Coolness vs. cuteness

We have been carrying out our work in front of the public here in the Artifact Lab for nearly 4 years now. Despite the fact that visitors can peer in from various points around the room and watch us working for as long as they have the patience for it, it’s not always clear what we are doing, especially when the work is very detailed and only requires us to make the smallest of movements for hours on end (several of us have overheard museum visitors quietly whispering “is she real?”).

So even though we are “demystifying” our work by bringing it out in full public view, we sometimes have to rely on labels, signs, a slideshow we have running here in the lab, and, hey! this blog, to describe what it is we are doing.

For example, I have been working on this Ptolemaic pectoral cartonnage piece, and most recently started backing and filling losses and tears in the linen support. Most of what I’ve done so far is really difficult to see or appreciate, even though I’m working right by one of the lab windows.

Detail image before (left) and after (right) filling a loss

Detail image before (left) and after (right) filling a loss

These images above show a detail of an area that I backed and filled. There is nothing elaborate or dramatic about this work. As you can see, the fills are small and subtle, mimicking the surrounding areas of paint loss. These repairs were made by backing the losses with Japanese tissue paper and filling with a mixture of Klucel G, alpha cellulose powder, glass microballoons, and powdered pigments.

There are a few areas that I could not access from the front, so I decided to flip the piece over to continue the treatment. In order to protect some fragile areas while the piece is turned over, I temporarily faced them with small pieces of Japanese tissue impregnated with Paraloid B-72.

A detail of the upper half of the pectoral showing facing in progress

Below, you can see what the piece looks like from the reverse. Unfortunately, this means that for the time being, visitors will not be able to see the beautiful painted decoration.

Reverse of E352

Reverse of E352

But have no fear! We have other interesting things on view, and to keep us company as we do this detailed, subtle work. We have our mummy Hapi-Men, who is front-and-center in the middle of the lab, and for those visitors who may not see the “coolness factor” of the mummies, there is this little guy who is currently sitting right by one of the lab’s windows:

E11474: Ptolemaic cartonnage cat head from Abydos

E11474: Ptolemaic cartonnage cat head from Abydos

Because who can resist a cute kitten? We sure can’t, which is why we figure that if this adorable kitty is in the window, even if our work doesn’t appear particularly exciting at the moment, there will be something interesting for everyone to see (and the cat head actually does need treatment and a new storage support, so he is up here for a real reason too!).

A Complete View and a Complete Treatment: Conservation of the Roman Period Mummy Mask

After using humidification and four extra hands, the mask is now unfolded! This complete view of the object provides us a wonderful opportunity to look at the materials used in construction and allowed treatment to finally move forward.

Before jumping into treatment, I had the opportunity to perform Multispectral Imaging (MSI) on the mask, allowing us to analyze some of the pigments non-destructively and with great results.

E2462. From left to right: Visible light, Ultraviolet illumination, Visible induced IR luminescence

E2462.
From left to right: Visible light, Ultraviolet illumination, Visible induced IR luminescence

Under ultraviolet illumination, a bright pink fluorescence was visible (middle), indicating the use of a madder lake pigment in the cheeks and to accentuate the face and hands. I also used visible induced IR luminescence to pinpoint the use of Egyptian Blue pigment in the crown, jewelry, and green leaves (right, Egyptian Blue highlighted in pink). This is a material commonly found in Roman period Egyptian artifacts.

In addition to finding out some of the materials used, I also completed full documentation of the object. Although some of the surface is still intact, the paint layer is in poor condition with areas of flaking and powdering. There is also a large loss to the textile along with some smaller tears and holes.

E2462 During treatment detail of flaking paint

E2462 During treatment detail of flaking paint

As my first order of business, the paint needed to be stabilized. This paint, like many other Egyptian painted surfaces, is sensitive to water and adhesives can cause staining and darkening. This meant a lot of testing was required to find the perfect adhesive for the job.

Using both testing panels and small, discrete areas of the surface, I tested adhesives until I found funori, a seaweed-based polysaccharide. This material preserved the matte and light tones of both the paint and ground layers.

Amaris Sturm, summer intern, consolidating surface of E2462

Amaris Sturm, summer intern, consolidating surface of E2462

As treatments usually go, you sometimes get unexpected bumps along the way. As I was consolidating I discovered that the flesh tones in the face and hands were significantly more sensitive to the water-based adhesive. I quickly had to rethink my approach, ultimately using a methyl cellulose in 50:50 ethanol: water for the hands, face, and larger flakes in the yellow framing the face.

Once consolidation was complete, I moved on to the next hurdle: the molded mud plaster mask. A large gap is present between the fragmented mud plaster crown and the textile below. To support the plaster and its mends, I made a removable fill of carved Volara foam and Japanese tissue, all toned with Golden acrylic paints to make the supports more discrete.

Removable fills to support the heavy mud plaster crown in E2462

Removable fills to support the heavy mud plaster crown in E2462

Fragmented, actively shifting, and detached mud plaster was mended with a 40% AYAT in acetone applied by brush and syringe. Unstable and weightbearing cracks and gaps were filled with a 25% AYAT in acetone that was bulked with microballoons and toned with dry pigments. Fill material was applied with syringed, shaped with a brush and wooden skewer, and  smoothed with a little bit of acetone. A thin toning layer of acrylic paint was applied to fills to make them a warmer tone, but still distinguishable from original material.

Filling compromised gaps on E2462

Filling compromised gaps on E2462

And with that, the treatment is complete! The mask is now stable and will be returned to storage safe and sound.

E2462 Before treatment (left) and After treatment (left)

E2462 Before treatment (left) and after treatment (right)

  • Amaris Sturm is a second-year graduate student in the Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She recently completed her summer internship in the Penn Museum’s conservation labs.