Wilfred/a’s many mysteries

Last week, we moved our mummy Wilfred/a from the Artifact Lab down to our new digital x-ray lab to capture some x-ray images and hopefully get to the bottom of the male/female debate.

Wilfreda after treatment

Wilfred/a after treatment

Above is an overall after treatment image of Wilfred/a. The goal of the treatment was to get this mummy out of the original packing materials, to assess and document the remains, and to house them in a way that they can safely be moved to our x-ray room for imaging, and then returned to storage. If plans are made to exhibit Wilfred/a in the future, further treatment can be carried out at that point, but for now, this mummy is stabilized and will be much more accessible for research.

We were excited to x-ray Wilfred/a’s remains, but while we are used to x-raying ceramics, wooden artifacts, metals, and other types of cultural materials, x-raying human remains is not something that any of us in the conservation department specialize in, so we brought in some experts to help us with this task: Dr. Janet Monge, Keeper and Curator-in-Charge of the Museum’s Physical Anthropology Section, and Dr. Morrie Kricun, Emeritus Professor of Radiology, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, it was Dr. Monge and Dr. Kricun’s initial examination of Wilfred/a’s remains and some old 1932 x-ray radiographs that made us think that this mummy may be female, rather than male.

With the assistance of Dr. Monge and Dr. Kricun, Conservator Tessa de Alarcon and I captured a complete sets of x-ray images of Wilfred/a. And the really cool thing about having a digital system is that we can capture the images in seconds, and see the results immediately. While full interpretation of the images is underway, I will share a couple of the findings that are quite interesting.

First, let’s clear up the debate and start addressing this mummy by the appropriate pronoun. This mummy is female, and therefore we’ll call her Wilfreda from now on (or until someone proposes a new, more appropriate name). Determining that Wilfreda is female was possible by a thorough examination of her pelvis. There are a few other possibly very cool findings related to the fact that she’s female, but I’m going to wait on the full interpretation before sharing any other details about this on the blog.

Secondly, we knew that Wilfreda’s head was missing, but what we didn’t realize was this:

wilfredanofeet

X-ray radiograph of Wilfreda’s lower legs and (missing) feet. Exposure: 65kv 5ma 6 seconds

Her feet are missing! From the outside, it is obvious that the wrappings around the feet were disturbed at some point, but it wasn’t possible to see until these x-rays were taken that the feet are totally gone. In this next image, which we captured to better see the linen wrappings, you can clearly see where the feet would have been:

45kV 5ma 6 seconds

Exposure: 45kv 5ma 6 seconds

The weird thing about this is that her feet were there when the 1932 x-rays were taken:

wilfredaoldxrays

2 different x-ray images captured in 1932, clearly showing the feet of the mummy.

Where have her feet gone? We don’t know. This is now a new mystery.

Just in case any of you are following this blog very closely, and are wondering if the feet could have been lost somewhere inside the old crate (pictured below), the answer is no, but some other things of interest did turn up in there.

wilfredascrate

Buried in the old padding of the crate, we found the following:

Wilfredasbox

  • a Keuffel & Esser Co. 1903 Catalog of drawing materials and surveying instruments
  • 4 tickets that say: “Only for School Children – Not Transferable. Barakat’s Lecture, on BIBLE LANDS, illustrated by ancient curiosities used 1800 years ago, and costumes worn 4000 years ago. ADMIT ____ who will Bring this and Five cents.” (I’ve neglected to write about him on the blog but Wilfreda was originally in the possession of Professor Elias Barakat, who, for about a decade, traveled around the US lecturing about the ancient world, with Wilfreda as one of his “curiosities.” His wife donated Wilfreda to the museum in 1911.)
  • Rubber stamps, for printing announcements, etc., one of them with Barakat’s name
  • small wooden dowels
  • a piece of cartonnage
  • fragments of wood, textile, paper, plant materials, seeds.

Leave it to Wilfreda to keep a few surprises from us. We’ll post more about the x-ray interpretations once we know more, and continue to try to put the pieces of these mysteries together.

As us anything! (on our Reddit AMA)

We open our windows in the lab twice daily, inviting our visitors to ask us anything, so why not open our windows just a bit wider, inviting anyone on the Internet to fire questions at us? We are doing just that, tomorrow, from 11:00-12:30 EST on reddit.com. I must confess that other than perusing Reddit a few times last fall while I, along with much of the rest of the world, listened to the first season of Serial, I have no experience using Reddit. According to it’s Wikipedia page, Reddit is an “entertainment, social networking, and news website” and content entries are organized by areas of interest called “subreddits.” One of the most popular subreddits is IAmA (“I am A”) where a user may post “AMAs” (Ask Me Anything).

So tomorrow, Wednesday March 11, from 11:00-12:30, Lynn Grant and I will be online for our very own AMA with the title “We are museum conservators working with ancient Egyptian artifacts in full public view, at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Ask us anything!

Tom Stanley, our intrepid Public Relations/Social Media Coordinator, set the AMA up, and posted instructions on how to find us on Reddit tomorrow if you’d like to follow along or ask us a question. You can find the blogpost with instructions by following this link.

Looking forward to hearing from you tomorrow!

In celebration of International Women’s Day

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. I have been thinking about how to recognize this occasion, and the fact that March is Women’s History Month, In the Artifact Lab. First, I would be remiss not to note the Egyptian women represented here on exhibit, including Tawahibre (via her painted wooden coffin lid), Nefrina (by her painted cartonnage mask), Tanwa (a 5-year old mummified girl), and 2 unknown Roman-period women – one whose head is on exhibit, and another represented by her painted plaster funerary mask.

From left to right: Tawahibre, Nefrina, Tanwa, unknown woman's head, unknown woman's funerary mask

From left to right: Tawahibre, Nefrina, Tanwa, unknown woman’s head, unknown woman’s funerary mask

But there are some other very important women that you’ll see In the Artifact Lab as well – including the other 4 conservators in our department, Head Conservator Lynn Grant, Julie Lawson, Nina Owczarek, and Tessa de Alarcon, Research Associate Dr. Marie-Claude Boileau, and many post-graduate fellows, graduate and pre-program interns, and volunteers. Sometimes you’ll see women outside of our department working with us, such as Egyptian Section Associate Curator Jen Wegner and Assistant Keeper Jean Walker, and Dr. Janet Monge, Curator and Keeper of the Physical Anthropology Section, and we also collaborate with many women both within and outside the museum. To highlight just some of these terrific colleagues, check out the slideshow below:

 

I would have liked to include a few other women in this slideshow who we work with regularly, but unfortunately I don’t have photos of them working in the lab – notably Dr. Gretchen Hall and Dr. Naomi Miller. And then there are the women who work in other departments in the museum – I was going to make a list, but then I realized that we collaborate with all of the departments in important ways.

We are also very grateful for the women who have come before us at the museum, and I hope/plan to write another post later this month focusing on one person in particular who helped pave the way for the women not only in our museum, but in our field.

Happy International Women’s Day!

A closer look at one of our feathered friends

We have an ibis mummy in the lab, which is revealing itself to us in an unusual way.

Unlike most animal mummies in our collection, we can actually see the ibis’ remains – in this case, its feathers! It is unfortunate that the linen wrappings were damaged in the past, but this damage does provide a unique look under the bandages.

ibiswithfeathers

Ibis mummy, 97-121-19, from Thebes, Late Period (ca. 664-332 BCE).

While x-ray radiography revealed that there is indeed an ibis inside (the beak is a dead giveaway), the feathers provide further clues about this bird that was mummified approximately 2500 years ago.

Radiograph taken from the top down. Exposure information: 35kV, 5mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.

Radiograph taken from the top down. Exposure information: 35kV, 5mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.

When researching ibis mummies, I read again and again about the African Sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) being mummified, but there were other types of ibis in Egypt, including the Glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and the Northern Bald ibis (Geronticus eremita). I don’t know if evidence has been found that these other types of ibis were mummified, but I do know that I shouldn’t immediately assume that this particular ibis mummy contains the remains of an African Sacred ibis.

So, let’s look at the feathers, and what we can learn from them. The feathers that are exposed appear to be contour feathers that may be part of one of the wings. There are a few completely detached feather fragments in this area, so I was able to take a closer look at one small fragment under the microscope.

ibisfeatherlabeled

Left: ibis feather 7.5X magnification. Right: ibis feather 50X magnification.

The most obvious feature to note, even without a microscope, is the coloration. This feather is white and black. The African Sacred ibis has a very beautiful, distinctive, black and white plumage, so in this case the color alone may be enough to identify species.

If we can’t rely on color, what else can we learn from this feather fragment? Well, we can see that it is part of a pennaceous (rather than plumulaceous, or downy) feather, the parts of which I’ve labeled in the above images. To take an even closer look at these elements, I used our polarizing light microscope and was able to see the tiny hooklets on the barbules, which “zip” the barbules, and therefore the barbs, together.

Ibis feather 100X magnification.

Ibis feather 100X magnification.

The barbules of feathers can be used for identification of species, but usually barbules from plumulaceous feathers are used, as they have a very different and distinct appearance. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to any plumulaceous feathers from this ibis mummy, so this may be as far as I can go at the moment. There are other researchers, both within the field of Egyptology, but mostly in ornithology, who have spent much more time looking at ibis feather structure than I have, and of course there is DNA research, so we may learn more in the future about this ibis mummy and its feathers.

I have a special place in my heart for birds and feathers, since before coming to the Penn Museum, I worked on an extensive project on feather coloration as part of a collaborative research effort between UCLA and the Getty Conservation Institute. Click on the links below to find out more about this work:

A Collaborative Study of California Featherwork

California Featherwork: Considerations for Examination and Preservation

And to learn more about feather structure, start by following this link: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds: Feather Structure