Happy New Year! As I’ve mentioned in my 2 previous posts, the Artifact Lab exhibit/viewing area will be closed to museum visitors until April 8, 2017. During this time we will be working in the lab and updating this blog, but you will not be able to visit us in person. When we reopen there will be some changes in the lab and gallery space so please do come back and visit us in a few months! You can find up-to-date information on our gallery closures and re-openings on the Penn Museum’s website, here. See you in April! (but don’t forget that we will continue providing updates about our work on the blog).
The last time I wrote about Nespekashuti, I reported that I was working on stabilizing the painted decoration on the underside of his coffin. I did this with Nespekashuti in his coffin up on sawhorses, and by sitting on the floor to do the work. It wasn’t terribly uncomfortable, but it took a bit longer than I expected, and I’m pleased to say that I’m now finished with this part.
So now I have to turn to the step that I’ve really been putting off – the conservation of Nespekashuti himself. In conservation, we are faced with lots of decisions about the treatment of an artifact. Some of these decisions – whether or not to consolidate flaking or powdery paint, or whether or not to join pieces of a broken ceramic – are (usually) kind of no-brainers. The material choices are often not as simple – we regularly consider and test a wide variety of materials when making treatment decisions – but sometimes even choosing the materials to use is pretty straightforward. For instance, we almost exclusively use the same adhesive (Paraloid B-72) to mend ceramics, no matter where in the world they’re from or how old they are.
But sometimes the trickiest decisions are those that are the most subjective – whether or not to fill a loss for aesthetic reasons, how far to go when treating an object, etc. Fortunately, we rarely make these decisions on our own – we engage our curators, exhibitions team, and other specialists in order to determine a reasonable approach that meets the needs of the desired outcome as best as possible. There are a couple decisions I’ve had or have to make in the treatment of Nespekashuti and his coffin that fall into this category, and I thought I’d lay them out here for consideration (even if I’ve already made my decisions, more or less).
- Do I remove Nespekashuti from his coffin for treatment? This was a question I had to ask myself from the beginning. When we removed him from exhibit, I immediately knew that there were some major structural issues with both the mummy and his coffin that needed to be addressed as part of the treatment.
Normally, when working on a mummy in a coffin, we take the mummy out, and work on both pieces separately. But if I have learned nothing else in my last 3 years in the Artifact Lab, I have learned that there is no such thing as “normal” when working on ancient Egyptian mummies. In Nespekashuti’s case, his remains and wrappings are so deteriorated that we can’t simply lift him out of his coffin without causing significant damage. Another option would be to encapsulate everything and flip the whole package over, and then lift the coffin away from the mummy. This is not out of the question, but I got to thinking, is this really necessary? What do we stand to gain by doing this? We can do all of the imaging we want to do (x-radiography, CT-scanning) with him in his coffin, and the coffin is helping to hold him together at the moment. If we did decide to remove him, how much loss is acceptable? If we took him out, how easy will it be to get him back inside? It would be way less than ideal if we couldn’t get him back inside the coffin post-treatment, or if doing so caused more damage. So I have made the decision not to remove him for treatment, and to see if it is possible to work on both Nespekashuti and his coffin as they are. But this is not necessarily a final decision – this is a decision that I’m constantly reevaluating as I carry out the treatment.
- And then there is the issue of his teeth.
Do I cover his teeth or not? I consider this not just an aesthetic issue, but also an ethical one. The damage to the wrappings around his mouth is strange. It is not classic “tomb robbery” damage, which is typically seen on wrappings near the neck or chest, but it does appear to be intentional, at least in part. And certainly, his mouth/teeth were never meant to be exposed like this as part of his burial. Many people who visit the Artifact Lab are fascinated by seeing his teeth – I know there was a dentist in here the other day who was excited to see them. But it also seems to me that many people are somewhat distracted by the teeth – it’s hard to appreciate anything else when those teeth are just staring you in the face. I initially wasn’t thinking too much about this damage – it is quite stable, whereas there are many other areas of the wrappings that are terribly fragile and actively falling apart. And I’ve worked on other mummies with exposed body parts and I have not covered them up as part of the treatment. But I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Nespekashuti and it’s got me thinking – what responsibility to we have to him, and to the preservation of his remains, wrappings, and his burial? How do we want him to look when he goes back on display? This is not just my decision to make, but I have decided that it is my responsibility to provide an option – so I am planning to create a removable covering for the mouth, which I will present to our curators post-treatment. I like the idea of covering his mouth, but I will emphasize the fact that this covering will be removable, therefore, reversible. I haven’t made the covering yet, but I will certainly post some images once I do.
I’m curious to hear the opinions of others, so if you have thoughts about these questions and decisions, and any other considerations, please post them in the comment section below.
In my last post about this late 21st/early 22nd stola coffin lid, I referred to it as eye candy.
This coffin is beautiful, and we could discuss how nice it is to look at all day. But in this post, I’m going to focus on some of the more subtle, somewhat less-attractive (but perhaps even more interesting) features that I’ve discovered about this coffin lid as I’ve begun to work on it. In fact, on Friday I spent awhile discussing some of these details with a group of conservators and interns from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). As I mentioned in my last post, although this coffin has been on long-term loan to us since the 1930s, it still technically belongs to the PMA, so I am carrying out my treatment in close consultation with one of their objects conservators.
I always appreciate the opportunity for professional exchange, and I was happy to be able to discuss my plan, including materials and approaches with them. This discussion energized me to get started with the treatment, and that is exactly what I did, almost as soon as they left.
One thing that I noticed in my initial examination is that this coffin lid has been worked on before. There are residues of old adhesives in areas, including an adhesive mixed with a sawdust-like material, especially around the foot of the coffin.
I have seen these same types of repairs on at least one other coffin in our collection, and while there is no documentation of them, I am suspicious that this treatment was carried out in our museum soon after we acquired this coffin, but long before our conservation lab was established 49 years ago.
The foot of the coffin has another type of repair as well – there are 2 brackets that are held on with screws on the underside of the foot, apparently to secure some of the wood components. This whole area moves when handled, so the brackets and screws will have to come off so that I can better assess what is going on.
There is some very powdery material associated with areas of damage, especially on the face, which appears to be partially due to deterioration of the mud plaster, but also may be due to insect activity. I’ll have to investigate this further over the course of the treatment.
And then there are some materials included in the mud plaster, including some course linen threads and even a leaf, which I am documenting as I work to clean the surface.
The next time I post images of this coffin lid, it should be a lot cleaner, as I plan to complete the initial surface cleaning within the next week. More soon about this, and other observations and developments in the treatment.
Our department temporarily gained a member last week, when aspiring conservator Jessica Schwartz returned to spend an afternoon with us.
Jessie, a 6th-grader from Atlanta, has been interested in archaeology for as long as she can remember, but after seeing us working In the Artifact Lab two summers ago, she redirected her energy to pursuing archaeological conservation. There aren’t many opportunities for 12-year olds to gain experience in conservation, so we thought that if she spent some time with us, she’d get a taste of what we do on a day-to-day basis.
The first time she worked with us, last summer, we spent some time looking at our Predynastic mummy Bruce, using our microscopes to identify materials, and making scarab amulet impressions, and she wrote about all of this on the blog, which you can find by following this link.
Last week she came for a return visit (her family was here for the opening of our new exhibition, Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, & Gold in Ancient Panama) and she kept pace with all of the activities of the afternoon, including discussing my ongoing treatment of Pinahsi, a New Kingdom mummy (she had a good eye for picking out where I had repaired the textile shroud!) and reviewing radiographs of some of our animal mummies.
One of the first questions Jessica asked me when she came into the lab was, “what is that container full of little bits of cotton for?”. I’m so glad she asked (it’s a cotton swab disposal jar), because it gave me the idea to teach her one of the most important skills for a conservator to have – rolling your own cotton swab! We make our own swabs for cleaning objects because it allows us to have more control over the size and shape of the swab and the amount of cotton, and it’s also a lot cheaper. Jessica was so pleased with learning this new technique – I told her it would take her far!
After working in the Artifact Lab for a bit, we went downstairs to our new digital x-ray lab* to review some animal mummy x-radiographs. I x-rayed the animal mummies just before Jessie’s visit, so this was an opportunity for us to learn from the radiographs together. (*We are super excited about our new digital x-radiography equipment and we are just starting to use it to examine objects in our collection. I have been meaning to write a post just about the equipment and some of the things it has already allowed us to do, so look for this in the near future.)
One of the mummies we x-rayed was this ibis mummy, which our graduate intern
Alexis North treated over the summer. As far as we know, this mummy had never been x-rayed before, so we really had no idea what the radiograph would reveal. Here are the 2 views we captured:
Both views clearly show that there are bird remains inside, and the side view shows the characteristic long, curved beak of the ibis really well. The radiographs also show the textile wrappings and even the materials in the storage support! But focusing on the bird remains, they seemed a little…sparse. So we consulted with the museum’s zooarchaeologist and teaching specialist Dr. Kate Moore. She brought us into her lab and showed us a complete heron skeleton (she doesn’t have an ibis skeleton, but a heron is very comparable in terms of size and the shape of the bones).
Here is the complete skeleton, which Kate piled up on the table so that we could get a sense of how much volume those bones take up. After seeing these bones, we took another look at the x-radiograph, and realized that our ibis mummy only contained about half the bones of a complete skeleton (for starters, the pelvis is missing completely).
As you can see, we had a full afternoon, and we learned a lot together. Jessie had to fly back to Atlanta today to turn her attention back to her current full-time job, being a sixth grader, but we look forward to her next visit. While college, and conservation graduate school, are a bit far off in the future, we can already see that if Jessie ultimately decides to pursue conservation, she’s going to excel!
Today was the launch of the Villanova CAVE. I’m a little confused about what CAVE stands for because in the opening remarks someone mentioned that it is “computer assisted virtual environment” but in all of the promotional materials about the CAVE it says that it stands for “CAVE automatic virtual environment”. In any case, it’s an 18′ x 10′ x 7.5′ high room with a configurable ceiling, where, with a pair of special glasses, you are immersed in a virtual experience, which could mean exploring areas closed to the public in Eastern State Penitentiary, walking through a plaza in Mexico, or looking inside a falcon mummy. And not just any falcon mummy, OUR falcon mummy, which is why I was at the opening today.
We found out about the CAVE several months ago, thanks to Dr. Michael Zimmerman, who introduced Lynn Grant and I to his colleague Dr. Frank Klassner. Dr. Klassner is the director of the CAVE, and is also a professor of Computing Sciences and director of the Center of Excellence in Enterprise Technology (CEET) at Villanova. Dr. Klassner was looking for collaborators who might be interested in exploring objects, places, or spaces using the CAVE. We had recently CT-scanned our falcon mummy, and offered to share that data with him.
After the opening remarks, we were allowed to enter the CAVE in groups of 15, where we put on the special glasses (which looked a lot like the 3D glasses you get in a movie theater) and we were shown some demos of the potential applications.
They didn’t show the falcon mummy in my group, so I pulled the guy leading the demo aside (who turned out to be George Lacakes, Director of the Virtual Reality Laboratory at Rowan University), and put in a special request for the falcon. George told me that they hadn’t totally finished processing the CT-data because it needed a lot of work, so we couldn’t fully unwrap the falcon in the CAVE just yet, but we were still able to look at a portion of it (the CT-scan was captured in 2 different sections, so we were only looking at one) and peer inside to see the skeletal remains. I told Dr. Klassner that we’d just have to make a trip back once they finished processing all of the data, and he enthusiastically welcomed a return visit.
In addition to being able to explore objects and places through previously-captured data, the CAVE has a rover named Seymour (get it? because it helps you see more) which can capture images anywhere (like an archaeological site or the galleries of a museum) that can then be explored in the CAVE.
The development and construction of the CAVE was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Watch a time-lapse video of the CAVE being constructed, and read more about the CAVE here.
No, he’s not Egyptian, and no, he’s not a mummy, but somehow this 6500 year-old skeleton made his way into the Artifact Lab, and we are working on conserving his remains.
Thanks to recent media attention, he has drawn visitors to the museum, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Fortunately for our visitors, he is on view In the Artifact Lab every day the museum is open, until we complete the conservation treatment, which will be sometime in the next few weeks.
Just to give you an idea of what you might see if you visit the lab in the upcoming weeks, here are some photos taken by Phil and Diana Monslow, a Welsh couple who visited the museum on Thursday and promptly emailed their photos to us that same day.
Thanks Phil and Diana for your great shots!
On August 5, 2014, Penn Museum’s PR team issued a press release titled “6,500-Year-Old Skeleton Newly “Discovered” in the Penn Museum”. The story caught the public imagination and spread throughout world news media like wildfire. Thanks to popular demand, the skeleton will be spending the next few weeks in the Artifact Lab, getting some long-overdue TLC.
To learn more about his past, read this post on the Museum’s blog.
The Ubaid skeleton will be on partial view while on a working table inside the glass-enclosed lab space, with some images and information provided on a video screen. As soon as conservators complete their work documenting, cleaning, and stabilizing the skeleton, it will move to a display case in front of the lab; then visitors will have an opportunity to get a very up-close view.
While the skeleton is inside In the Artifact Lab and later on display, visitors will have frequent opportunities to meet with a physical anthropologist or informed physical anthropology student to ask questions. From Saturday, August 30 through Sunday, September 14 (exception: Labor Day Monday, when the Museum is open), an expert will be on hand from 11 am to noon, and again from 1:00 to 2:00 pm. From September 16 through International Archaeology Day on October 18, a physical anthropologist or student will be on hand Tuesday through Sunday (exception: Wednesdays) from 1:00 to 2:00 pm.
by guest blogger Jessica Schwartz
I had always dreamed of becoming an archaeologist, but after meeting Molly Gleeson and working with her in the Artifact Lab, I now have a second love – archaeological conservation!
After traveling from my home in Atlanta to attend the Penn Museum Archaeology Camp for the last four years, it was last summer (2013) that I first had the opportunity to meet Molly. She saw me intently watching her every day, and took the time to introduce me to conservation of archaeological artifacts, and I became excited to learn more! Every day after camp ended, I rushed up to the Artifact Lab to talk with Molly and see what she was working on. After camp ended, I waited all year to have the chance to return to the Penn Museum in the summer and learn more about archaeological conservation. So, when I returned to the Penn Museum this July, 2014 for camp, I was very excited to see her again and, hopefully, even get a chance to work directly with her in the Artifact Lab.
I guess that dreams can come true, because I did have the opportunity to work together with Molly and also with other conservators, learning about conservation techniques for Egyptian mummies, textiles, scarabs, and even Chinese wall murals! Molly is a wonderful, patient and enthusiastic teacher, and she took the time to work with me on examining mummy cases, wooden coffin boards, an embalmed “falcon” (which may not really contain a falcon but plant materials instead), and even the remains of a 6000 year old mummy.
Molly explained the principles of archaeological conservation, including the importance of closely studying the object before working on it, determining what it is made of and its condition, working together with the archaeologists to find out its historical significance, and how and when it was stored. Then she uses a combination of scientific and artistic methods to determine how to stabilize the object for future preservation and study, and in some cases, to restore it to its previous condition. The entire time she records her findings the same way that a scientist records an experiment. Her work is a combination of archaeology, art history, chemistry, microscopy and science – it’s fascinating!
Molly introduced me to some of the other archaeological conservators working in the Artifact Lab. Sara worked together with me using the stereomicroscope examining fabric from a mummy wrapping – we discovered it was made of linen!
Elizabeth taught me how to make impressions of scarabs (scarabs were popular amulets in Ancient Egypt – they often were inscribed with designs or hieroglyphs).
I also had the opportunity to see two pre-program interns – Cassia and Morgan – working with the large wall-sized Buddhist murals in the Chinese rotunda, and recording their condition before being conserved – much different from studying Egyptian artifacts! Although I asked many (too many!) questions, all of the conservators were kind and patient with me in explaining the answers.
I’ll be going back to the Penn Museum in a few months with my parents to attend the opening of a new exhibit, and when I return, you know where I’ll be… The Artifact Lab!
Last week I introduced you to our baby boy mummy, and this week I have another introduction to make. But unlike most of the Artifact Lab occupants, our newest addition is very much alive! Laura Galicier is a graduate student studying conservation at the University of Paris Pantheon-Sorbonne, and she recently arrived in Philadelphia to start a 7-month internship In the Artifact Lab.
A couple of the things that you may wonder are, did she know that this internship would involve being on display all of the time, and, as a conservator-in-training, how does she feel about having to answer so many questions about Egypt? Well, the answer to the first question is that she was very well-aware of the open nature of the lab because she found out about us through this blog, and had seen photos of the lab and read about our daily interactions with the public. So she can’t say that she didn’t know what she was getting herself into!
Furthermore, Laura is more knowledgeable than most conservators about Egypt, because before starting her conservation studies, she completed a Master’s in Archaeology with a specialization in Egyptology. She has also worked in Egypt, at the Karnak Temple Complex.
While she is here at the Penn Museum Laura will be working on several projects in the lab, one which will be the subject of her dissertation. I’m not going to say anything else about it here – I will let Laura tell you all about her work in an upcoming blogpost. In the meantime, I hope your curiosity is piqued by these images (above, at the microscope, and below) of her examining a pair of wooden statue heads. Expect to hear more about them from Laura here on the blog, and if you visit the lab, you may have a chance to chat with her about her projects.
Posted by Lynn Grant
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.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 firstname.lastname@example.org.