First step for the heads

Last week I introduced you to two wooden statue heads that I’m working on and promised to share the step by step process of their conservation.

laura blog 2 image3

A first step in understanding these objects is gathering information about their past. As we said in the previous post, they are from Dendera and were discovered in 1898. The other questions were: Who discovered them? How and when did they arrive in Philadelphia? And more…

To address these questions, the best place to begin is the Museum Archives. I first checked Clarence Fisher’s field notebooks, since we know that he excavated in Dendera for the museum from 1915-1918, continuing the work begun by Charles Rosher and Flinders Petrie. An afternoon looking at (all!) of his notebooks revealed no leads. The other possibility was to refer to Petrie’s own field records; and here I found reference to the heads, or more precisely the “statuettes”, noted in his field notebook.

This page notes the “2 statuettes” at the foot of the coffin.
From Petrie Notebook n.15, p.30, courtesy and copyright of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

That mystery solved, we moved onto the next one. Included in the storage drawer with the wooden heads, we found a note indicating “2 wooden statuettes nearly consumed by white ants”.

laura blog 2 image2After a little more digging, I found that this was a quote from Petrie’s publication about Dendera, on p.10, paragraph 2…and the rest is still meaningless to us! In this publication Petrie indicates that the heads came from a secondary burial, belonging to a woman, under Adu II’s own funerary chamber.

Moreover, it unveiled a new clue: Petrie wrote that he discovered “statuettes” and not only their heads. That could imply the fact that they were still complete statues at the time of the excavation. It is possible that they were in such a poor condition that the archaeologist left the bodies and only took the heads. We definitely do not have any more parts of these statues in our collection – after checking, no “spare bodies” are registered in the Egyptian storerooms of the Penn Museum.

All of this may seem to be only details but it is essential information for a conservator: the fact that W.M.F. Petrie discovered the heads is highly interesting, because he most likely treated them in the field. He published a book where he explains his practical way of applying a “first-aid” treatment to damaged artifacts (Methods and aims in Archaeology, 1904) which may provide critical information for us! Indeed, knowing this will allow the conservator to be aware of what kind of material was added to the original object and how to deal with it.

My investigation into these old treatment materials will be the topic of a post to come!


About two wooden Egyptian heads…

“You have a wonderful job!” It’s a sentence that a conservator often hears. But what is really this incredible job? I propose to you to have a closer look at what a conservator usually does by following step by step the conservation of two artifacts recently arrived in the Artifact Lab.

Laura blogpost1Not really the glamorous objects you imagine when you think about Ancient Egypt, right? But they can reveal so many things to us.

Let’s begin with all what we knew when they arrived in the Lab: these artifacts are two Egyptian wooden statue heads. They bear remains of polychromy (blue and red painting) and have inlaid eyes. In their storage drawer were three labels: one quoting a publication about Dendera (the place where they were excavated) describing the heads, and two others mentioning a previous treatment in 1965 with an adhesive called Vinylite.  Other information about these objects came from our curators, who knew that the heads are from the site of Dendera, more precisely the mastaba of Adu II, excavated by Flinders Petrie, a famous British archaeologist. Moreover, the heads are from the Sixth dynasty (2374-2140 BCE). That’s all we knew about those two heads before beginning our work !

Let’s have a closer look at them…

Left: one of the wooden heads viewed in profile Right: a front view of the other wooden head

Left: one of the wooden heads viewed in profile.  Right: a front view of the other wooden head.

A long quest is ahead and we’re only starting to think about an appropriate conservation treatment. Indeed, before any scalpel reaches their surface, we need to gather as much information as possible about the artifacts. Stay tuned to hear more about our discoveries and the decisions that we make based on what we learn.


A new face in the lab

Update – this post contains blurred images of human remains and 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 these changes, follow this link.

Last week I introduced you to our baby boy mummy, and this week I have another introduction to make. But unlike most of the Artifact Lab occupants, our newest addition is very much alive! Laura Galicier is a graduate student studying conservation at the University of Paris Pantheon-Sorbonne, and she recently arrived in Philadelphia to start a 7-month internship In the Artifact Lab.


Laura examining a wooden statue head under the binocular microscope

A couple of the things that you may wonder are, did she know that this internship would involve being on display all of the time, and, as a conservator-in-training, how does she feel about having to answer so many questions about Egypt? Well, the answer to the first question is that she was very well-aware of the open nature of the lab because she found out about us through this blog, and had seen photos of the lab and read about our daily interactions with the public. So she can’t say that she didn’t know what she was getting herself into!

Furthermore, Laura is more knowledgeable than most conservators about Egypt, because before starting her conservation studies, she completed a Master’s in Archaeology with a specialization in Egyptology. She has also worked in Egypt, at the Karnak Temple Complex.

While she is here at the Penn Museum Laura will be working on several projects in the lab, one which will be the subject of her dissertation. I’m not going to say anything else about it here – I will let Laura tell you all about her work in an upcoming blogpost. In the meantime, I hope your curiosity is piqued by these images (above, at the microscope, and below) of her examining a pair of wooden statue heads. Expect to hear more about them from Laura here on the blog, and if you visit the lab, you may have a chance to chat with her about her projects.


Laura positioning a wooden statue head under the portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer (pXRF)