Mystery solved!

Hello again. Melissa the intern here! One of the things I love about working in the Artifact Lab is that every day is like a new Sherlock Holmes novel! For my latest project I have been investigating and treating a 4 x 4 ½ inch piece of paper associated with PUM I’s remains. This paper was believed to be a train ticket – according to museum documents the research group who autopsied PUM I in 1972 found “a 100 year old railway ticket stuffed into a hole in the chest (someone must have felt that the mummy needed a ticket for its trip to the United States in the 19th century).”

When we brought PUM I and his remains up to the Artifact Lab for conservation treatment, this piece of paper was found in a plastic bag along with some of his ribs.

The “train ticket” in a bag with PUM I’s ribs

By the time I got to examine the paper, it was extremely folded and bent, which made reading the text very difficult.

The piece of paper after removing it from the plastic bag

It was clear, however, that half the text was written in French and the other half was written in Arabic. In order to make the smaller print more legible, I relaxed and reduced the creases in the paper by humidifying it, using Mylar polyester film, damp blotter paper, and Gortex, a material made of expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) that allows water to pass through as a vapor. By humidifying the paper, the creases and folds began to relax, and with the help of gravity and some weights I was able to flatten the paper into its original shape.

Paper after humidifying and relaxing

After completing the humidification treatment, it became much easier to read the smaller print. Unfortunately I have very limited experience with reading French and even less with Arabic. But thanks to Google translate I was able to not only translate the text, but determine that both the French and Arabic portions of the paper say the same thing. The text reads something like this:

April 15 Wednesday

Sunrise       in           5 h. 29 m.     Time

Sunset     Cairo       6 h. 21 m.      Average

Add 5 h. 39 m. hours the average time for the Arab hours

17 Moharrem 1321          7 Barmouda 1619

Everything seemed to make sense, but the words Moharrem and Barmouda did not have English translations. Since these proper nouns were associated with numbers, such as 1321 and 1619, I assumed they had something to do with dates. As it turns out Moharrem refers to the first month of the Muslim calendar and Barmouda, otherwise known as Parmouti, refers to the 8th month of the Coptic calendar, which lies between April 9th and May 8th. The first question that popped into my head was “why would both these dates be on the same paper?” Upon converting the Muslim date into a Coptic date, I realized that they were actually the same day! Knowing this, it seemed reasonable to assume that 17 Moharrem and 7 Barmouda is also the same as April 15th in the Gregorian calendar. The question now was what year these dates converted to in the Gregorian calendar, since this isn’t written on the paper. According to, a calendar conversion site, 1321 in the Muslim Calendar and 1619 on the Coptic calendar equals to 1903 on the Gregorian calendar-so the date on this page is April 15, 1903. Fittingly, this is the year before PUM I was displayed at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904!

Ultimately, this translation does not seem like something you would find on a train ticket. In fact, all the evidence seems to imply that this paper was more like a page in a calendar. So either PUM I was shipped from Cairo with both a calendar page and a train ticket, which we have not yet located, or the 1972 autopsy group misidentified the paper. Either way it has been a very exciting project!

Flaky, crumbly, and fragile: approaching the treatment of our painted coffin

Overall shot of our painted coffin, before treatment

Okay, you have heard a lot about PUM I lately, but there are other things going on in the Artifact Lab as well! Awhile ago, I wrote about the painted coffin of Tawahibre we have in the lab, that is in poor condition and is requiring significant conservation treatment.

This has been an ongoing project in the lab, as visitors may have noticed. I am not the only one working on this – treatment of this painted coffin has turned into a group project, and conservators Lynn Grant, Julia Lawson, and Nina Owczarek are also working on the coffin during their time in the lab, usually on Sundays.

Before I write a little bit about what we’ve been doing, I wanted to mention the fact that I’m referring to this object as a coffin, and not a sarcophagus. I have heard others – both museum staff and visitors – use both words when referring to it, and I have caught myself doing it too, and I thought this could be a little confusing. I am going to stick with the word coffin, because coffin typically refers to the container closest to the body, while a sarcophagus (which I read derives from the Greek for “flesh-eater”, apparently from a Hellenic belief that some stone used for body-containers actually consumed its contents!) refers to the outer case. Sarcophagi are also essentially rectangular, while coffins can be rectangular or anthropoid (meaning human-shaped) – our coffin is anthropoid.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, I’ll start telling you what conservation treatment has been carried out on our coffin so far. I wrote in my previous post that after full documentation, we removed accumulated dust from the surface with a HEPA-filtered vacuum and a soft brush. Then, after some test-cleaning, we continued to clean the coffin using cosmetic sponges. While I was originally finding success cleaning the surface with Groomstick, it ended up being too sticky for fragile areas, and the cosmetics sponges work just as well, and especially in very small, delicate areas.

A section of the coffin before (left) and after (right) cleaning with a vacuum/brushes and cosmetic sponges

This initial cleaning has made a huge difference. There are a lot of areas on the coffin, however, that cannot be cleaned until they are stabilized. There are many areas where the paint, along with some of the gesso ground, is cupped and lifting, or completely displaced.The exposed gesso ground in these areas is very fragile and crumbly.

An area on the coffin where the paint is cupped and lifting away from the surface, revealing the gesso ground below.

In other areas, the paint and ground have completely separated from the wood substrate.

A large piece of paint and gesso that has separated from the wood below.

After a lot of testing, we have started stabilizing, or consolidating, the flaking and displaced paint and gesso with a very dilute adhesive solution. We are also re-adhering loose and detached pieces of gesso and wood. In my next post, I will describe the testing involved in choosing adhesives, the treatment methodology that we’ve developed, and some of the complexities we’re facing in treating this fragile object.


More about those beads

Hello fellow readers! My name is Melissa Miller and I am pleased to say I recently began interning in the Artifact Lab here at the Penn Museum. I am currently a junior at the University of Delaware studying art conservation and anthropology. Needless to say when I heard about the In the Artifact Lab project, I jumped at the opportunity to help out in any way I could. Who wouldn’t love the opportunity to work with 4,000 year old human remains and funerary objects?

Melissa working at the binocular microscope, as viewed from outside of the lab

So far I have spent my first two weeks here doing everything from making support cushions for PUM I’s chest wrappings to making impressions of scarab beetle amulets. Currently, I am examining the beads Molly and the other conservators found in PUM I’s coffin and remains. There are two kinds; tubular and circular. Molly also pointed out to me several areas on the leg and face wrappings of PUM I where there are distinctive impressions of beads in a diamond shaped pattern. This has led us to believe that PUM I had a beaded shroud! Beaded shrouds became popular in the 25th dynasty and continued until the Roman period, and both men and women have been found with these decorations.

Being buried with a beaded shroud would have been very expensive due to cost of materials and labor, and imitations were sometimes made by painting the diamond pattern on the mummy or with a net of knotted string. It is evident, however, that PUM I had a real beaded shroud, which indicates that he was probably wealthy in his lifetime. This surprised me because PUM I is in pretty poor condition and his coffin (which admittedly may not be his original burial case) has little to no decoration.

Three tubular beads recovered from the bottom of PUM I’s coffin

The beads themselves, especially the tubular beads, are encrusted with some mysterious substances and soil particulates. On some of the larger tubular beads, there is a white crystalline substance on the exterior – likely salt. Were it not for small sections on the tubular beads without this encrustation it would be difficult to see the material underneath. The material below is glassy and dark blue in color. This leads me to think that they are made of Egyptian faience, which is defined as a glazed, non-clay ceramic. To me that means that faience is a sort of cross between ceramic and glass technology. The smaller beads also appear to be faience, but in different colors, including this red bead:

As seen in the image above, some of the beads also have a granular, slightly waxy, light-dark brown substance on their surfaces-this mysterious substance is also present in some areas on the surface of PUM I’s wrappings. It can be removed rather easily from the beads, especially with the help of some mineral spirits, and as you can see it tends to come off in substantial chunks.

There are at least a few possible scenarios that would explain its presence.

1) It could have been a part of the technology of the time to adhere the beads to the mummy. In fact, there is 1 circular bead adhered/stuck to the surface of PUM I’s wrappings, which we found after some initial cleaning! However, it seems to be stuck on in kind of a strange location, and we are finding that it was more common to sew or tie these beaded shrouds in place.

A red circular bead stuck to the linen on the side of PUM I’s chest

2)  It could be the remains of a wax or other adhesive method that was known to be used by Petrie, and likely other archaeologists, to fix the beads in place during excavation and recovery. As was usually the case, their original thread had long since disintegrated, so this method would allow the beads to be removed from the mummy in one piece, without losing their organization. To compare, we examined some beads in storage that are stuck together with wax-they were most likely acquired this way.

Beads stuck together with wax – note the dark, shiny appearance of the wax, quite different from what we’re seeing on PUM I’s beads.

3) The substance may be related to a material intentionally applied to the mummy at the time of mummification.

4) The substance accumulated sometime after burial.

As of right now I am not sure what this substance is and what purpose it may have served, but Molly and I will be investigating the beads and this mystery further. I will keep you updated as we learn more!


More pieces of PUM I

We are continuing to work on our mummy PUM I (more interesting details on him here) and last week, our new intern, Melissa Miller, and I removed a plastic bag that had been placed in his chest cavity, presumably after his autopsy in 1972.

The plastic bag inside PUM I’s chest, before removal

In this plastic bag, we are finding large pieces of linen from his inner and outer wrappings-some of these pieces also bear impressions of the beaded shroud that once lay over his body.

The plastic bag after removal, filled with textile fragments

It is evident that these pieces of fabric were cut away (and some probably fell off) and removed during the autopsy, and they were placed in this bag and then inside the chest to fill this area out a bit after the procedure.

In this process, we also decided to remove the upper portion of the wrappings over PUM I’s chest – they were completely cut off during the autopsy and then replaced, to make him look whole again. Once we determined we could safely lift them away from the rest of the body, we decided to go for it!

The detached wrappings from PUM I’s chest area, after removal

Removing this large segment of wrappings will allow us to better examine their condition, and also to examine the condition of the textile wrappings on the other side of the body, which are now partially visible. There are lots of other interesting, and unexpected things that we’re finding, and other great shots to share – we will continue to provide updates!


Making scarab amulet impressions – part 2

As I described in my previous post, I have had some company in the lab lately (and I don’t mean the mummies – I’m sorry, but I don’t consider them to be company, exactly!) – several of our conservation interns have spent some time up here making impressions of scarab amulets from our collection.

What is conservation intern Cassia Balogh listening to on her ipod? I’d like to think that it’s a special playlist for this job, perhaps including Queen’s “Under Pressure” (p.s. Cassia’s not the one under pressure here).

The purpose of making these impressions is so that our curators can use them as “dummy” artifacts for teaching students how to read the inscriptions, as they would in the field. Again, see my previous post for more info on that.

Why have conservation interns work on this project? Well, it’s a job that requires someone to examine an artifact, assess its condition, and then prepare and handle it without risk to the artifact-all skills that are important in conservation!

We have hundreds of these amulets in our collection, many of them with inscriptions on one, and sometimes both, sides. To make impressions of these inscriptions, we’ve chosen to use Sculpey, a polymer clay that, once shaped to form, is then baked in the oven to harden. Sculpey works well because it is soft enough to form quickly around artifacts in good condition, so requires very minimal contact time, it’s easy to work with and widely available, and it doesn’t require very high temperatures nor very much time in the oven to set. Furthermore, it doesn’t shrink much upon setting, which is important since we’re capturing fine details in the amulets.

To start, Sculpey of the desired color is chosen (with input from our curators, we chose “Hazelnut” since it looks a lot like mud). A chunk is removed from the package and by rolling it between our hands, it is warmed and softened slightly, and then rolled out to the desired thickness using a rolling pin (a pasta machine works well too!).

Before taking an impression, the amulet is first examined, often under the binocular microscope. It is important to examine each one – first, to inspect the inscription for signs of dirt or other concreted products which would prevent a good impression from being taken, and most importantly, to ensure that the amulet is in good enough condition to be pressed into the Sculpey. Amulets with cracks or flaking surfaces may need to be stabilized prior to taking an impression, or they may be deemed too fragile altogether. If there is dirt built up in areas on the amulet, it should be removed before taking the impression.

After examining the amulet, the surface is coated by brush with a thin layer of talc-the talc acts as a separator, and will prevent the amulet from sticking to the Sculpey.

Cassia brushing talc onto the surface of the amulet

The talc-coated amulet is then pressed gently and evenly into the Sculpey and then removed.

Pressing the amulet with even pressure into the Sculpey

The Sculpey can be cut around the impression to the desired shape, and the talc can be brushed off the impression, and the amulet, with a soft brush. Any excess talc on the surface of the amulet can be removed by swabbing gently with ethanol.

One of the amulets next to its Sculpey impression. Note the excess talc on the impression, which can be brushed off with a soft brush.

Once a batch of impressions are made, they are placed in a glass pan and popped in the oven according to the Sculpey baking instructions. After they’re set, they are done, and ready for use in the classroom!

As I said, we are grateful to our conservation interns for helping us with this project. Earlier this week, our very first Artifact Lab-dedicated conservation intern started working with us, and I have a feeling that you’ll be hearing more about, and from, her in the upcoming weeks.


Making scarab amulet impressions – part 1

Our Conservation Department is fortunate to have several interns and technicians, and two of them have spent some time in the Artifact Lab lately, working on a project to make impressions of scarab amulets for the Egyptian Section.

Conservation intern Naomi Shohami working on making the amulet impressions

We have hundreds of these amulets in our collection-here is an image of one, and a link to it’s record in our online Collections Database.

Bottom (left) and top (right) views of one of the scarab amulets in our collection. This one is inscribed with a cartouche of Men-kheper-re (Tuthmosis III).

Amulets have been used throughout Egyptian history and were made in a variety of shapes, materials, and colors. The amulets that we’re working on in the Artifact Lab right now (as pictured above) are scarab amulets, and many are made of glazed steatite, a relatively soft stone. Although the first scarab amulets appeared as early as the Sixth Dynasty, they became more popular during the Middle Kingdom-this is also the period that the heart scarab, the “classic mummy amulet” was introduced. (For more information on amulets and other topics related to mummies and ancient Egyptian funerary practices, check out Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson’s book, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity).

Many scarab amulets are made to represent the scarab beetle (Scarabaeus sacer), a species of dung beetle which collect dung into balls and then roll them to a desired location, often to lay their eggs in them. The ancient Egyptians associated scarabs and the dung ball rolling with the new-born sun-god Khepri, who rolled the sun across the sky each morning.

Amulets were often used for funerary purposes – they were placed among the wrappings of the deceased person during the mummification process, with the belief that the amulets would provide protection for the person in the Afterlife. Amulets were also given as gifts and were used administratively.

Of particular interest to archaeologists and Egyptologists is that many of these amulets bear inscriptions – sometimes a spell, a decorative symbol, and sometimes the names and titles of officials. And it’s not just the amulets that they’re interested in-when used administratively, the amulets were used to seal boxes, letters, etc. in clay or mud. Archaeologists often find these seals – which look like little lumps of mud – in the field, with traces of their impressions. In fact, two of our Curators are currently in Egypt, excavating in South Abydos, and they have recovered thousands of mud seals. In the field, they are doing “micro-epigraphy” on these mud lumps to record any of the designs or glyphs found.

Here is an example of what one looks like:

One of the mud seals found during excavations in South Abydos. In this case, all that is visible is a spiral border decoration. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Wegner

In the Artifact Lab, we are making impressions of the amulets from our collection so that our curators can use the impressions to teach students how to “read” the mud seals before they encounter the real thing in the field. My next post will describe how we make these impressions, and how we do this without causing any damage to the amulets themselves.