Traces of a beaded shroud

Holiday lethargy? Blustery, wintery weather? No matter-it’s business as usual this week in the Artifact Lab. I really enjoy my job, so I don’t feel like I need any extra motivation to come to work, but it helps that this week I’m working on a pretty interesting recent discovery-something that we found following the removal of PUM I from his coffin last week (see our earlier blogposts on this).

Action shot of our conservation team lifting PUM I from his coffin

PUM I is an unidentified individual, who, until last week, was lying in his rectangular wooden coffin. He had been removed before, for autopsy in 1971/72 (the details are a bit sparse), and his body has been significantly disturbed, cut into, and many of his internal remains are now removed from his body. Needless to say, he doesn’t look his best, and I assumed that any associated burial items were long gone by now. Our hope is that CT-scanning will reveal anything that may have been included or left behind in his wrappings that wasn’t disturbed through this previous work.

So we were pretty surprised when, after lifting his body from the coffin, we found a small bead on the bottom of the coffin, and then another, and now we have recovered 21 small beads. Some of these beads are tubular and others are circular, all with a hole through the center.

20 of the beads found in PUM I’s coffin (shot taken before the 21st bead was found)

Having the mummy out of the coffin also allowed us to examine the wrappings much more closely-it is now evident that there stains and impressions on the wrappings that show a diamond-shaped pattern:

The diamond-shaped pattern visible on the surface of the linen wrappings

This diamond-shaped pattern is a typical design for many beaded shrouds-we have a portion of a beaded shroud here on exhibit in the museum which has this pattern. You can see a photo of this object, along with more information, on our online collections database.

Finally, we returned to look at some old x-rays (from 1932) that we recently had scanned from the museum archives, which showed that the beads were indeed once lying on the wrappings.

1932 X-ray of PUM I. The beads appear on the film, indicated here with red circles.

Looks like the beads that we just found were part of a beaded shroud that once covered PUM I’s wrappings. THIS IS VERY EXCITING!

We will continue to examine these beads to determine what they are made of-they are definitely made of a glassy substance-probably faience. We are also carefully documenting the impressions on the linen wrappings so that we can try to reconstruct what the beaded shroud may have looked like. We will provide updates as we learn more.


And…he’s out!

PUM I is out of his coffin, and all in one piece (well, the part that we lifted from the coffin is still in one piece-as you know, parts of his body, including his head, were separated decades ago during his autopsy).

PUM I after removal from his coffin

We were able to remove him successfully thanks to great teamwork by our conservation staff (we had 8 people, including myself, helping with the lift) and the assistance of this nifty vacuum mattress:

Our EMS IMMOBILE-VAC mattress resting on the floor, prior to inflating

The EMS Immobile-Vac is a lightweight mattress that is used in the medical field to immobilize patients. Once a person is lifted onto the mattress, it is shaped into the configuration required and made rigid using vacuum suction. This was our first time using our Immobile-Vac, so before using it to support PUM I, we tested it on a human subject it to see if it would provide gentle yet rigid support for our mummy. Lynn Grant kindly offered to be the guinea pig, and reported that she barely felt anything as we pulled the vacuum and the mattress was shaped around her (I wish I had a photo of this step-I think one can be located, and if so, I will definitely be sharing it).

Happy with the performance of the Immobile-Vac, we moved on to the main task-getting PUM I out of his coffin. PUM I was lifted out by first supporting him within the coffin from below with pieces of coroplast to provide some rigidity, followed by large pieces of soft Tyvek, which acted as a stretcher. Using the Tyvek, he was lifted directly onto the Immobile-Vac mattress, which we had left pre-shaped – turns out, Lynn’s body provided just the right contour for our mummy, and no further re-shaping of the mattress was required at this point.

The Immobile-Vac shaped to provide support for PUM I

Now that he’s out, we are able to examine him much more closely, and we are already making interesting observations and discoveries. More on that soon.


Picking up the pieces of PUM I

I’ve mentioned before that we have several mummies in the Artifact Lab, but only one complete adult mummy, that we call PUM I (read more about him here).

PUM I, our adult male mummy in the Artifact Lab

I’m using the word “complete” here a little loosely, or perhaps very loosely, because while we appear to have most of his remains, and on first glance PUM I appears to be more or less all in one piece, we recently found out that he is pretty fragmentary. Many of his internal remains are currently housed in plastic bags

Bags containing the desiccated remains of PUM I

and we recently realized that his head is completely detached from the rest of his body.

Why is PUM I so fragmentary? Well, his poor condition is due in part to the fact that he was autopsied back in 1971.┬áPUM I’s autopsy was conducted at the university by a group of distinguished researchers who it seems were not yet very experienced in the study of ancient human remains. Unfortunately, one of their first forays into this work (PUM I’s autopsy) was reported as being an “unmitigated disaster”. They noted that the body was poorly preserved, without personal data or provenance, and their findings in the end, were minimal. And we have yet to locate any substantial records produced by the researchers during this study, so we don’t know exactly what they did-we only see the result of their work. Fortunately for other mummies, these researchers learned a lot from this experience and went on to conduct other much more successful autopsies.

But what about PUM I? After the autopsy, PUM I was laid back into his wood coffin, where he has remained ever since; his remains and linen wrappings continuing to deteriorate. In the Artifact Lab, we have made it our goal to remove PUM I from his coffin so that we can fully understand his condition, thoroughly document his remains, and stabilize them as much as possible. Within the next couple days, PUM I will be out of his coffin-we’ll report on our progress later this week!



Have you checked out our FAQs page? We hear lots of interesting questions in the Artifact Lab every day, and we’re posting some of the more frequently asked ones on there, and providing answers when possible.

We recently added more information about natron to our FAQs-What is natron and what was it used for? Natron is a natural mineral consisting of a mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate with sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, and sodium sulfate-essentially, a salt. Natron was an important part of the mummification process. It was used by embalmers to pack the body, which would help preserve the body by drying it out.

We are interested in observing the presence of natron on objects in the Artifact Lab. One of our mummies, for instance, has a very fine, white, crystalline substance in areas on its wrappings, particularly on the inside of the wrappings. Here is what it looks like:

An example of the white crystalline substance observed on the surface of the textile wrappings on one of our mummies.

And this is what it looks like under the binocular microscope:

That same crystalline substance magnified 7.5X

We also see this on some of the human remains in the lab. Is this natron? We’re hoping to investigate this further.

Read more about natron in the FAQs section of this site.

Polarized Light Microscopy

Our Conservation Department recently purchased a Zeiss polarized light microscope-“the best microscope on campus” according to the specialist who set it up for us, and who is knowledgeable about the other scopes in use at Penn. Having the nicest equipment around isn’t familiar territory for conservation labs, so we’re enjoying having this status, but more importantly, having such a nice piece of equipment to use.

Our new microscope installed in the Artifact Lab

Polarized light microscopy (PLM) is used for examination of specimens in many types of laboratories, including biology and geology labs. In conservation, we use PLM for identification of minute fragments from objects-anything from pigment particles to wood fragments to textile fibers. We also use this technique to examine corrosion products, salts, and other materials found on artifacts-all of this work helps us better understand what the objects are made of, their condition, and ultimately provides important information for making conservation treatment decisions.

For example, our Conservation Fellow Tessa de Alarcon, who is conducting a year-long condition survey of Penn Museum artifacts from Kourion, Cyprus, has been using PLM to examine salts present in ceramic vessels from this collection. Tessa is desalinating the ceramics to remove the salts, which likely accumulated in the ceramics in the burial environment and will cause damage if not removed. To confirm which salts are present, she removed samples of the salts and examined them under the microscope. Here is an image of one of the salt samples, which shows that there are 2 different types of salts present-nitrates and sulfates.

Magnified image of 2 types of salts present on a ceramic vessel from Kourion (400X magnification).

You can read more about Tessa’s work with the Kourion collection (and view a cool video clip!) here on the Penn Museum blog.

In the Artifact Lab, one of the first ways that I’ve used our new microscope is to examine fibers from a thread that detached from the fabric wrappings of the falcon mummy I described in a previous blogpost. Fortunately for me (but unfortunately for the poor falcon mummy!) there are lots of detached threads that were available to sample for examination under the microscope. Here is a magnified image of one of these threads:

A small detached thread from the falcon mummy’s wrappings (40X magnification). I noted that the thread has an “S” twist and the fibers are shiny.

Using our binocular microscope, I put a drop of water on the thread and teased out several individual fibers from the thread on a glass slide, and then covered the fibers with a cover slip.

This image shows all of the tiny fibers from the larger thread-it is important to examine these fibers individually in order to identify what type of textile the falcon mummy is wrapped in (40X magnification).

Once the slide was prepared, I mounted it on the polarized light microscope and examined it at 50, 100 and 200X magnification.

Fiber from falcon mummy textile wrappings (200X magnification)

Under such powerful magnification, it is possible to see features such as a very small lumen (central cavity) and nodes along the length of the fiber. These features are characteristic of flax fibers, and comparing my sample with known references, it was immediately clear that this is what it is. Flax is used to make linen, and since the majority of ancient Egyptian textiles are linen, I already had a good idea that this is what was used to make the falcon mummy-but this proves it!

You can see from this work that PLM is a very useful technique, but it also is important to have an idea about what the possibilities are for what your sample-background research and close examination before microscopy is essential.



Happy Anniversary, Penn Museum!

Conservator Julia Lawson speaks to visitors through one of the Artifact Lab’s open windows

Yesterday was the Penn Museum’s 125th Anniversary! To celebrate the event, the museum held a free Open House, and the galleries were open from 10am to 10pm. In the Artifact Lab, we kept our 2 windows open all day, and conservators Julia Lawson and Nina Owczarek were busy all day speaking with visitors and answering questions. If you made it in yesterday, thanks for coming out to support the museum! If you didn’t, remember that we have open window periods every day that the museum is open, which are:

Tuesday-Friday 11:15am and 2:00pm and Saturday-Sunday 1:00pm and 3:30pm

Looking forward to seeing you in the Artifact Lab!