Beloved Objects

be Tessa de Alarcon

Like most other Philadelphia residents, the Penn Museum staff are adapting to working from home. As part of this, the Museum staff have recently been posting on the museum’s Instagram feed info on their favorite objects (pennmuseum #VisitFromHome). This got me thinking about the relationship between people and the things we interact with every day. The objects in the museum’s collection, while loved and cared for by the staff, also bear evidence of love and care from before they were in the museum’s collection. One such object recently came across my desk for treatment, E7517A and E7517B, a Nubian wooden box and lid from Karanog. I am not going to talk about the treatment today, so that I can focus on the care it received before it entered the museum.

E7517A and E7517B after treatment.

In the pictures above and the details below you can see that this wooden box has a variety of metal components, including copper alloy straps and a lock plate on the box, and staples on the lid as part of a repair to cracks and breaks through the wood.

The detail of E7517A, the box, on the left shows the lock plate and one of the metal straps, and the detail on the right of E7517B shows the staples on the lid.

Staples like these are a common repair both in antiquity and historically for a variety of materials and are not an unusual feature on objects in the museum’s collections (here are just a few other examples of both types of staples: AF5211, B9220, 2006-15-41, B20014). If you look closely though, you can see that the metal straps and the lock plate go over the inlays on the box. This suggests that these elements were not part of the box originally and were a later addition.

These components are also made from a variety of metals. I tested them using both a magnet to check for iron, and a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (pXRF) and found that they are a range of metals including iron, copper tin alloys (bronze), and copper zinc alloys (brass). Also, parts that appear similar, like the straps are not made up of the same alloying components, some contain lead in addition to the copper and tin, and some have no lead. The staples are also a range of metals including iron, brass, and bronze.

When I started working on the box, I wanted to tease out when these metal components were added as they could have been either ancient or modern. With this type of question, I typically set up an appointment with our archives to look at the original field notes and field photography. However, in this case, much of the data on the excavations at Karanog is online, including pdf’s of the excavation publications. In the museum’s database I found that the box was from a burial: tomb G 445. Going through the publication, I was able to use the context information to find not only a description of where it was found within the tomb, but also a sketch of the burial, a photo of the box, and a detailed description of it in a catalogue of the finds. The box had been found in the burial with two individuals buried one above the other and was found next to their legs.

Drawing of tomb G 445 from Woolley, Leonard, and David Randall-MacIver. Karanòg: The Romano-Nubian Cemetery. Vol. 3. University museum, 1910: 44. The blue highlighting is an addition to point out the location of E7517A and E7517B in the burial.
Plate 22 from Woolley, Leonard, and David Randall-MacIver. Karanòg: The Romano-Nubian Cemetery. Vol. 3. University museum, 1910.

The textual information from the publication includes some important pieces of information: first that, “it had been considerably restored before being deposited in the bomb, brass binding had been added at the corners and the broken lid had been rudely mended with bronze rivets” (Woolley and Randall-MacIver, 44) and that “it remains in the condition in which it was found, no repairs to it having been necessary” (Woolley and Randall-MacIver, 71).  While the language used to describe these metal components seems to me a bit harsh, not only is it described as “rudely mended”, the lock plate is described as “a perfectly useless lock plate”, it does make it clear that these metal components are from when it was in use (Woolley and Randall-MacIver, 44, 71). It should also be noted that the metal identifications given in the publication were not done through analysis, so don’t match with the results I have from pXRF.

Because of the detailed information in the publication, I also know what was in the box when it was excavated: another smaller box (E7510A and E7510B) and two wooden spindle whorls (E7506 and E7507).  These are all shown in the image below.

Objects found inside E7517A: a box and its lid (E7510A and E7510B) and two spindle whorls (E7506 and E7507)

So, all together what does this information tell me about the history of this box? First, the repairs and modifications to this box happened during its use before it was put in the burial of the two individuals in tomb G 445. The fact that the metal components, even similar ones, have different compositions could mean a few things. It could be that it was repaired and modified using scrap metal with the components being made from different scraps, that the repairs occurred at different times and so with different metals, or both. If they were not made using scrap metal, it is possible that some of the straps may have had to be replaced at some point and that may be why some are leaded bronze and some are not. These straps do not appear to have a function and may instead reflect changes in taste. The function of the box may have also changed, and this may be why they needed to add the lock plate. The various metals for the repairs to the lid almost certainly resulted from various treatment campaigns, meaning that it was repaired, used, broken, and repaired again. In any case these modifications and repairs tell a story of care and use and suggest that this box was loved and treasured by the people who owned it. This may also be why it eventually was placed in a burial, perhaps as a particularly prized possession of one or both of the individuals in the burial.