nicely with the papyrus. The Temple robbery papyrus is now ready for display!

Temple robbery papyrus (49-11-1), after treatment

This project is funded by the Antiquities Endowment Fund (AEF).  The AEF is supported by an endowment established with funds from the United Stated Agency for International Development (USAID).

Conservation Confidential: Scaling Up

Check out today’s Conservation Confidential, Scaling Up: Treating Monumental Architecture with Julia Commander, Alice and Herbert Sachs Egyptian Collections Conservator. Get to know the museum’s Conservation Lab Annex and the big things going on there.

You can also catch up with other posts in this series here.

Conservation Confidential: Tools galore!

Today’s Conservation Confidential, Tools of Every Trade: Conservation Ingenuity with conservator Lynn Grant can be viewed at vimeo.com/483259426. You can also catch up with others in this series by looking in the Conservation Confidential section at https://www.penn.museum/events/adult-programs/the-daily-dig. Many of today’s stories and images were drawn from our 8 years of Artifact Lab blogging. If you want to know more, here are links to the relevant posts:

  • Molly’s tools:  https://www.penn.museum/sites/artifactlab/2015/08/17/the-right-tools-for-the-job/
  • Gel Cleaning: https://www.penn.museum/sites/artifactlab/2017/12/08/coming-clean/
  • Restringing: https://www.penn.museum/sites/artifactlab/2018/05/16/beaded-necklaces-restringing-to-secure-the-past/
  • Kitchenwares: https://www.penn.museum/sites/artifactlab/2017/04/11/cleaning-questions-and-cross-sections/
  • https://www.penn.museum/sites/artifactlab/2017/12/08/coming-clean/
  • https://www.penn.museum/sites/artifactlab/2013/01/10/making-scarab-amulet-impressions-part-2/

Cuneiform Conservation Conundrum

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One of the earliest known forms of writing is cuneiform, a wedge-shaped script developed by the Sumerians, around 5000 years ago. It is preserved on stone carvings and clay tablets. The survival of the clay tablets is amazing, given that most were of unbaked clay – essentially mud. Today’s Conservation Confidential (1 pm EST on Penn Museum’s Facebook page) will feature conservator Tessa de Alarcon discussing the preservation of these earliest written records.

Palm trees and Sharks’ Teeth, oh my!

In today’s Conservation Confidential, Project Conservator Debra Breslin will discuss her work on some amazing objects. How do you wage war when your only raw materials are palm trees and fish? What’s Robert Louis Stevenson got to do with it? To find out, tune into Penn Museum on Facebook at 1 pm EST or check it out asynchronously (as we like to say these days) at the Conservation Confidential section here

Conservation Confidential: Sphinx Gallery tales

Join Schwartz Project Conservator, Molly Gleeson, as she brings you up to date on what’s been happening in our Lower Egyptian Gallery for the last two years. Lots! Almost all of it pretty monumental. Molly will be available to answer questions via the Penn Museum Facebook page between 1 and 2 pm EDT on Friday, November 6.

Conservation Confidential: Moving Monuments

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This month, the Museum is celebrating CultureFest so our next Conservation Confidential relates to some of the work done in renovating our Mexico and Central America Gallery. Project Conservator Alexis North will describe the eventful journey of some of the Maya stelae from the jungles of Belize to their current locations, with a few adventures along the way.

Conservation Confidential will go live at 1:00 pm EDT this Friday on the Penn Museum Facebook page. Tune in to watch and ask questions live from 1 – 2 pm. Can’t make the live version? No problem, you can see the archived version here, under the heading Conservation Confidential, and post any questions or comments on our blog.

Conservation Confidential launches!

Penn Museum’s Daily Digs have been a popular offering since their beginning in the fall of 2018. They gave Museum faculty, staff, students, and volunteers chance to rhapsodize about some of their favorite objects or subjects. The in-gallery, in-person versions had to give way to virtual versions when the Museum closed this spring and have continued as the Digital Daily Digs, every day at 1 pm on the Museum’s Facebook page. While conservators have often participated both in the gallery versions and in the digital format, on October 16, we’re starting something new.

Each Friday, a member of the Conservation team will ‘take over’ the Digital Daily Dig with something we’re calling ‘Conservation Confidential’ – a short intimate look at a conservation topic. In honor of International Archaeology Day, Julia Commander will lead off the series talking about her work at the Museum’s site of Gordion, in Turkey.

The inaugural Conservation Confidential was posted at 1:00 pm EDT this Friday on the Penn Museum Facebook page. This post was supposed to go up that morning but somehow the scheduling function didn’t work (This is Lynn Grant, Head Conservator, writing this and apparently I failed that part of WordPress). Please watch this great presentation, post any questions or comments on our blog and look out for a new Conservation Confidential this coming Friday.