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

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).


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.

• 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

The Outer Coffin of Ahanakht – part 2

One of the boards from the inner coffin of Ahanakht, before treatment.

Previously I began to tell you about this multi-part artifact. Then, I was just starting to get acquainted with it. When conservators first look at any artifact, the first thing we think about is not where it’s from, not how old it is, not even what culture made it. The first and most important fact for conservators is what it’s made of. The material tells us what kind of problems it might have and what kind of treatments we can use or not use – it’s the starting point of everything we do.

The coffin boards are wood, with some paint applied. Four thousand year-old wood. Right away, that tells us something about what kind of wood it must be, since wood generally doesn’t survive so long in the archaeological record. Because there’s been a lot of research done on Egyptian materials, we can say with some confidence that the wood is cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani). Cedar is a prized wood because the trees produce chemicals that make them resistant to insect damage and various forms of rot.

A detail of the board showing construction details.

The first step of any treatment is careful examination. The coffin boards, despite being entombed thousands of years ago in the desert environment of Egypt and then brought to Philadelphia with its humid summers and desiccating winter heating seasons, appear to be in excellent condition for the most part; their most obvious problem being a thick coat of dust from uncovered storage for many decades. I documented the appearance of the board, noting its construction details, such as four wooden pegs and mitered edges. One curious feature was thin metal ribbons running in channels along the long axis of the board. I was unsure whether these were an original feature or something done in modern times to put the coffin back together. It seemed an unusually elaborate repair but the metal was in such good condition that I didn’t think it was 4000 years old. Even under a microscope, I couldn’t tell exactly what the metal was. There were slight traces of green corrosion, which usually means copper or copper alloy, but the metal was mostly dark grey and quite flexible, so it could be lead. I made a note to analyze it using our new portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer which has since happened and to do some research on Egyptian coffin technology. Dr. Joe Wegner, also an Associate Curator in the Egyptian Section, recommended a book about a similar coffin at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (The Secrets of Tomb 10b) and there I found this information: “the sides have beveled edges fastened together by dowels and copper ribbons“. So it looks like those metal ribbons are original. Perhaps their unusually excellent condition has something to do with the cedar around them.

During treatment, showing dirt partially removed and tools used for cleaning.

Treatment was relatively straightforward. I used a HEPA-filtered vacuum with variable speed control to remove the loose dust from the surface of the board. Conservators choose their cleaning methods based on the type of dirt to be removed and the substrate from which it is to be removed. ‘Dry’ cleaning methods (those not using liquids such as water or other solvents) are generally less likely to damage the artifact and are preferred wherever possible, although care must still be taken to ensure that only the dirt is removed and not any of the original surface. By using a very small vacuum attachment at low speed and monitoring the process closely using a magnifying visor, I was able to clean the surface safely. Not very glamorous but I’ve discovered that this artifact has a pretty important role in the history of archaeological science – see my post on the Museum’s blog for information on that!

Painted wooden coffin of Tawahibre

Painted wooden coffin from the Late Period

This is a painted wood coffin from the Late Period, post-558 BC. It has been fairly inaccessible in storage until coming up to the Artifact Lab. Now that it’s up here, we’re realizing that it’s going to be a complex project, in more ways than one.

First of all, it’s a bit confusing who this coffin belonged to. In our records, is listed as the coffin of Tawahibre or Teker-Wah-Eb-Re. The mummy associated with the coffin was x-rayed in 1932 and examined in the 1970s and both times determined to be a woman in mid-adult life (about 40 years old). However, in 1946, the hieroglyphic text on the coffin was translated as identifying a male court official, the son of J-se(t)-N-Ese. Our curators are going to work to translate the text to see if we can figure out who the coffin belonged to…however…

The second complication is that, unfortunately, this coffin hasn’t aged particularly gracefully, and it is now very fragile and in poor condition. And even more unfortunately, the areas that contain much of the text are in the worst condition, with major losses to the painted surface.

Detail showing major paint loss across the foot area of the coffin

So, one of the first things we’ve done to improve the condition of the coffin and aid in translation is to remove years of accumulated surface dust using a soft-bristled brush and a HEPA-filtered vacuum. This made a big difference and already allows the text to be read more easily. I am now conducting cleaning tests to see how much more surface grime can be removed. I did some dry-cleaning (meaning cleaning without the use of solvents like water or alcohol) testing today using Groomstick, a natural rubber product similar in consistency to SillyPutty, and cosmetic sponges, and I’m pretty happy with the results. Look at how much more dirt I was able to remove with these products:

Partially cleaned surface (left) and bits of Groomstick and cosmetic sponges after dirt removal (right)

Next I’ll have to start addressing how to approach the stabilization of the fragile and flaking paint and gesso and unstable wood elements.

Posted by Molly

Mummies, Mannequins and Wanamaker’s

Okay, bear with me here-I’m going to explain the connection between one of the mummies here in the Artifact Lab, Wanamaker’s Department store, and the 1987 movie Mannequin.

PUM (Philadelphia University Museum) I is a mummy lying in a wood coffin, dating to 840-820 BCE. The mummy and coffin were exhibited at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and subsequently purchased by John Wanamaker as a gift for the museum. They were packed and shipped directly to the museum in early 1905. This is what PUM I looked like soon after arriving to the museum (click here) and this is what PUM I looks like now:

PUM I in his coffin

We don’t know who PUM I was-there are no identifying marks that are visible on the wrappings or coffin. We do know, however, that this person was a man-the body was x-rayed in 1932 and also autopsied early on by cutting a section of the wrappings away from the pelvic region, and determined to be an older man. Each end of the coffin does have some painted decoration-one end depicting Isis and the other her sister Nephthys, as protectors of the mummy.

One end of PUM I’s coffin showing the depiction of Isis in the center

One of our goals this year in the Artifact Lab will be to remove the deteriorated remains from the coffin and stabilize them for transport to the hospital for CT-scanning, so that we can learn more about this individual.

What does this have to do with mannequins, you’re wondering? Well, as most people in Philadelphia know, John Wanamaker, the man who purchased and donated PUM I to the Penn Museum, was a businessman from Philadelphia who founded the first department store here, Wanamaker’s. Last week my mom and I wandered into the old Wanamaker’s in Center City, now a Macy’s. It’s a beautiful building with the world’s largest playable organ (also built for the 1904 St. Louis World Fair), which is played every day of the week except for Sunday, as well as more often on special occasions.

My mom reminded me that one of my favorite childhood films, Mannequin, was filmed in the store, and it made me want to watch it again-it’s been a long time since I last saw it. But only today did it dawn on me that there is another reason to watch it, and it’s related (very loosely) to work: the mannequin character, played by Kim Cattrall, is from Ancient Egypt, living in the year 2514 BC, and the film begins in Egypt.

Kim Cattrall bandaged as a mummy at the beginning of the movie

If this doesn’t make you want to watch the movie, I don’t know what will. Alternatively, you could come check out PUM I in the Artifact Lab. We’ll let you know when we make a move to get him out of his coffin.

Posted by Molly

Wall painting fragment from Deir el-Medina

Let’s take a closer look at another object undergoing conservation treatment In the Artifact Lab.

Wall painting fragment from Deir el-Medina, Egypt

This is a wall painting fragment from a tomb wall in Deir el-Medina, located near the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. It dates to 1150 BCE. The painting substrate is a mud plaster mixed with straw, and the surface is painted to depict the standing figure of a diety in profile. At some point in the past, this fragment was set into a wood frame and encased in plaster.

The first step in the conservation process is to document the condition of the wall painting. Using Photoshop and a tablet computer, a condition map was created to highlight areas of loss, major breaks, and loose elements.

A basemap showing condition issues including major breaks and loose pieces (see key on right).

After recording its condition, I then started investigating the materials and methods used to mount and frame it. The wall painting fragment appears to be backed and surrounded with Plaster of Paris and set into a wood frame with beautiful dovetail joints.

Detail showing corner of frame with dovetail joints

At first, we thought that one option might be to leave it as is, but it was immediately evident that the plaster surrounding the painting was cracked and loose in areas. After prying some of the loose plaster away, I found that luckily, the plaster seen around the outside of the painting is only a thin skim coat layer, and that paper was used as a barrier layer in places between the painting and the plaster. I was hoping that it would be newspaper, providing clues as to when and where the framing occurred, but unfortunately, so far all I’ve found is plain paper.

Detail photographs showing bottom of painting with plaster skim coat partially removed (left) and fragments of paper and plaster removed from frame (right)

I did find one clue, however, hidden on the inside of the frame-a sticker reading “DOUANE  PARIS  CENTRAL”. There is a portion of an identical sticker on the back of the frame, but it is much harder to read. A Google search of these words led me to conclude that this might be a customs sticker. Why there would be a customs sticker on the inside of the frame is unclear, but from this evidence, as well as the fact that we know that this painting was purchased from Joseph Brummer, a dealer who ran galleries in Paris and New York, we can assume that this painting was mounted and framed before it was purchased by the museum in 1925.

We will continue examining and carrying out research on the wall painting fragment to understand its current condition problems, and also how we will approach stabilizing it for future display. We will provide updates as we work on this object!

– by Molly

The Outer Coffin of Ahanakht – part 1.

The outer coffin of Ahanakht, assembled, in an early photograph from the Museum Archives

One of the big projects the new Artifact Lab space is allowing us to work on is the Inner Outer Coffin of Ahanakht (E 16218A-P).  This artifact, currently in at least 15 pieces, has a long inscription in Hieratic script on the interior surfaces that Dr. David Silverman and his graduate student Leah Humphrey are working on transcribing and translating.

The scholars know that the coffin was made for an Egyptian named Ahanakht because his name is in the inscription.

Dr. Jennifer Wegner, Associate Curator in the Egyptian Section, showed me Ahanakht’s name as it would appear on the coffin inscription.

We know the coffin had been reassembled at one time but since was taken apart, probably to make it easier to store.  But that made it hard to access, since many of the boards are very large (the largest boards are 8.5 feet long), very heavy and awkward to move and space in storage is limited.  In the Artifact Lab, we had shelving custom built to accommodate the coffin boards so we could treat them and the Egyptologists could finally read their inscriptions.

The custom built steel shelving to house the large, heavy coffin boards in the Artifact Lab

Because the coffin is in many pieces which shouldn’t need a lot of conservation, it’s a perfect project for the staff conservators who will only be spending occasional stints in the Artifact Lab (unlike Molly Gleeson, the project conservator) so last Sunday I began work on one of the smallest of the coffin boards.  It’s been interesting.  I’ll fill in the details in my next post.

posted by Lynn Grant