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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.