Greeting everyone – there’s a lot to update on from our Conservation Lab Annex (CLA) but for this post, we’re going to focus on the recent progress of Kaipure’s Funerary Chapel. It has been a while since we posted about Kaipure, in fact the last time we posted was almost exactly three years ago. As a quick reminder, two of the walls (the south and east) from the chapel were most recently on display in the Lower Egyptian Galleries, but they were disassembled and deinstalled in 2015 as a precautionary measure due to nearby construction. This also allowed us to proceed with much needed treatment of the flaking limestone and paint as well as designing a new support system in anticipation the entire chapel being reassembled in the new Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries. The complete chapel has not been on display in over 25 years!
Here at CLA we are working on building one of the smaller walls as a proof of concept for our engineering team. The south wall is the smallest section and so that is where we decided to start. But before we could begin, we had to locate all the blocks and bring them down from the rafters.
With all the blocks needed for the south wall, we started by erecting the bottom course of stones. Once those were in place and shored up with temporary wood and foam pegs, we laid the first stretcher course on top.
In antiquity stones would have been assembled using a mortar, however, using a mortar in an indoor gallery setting is not necessary or practical. Mortars require quite a bit of water for application and that could potentially mobilize any lingering salts in the limestone which could compromise the structural integrity of the stone. Mortar is also much less reversible than many of our other options, not to mention the mess it would create during installation. Instead, we have been investigating interfaces of various materials that would replace the need for mortar or adhesive at all. For Kaipure, we have narrowed down our options to Silicone Rubber and Sorbothane. Both materials have good viscoelastic properties, reduce point loading, distributing the weight of the stones, and providing a grippy material between each course to lock the stones together.
In addition to the interfaces, we are currently working with our project engineers to design an armature on which each wall can be assembled. The armature will provide the stability and support that many of the individual stones need. In order to not cause any further damage to the stone, we are opting to use the existing holes which were drilled into the backs and sides of the stones during a previous installation. Though we are still very much in the early stages of design we are excited by the prospect of seeing the entire chapel reunited in a few short years!
The figure you see here, E4893, is an ivory statuette from the site of Hierakonpolis that I am working on as part of an IMLS grant funded project. I have just started the treatment, but thought I would give a brief run through of the initial examination since this is a good example of when and why we use X-radiography in our department to evaluate the condition of objects before treatment.
You may have noticed that the middle of this object is fill, so not part of the object. The fill has some cracks and splits that suggests it is unstable and should be removed. There is no written documentation for when this fill was done or by who, but it’s possible that this was done shortly after it was excavated. The object was accessioned in 1898. Given that the conservation lab at the Penn Museum was not founded until 1966 that leaves a big gap for the possibilities for when this treatment might have been done.
Based on previous experience, I often worry with these old fills that there are unseen things, like metal pins or dowels, lurking below the surface. X-radiography is a great way to check for these types of hidden previous treatment issues. Though in this case, what I found when I X-rayed the object was not your typical pin or dowel.
Here in the X-ray you can see what I found: while this fill did not have any pins or dowels, whoever had done this treatment had decided to reinforce it by putting nails (4 in total) into the fill material. While this makes the figure look like he has eaten a bunch of nails, it is in some ways better news than a pin would be. Pins usually go into the original material, and if they are iron, can rust and expand causing damage to the object. Pin removal can also be risky and lead to damage of the object especially if the pin is deeply imbedded or corroded into place. These nails, on the other hand, appear to be only in the fill and do not look like they go into the original material of the object at all. This suggests that removal of the fill and the nails should be possible without damaging the object. As this treatment progresses, I will follow up with additional posts and updates.
If you don’t work in the Museum or Library field, you may never heard the initials, ‘IMLS’. But to many in those fields, it’s a lifeline and important source of support and information. In 2019, the latest year with information, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded $223.5 million through grantmaking, research and policy development, to advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations. The Penn Museum has received support from the IMLS on many occasions.
In 2015/16, the Museum moved its Egyptian Collections off-site in order to protect it from vibrations associated with the construction of a large building right beside us. This gave us the opportunity to carry out an inventory and examine the objects in storage to determine which needed conservation. But it’s a huge project; we had originally believed the collection was 42,000 artifacts; it turned out to be more like 50,000. In order to fund such a massive undertaking, we break it down into manageable chunks. In 2019, the IMLS awarded the Museum $250,000 to fund the conservation of a group of Egyptian and Nubian coffins and related funerary goods. This enabled us to have two project conservators dedicated to this group of artifacts, as well hiring two conservation technicians to photograph items for the public database. Despite the pandemic, we’ve been working away at this since October 2019 and will complete the work by the end of September. Over the next few months, the project conservators will be sharing some of their work with you. Enjoy!