The right tools for the (monumental) job

Greetings from the Penn Museum’s Conservation Lab Annex (CLA)! You may remember from our first post the scale (large!) and types of objects we are going to be working on over the next few years. We are mostly working on architectural elements like doorways, windows, and columns that were part of the palace complex of the Pharaoh Merenptah, who ruled Egypt from Memphis from 1213–1203 BC. To put things in perspective, the doorway we are currently working on is over 12 ft tall and many of its fragments weigh hundreds of pounds. That means we have had to add a few new tools that are not typically found in a museum’s conservation lab. Most recently we’ve started utilizing a lot of new tools including a forklift, a gantry, and large-scale sandboxes.  

  • Forklift – A few weeks ago, the whole Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries Team attended a certification workshop in forklift operation. The certification course taught us the basics in how to safely operate our electric forklift. Having our own forklift onsite allows us to easily move some of the large stone fragments in and out of the lab, reorganize the layout of the warehouse to create space for rigging and lifting, and organize all of the Merenptah Palace pieces into one area.   
Egyptian Section Curator Dr. Jennifer Wegner smoothly maneuvering the forklift during our training session.
  • Gantry – At CLA we have a gantry crane in the warehouse which allows us to rig and lift some of the heaviest objects and fragments. This is especially important when we are trying to dry-fit pieces together before making more permanent joins. There are lots of different ways to rig or strap a fragment for lifting, but we’ve found that using shorter straps with a choke hitch is the safest way to lift our artifacts. In the photo below you can see that’s exactly what we’ve done. Once we have the straps secured and fully supporting the object, we begin to slowly lift, making sure the straps settle and don’t slip or re-adjust, dropping the object.  
CLA team using the gantry to lift part of the lintel from Doorway 1.
  • Sandbox – Sandboxes are often used in conservation to support objects during joining. Using a sandbox, we can place an object inside at whatever angle we need to in order to support the object on top with nothing but the weight of gravity. At CLA, our objects are quite large, so we are using old shipping crates and converting them into large sandboxes to accommodate our needs. In the photos below you can see the process of moving a fragment into the sandbox and then in the second photo you can see that fragment has been placed in such a way that it can now support the weight of the second, joining fragment on top of it. The blue tape serves as a guide to help us know exactly how the two pieces fit together once we have applied the adhesive and are ready to do the final joining. 
CLA team moving part of the lintel from Doorway 1 into a sandbox.
Fragments of Doorway 1 lintel being dry-fit together in the sandbox prior to joining.
  • Dremel – Lastly, and on a much smaller scale, we’ve been using a few different power tools. The most helpful so far has been the Dremel. While the Dremel is not a completely foreign tool to many conservators, it is most often used for making mounts or sanding fills and/or cross-sections. In this case we are using the Dremel to cut and remove all restoration pins that have become heavily corroded over the years, expanded, and are causing damage to the stone.   
Corroded ferrous pins from a previous restoration being cut and removed from Doorway 1 fragments.

As with any job, having the right tools is really important, for success and safety! We look forward to continuing to share the progress we’ve made on this project from our home offices, as we continue to work from home.

Papyri Project

By Jessica Byler

This fall, I started a survey of our Egyptian papyrus collection thanks to an ARCE (American Research Center in Egypt) grant. The goals of the survey include preparing and rehousing the collection to be moved to a new storeroom, identifying unstable papyri that need to be treated, and getting some of the papyri ready for exhibit. The Penn Museum is in the process of redesigning the Ancient Egyptian and Nubian Galleries, and the curators have identified around 70 papyri they would like to include. Part of my job is treating and rehousing these papyri and making recommendations on their display.

E16423, a private letter in Arabic

What is Papyrus?

The papyri in our collection are mostly manuscripts. A sheet of papyrus is made of two cross-laminated layers of thin fiber strips made from the stems of the papyrus plant (cyperus papyrus). One layer of fibers is laid vertically, and the other is laid on top horizontally, creating a sheet with a grid pattern. Individual sheets were then overlapped and joined to create rolls. These rolls could be used as a single, long sheet or could be cut down as needed. The side with the horizontal fibers is called the recto (think “right side”), and the side with the vertical fibers is called the verso (think “reverse”). Scribes often wrote on the recto along the horizontal fibers, though some scribes wrote against the fibers or on both sides of the sheet.

A piece of modern papyrus through transmitted light
E2751, some vertical fibers are missing, revealing the horizontal fibers from the other side

Looking for a join helps identify the recto. Most joins are horizontal fibers to horizontal fibers, though some are horizontal to vertical. Look along the horizontal fibers and see if they continue across the sheet. If they do not line up or if there is a clear overlap, that’s likely a join.

E16323, horizontal to horizontal join. The red lines indicate the direction of the fibers and join.
E16411B, vertical to horizontal join. The red lines indicate the direction of the fibers and join.

Scribes used brushes or reed pens to write on the papyrus sheets. Inks were made from mixing ground up pigments into a binder. The most common ink was carbon black or soot bound with gum to make black ink. Scribes also sometimes used red ink made from red ochre, iron gall, and sepia, among other pigments. Some papyri are thickly painted with gypsum, metal oxides, and earth pigments.

E3068, a painted papyrus manuscript
83-1-1I, a manuscript with both carbon black and red ink

Penn Papyrus Survey

The Penn Museum has around 1200-1800 papyri featuring a wide range of personal, legal, administrative, literary, and religious texts in six languages: Arabic, Greek, Coptic, Hebrew, Demotic, and Hieratic. The collection spans around 4000 years, from the Old Kingdom to Islamic Egypt. These include Books of the Dead, Homer’s Iliad, and the Gospel of St. Matthew. There are also groups of small fragments which have not been reconstructed or studied. The Penn Museum’s collection of papyri has never been the subject of a concerted conservation campaign – until now.

Most of the collection is currently encapsulated in Mylar and stored flat in manila folders or sandwiched between two glass plates. I am surveying the collection at the object-level, one by one. I examine, measure, and record each piece, noting the structure of the papyrus, how it is housed, old mends or treatments, condition issues, and if it needs to be rehoused or conserved. I follow the examination and documentation with photography. Images are available on our Digital Collections webpage.  Hopefully with the new photos and documentation, this collection will be more accessible to papyrologists and scholars around the world.

Photographing papyrus using a copy stand

More Information

Eventually, the information on the Penn Museum papyri collection documented in this survey will be included in the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) database, where only a small fraction of our collection is represented today. There are a number of great resources if you would like to know more about the structure and conservation of papyrus. The University of Michigan, which holds the largest collection of papyri in North America, is active in papyrological research and education. The Brooklyn Museum and NYU have both recently done similar projects and have great blogs about their collections as well.

This project is funded by the  Antiquities Endowment Fund (AEF).  The AEF is supported by an  endowment  established  with  funds  from  the  United  Stated  Agency  for  International Development (USAID).

Shades of the Past

By Julia Commander, Jessica Betz Abel, and Anna O’Neill

We’ve shared a few insights into the monumental limestone we’ve been treating at our Conservation Lab Annex (CLA). You may have noticed a consistent color scheme: tan. The surfaces of the doorways are intricately carved and decorated with faience inlay, although we mainly see a variety of neutral tones.

Doorway 1 in the lab

To get a sense of how these architectural elements would have looked when they were made in Memphis, Egypt around 1213–1203 BCE, it helps to understand the materials and their state of deterioration. Luckily, the Penn Museum Archives has extensive records from the 1920’s Memphis excavations, which provides some further clues about these objects.

Searching through archival materials, we found detailed notes about each object as it was excavated, as well as extensive watercolor illustrations. We can see brilliant colors in the drawings and notes referencing traces of paint and inlay material.

Archival illustrations of Merenptah columns
Archival illustrations of Merenptah columns

We even see that the doorways are illustrated with brilliant blue and teal colors.

Archival illustrations of Merenptah palace doorways
Archival illustrations of Merenptah palace doorways

Some of the illustrations appear to extrapolate data from small traces of material. Do these colorful illustrations line up with what we’re seeing now in the material itself?

To explore a little further, we brought the Crimescope out to CLA to investigate using multispectral imaging. This technique has been discussed on the blog before, and we were particularly interested in infrared (IR) imaging of the faience inlay. While there are different types of faience material, some types related to Egyptian blue pigment produce the same luminescent response induced by visible light.

Searching for IR luminescence pointed us to a tiny area of inlay in the upper corner lintel fragment. The tip of one stripe glowed brightly, which corresponds to a pale green color that’s visible in normal lighting.

Visible light (VIS)
Visible-induced infrared luminescence (VIL)
Detail with VIS/VIL overlay

This result suggests that we’re seeing a deteriorated state of formerly bright blue/green/teal faience. While we did not see every trace of the degraded inlay light up in infrared imaging, this small hint corroborates what we’re seeing in the archival illustrations.

We plan to continue using multispectral imaging to explore decorated surfaces when we’re back at CLA. Stay tuned!