Respecting human remains: edits to past blog posts

In early 2020, we (the Conservation Department) began working on a human remains policy for our department. Our intention was to formalize some of the unwritten rules we have been following and to establish clear guidance for our work and interaction with human remains in the Penn Museum’s collection. Working on and implementing this policy, and regularly revisiting it, will help us to care more sensitively and ethically for these remains with respect for the individual people and also with respect for others who may come into contact with them.

One of the first things we decided is that we would no longer share images of human remains on the internet in any location. Anyone who has followed our blog since it was established in 2012 will know that this is a departure from our previous practices, which included writing posts and sharing images about our work on the ancient Egyptian mummified human individuals in the Artifact Lab. So in addition to no longer sharing such images, we are working on editing our blog and removing, cropping, or blurring images that include human remains. This is not an effort to erase our past practices, but rather an acknowledgement that our feelings on this issue have changed and we no longer support sharing these images publicly.

Another practice we established that affects the blog is that we no longer use the term “mummy” and instead use “mummified human individuals” to refer to Ancient Egyptian people whose bodies were preserved for the afterlife. We have always referred to these individuals by name if known, and we continue this practice. In our experience working in public view and speaking to visitors about our work, we have found that the word “mummy” results in objectifying these people, causes confusion, and creates an unintended emotional distance from them as human beings.

We have many images of human remains on this blog and we have used the term “mummy” countless times to refer to mummified human individuals. We are in the process of making changes to the language and photographs on the blog, while attempting to retain the content as much as possible. We are archiving all original posts for our internal records. During this time we may hide some posts from public view so that we can properly edit them. We appreciate your patience as we carry out this work and we welcome questions and comments. Finally, while most of the content we are editing relates to ancient Egyptian human remains, as that was an early focus of the Artifact Lab, we intend to apply our policies to all human remains, regardless of culture, origin, or time period.

We are grateful to our colleagues who organized and participated in the discussion panel Your Mummies, Their Ancestors? Caring for and About Ancient Egyptian Human Remains on August 18, 2020, which covered this topic extensively and helped shape our discussions as we developed our policy. This panel was co-organized by objects conservator Charlotte Parent, who recently published an article in the April – May 2021 issue of News in Conservation and offers thoughtful perspectives for conservators and museum professionals who work with the remains of ancient Egyptian individuals.

An update on Kaipure’s funerary chapel

By Jessica Betz Abel and Julia Commander

Greeting everyone – there’s a lot to update on from our Conservation Lab Annex (CLA) but for this post, we’re going to focus on the recent progress of Kaipure’s Funerary Chapel. It has been a while since we posted about Kaipure, in fact the last time we posted was almost exactly three years ago. As a quick reminder, two of the walls (the south and east) from the chapel were most recently on display in the Lower Egyptian Galleries, but they were disassembled and deinstalled in 2015 as a precautionary measure due to nearby construction. This also allowed us to proceed with much needed treatment of the flaking limestone and paint as well as designing a new support system in anticipation the entire chapel being reassembled in the new Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries. The complete chapel has not been on display in over 25 years!

Here at CLA we are working on building one of the smaller walls as a proof of concept for our engineering team. The south wall is the smallest section and so that is where we decided to start. But before we could begin, we had to locate all the blocks and bring them down from the rafters. 

Julia Commander using the forklift to retrieve blocks from the south wall of Kaipure.

With all the blocks needed for the south wall, we started by erecting the bottom course of stones. Once those were in place and shored up with temporary wood and foam pegs, we laid the first stretcher course on top.

The first two courses of the Kaipure chapel south wall.

In antiquity stones would have been assembled using a mortar, however, using a mortar in an indoor gallery setting is not necessary or practical. Mortars require quite a bit of water for application and that could potentially mobilize any lingering salts in the limestone which could compromise the structural integrity of the stone. Mortar is also much less reversible than many of our other options, not to mention the mess it would create during installation. Instead, we have been investigating interfaces of various materials that would replace the need for mortar or adhesive at all. For Kaipure, we have narrowed down our options to Silicone Rubber and Sorbothane. Both materials have good viscoelastic properties, reduce point loading, distributing the weight of the stones, and providing a grippy material between each course to lock the stones together.

Comparing the working properties of Sorbothane vs. Silicone Rubber.

In addition to the interfaces, we are currently working with our project engineers to design an armature on which each wall can be assembled. The armature will provide the stability and support that many of the individual stones need. In order to not cause any further damage to the stone, we are opting to use the existing holes which were drilled into the backs and sides of the stones during a previous installation. Though we are still very much in the early stages of design we are excited by the prospect of seeing the entire chapel reunited in a few short years!

An Ivory Figure from Hierakonpolis

By Tessa de Alarcon

The figure you see here, E4893, is an ivory statuette from the site of Hierakonpolis that I am working on as part of an IMLS grant funded project. I have just started the treatment, but thought I would give a brief run through of the initial examination since this is a good example of when and why we use X-radiography in our department to evaluate the condition of objects before treatment.

Before Treatment photograph of E4893

You may have noticed that the middle of this object is fill, so not part of the object. The fill has some cracks and splits that suggests it is unstable and should be removed. There is no written documentation for when this fill was done or by who, but it’s possible that this was done shortly after it was excavated. The object was accessioned in 1898. Given that the conservation lab at the Penn Museum was not founded until 1966 that leaves a big gap for the possibilities for when this treatment might have been done.

Annotated before treatment photograph of E4893 indicating the large fill at the waist of the figure.

Based on previous experience, I often worry with these old fills that there are unseen things, like metal pins or dowels, lurking below the surface. X-radiography is a great way to check for these types of hidden previous treatment issues. Though in this case, what I found when I X-rayed the object was not your typical pin or dowel.

Before treatment photograph of E4893 (left) and an X-ray radiograph of the object (right). The X-ray was captured at 60kV, and 6mA for 6 seconds. There are four nails visible in the fill.

Here in the X-ray you can see what I found: while this fill did not have any pins or dowels, whoever had done this treatment had decided to reinforce it by putting nails (4 in total) into the fill material. While this makes the figure look like he has eaten a bunch of nails, it is in some ways better news than a pin would be. Pins usually go into the original material, and if they are iron, can rust and expand causing damage to the object. Pin removal can also be risky and lead to damage of the object especially if the pin is deeply imbedded or corroded into place. These nails, on the other hand, appear to be only in the fill and do not look like they go into the original material of the object at all. This suggests that removal of the fill and the nails should be possible without damaging the object. As this treatment progresses, I will follow up with additional posts and updates.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services

IMLS? What’s that?

by Lynn Grant, Head Conservator

If you don’t work in the Museum or Library field, you may never heard the initials, ‘IMLS’. But to many in those fields, it’s a lifeline and important source of support and information. In 2019, the latest year with information, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded $223.5 million through grantmaking, research and policy development, to advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations. The Penn Museum has received support from the IMLS on many occasions.

Coffin lid of Djed-Hapi (E3413A)

In 2015/16, the Museum moved its Egyptian Collections off-site in order to protect it from vibrations associated with the construction of a large building right beside us. This gave us the opportunity to carry out an inventory and examine the objects in storage to determine which needed conservation. But it’s a huge project; we had originally believed the collection was 42,000 artifacts; it turned out to be more like 50,000. In order to fund such a massive undertaking, we break it down into manageable chunks. In 2019, the IMLS awarded the Museum $250,000 to fund the conservation of a group of Egyptian and Nubian coffins and related funerary goods. This enabled us to have two project conservators dedicated to this group of artifacts, as well hiring two conservation technicians to photograph items for the public database. Despite the pandemic, we’ve been working away at this since October 2019 and will complete the work by the end of September. Over the next few months, the project conservators will be sharing some of their work with you. Enjoy!

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

Image

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