Unwrapping mummies?

If there is one thing that I try to emphasize to visitors to the Artifact Lab, it is that we are NOT unwrapping or cutting open mummies. While this type of examination may have been appropriate and acceptable in the past (think PUM I) we don’t do this anymore. As you may gather from the title of this blog and our project, we are focusing on the conservation of our mummies, and we do this by aiming to use non-invasive and reversible examination and treatment techniques as much as possible. Our ability to carry out our work with much less interventive procedures than those used in the past is due in part to advances in technology. And when you see what is possible with new technology, you can see why autopsying mummies just doesn’t, errr…cut it.

Take, for example, one of our mummies that was CT-scanned back in 2009.

Hapi-Men on display in the Secrets and Science exhibit

Hapi-Men on display in the Secrets and Science exhibit (Hapi-Puppy is by his feet!)

As part of a larger CT-scanning project funded by the National Science Foundation, Hapi-Men, along with his puppy (Hapi-Puppy) was CT-scanned at the Department of Radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) (a special thanks to Felicia Williams and Erica Durham for this work!).

Although Hapi-Men had been x-rayed in the past, this type of examination is limited in that it does not provide much detail of any of the preserved soft tissue and other materials (like amulets) included in the mummy’s wrappings. But CT-scans can help reveal these details, and they also allow for 3D reconstructions, like the one you can see below, created by Penn graduate Samantha Cox under the supervision of Dr. Janet Monge.

CT-scanning, combined with other imaging techniques such as photogrammetry and laser scanning, leads to some pretty amazing virtual representations of mummies. Most recently, such work has been carried out in a collaborative effort between The Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, a group of Swedish visualization researchers, FARO (a 3D technology company) and Autodesk (a software company focusing on 3D design). This collaboration has resulted not only in the capture of new information for researchers, but the creation of an interactive exhibition for museum visitors, scheduled to open in Stockholm in February 2014. The interactive part of the exhibit, created using Inside Explorer will allow both museum staff and visitors to use simple gestures to virtually unwrap the mummies and to explore their multiple burial components.

You can read more about this exciting project, and see several images and videos of the process by following this link.

Our current work to conserve the mummies and funerary items In the Artifact Lab will stabilize some of these fragile objects enough to allow us to CT-scan them, and hopefully so that we can create some of our very own interactive exhibition features in the future.


The “conservation story” of Nefrina’s Funerary Mask, Part 1: Condition

Now that Nefrina is on display, I thought it might be helpful to discuss the condition of the mask as well as the treatment it underwent in 2011. Just as a bit of background, the mask has been in the Penn Museum’s collection since 1893 and was recently on display at the Reading Public Museum in Reading, PA.  Below you can see the mask before treatment.

nefrina image 1When the mask arrived to the conservation lab in 2011, it was a return visit. In 1993, the mask was stabilized for in-house photography, but this treatment did not address the many structural and surface issues that really needed to be taken care of before the mask could travel to Reading or be displayed.

As was mentioned in the previous posting about Nefrina’s funerary mask, it is made of cartonnage which is a composite material consisting of layers of linen and papyrus impregnated with glue that has been covered with plaster and painted. This type of material is prone to damage because of the differences in properties of the layers: the linen is flexible and the paint and gesso layers are rigid and brittle. As a result, when the mask is moved or stored unsupported the textile will bend causing damage to the gesso and paint layers.

The damage that the mask had sustained is highlighted in these condition maps, prepared during examination prior to the 2011 conservation treatment:

nefrina image 2nefrina image 3As you can see the cracking and loss to the paint is worse on the sides; this is likely because prior to 1993 the mask had no storage mount and probably rested flat on its back with the face pointing up. This position would have allowed the linen to flex and bend on the sides causing the paint to crack and detach from the surface. Areas on the front and back of the mask were also distorted and dented, also likely as a result of lack of proper support.

In addition to these surface issues, the mask also had tears and losses to the linen support. The tears and losses were temporarily stabilized in 1993 with the addition of internal patches made of spun bonded polyester lightly tacked in place with an adhesive. Again, these details are highlighted in the condition map below:

nefrina image 4The goals of the treatment in 2011 were to stabilize and realign the tears, compensate structural losses, and stabilize cracks, which will be discussed in an upcoming post.

– posted by Tessa De Alarcon


New objects in the Artifact Lab

Starting today, there are three new artifacts on view in the exhibit space here in the Artifact Lab. Those of you who have been keeping up with this blog will recognize these pieces, including:

Our falcon mummy:

falcon in caseTanwa, one of our child mummies:

Tanwa in case

and Nefrina’s cartonnage mummy mask:

nefrina in caseAll of these artifacts are displayed with labels explaining their conservation “story”.

In addition, we have a binder available in the exhibit space that includes the conservation treatment reports and images for each of these artifacts. These reports contain detailed descriptions of the materials and the condition of these artifacts, and of the techniques and materials used to conserve them.

Of course, we also have information about these pieces here on our blog, and later this week we will post more information about the process of conserving Nefrina’s mummy mask.


Update from Abydos

A few weeks ago I wrote about Penn Museum Curator Joe Wegner and his team who are currently excavating in Abydos at the mortuary complex of Pharaoh Senwosret III. Recently the team has been battling exceedingly high temperatures and consistent loss of power (so no internet and water) but despite all of this, graduate student Kevin Cahail has been kind enough to continue sending me photos and information about their latest discoveries.

Many visitors to the Artifact Lab ask if mummies are still being discovered in Egypt. The answer is yes, and now I can point to the recent discovery of a mummy just outside of one of the tombs that was recently excavated.

View of the burial chamber from tomb CS.5

View of the burial chamber from tomb CS.5

The shot above was taken after excavation of a tomb (named CS.5) – this is actually the same tomb that contained the curious bricks with the dots in them that I included images of in my last post. Excavation of this tomb revealed that the burial had been long-since removed, but soon after excavation, a skull, and then the rest of a body, was found in the sand nearby. It appears that she(?) was at some point thrown out of her tomb by robbers.

Mummy upon discovery, before excavation (left) and after excavation (right)

Exposed skull found in the sand (left). Removal of the skull revealed the rest of the body, shown here after excavation (right)

Removing and transporting unexpected or unwieldy archaeological finds often requires a bit of resourcefulness. In order to move this mummy into a box for transport back to the dig house, Kevin recovered an old laundry detergent sack, which they then slid under the mummy,


and used as a sling to lift the mummy into a box.

in boxReconstruction of the skull of this mummy is now underway.

In addition to the field work, the team also spends time in the lab, which sometimes includes minor conservation work. This shabti figure was found in two pieces:

shabtiKevin used Acryloid B-72, an acrylic adhesive commonly used in conservation for repairing ceramics (among many other things) to re-adhere the fragments:

Kevin holding the recently repaired shabti figure

Kevin holding the recently repaired shabti figure

As you can see, Joe, Kevin, and the rest of the team have been busy, and they only have about another week left in the field. As I hear more from them during their last days in Abydos, I will follow up with further information.


Elephant and giraffe hair? No problem!

There are many reasons why I love working at the Penn Museum, and this is one of them: just the other day, I was casually talking to some colleagues during a break, and mentioned that I’d love to get my hands on some elephant and giraffe hair to use as a reference to compare to some of the material included in our Predynastic mummy Bruce‘s bundle.

“What’s that you say?” quipped Egyptian Section Curator Dr. Jen Wegner. “Why it just so happens that we have a drawer with some elephant and giraffe hair down in storage!”. After working here for 9 months, this should come as no surprise to me. And what a delight – just the next day I ran down to storage and brought this drawer of goodies up to the lab.

Contents of the drawer, containing bits of elephant and giraffe hide, with the hair intact.

Contents of the drawer, containing bits of elephant and giraffe skins, with the hair intact

In addition to the animal skins, this drawer also contains a small woven basket, made of either elephant or giraffe hair and dating to the early 18th Dynasty, according to it’s catalog card.

Overall view of the small basket made of elephant or giraffe hair

Overall view of the small basket made of elephant or giraffe hair

These materials will be useful to compare to the animal skins and the basket that we have documented in Bruce’s bundle. We will provide updates as we learn more about our Predynastic mummy and the materials he was buried with.


Slowly, but surely

Sometimes when working on a large, complex project, it can be hard to see progress – once certain areas are addressed/stabilized I just start focusing on all of the other problems. In these cases, I find it really helpful to write about the work, to go through the photos I’ve taken so far, and to reflect on how far we’ve come. One of the more complex treatments we’re working on in the Artifact Lab is Tawahibre’s coffin.

The last time you saw Tawahibre on the blog, she was all tied up, Lilliputian-style.

Tawahibre capturedSince that last post, we actually have made quite a bit of progress, and have started realigning and filling areas where the gesso and smaller wood components have cracked and separated from the wood ground below.

One very precarious area has been a large section on the lower proper left side of the coffin – when the coffin came into the lab for treatment, this section was only just barely attached along the top, with the help of two wooden dowels as well. In addition to being just about ready to detach, this section was also very distorted and misaligned, with areas of the painted surface overlapping and abrading each other.

tawahibre PL detail BT with arrows

Before treatment detail of this large partially detached section. It was just barely attached along the top (indicated by red arrows) and by 2 wooden dowels (circled in green).

Here is a view of this section, before treatment, from above (the red arrows are just pointing out the area that I’m talking about, for clarity).

tawahibre PL detail overhead BT with arrowsAfter working to humidify and realign this area as much as possible, I prepared it for filling and stabilizing by lining the wood support below and the inside surface of the detached section as possible with Japanese tissue paper, adhered with methyl cellulose adhesive. The Japanese tissue paper will serve to make these fills more easily reversible in the future.

Tawahibre PL detail DT with arrows

Preparing this section for stabilization and filling. The red arrows are indicating the Japanese tissue paper used to line the inner surfaces of the coffin before filling.

To secure this section to the rest of the coffin, I applied a fill mixture between the large partially detached section and the wood support below. The fill mixture was made using 5% methyl cellulose adhesive in 1:1 water/ethanol bulked with a 1:1 ratio of alpha cellulose and 3M glass microballoons. The alpha cellulose and microballoons were chosen to create a lightweight, relatively dry, and easily moldable fill – they also make this mixture a bright white color. After applying the fill material, this section was again bound with the twill tape and ethafoam blocks to hold everything together while the fill dried.

Detail of this section after filling. Note-no straps are needed to hold it in place!!!

Detail of this section after filling.

And here is a detail showing this section from above – I think it makes a nice comparison with the before treatment shot from a similar angle, above.

Tawahibre PL detail above DT2So far this has been a successful course of treatment and we have filled several areas on the coffin. Our current goal is to get the lid stabilized enough so that we can separate it from the base, so that we can continue to work on both sections with better access to some of the very unstable, fragile areas.

Special thanks to my conservation colleagues for their help with brainstorming, problem-solving, and carrying out this treatment!