Picture (im)perfect

Hello again from CLA (or at least from our home offices)! As we’ve mentioned before, conservators love to look at records relating to the objects we’re treating. It helps us to gain insights into the artifact’s history and gives us context for what we see on the bench in front of us. While we don’t always have exhaustive information about every single piece, it’s always interesting to do a little research when we can. One of our recent blog posts discussed how we’ve used archaeological renderings to understand traces of colors on our objects; this post will take a look at how photographic records can inform us about the current condition of the pieces.

Photograph of the Penn Museum Archives
A view of the Penn Museum Archives.
Each of these boxes is filled with a treasure trove of information.

Before the CLA team dove into the hands-on work last fall, we took a trip to the museum’s extensive archive collection to do some digging into the history of Merenptah’s palace. With the help of Alex Pezzati, Senior Archivist, we were able to read through the records of the excavation, led by Clarence Fisher from 1915-1920. Our research was also guided by the work of Dr. Kevin Cahail, whose own forays into the archives have revealed a lot of missing details about the site. He was able to provide a lot of insights into what we were seeing in the photographs.

One of the things that impressed us most about the excavation images is the sheer scale of the architecture. While we’re very familiar with our columns and doorways by now, it’s quite another thing to see them in situ. The picture below shows columns and pylons (trapezoidal gateways) from Merenptah’s Coronation Chapel. These objects were previously exhibited at half height because the ceilings in the downstairs gallery were too low, but they’re about 25 feet tall. Part of our project for the new galleries is to figure out how to display these columns at their full height so museum visitors can experience them the way the Egyptians would have. In the meantime, it’s a useful reminder to look at images like this to remind ourselves that they stood for several thousand years!

Site image of the Coronation Chapel during excavation
The Coronation Chapel mostly excavated. The columns would have had capitals, but otherwise are at their full height.

Another thing you might notice in that image is all the water on the ground. The site is in the Nile flood plain and experienced several very wet seasons. We could tell from the current condition of the stone that it had been waterlogged. Stone is often thought of as being hard and unchangeable, but this particular Egyptian limestone contains a lot of clay, so it becomes very soft when wet. Fisher’s notes talk about how fragile the stone was, and ultimately how they made the decision to bring the pieces back to Penn before they deteriorated even more. The stone was still damp when it was wrapped in linen and packed into wooden crates – which explains the fabric impressions we see in the surface of some of the pieces.

Workers preparing columns for shipping and stone with textile impressions
(Left) Workers preparing the column pieces for shipping. (Right) An example of the stone surface with impressions of the textile weave.

Images from the site are incredibly useful tools when we’re looking at damage to an object and trying to determine the cause – whether the damage occurred before excavation or due to more recent changes. They’re also helpful when we’re trying to figure out the extent of old repairs. When the pylon pieces were installed in the gallery in the 1920s, they were extensively restored with plaster and paint. We could also tell that some lost stone had been replaced with bricks and cement, but it was difficult to tell where the restoration ended and the stone began. Fortunately, there were a lot of pictures taken of the coronation chapel while it was being excavated.

Coronation Chapel pylon
(Left) The left pylon during excavation. Notice that the row of figures second from bottom is almost completely lost. (Right) The same object with plaster reconstruction. The detail was based on the other pylon, which is much more intact.

Looking at the original photographs of the left pylon, we could tell that it had already suffered significant surface loss to the bottom and middle sections. We could also see that even though it was still standing, the middle part had broken into several pieces. Using that knowledge during the deinstallation process, we were able to rig around the damaged areas and to remove the old restoration material so the pieces could be separated. When the pylons are reinstalled in the renovated galleries, they will be safely displayed on custom steel support structures. We’re working on how to replicate the decoration, but we’ll make it clear what is original and what is new.

During our time in the archives, we discovered one thing that hasn’t changed much – archaeologists love site dogs.

Site animals
Some pictures of very good dig dogs over the years… and one very cute baby fox (bottom left)!

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!

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.

Ch-ch-changes (In the Artifact Lab)

Visitors to the Artifact Lab these days will see a slightly different scene.

A variety of Native American objects currently in the Artifact Lab, including a war bonnet, baskets, a harpoon, a beaded vest and a wooden helmet.

A variety of Native American objects currently in the Artifact Lab, including a war bonnet, baskets, a harpoon, a beaded vest and a wooden helmet.

Rockwell Project Conservator Molly Gleeson will be on leave for the next few months, spending time at home with her baby daughter. While she’s away, our intern Laura Galicier will continue to work on Egyptian artifacts such as the wooden heads or the demotic jar. But she’ll be joined by other members of the Penn Museum Conservation team, who will be working on a variety of projects. Because of various upcoming deadlines, a lot of what you’ll see worked on will be Native American artifacts from Penn Museum’s collections.

Penn Museum Conservation intern Alexis North, working on moccasins for the Native American Voices Exhibition. Photo by Steven Minicola, University Communications

Penn Museum Conservation intern Alexis North, working on moccasins for the Native American Voices Exhibition.

In addition to Native American Voices, our new exhibition opening March 1, 2014, we will be loaning Native American objects to exhibitions at three other museums in the new year: the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, France; the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles; and at Penn’s own Arthur Ross Gallery. At other times you may see a conservator working on material from ancient Cyprus or material from the Museum’s excavations at Ur. Whenever you come, there’s sure to be something interesting to see and our conservators will be happy to talk to you about whatever they’re doing or whatever you’re interested in at our open window times (weekdays, 11:15 – 11:45 am and 2:00 – 2:30 pm, and weekends, 12:30 – 1:00 pm and 3:30 – 4:00 pm). And you’re always welcome to submit questions or comments via this blog. We’ll continue to post regularly on the doings of the Artifact Lab and Molly may even find some time to write in from home.

Sundays in the Lab with Julie…or Tessa… or Lynn… or….

Posted by Lynn Grant

This handsome fellow is visiting the Artifact Lab from the Near Eastern Section. He's being prepped to go on loan. Museum number: 29-20-3

This handsome fellow is visiting the Artifact Lab from the Near Eastern Section. He’s being prepped to go on loan. Museum number: 29-20-3

Wonderful as she is, Project Conservator Molly Gleeson can’t be working in the Artifact Lab all the days the Museum is open. When she isn’t (most often Sundays), other Museum Conservators take turns working in the ‘fishbowl’ so there will still be conservation work for visitors to see. When we started this, ten months ago, the plan was for us to work on some of Egyptian mummies and related funerary goods along with Molly. As time has gone by some issues have arisen to make this more difficult. First, there are fewer tasks that we can do to contribute toward ongoing Artifact Lab treatments when we’re only here a day or two a month. Second, we often have deadlines to meet on other projects that mean we have to use our time in the Artifact Lab to work on those projects.

So, sometimes you’ll see Artifact Lab conservators working on objects that aren’t mummies, related funerary goods, or even Egyptian. In the next few weeks you’ll see me working on Near Eastern objects going on loan to the Hallie Ford Museum in Oregon, or on Amazonian artifacts destined for Penn Museum’s upcoming exhibit, YEAR OF SOUND: Hollywood in the Amazon at Penn Museum. Julie may be working on African artifacts for rotation into our Imagine Africa gallery.

A notice board at the front of the lab will indicate when non-Egyptian artifacts are being worked on in the Artifact Lab

A notice board at the front of the lab will indicate when non-Egyptian artifacts are being worked on in the Artifact Lab

If you’re interested in knowing more about the other objects you’re seeing, you can
– ask the conservator on duty about them during open window hours, or
– check the notice board in the front of the lab, which will have basic information on the objects being worked on, including their object numbers. For more indepth information, you can use your internet-ready device to look them up on the Museum’s website.

For all you Mummy Maniacs and Egyptian Aficionados, not to worry: there will still be plenty for you to see in the Artifact Lab and on the Smart Board. During open window hours, all the conservators on duty will be ready to answer your questions about the Egyptian materials as well as what they’re currently working on. And, never forget, you can always send your questions to this blog or email them to conservation@pennmuseum.org.

The New Guy

by Lynn Grant

Molly Gleeson, the Project Conservator for In the Artifact Lab has been very busy over the last nine months, conserving lots of Egyptian artifacts and she’s finished treatments on a human mummy, an animal mummy and has done a lot of work on PUM I. So, as these projects finish up, it’s time to start some new ones – there’s never any shortage of projects for the Museum conservators. Earlier this month, we brought another of our human mummies out of storage and into the Artifact Lab. And what a mummy he is:

E 16229, a Predynastic mummy.

E 16229, a Predynastic mummy.


Not what you were expecting, right? No stiff upright form tightly wrapped in bandages. That’s because this is a very early mummy, probably dating to “4000-3600 BCE (or from the Badarian Period to Naqada IIB to use Egyptological time periods”, to quote Dr. Jane Hill, an Assistant Professor at Rowan University, who’s been studying this mummy. Dr. Hill will be presenting some of her initial findings at a mini seminar hosted by ARCE-PA (American Research Center in Egypt – Pennsylvania Chapter) and held at Penn Museum this Saturday, June 1st, open to the public.

Because Molly is going to be away at a conference this week, I’ve begun familiarizing myself with this ‘new’ mummy so I can talk about him to the seminar attendees and our other visitors. When I say ‘new’, he’s only new to the Artifact Lab. Not only is he at least 5600 years old, he’s been in our collections since 1898. He was donated to the Museum by Ethelbert Watts, a prominent Philadelphian who was serving as an Assistant American Consul in Cairo. His history in our collections is a little unclear: we know he was x-radiographed in 1932 and we have this undated early photograph from the Archives. Since this image comes from a glass plate negative, it could date anytime between 1898 and the early 1930s, when the Museum finally switched to film based photography.

An early photograph of the mummy from a glass plate negative

An early photograph of the mummy from a glass plate negative

We think he may have been on exhibition some time in the past but we haven’t tracked down those records yet. For at least the past few decades, he languished in a box in the Egyptian storerooms until Dr. Hill and Dr. Joe Wegner ‘excavated’ the box in 2011. Since then he’s been the subject of quite a lot of interest – Dr. Hill and her Rowan colleague Dr. Maria Rosado have been examining samples of materials associated with the mummy and sent samples for AMS/C14 dating.

Cool stuff about this mummy: he was buried in the flexed or contracted position, like many Predynastic mummies but he was also buried inside an animal skin bag, which had the animal’s hair left on the inside. He has a small, finely woven basket by his side and an animal skin cap covered by a basketry framework on his head.

Details of some of the items buried with the mummy

Details of some of the items buried with the mummy

Clearly, this guy has a lot to tell us and we’ll keep you posted on what’s up with Bruce (yes, Bruce – it gets hard to refer to the mummies by their accession number and so many get nicknames. This guy has been Bruce to us pretty much since he came out of his box. No disrespect meant; he’s a fascinating individual and I look forward to getting to know him better).

Don’t just DO SOMETHING, SIT THERE!

Artifact Lab Conservator Molly Gleeson, just sitting there (with laptop)

by Lynn Grant
Last month, Artifact Lab Conservator Molly Gleeson was talking about her experiences being the public face (and hands, and body) of Conservation at the Penn Museum to PACA, a group of Philadelphia Area conservators. She said that one of the occasionally difficult things about work in the ‘fishbowl’ is that visitors expect to see her “doing something” (ie., interacting directly with the mummies or other artifacts in the lab) and she worries about disappointing them when she’s just sitting at the computer or thinking quietly. I’ve noticed the same thing on my stints in the Artifact Lab (although Molly is the Main Attraction, the other Penn Museum conservators all spend time in the lab when Molly’s off).

Assistant Conservator Nina Owczarek, hard at work on the Artifact Lab computer, as seen through the glass enclosure.


But In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies isn’t meant as performance art; we want to give our visitors a real look at how conservation happens and that includes the fact that we don’t spend 100% of our time actually laying hands on ancient artifacts. Before a conservator does touch any object she’s working on, she’ll spend a lot of time:
Examining the object carefully to see how is was made, how it was used, what’s happened to it over time, what needs fixing and (as importantly) what doesn’t.
Writing up her findings. Conservators document everything we see, think, or do with regards to an object. This is essential for various reasons: other researchers may be interested in our observations; if the treatment doesn’t go as planned, knowing what was done will make it possible to undo; if the treatment is a success, knowing what was done makes it possible to apply the same knowledge to other objects. I often find that this process really helps clarify treatment issues in my own mind.
Researching the artifact’s past and conservation research and treatments on other, similar artifacts. If you look at the books, blue binders in the seating corner of the Artifact Lab space or at some of these sites shown on the right sidebar, you’ll see examples of the kinds of resources we use every day. The Internet is a wonderful tool, as well. There are many online resources for conservators, especially a series of discussion groups where conservators all over the world pool their information about materials, treatment options, experience, etc.

And the ‘sitting time’ doesn’t end there. With a whole host of options for treatment at her fingertips, the conservators needs to spend time just thinking through all the possible results and repercussions of her active treatments. Many of the treatments carried out by conservators are not that difficult or complex (rolling a cotton swab across a surface isn’t rocket science) but the decision-making process behind choosing the treatment is why we need to spend years preparing to get into conservation training, years in that training, and continuing to learn every day of our working lives.

Conservators Julie Lawson (left) and Nina Owczarek, with intern Naomi Shohami (foreground) consulting over a laptop in the Artifact Lab.


So
• if you see the Artifact Lab conservator at the computer, she is probably still doing conservation. She could be: documenting her work; consulting other experts; researching web resources; writing a blog post(!); or even answering a question on our blog. Got a question? Post it here.
• If you see her talking to someone, she is probably still doing conservation. She could be: seeking advice or information from a colleague; teaching an intern; communicating a cool new finding; or asking them to contribute a blog post.
• If you see her just sitting or standing looking into thin air, she is probably still doing conservation. She could be: thinking about treatment options; deciding to consult a resource; considering the results of a recent treatment; or planning a blog post.

Of course, she could also be checking her Facebook page; calling a friend; making plans for lunch; or even just taking a rest because conservators are real people too and, even in the Artifact Lab, no-one is ‘on’ 100% of the time!

What do the conservators do when they’re *not* in the Artifact Lab?

Molly Gleeson, the primary project conservator for the Artifact Lab is on vacation so, if you come by over the next little while, one of the other staff conservators (Julie Lawson, Nina Owczarek and I – Lynn Grant) will be taking turns being the Conservator on Duty. While there, we work on the same sorts of projects that Molly does but you might wonder what we do when it’s not our turn in the fishbowl. With a collection of over a million artifacts, there’s plenty to keep three (or even 30, if we just had room) busy. Because Penn Museum’s collections are so large, we have to prioritize what we work on. The conservation treatments we’re working on right now are mostly for objects going on exhibition (mainly Native American artifacts for an exhibition opening in a year), or on loan (we loan artifacts to Museums all over the world; this fall we’ve worked on objects going to New York, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Spain, Amsterdam, Switzerland, and Taiwan, to name just a few) or artifacts being photographed for publication.

One of the places conservator Lynn Grant spent time recently: an art storage warehouse in Connecticut where some of our collections were stored (white crates).

In addition, we work very closely with other Museum staff on preventative conservation (see Molly’s earlier blog post, to keep our collections in the best possible condition. This means monitoring storage conditions, artifacts on exhibition, advising on materials used in display, and many other tasks. These don’t always happen in the Museum, either. We conservators often act as couriers, accompanying artifacts as they travel to make sure that they receive the proper care. One recent courier trip I did has a certain amount of overlap with work in the Artifact lab, since it involved an Ancient Egyptian tomb chapel.

One block (the false door) from the offering chapel of Kapure. This single limestone block weighs over 9000 pounds.

The late Old Kingdom offering chapel of Kapure from Saqqara (dating to ca. 2300 B.C.) was once part of this high ranking official’s mudbrick mastaba tomb. The interior of the chapel was lined with limestone blocks beautifully decorated with carved and painted scenes representing the deceased seated at a table of offerings and receiving funerary provisions. Part of the chapel of Kapure is on display in the Museum’s Lower Egyptian Gallery. The rest, which was part of a traveling exhibition in the late 1990s, has been in storage in Connecticut since 2000. This was supposed to be a temporary situation but it’s gone on for longer than we ever expected and now that there is a suitable storage facility here in Philadelphia, we decided to bring the tomb chapel closer to home. Why wouldn’t we just bring it back to the Museum, you ask? Well, it’s kind of big and very unwieldy. There were 8 crates, the heaviest of which weighed over 9000 lbs. We hope to be able to reinstall it in our Egyptian Galleries before too much longer but until then, it will stay in specialized art storage.

My colleagues in adventure, Bob Thurlow (left) and Jen Wegner, get ready to to work on our crated limestone blocks.

Getting it there was a bit of an adventure. Three Museum staff members: Bob Thurlow of the Registrar’s Office, Dr. Jen Wegner of the Egyptian Section, and myself, traveled to the warehouse where it was stored in Connecticut. There we had to open each crate; document the current condition of the blocks inside both with digital photography and written descriptions; check that the crates were still in good enough condition to protect the artifacts during transit; make any necessary improvements to the crates; then oversee the loading of the crates on to a very large truck; follow the truck to the new warehouse; and finally supervise the unloading and placement of the crates there. This all took two-and-a-half days and meant long hours working in an unheated warehouse – in November.

Art handlers and warehouse men load the false door crate on to the truck, using the big forklift (the smaller one couldn’t lift the 9000 lb weight). The crate fit with about 2 inches to spare – a tribute to Bob Thurlow’s excellent planning and preparation.

Jen Wegner explaining the finer points of the false door block to two of the warehouse employees just before we put the lid back on and prepared to take it back to Philadelphia.

This is not the glamorous part of our jobs! Still, it needed to be done and it was a great chance to get up close and personal with some gorgeous Egyptian funerary art. Working with Jen Wegner was a treat as she was able to tell us what we were looking at and read the inscriptions. I’m sure Jen got tired of me asking what various symbols were, especially since most of them seemed to be bread – apparently Egyptian funerals were a carb-fest!

posted by Lynn Grant