Nespekashuti: aesthetic, ethical, and practical considerations

A shot of me working under the coffin.

The last time I wrote about Nespekashuti, I reported that I was working on stabilizing the painted decoration on the underside of his coffin. I did this with Nespekashuti in his coffin up on sawhorses, and by sitting on the floor to do the work. It wasn’t terribly uncomfortable, but it took a bit longer than I expected, and I’m pleased to say that I’m now finished with this part.

So now I have to turn to the step that I’ve really been putting off – the conservation of Nespekashuti himself. In conservation, we are faced with lots of decisions about the treatment of an artifact. Some of these decisions – whether or not to consolidate flaking or powdery paint, or whether or not to join pieces of a broken ceramic – are (usually) kind of no-brainers. The material choices are often not as simple – we regularly consider and test a wide variety of materials when making treatment decisions – but sometimes even choosing the materials to use is pretty straightforward. For instance, we almost exclusively use the same adhesive (Paraloid B-72) to mend ceramics, no matter where in the world they’re from or how old they are.

But sometimes the trickiest decisions are those that are the most subjective – whether or not to fill a loss for aesthetic reasons, how far to go when treating an object, etc. Fortunately, we rarely make these decisions on our own – we engage our curators, exhibitions team, and other specialists in order to determine a reasonable approach that meets the needs of the desired outcome as best as possible. There are a couple decisions I’ve had or have to make in the treatment of Nespekashuti and his coffin that fall into this category, and I thought I’d lay them out here for consideration (even if I’ve already made my decisions, more or less).

  1. Do I remove Nespekashuti from his coffin for treatment? This was a question I had to ask myself from the beginning. When we removed him from exhibit, I immediately knew that there were some major structural issues with both the mummy and his coffin that needed to be addressed as part of the treatment.
    Overall view of Nespekashuti before treatment, showing torn and deteriorated linen wrappings.

    Overall view of Nespekashuti before treatment, showing torn and deteriorated linen wrappings.

    Normally, when working on a mummy in a coffin, we take the mummy out, and work on both pieces separately. But if I have learned nothing else in my last 3 years in the Artifact Lab, I have learned that there is no such thing as “normal” when working on ancient Egyptian mummies. In Nespekashuti’s case, his remains and wrappings are so deteriorated that we can’t simply lift him out of his coffin without causing significant damage. Another option would be to encapsulate everything and flip the whole package over, and then lift the coffin away from the mummy. This is not out of the question, but I got to thinking, is this really necessary? What do we stand to gain by doing this? We can do all of the imaging we want to do (x-radiography, CT-scanning) with him in his coffin, and the coffin is helping to hold him together at the moment. If we did decide to remove him, how much loss is acceptable?  If we took him out, how easy will it be to get him back inside?  It would be way less than ideal if we couldn’t get him back inside the coffin post-treatment, or if doing so caused more damage. So I have made the decision not to remove him for treatment, and to see if it is possible to work on both Nespekashuti and his coffin as they are. But this is not necessarily a final decision – this is a decision that I’m constantly reevaluating as I carry out the treatment.

  2. And then there is the issue of his teeth.
    A detail of Nespekashuti, showing the damage to the wrappings over his mouth, exposing his teeth.

    A detail of Nespekashuti, showing the damage to the wrappings over his mouth, exposing his teeth.

    Do I cover his teeth or not? I consider this not just an aesthetic issue, but also an ethical one. The damage to the wrappings around his mouth is strange. It is not classic “tomb robbery” damage, which is typically seen on wrappings near the neck or chest, but it does appear to be intentional, at least in part. And certainly, his mouth/teeth were never meant to be exposed like this as part of his burial. Many people who visit the Artifact Lab are fascinated by seeing his teeth – I know there was a dentist in here the other day who was excited to see them. But it also seems to me that many people are somewhat distracted by the teeth – it’s hard to appreciate anything else when those teeth are just staring you in the face. I initially wasn’t thinking too much about this damage – it is quite stable, whereas there are many other areas of the wrappings that are terribly fragile and actively falling apart. And I’ve worked on other mummies with exposed body parts and I have not covered them up as part of the treatment. But I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Nespekashuti and it’s got me thinking – what responsibility to we have to him, and to the preservation of his remains, wrappings, and his burial? How do we want him to look when he goes back on display? This is not just my decision to make, but I have decided that it is my responsibility to provide an option – so I am planning to create a removable covering for the mouth, which I will present to our curators post-treatment. I like the idea of covering his mouth, but I will emphasize the fact that this covering will be removable, therefore, reversible. I haven’t made the covering yet, but I will certainly post some images once I do.

I’m curious to hear the opinions of others, so if you have thoughts about these questions and decisions, and any other considerations, please post them in the comment section below.

The right tools for the job

I often think about how a successful treatment depends on having the right tools and materials for the job. Here are some of the things that I have in front of me almost at all times in the Artifact Lab, and I use for many of the treatments I work on:

Tools labeledI’ve labeled them in the image, and I’ll list them below:

1. Silicone-release Mylar. This is Mylar film coated with silicone, which provides a non-stick material that is perfect for certain applications – I’m currently using it as a barrier between a painted surface that I’ve consolidated and the weight I’m applying to hold the area in place. The silicone-release Mylar prevents the area I’ve treated from sticking to the weight.

2. Weights of various sizes (and weights). This one (pictured above) is a favorite because it is so cute and looks like a Hershey’s kiss. It is made by our creative colleagues at Inherent Vice Squad. Check out their website by following this link: Don’t look drab in your lab!

3. Insect pins. These are very fine straight pins, which I often use to hold linen in place when carrying out treatment on mummies. At the moment, they are also coming in handy to unclog my syringe as I work on the treatment of Nespekashuti’s coffin. See this blogpost to read more about how these pins can be used. Okay, and just because I love the Inherent Vice Squad, and because these are called insect pins, I must also tell you that if you’re looking for a way to store your pins, you should check out their rad Museum Pest Voodoo Doll pincushions. I have no good excuse for not picturing one above, but I do have one for my sewing supplies at home.

4. Syringes with specialty tips. The two pictured here have two different types of tips: a narrow metal tip and a flexible plastic tip. The flexible plastic cannulae are especially useful for areas that are sensitive to abrasion or are difficult to access.

5. Fine-tipped brushes for consolidation and inpainting. I do a lot of work on painted surfaces, and often need to apply very small amounts of adhesive along cracks and under paint flakes (see video footage of paint consolidation here). We order our brushes from Blick.

6. Colour Shapers. I had never worked with Colour Shapers until I started working at the Penn Museum. I find these tools, which have a rubber composite tips of varying sizes, shapes, and degrees of firmness, especially useful for paint consolidation.

7. Fine-tipped tweezers. A good pair of fine-tipped stainless steel tweezers/forceps is a staple in a conservator’s toolkit. I was fortunate to get to keep the tweezers I was given to use in graduate school, and I use them daily in the Artifact Lab.

8. Stainless steel micro-spatula. Ditto my comment about fine-tipped tweezers above.

9. Scalpel handle. Ditto.

10. Small, sharp scissors. A third ditto.

11. Bone folder. Bone folders are made of bone (usually cattle) and are often used in conservation for making storage supports, folders, and handling trays – they provide just the right edge for scoring lines and creasing board and paper.

12. Bamboo (or wooden) skewer. We use bamboo skewers for all sorts of things in the lab. Their #1 use is probably for making cotton swabs but we also use them to clean objects, to fashion clamps and apply pressure to objects when carrying out treatment…and a whole host of other things. See this great blogpost on the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology’s blog to read about some examples.

13. Porcupine quill. I had heard about porcupine quills being used in conservation treatments but I had never had the chance to try one until a former Penn Museum intern gave me a porcupine quill as a gift a few years ago. We often have to scrape corrosion and compacted soil off artifacts and sometimes a porcupine quill provides just the right pressure without damaging the surface of an object. And not surprisingly conservators have found other uses too – see this blogpost for one example.

I’ll be interested in hearing if anyone reading this has a favorite tool or material – or supplier! Leave a comment here if you do! Oh, and one last plug for the Inherent Vice Squad: if you’re looking for a nice way to store or carry your tools, check out their really beautiful tool wraps and stand-up tool caddies.

High tech/low tech

We often talk about how we try to take advantage of new technologies whenever possible as part of the conservation examination and treatment of objects. It’s those new technologies that help us continue to learn and do more with objects that we have had for 100+ years. For example, even though x-ray radiography has been around since the late 19th century (see this image of the first radiograph ever captured in 1895) there have been major advances since then, including the development of computed tomography (CT-scanning) and digital radiography, so we frequently re-image objects that were x-rayed in the past to capture even more details (see this blogpost to see the recent radiographs we captured of our mummy Nespekashuti).

There are also many other new technologies that we use on a regular basis (at least in some instances), including our portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer (pXRF), our Mini-Crimescope, our Lynton laser cleaner, just to name a few.

Ron Almagno, a Forensic Instruments Specialist, shows our department some of the features of our Mini-Crimescope.

Ron Almagno, a Forensic Instruments Specialist, shows our department some of the features of our Mini-Crimescope.

But there are just as many, if not more, instances when the low-tech method or solution makes the most sense and gives the best, or just as satisfactory, results. I can provide many examples of this, but the latest low-tech approach that I’m taking in the Artifact Lab is figuring out how to examine and work on Nespekashuti and his coffin base.

I decided to tackle the treatment of Nespekashuti’s coffin before dealing with his remains. After working on all of the areas I could reach while it was sitting on a table, I realized that I needed access to the underside of the coffin. When I’ve worked on the back of other coffins, I first work on the exposed side and then flip the coffin over and work on the back (see a previous blogpost (including video footage!) Flippin’ coffins). The only problem with Nespekashuti and his coffin is that he is still inside, and I’m not ready to take him out yet (or ever…more on what I’m thinking about how to best preserve his remains in a future post). So, the best way to get at the underside was to put the coffin up on sawhorses, padded with Volara polyethylene foam.

Nespekashuti in his coffin up on sawhorses in the Artifact Lab.

Nespekashuti in his coffin up on sawhorses in the Artifact Lab.

This immediately allowed me to see some of the painted decoration on the underside, which I had never seen before:

Detail of the back of Nespekashuti's coffin

Detail of the back of Nespekashuti’s coffin

I’ll work on the areas that are exposed and then I can move the sawhorses around to document and work on the areas that are obscured at the moment.

I’ve started to stabilize the flaking gesso, lifting linen, and paint in the areas I can access, and I’m securing these areas while they dry with plastic wrap, silicone-release Mylar, pieces of Volara foam, archival board, and weights.

Detail of an area being secured with plastic wrap, foam, archival board, and weights.

Detail of an area being secured with plastic wrap, foam, archival board, and weights.

So there is nothing high-tech about what I’m doing with Nespekashuti in the lab at the moment, BUT the treatment will eventually allow us to do more high-tech things with him, like CT-scanning, multispectral imaging…and anything else that we can gain access to that may help us learn more about him.