Opening Tawahibre’s coffin

I don’t think many people will argue with me about this – a day at work (heck, a day in my life!) can’t really get more exciting than opening a 2500+ year old Egyptian coffin. For the last several months, we have been carrying out treatment to stabilize the loose wood, crumbling gesso, and flaking and powdery paint on the lid of Tawahibre’s coffin. While there is still a lot of aesthetic work to carry out, we finally got the lid to a point where we deemed it stable enough to remove it from it’s base.

Removing the lid from an incredibly fragile 2500+ year old coffin doesn't happen without a lot of planning and discussions ahead of time.

Removing the lid from an incredibly fragile 2500+ year old coffin doesn’t happen without a lot of planning and discussions ahead of time.

Okay, okay, so, the coffin has been opened before, and we knew that there wasn’t a mummy inside anymore (she’s down in storage), but opening the coffin was monumental nonetheless, as the lid hadn’t been removed in decades and we didn’t really know what we would find inside.

Fortunately, we were able to lift and move it without any problems:

DSC_0765DSC_0771DSC_0776(they really make it look like a breeze, don’t they?)

And now the lid is safely resting on a new palette, and the interior of the coffin is revealed to us for the first time:

Tawahibre lid and base separated

Yup, just another day in the Artifact Lab. We’ll fill you in later about what we’re learning and what’s going to happen next.



The 2013 Mummy Congress in Rio de Janeiro

Update – this post contains outdated language. 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. To read more about this decision, follow this link

Today we are featuring another guest-blogger: our pre-program conservation intern Melissa Miller. Melissa just returned from a pretty special mummy-related trip – read on to hear more about it!

From August 6-9th, I had the opportunity to travel to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and attend the World Congress on Mummy Studies.

IMG_2766This biannual conference brings together experts from all over the world to discuss recent and ongoing mummy research projects.

Mummy studies draw in a surprising variety of disciplines. There were experts in physical and cultural anthropology, conservation, paleopathology, paleoparasitology, dentistry, medicine, radiology and more. I listened to presentations on ancient DNA techniques, publishing e-books, parasites in coprolites, archaeological excavations in the Valley of the Kings, genetic analysis of the Iceman, and the list could go on. For 4 days I received a crash course on numerous mummy research projects from all over the world that have been going on for the last 15 years. Thankfully the Congress was videotaped and I will be able to revisit some talks or view some that I was unable to attend due to conflicts with other presentations.

melissa mummy congressWhile there, I was also able to present a poster on my ongoing research into the history and development of autopsied mummies, and the preservation of generated materials. For me this was perhaps the most valuable part of my experience at the Mummy Congress. Simply meeting all of these incredible and passionate people and listening to their advice, hearing their encouragement and seeing their willingness to help me continue my research was invaluable. Some have also granted me permission to interview them!

Looking towards the future, I plan to continue my research throughout the academic year and develop my senior thesis. Perhaps by the time the 9th World Congress rolls around I will be able to present my finished project!  Lastly, I would like to say that I am very grateful to all those at the University of Delaware and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology who made it possible for me to attend the Mummy Congress, and to all those at the Mummy Congress who offered their great advice and support.

Losing it and faking it: investigations into our animal mummies

Hello! I’m Anna O’Neill, a summer intern working in the Conservation Department at the Penn Museum. I’m currently studying to get my MSc in Conservation Practice from Cardiff University in Wales. This summer, I’ve been helping Molly in the Artifact Lab a few days a week and she asked me to write a little bit about one of my projects.

The Egyptians often made votive animal mummies—small, mass-produced animal mummies that pilgrims could offer to the gods. Cats were especially popular as they represented Bastet, the cat-headed goddess of protection, fertility and motherhood. The Penn Museum has several cat mummies in their collection. A few are below:

cat mummiesWe recently started working on E16205, a cat mummy from Abydos (seen below in the image on the left). It was excavated in 1901-02 through the Egypt Exploration Fund through financial support of the Penn Museum, and dates to ca. 381-343 BCE. The linen wrappings are in bad shape—loose, torn and powdery—but that is the least of its problems. After a light cleaning, it became clear that something was missing.

overhead and vertebraAs you can see in the image on the upper right, the linen is damaged and there is a bone exposed at one end of the cat mummy. Zooarchaeologist and Penn professor Dr. Kate Moore confirmed that it’s a cervical vertebra visible at the narrower end of the wrappings.

Dr. Kate Moore examines the exposed cat mummy bone

Dr. Kate Moore examines the exposed cat mummy bone

Animal mummies occasionally lose their heads, as the neck is the weakest point of attachment to the body. Back in March, Molly wrote about our falcon mummy’s floppy head.

In the hope that maybe the head had simply been misplaced, we sent an email to Egyptian Section curator Jen Wegner. A few hours later, Jen turned up in the Artifact lab, smiling and toting a small, tissue-wrapped package. Inside was this little beauty:

Cat head 3quarterIt is evident that this head does not match our cat mummy’s body. The colors and weaves of the linen are different, and the head has carefully articulated features while the body is rather haphazardly wrapped. But the main difference is that there doesn’t appear to be any cat parts within the sculpted wrappings! Inside, the mask contains bundles of linen and resin, but no bones that we could see. A quick look at the records for the head showed that it was X-radiographed in the 1980s and contains “no bony skull”. It is a fake—but an ancient one!

Cat head above below

Additional views of the cat mummy head from above (left) and below (right)

Faking mummies, particularly animal mummies, was not uncommon in ancient Egypt. The materials to make a mummy, like myrrh and natron, were costly. Instead of embalming, the expense could go towards elaborate wrapping and detailing. Once the linen was in place, a religious pilgrim wouldn’t know whether or not there was an actual mummy inside. Several other Penn Museum animal mummies were X-radiographed along with the false head, and it turned out that the middle cat mummy in the image at the very top of this post doesn’t contain any skeletal matter, either. A clue is in the shape of its body—it is wide at the top and narrow at the feet, upside-down in comparison to the real cats.

So, were the mummy-makers pulling the, ahem, linen, over devotees’ eyes?  It is unclear whether the pilgrims knew that the votive mummies they offered to the gods were impostors, and nor do we know if it mattered. The qualities represented by the animal sacrificed may have been more important than its physical body. This way, a fake mummy representing the “idea” of a cat was an equally valid gift as the mummy of a real cat.

We’re disappointed that we can’t reunite our cat mummy body with its head, but Molly and I are going to work to stabilize the wrappings so that it can be CT-scanned and studied. In the meantime, it’s been interesting to see which of the Penn Museum’s votive mummies are real and which are (ancient) fakes.


The “conservation story” of Nefrina’s Funerary Mask, Part 3: Stabilization of the Exterior

This is the final installment of the conservation treatment of Nefrina’s Funerary mask.  The condition and stabilization of the interior have been discussed in previous posts.  In this post, I will be talking about building the storage and display mount as well as stabilizing the exterior of the mask.

1.  New mount construction:  Once the interior structural issues were addressed, I made a new mount for the object. I carved Ethafoam, an inert polyethylene foam, to create a support for the top of the head, and used epoxy putty (the black material in the images below) to create a form-fitting rigid support. The clear plastic in the image below is cling film, which I used to keep the epoxy from bonding to the mask while it cured.

The mount is in three separate detachable parts. Part 1 supports the top of the head and the face, part 2 supports the front and back panels of the mask, and part 3 is a stand to hold parts 1 and 2 during travel and storage. Parts 1 and 2 of the mount are supporting the mask at this moment while it is on display (along with a pole mount that has taken the place of part 3).

Left: During treatment photo showing the construction of the top portion of the mount. Right: The completed mount.

Left: During treatment photo showing the construction of the top portion of the mount. Right: The completed mount.

2.  Facing removal: Once I completed the mount and put it in place, I flipped the mask over again and started to remove the temporary facing of Japanese tissue. I removed the facing in sections and stabilized the exposed areas before moving on to a new area. I did this by brushing an area of facing with acetone, which solubilized the adhesive that had been used to place the facing, and then gently pulling the Japanese tissue back.

Facing removal

Carefully removing the Japanese tissue facing

3.  Re-shaping before tear repair: Some of the tears did not go through all of the linen layers, and so could not be treated from the interior. These tears had to be realigned and repaired from the front. As with the inside, I often had to humidify and re-shape an area before carrying out the repair. The images below show the tear in the forehead of the mask during reshaping. I used Teflon tape to bring the edges of the tear together.

During reshaping of the tear in the forehead

During reshaping of the tear in the forehead

4.  Tear repair: I repaired the tears using paper pulp combined with methyl cellulose and powdered pigments. Before applying the wet pulp, I lined part of the areas with a thin sheet of dried paper pulp mixture to achieve an even fill.

Left: lining the area with dried paper pulp and methyl cellulose. Right: After filling tear repair with additional paper pulp mixed with methyl cellulose.

Left: Lining the area with dried paper pulp and methyl cellulose. Right: After filling with additional paper pulp/methyl cellulose mixture.

5.  Edging: Many areas of the paint were adjacent to areas of loss and were cracked and cupped. I stabilized these areas by edging the paint with paper pulp combined with methyl cellulose and powdered pigments.

Side of the mask after edging the areas of unstable paint

Details of the side of the mask after edging the areas of unstable paint

6.  Loss Compensation: Large areas of loss on the edges of the mask also had to be filled for the mask to be structurally stable. I filled the areas of loss by applying pigmented paper pulp mixed with methyl cellulose across the areas of loss using a backing support of silicone-coated Mylar. The coating on the Mylar allows it to be removed once the paper pulp mixture had dried.

Left: During loss compensation.  The square rare earth magnet at the bottom of the image was being used to keep the Mylar in tight with the shape of the mask. Right: After the fill was done and had dried.

Left: Detail during loss compensation. The square rare earth magnet at the bottom of the image was used to align the Mylar along the contours of the mask. Right: After the fill was complete and had dried.

7.  In-painting: Although I had pre-toned the fill material, the fills still needed just a bit of in-painting to adjust the color so that it would blend in better with the mask.

Left: Tear on the head after treatment. Right: Area of loss on the side of the mask after treatment.

Left: Tear on the head after treatment. Right: Area of loss on the side of the mask after treatment.

All of this work allowed Nefrina’s Funerary mask to travel for exhibition in the Reading Public Museum, and to be exhibited here at the museum, In the Artifact Lab – visit us to take a closer look at the mask for yourself, and to see several other objects that have recently been conserved.

– posted by Tessa de Alarcon


Field trip!

Sometimes getting started on a conservation treatment requires getting out of the lab for a bit, so this week, my colleague Julie Lawson and I took a field trip down to Baltimore to visit the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum and chat mummy treatments with their Curator/Conservator, Sanchita Balachandran. Sanchita and I connected at the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) annual meeting back in June – I had read about a treatment that she carried out on a human mummy at the museum, and when we realized that we both had animal mummies in our labs as well, we decided we’d get together for a brainstorming session to discuss treatment approaches, materials, and storage options for these fragile objects.

Julie Lawson admires artifacts in one of the cases in the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum

Julie Lawson admires artifacts in one of the cases in the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum

The Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum is nestled in the center of the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus in Baltimore, in a beautifully-renovated building, surrounded by classrooms and light-filled student study spaces. The museum was established in 1882 and since its founding, has been dedicated to inspiring and teaching students at the university.

One of the main features of the museum is the display of archaeological objects from ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Near East, and the ancient Americas, displayed in glass case walls, allowing students, faculty, and visitors to view these pieces and peer into the museum itself.

museum2_compThe museum also displays pieces on loan, including an ancient Egyptian mummy from Goucher College.

Goucher mummyThis was the mummy that I had read about and was curious to learn more about from Sanchita. The Goucher mummy is an adult female mummy from the Ptolemaic Period (305-30 BCE), and I knew some details of the treatment from Sanchita’s article in the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation (JAIC), but this was a great opportunity for me to see this mummy up-close and to ask Sanchita more about how she approached this treatment and the specific materials and techniques she used. Since we are in the middle of working on the treatment of our mummy PUM I here in the Artifact Lab, this conversation was very timely.

Detail of the Stabiltex encapsulating the feet of the Goucher mummy

Detail of the Stabiltex encapsulating the feet of the Goucher mummy

The Goucher mummy has a fascinating history that I won’t get into here, but you can learn more about her in the “Object Stories” section of the museum’s website by following this link. One of the things I was curious to discuss more with Sanchita was her use of Stabiltex, a sheer polyester fabric, to protect fragile areas of the mummy’s wrappings, and the design and construction of the support the mummy is currently resting on in the exhibit. As I said, we’re working on encapsulating PUM I’s outer linen wrappings in a similar way, but using a different type of sheer netting fabric. After discussing techniques with Sanchita and seeing how successful her treatment of the Goucher mummy was, I returned to the Artifact Lab feeling good about our approach to PUM I’s treatment!

Sanchita also pulled out several animal mummies that she is currently working on, including these cuties:

Cat (above) and dog (below) mummies

Cat (above) and dog (below) mummies

We discussed the challenges of dealing with such fragile linen wrappings and our experiences with and use of different adhesives, as well as techniques for encapsulating fragile areas. Sanchita also showed us their handling and storage mounts, which go a long way in protecting these artifacts.

Sanchita lifts an ibis mummy from its storage box using a handling tray

Sanchita lifts an ibis mummy from its storage box using a handling tray

After discussing mummies at length, Sanchita took us back into their storage area, where we had the opportunity to see additional Egyptian artifacts, including several painted wood artifacts with a variety of condition problems. As readers to this blog may know, we have our own fair share of challenging painted wooden artifacts, including Tawahibre’s coffin, so I was eager to see how Sanchita was approaching the treatment of these pieces as well.

Sanchita and Julie in storage

Sanchita and Julie in storage

All in all, it was a fun and productive day! These types of professional exchanges are incredibly valuable, and I’m not only inspired to tackle some treatments and try new things back in the lab, but to make more time in the future to visit other colleagues and collections. A huge thanks to Sanchita for hosting us and for sharing so much about her work at Johns Hopkins.