In preparation for the new Ancient Egypt and Nubia galleries the conservation department began a survey of the current Upper Egypt gallery to understand the condition of the objects and anticipate treatment time. Part of this survey includes performing archival research on the excavation and exhibition history of the monumental pieces in the gallery. This research will help us better understand previous treatment and display decisions to inform future treatment decisions.
One of the monumental pieces is the “Triumphal Stela” (29-107-958) from the Bet Sh’ean expedition directed by Clarence S. Fisher, Curator of the Egyptian Section at the time. The Penn Museum Archives contain records from the expedition, including Fisher’s field diaries handwritten in cursive. I was able to locate the diary entries from when the stela was found and transcribed them to the best of my ability for easier reference later. Called the “Ramses II stela” during excavation, this rounded top stone pillar was found toppled, underneath the “Seti I stela” on May 31st, 1923.
“The discovery of a second Egyptian stele at Beisan and one with such a nicely cut and clear inscription is of immense importance and we all eagerly await the turning over of the stones” – Page 167 Fisher Diary
The excitement of the find is clear in Fisher’s journal entries. He asserts that the stelas were toppled purposefully as they once stood on stone bases next to each other. The Ramses II stela was found in two pieces. Alan Rowe completed a drawing of the bottom portion of the stela, and a close-up image was taken of the top portion.
The stela was recently de-installed from the current Upper Egypt gallery and will be on view in the Eastern Mediterranean galleries (opening at the end of this year) before being installed in our new Ancient Egypt and Nubia galleries.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
We even see that the doorways are illustrated with brilliant blue and teal colors.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
The textual information from the publication includes some important pieces of information: first that, “it had been considerably restored before being deposited in the tomb, 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.
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.
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Update – this post contains outdated language. We no longer use the term “mummy” and instead use “mummified human individuals” to refer to Ancient Egyptian people whose bodies were preserved for the afterlife. To read more about this decision, follow this link.
View of the Artifact Lab, ready for reopening on Saturday April 8th
The Artifact Lab: Conservation in Action looks a lot like it did before we closed in December, but as you can see from the shot above, our focus has shifted from Egyptian mummies and funerary objects to a wider range of artifacts, with a special focus on objects being prepared for installation in our Middle East Galleries next year.
This glazed clay slipper coffin from Nippur, excavated by our museum in the late 19th century, is front and center in the Artifact Lab:
The slipper coffin (B9220) on display in the Artifact Lab
It has a fascinating history, including its restoration here at the museum in the 1890s, which is noted on its catalog card as being carried out by the restorer William H. Witte. The restoration work allowed this coffin and several others to be displayed for the opening of the new museum building in 1899, where they remained on display for 40 years. We are particularly tickled that this coffin was displayed in this very same gallery where the Artifact Lab is now housed, the Baugh Pavilion.
The Baugh Pavilion, one of two galleries devoted to the museum’s Babylonian expeditions, as it appeared in 1899 with four slipper coffins on display. UPM Neg. #22428
There are many more stories to share about the objects and work being done and we’ll continue to write about them on our blog. In the meantime, come visit us now that we are open again! Our open window times also have changed slightly – they are now as follows:
Update – this post contains blurred images of human remains and outdated language. We no longer use the term “mummy” and instead use “mummified human individuals” to refer to Ancient Egyptian people whose bodies were preserved for the afterlife. To read more about these changes, follow this link.
A long time ago I posted an image of our Mummy Gallery, circa 1930s. Well, I find myself returning to this photograph again and again as I work on new objects in the lab.
Can you find two of the objects that we’re working on right now, the beautifully preserved painted wooden coffin and the shabti box and shabits, all from the New Kingdom? Here are images of these objects, just to help you out:
Did you find them? I’ll post the image of the mummy room below, with these objects circled in red.
And here is a cropped version of this image, to better show these objects:
While it’s just cool to see an image of these objects in a previous display, it’s also helpful to me as a conservator. I can see how they were mounted for exhibit (the coffin is standing upright, the shabtis are on little platforms) and I can also get a sense of condition at this time (for instance, the middle lid of the shabti box is missing in this image, and I can see some losses to the painted surface as well).
I’m am nearly finished working on the shabti box and shabtis, and the coffin will also be completed this year, so we will finally be able to put these objects back on exhibit.
Coming up next week, I will be posting some multispectral images of the shabti box and shabtis, which is helping us better understand the original colors and also to see some of the painted details, which are now largely obscured by the orange pistacia resin varnish.
Rubinstein was known as a great art collector (she bought pieces by the truckload, according to this article in the New Yorker) and she decorated her many homes with modern art, as well as artwork and antiquities from all over the world (she amassed an especially large collection of African art). When I found out that these cartonnage pieces in our collection had once been in the possession of the Madame, as she preferred to be called, I was hoping that I’d be able to find a photo of them on display in one of her homes.
Rubinstein, photographed in 1951, with some pieces from her Africa and Oceania collection. Image from “Over the Top: Helena Rubinstein: Extraordinary style, beauty, art, fashion” by Suzanne Slesin, 2003.
While I found many photos showing the interior of her homes, I didn’t catch a glimpse of the funerary mask in any of them. And it’s possible that she never had it, or the rest of the cartonnage, on display at all.
Based on letters found in our Archives, I found out that we ended up receiving these pieces as a gift from Mme. Rubinstein through the Carlebach Gallery in New York. The gallery owner, Julius Carlebach, acted as the intermediary for the donation, which was given to the museum while Dr. Rudolf Anthes was Curator of the Egyptian Section, under the directorship of Froelich Rainey. In his letter offering the cartonnage pieces to the museum, Carlebach noted that he was sorry that Madame Rubinstein had no further information about them.
But I did find something interesting in Froelich Rainey’s thank you note to Mme. Rubinstein.
The letter is a little confusing because he refers to the mask as a “mummy portrait,” but I’m sure he’s talking about the cartonnage. As you can see, he mentions that the lower section would be included in the museum’s television program “What in the World”. “What in the World” was a Peabody Award-winning television program, where Rainey moderated a panel of experts trying to identity artifacts, while viewers were given clues to the answer (it ran for 14 years and by the early 1960s it was one of the oldest programs on television!). The episode featuring the cartonnage aired on May 23, 1953.
Unfortunately, as far as we know, only a few episodes of this show have survived, not including this 1953 episode. Those that we do have are now digitized and on the museum’s YouTube channel (follow this link to view them). Is there any way we might be able to find the one featuring Mme. Rubinstein’s gift? It seems unlikely, but I’d love to think that it is possible.
In the meantime, we’ll be doing our own investigations on these pieces right here in the Artifact Lab, and we’ll report on the blog as we learn more and make decisions on treatment.
Special thanks to Alex Pezzati, our Senior Archivist, for his help in locating these documents.
Update – this post contains outdated language. We no longer use the term “mummy” and instead use “mummified human individuals” to refer to Ancient Egyptian people whose bodies were preserved for the afterlife. To read more about this decision, follow this link.
We’ve been threatening to do it, and this week we followed through on our promise – to flip over the base of Tawahibre’s coffin.
As readers know, we have been working on Tawahibre’s coffin lid, and recently lifted it away from the base. Once we removed the lid, we could see that the interior of the base was undecorated, with plaster smoothed over the wood joins. There was also some textile remaining, presumably from the mummy who once was inside.
An interior view of the base of Tawahibre’s coffin
While the interior is undecorated, we know the same isn’t true for the exterior, based on a photo recovered awhile back in the Archives. After a bit more digging in Archives recently, we found even more detailed photographs of the coffin lid and base, taken sometime before they were put on exhibit back in the 1930s.
Image from the Archives showing the front of the coffin lid and the back of the coffin base
Recovering old images like this is exciting because they potentially have a lot to tell us. In this case, this photograph is a good record of what the condition of the coffin was like soon after it was acquired by the museum. Like in the exhibit photograph I had recovered earlier, I could see that a lot of the damage we’re seeing on the coffin lid today was present then. But there was no way of knowing, until this week, how the current condition of the coffin base compares to the condition seen in this photograph.
And I have to tell you, I was a bit worried – until just a few days ago, all I could see of the coffin base was from these views:
Detail views of the proper right and proper left sides of the coffin lid and base, before treatment
Those large chunks of plaster and paint on the wood support below weren’t very promising. I had a sinking feeling that a lot of the paint and plaster on the back of the coffin base was unstable as well, and going to fall away when we tried to lift and flip it over.
The first step in getting the coffin base flipped over was to stabilize the plaster and paint on the inside and sides of the base, as much as possible. I carried out this work using the same methyl cellulose adhesive solution and fill material mixture as I have been using on the lid.
Then we did a test lift, to see how stable it felt, and to determine if we needed to temporarily stabilize any areas on the back before turning it over.
The test lift was encouraging, so we decided just to go for it!
How many conservators do you need to flip over a coffin base? Eight, it turns out.
Fortunately, the procedure went smoothly, smoothly enough that we even allowed our Public Relations Coordinator Tom Stanley post a video of us turning the base over on the museum’s Instagram account.
Once we turned the base over, we were rewarded by being able to see that the back is still remarkably well-preserved, with very little changes from when that old photograph was taken:
Tawahibre’s base in the 1920s (left) and today (right)
Can you spot the differences in these two photographs? I’ll post another copy of this image soon, circling the changes that have occurred.
Last week I introduced you to two wooden statue heads that I’m working on and promised to share the step by step process of their conservation.
A first step in understanding these objects is gathering information about their past. As we said in the previous post, they are from Dendera and were discovered in 1898. The other questions were: Who discovered them? How and when did they arrive in Philadelphia? And more…
To address these questions, the best place to begin is the Museum Archives. I first checked Clarence Fisher’s field notebooks, since we know that he excavated in Dendera for the museum from 1915-1918, continuing the work begun by Charles Rosher and Flinders Petrie. An afternoon looking at (all!) of his notebooks revealed no leads. The other possibility was to refer to Petrie’s own field records; and here I found reference to the heads, or more precisely the “statuettes”, noted in his field notebook.
This page notes the “2 statuettes” at the foot of the coffin. From Petrie Notebook n.15, p.30, courtesy and copyright of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.
That mystery solved, we moved onto the next one. Included in the storage drawer with the wooden heads, we found a note indicating “2 wooden statuettes nearly consumed by white ants”.
After a little more digging, I found that this was a quote from Petrie’s publication about Dendera, on p.10, paragraph 2…and the rest is still meaningless to us! In this publication Petrie indicates that the heads came from a secondary burial, belonging to a woman, under Adu II’s own funerary chamber.
Moreover, it unveiled a new clue: Petrie wrote that he discovered “statuettes” and not only their heads. That could imply the fact that they were still complete statues at the time of the excavation. It is possible that they were in such a poor condition that the archaeologist left the bodies and only took the heads. We definitely do not have any more parts of these statues in our collection – after checking, no “spare bodies” are registered in the Egyptian storerooms of the Penn Museum.
All of this may seem to be only details but it is essential information for a conservator: the fact that W.M.F. Petrie discovered the heads is highly interesting, because he most likely treated them in the field. He published a book where he explains his practical way of applying a “first-aid” treatment to damaged artifacts (Methods and aims in Archaeology, 1904) which may provide critical information for us! Indeed, knowing this will allow the conservator to be aware of what kind of material was added to the original object and how to deal with it.
My investigation into these old treatment materials will be the topic of a post to come!
When we begin working on objects in the conservation lab, we carry out preliminary research, which often includes searching for related materials in the Archives. Among the materials we may be interested in are archaeological field notes, letters between curators and archaeologists or collectors about the acquisition of specific artifacts, and old photographs.
Recently, Senior Archivist Alex Pezzati scanned some images for me, including this one, a shot of the Egyptian “Mummy Gallery” in 1935.
I was excited to see some of the artifacts we’re working on in the Artifact Lab right now in this photo. Can you pick some of them out? In the image below I’ve circled some of them in red.
The objects circled in red above are either being worked on in the Artifact lab or are on display in our accompanying exhibit
These old exhibition photographs can be extremely valuable to conservators. Not only does this particular image tell us that certain artifacts were definitely on display, and when (which may not be recorded elsewhere), but it also shows us how they were displayed. In some cases, seeing the way that artifacts were previously displayed may help to explain damage, such as excessive fading on one side or adhesive residues left behind by an old mount. We can often make good guesses about this type of damage, but it’s always nice to have some proof!
What particularly excited me about this photograph is that it shows the coffin of Tawahibre in the gallery. We are currently working on this coffin in the lab, but it is still too fragile to separate the lid from the base to allow for examination of both pieces individually.
The coffin of Tawahibre in the Artifact Lab.
Just recently, Curator Dr. Jen Wegner was up in the lab and we were discussing the coffin and some of my observations, and she wondered out loud if the back had any text written on it. I had wondered the same thing myself but I knew that until we carried out further work, we wouldn’t be able to know.
BUT, since this 1935 photograph shows both the lid and the base of the coffin on display, we don’t have to wait any longer!
The lid and the base of Tawahibre’s coffin, side by side in the Mummy Gallery in 1935.
As you can see in the above image, there is writing on the back! Now only if we could just hasten the conservation treatment so we can examine it for ourselves…
Another thing that is useful about this image is that is shows that much of the damage we’re seeing on the coffin today was present in 1935. This includes both major structural damage and extensive paint loss in areas. It is likely that the coffin came into our collection with this damage, which is somehow reassuring to me. I will also note this in my documentation.
Tawahibre’s coffin in 1935 (left) and today (right). Much of the major damage we see today had already occurred by 1935. To highlight this, I’ve circled some of the damaged areas in red in both images.
We continue to plug away on the treatment of the coffin and we are hoping to soon reach the point where we can separate the lid. I will provide an update shortly about some of the more recent work we have been carrying out on this artifact!