Eyes are the Window to the Soul, Or So They Say

By Tessa de Alarcon

Typically, at the Penn Museum when we are working on objects, even for display, we prioritize stability over aesthetics. This means that we are often do less cosmetic work than would be done at an art museum when it comes to putting in fills and toning out areas of loss. However, I recently undertook a project where I went further than I usually do to recreate lost material. This blog post is going to walk through why that decision was made in this case as well as some of the mysteries that I found along the way

E1019 Before treatment. At this point the object was being tracked as E17632

The object in this case is an Egyptian cartonnage mask E1019. When it entered the lab it had a lot of condition issues, including the top of the head was partially crushed, it had been heavily treated before, and it was missing the inlays for its eyes and eyebrows. The missing eye inlays had been giving many visitors to the lab the creeps as the mask appeared to have dark empty eye sockets. Because of this, from the start I had been polling to my colleagues about what level of repair I should do to reduce the distraction of the missing inlays. I was not at this point considering replacing them, but was instead thinking about maybe toning out some of the other losses on the cheek to draw less attention to the eyes.

E1019 before treatment, a detail of the face and eyes.

When it first entered the lab the mask was being tracked as E17632 but over the course of the treatment, I found a different accession number on the interior, E1019. With the help of our curators, we were able to piece together that E1019 was the original accession number, and E17632 had been assigned to it later. When I looked up the record for E1019 in the museum collection database, I found the record included two eye inlays! I was so hopeful that this would mean that I could reintegrate two inlays, one into each eye. However, when I reached out to the curators to get more information, I found out that they are two parts of the same eye, the white part of the eye and a pupil/iris.

Eye inlays E1019.1, and E1019.2 before treatment

Well, this left a new set of problems. Especially since you can see here, the white part of the eye was not very white anymore since it was covered with a dark brown substance. I was left with a lot of options, leave the eye inlays out, reintegrate them as they are, or clean them and reintegrate them, and if I reintegrated them should I then also create a replica set for the other eye?

Before making any decisions, I checked to see if they inlays fit the eye sockets in the mask, which they did. The inlays turned out to be for the masks right eye. After that, I spent some time characterizing the dark coating on the white part of the eye inlay. This included UV examination and comparing how the coating fluoresced with the brown modern materials I found on the interior of the mask from previous treatments. The results were not as clear cut as I was hoping. It seems that there is more than one brown substance on the inlay based on the UV examination. With this data in hand, I reached out again to the curators with the options of leaving the eyes out, reintegrating them as is, or cleaning and reintegrating. The curators indicated that they wanted the inlay reintegrated, and that they would like a replica for the missing inlay as well so that she looked even as one eye seemed worse than no eyes. Together we decided to clean the eye inlay, but to keep samples of the substances on the inlay for future analysis.

E1019.1 white part of the eye inlay in visible light (top) and under 368nm UV radiation (bottom). The rectangular material is a piece of acidic board with brown residues on it that had been used on the interior of the mask as part of a modern restoration. The fluorescence on the front of the eye inlay under UV is similar though not as bright as the modern brown residues but the back of the eye the brown residues do not fluoresce.

Once clean, I set about making a copy for the masks left eye to be a close but not identical match. Based on previous experience I decided to make the new inlay set out of a two-part light weight epoxy called Wood Epox as it is easy to shape and can be sanded and carved. To start, I made a paper template of the shape of each inlay. I made sure to mark what I wanted to be the front of each so that the shape would be a mirror image of the original inlay. The white inlay is slightly curved, so I also created a form that would have the same curvature using foam.

The inlay, E1019.1 after cleaning (left), the paper template of the inlays (center) and the foam support mimicking the curvature of the inlay with the inlay in place during a test fit (right).

Next, I rolled out some sheets of wood epox, and using the paper template trimmed out the shape I needed for both parts of the eye. The pupil/iris part I let set flat, what let the one fore the white of the eye set in the form I had made so that it would have the same curvature as the original. Once cured I sanded them to finish, with the final stages being wet sanding so that the replica inlays would also have a natural gloss.

The inlays replicas curing with the white part in the curved support (left) and the original inlays (E1019.1, and E1019.2) laid out above the shaped and sanded replicas (right)

The final step before assembly and placement in the mask was the paint them to resemble but not exactly match the originals. I used gloss medium for the pupil/iris as this inlay was especially glossy and I could not get that level of gloss with polishing and painting alone.

The original inlays (E1019.1 and E1019.2) laid out above the replicas after the replicas have been toned to be similar thought not identical to the originals

Finally, here you can see the end results after treatment. You will see though, that I have not attempted to recreate the inlays for the eyebrows. Because we had the one set of eye inlays, I had something to reference for making the replica set of inlays, however, there are still pieces missing which I had no frame of reference for. There were also likely inlays that went around the outside of the eye as well. These and the brows might have been made out of a variety of materials and without the originals for reference, there is no way to be certain about what their color and appearance would have been.

E1019 after treatment. The original inlays are in the masks right eye and the replicas are in the masks left eye.

Keep Your Head Up

by Nylah Byrd

This ancient Egyptian cartonnage funerary mask (L-55-289*) from the late Roman Period came into the conservation lab for treatment as part of the 2021-2022 curriculum internship in the conservation lab. It arrived on a backing board that was not adequately supporting the three-dimensional shape of the piece. The back of the head was the most damaged, and where I did most of the treatment work. I began the treatment by building a mount to support the mask from the front so I could remove the backing board and perform most of the treatment from behind.

*L-55-289 is a loan object from the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Before treatment image of the front of the mask. Photo credit Alexis North.
Before treatment image of the top of the mask.
Photo credit Alexis North.

I toned Japanese paper using Golden Fluid Acrylics for mending the piece. I applied this paper across almost the entirety of the back of the head using 5% methylcellulose as an adhesive. The mends were applied in pieces: first to re-enforce the linen that remained attached to the mask, then to re-attach fragments back onto the mask. I used Volara and soft tipped clamps to support and maintain the shape as the piece dried.

Progress (from left to right) mending the back of the mask.

Once the mask re-gained dimensionality in the back, a new mount was required to adequately support it. I sculped a new mount in two pieces so it could be removed from the object if necessary. The two-piece mount is made of WoodEpox and Ethafoam with wooden skewers to hold the pieces together.

Permanent mount to support the mask before (left) and after (right) the Ethafoam blocks are attached.

Furthermore, this new storage mount was necessary to hold the piece upright. The piece looks so much better now that the head has been re-formed.

L-55-289 after treatment front, proper right, and back views respectively.

Party Time or New Photo Light?

By Tessa de Alarcon

The conservation department recently acquired a new light for multi-modal imaging – an ADJ MEGA PAR Profile Plus (one for use at the conservation lab annex and one for the museum main lab). The MEGA PAR is a tunable LED light source, with 64 different color channels. While not designed for analytical imaging, it provides a bright and large spot size that we can use for visible induced infrared luminescence (VIL) imaging of Egyptian blue. It will also be something we can use to test out other imaging methods in the future. Taking VIL images is not new to the lab, but the light source we had been using stopped working and we needed to replace it. We are grateful to Bryan Harris for making the purchase of the new equipment possible.

The spectralon and the new MEGA PAR Profile Plus light (right) and the new equipment in use (left)

Along with the new light, we also acquired a new reference standard, a 99% reflectance spectralon. This standard is critical for developing methods and standard procedures for imaging in the lab. In this post I am going to show an example of how this standard can be used and how I developed a protocol for VIL imaging with the MEGA PAR light.

Set up for round one testing: Egyptian green (left pigment sample) Egyptian blue (right pigment sample) and a V4 QP grey scale card.

Since the MEGA PAR light is new, one of the first things I did when it arrived (after unpacking it and reading the instructions of course) was run a variety of tests on known reference materials to see what settings might work for creating visible induced infrared luminescence images of Egyptian blue. As part of that process, I set up a grey scale card (QP card V4) and two reference pigment samples, Egyptian blue and Egyptian green (both from Kremer pigments). I chose these so I would have a known pigment that should luminesce, the Egyptian blue, and one that should not, the Egyptian green. Using the department modified full spectrum camera, I took a visible reference image of the known pigments and the QP card using our regular fluorescent photo lights and a visible bandpass filter over the camera lens so that I could have a normal color image.

Screen shot of thumbnail images of the round 1 testing

Then I captured a series of images using the same set up but replacing the visible band pass filter with an 830nm long pass infrared filter so that I could capture images in the infra-red, with the fluorescent light turned off and the MEG PAR turned on. Each of the images I captured were with the same settings on the camera and with the MEGA PAR light in the same position, just going through each of the 64 color channel options.

Screen shot of Adobe Camera RAW showing the process for evaluating the response of Egyptian blue to each setting

I converted the images to grey scale adobe camera RAW by sliding the saturation level from 0 to -100, so that the red, green, and blue values (RGB) would each be the same. I then used the dropper tool to take a reading over where the Egyptian blue standard is in each image and recorded the number. The higher the number, the brighter the luminescence.

Set up for round 2 testing with the Egyptian blue pigment sample (top left), the Egyptian green pigment sample (below the Egyptian blue), the 99% reflectance spectralon standard (right), and a V4 QP grey scale card (bottom).

After doing that I had a reduced set of options that produced good luminescence in the Egyptian blue for a second round of testing. For round two I did the same thing with the more promising group, but also included in my images the 99% reflectance spectralon standard so that I could check and verify that the light is not producing infra-red radiation. If there is any infra-red, than the 99% reflectance standard should be visible. None of the second round of options showed any infra-red. While any of them can be used for VIL, CL08 gave the strongest response.

Screen shot of round 2 testing evaluation

After developing a working set-up, I did a test in the photo studio using an object that I knew had Egyptian blue, and the standards. I captured a visible image with the modified camera with the visible band pass filter and the fluorescent photo lights, and a VIL image with the 830nm long pass filter and the CL08 setting on the MEGA PAR. The false color image was created by splitting the color channels on the visible image in photoshop, discarding the blue data, and putting the VIL data in the red channel, the red visible data in the green channel, and the green visible data in the blue channel. As you can see the spectralon is not visible in the VIL image meaning there is no IR radiation being produced by the MEGA PAR light.

Images of E12974 with a visible image (left), a visible induced infrared luminescence image in the center showing Egyptian blue in white (center), and a false color image showing Egyptian blue in red (right).

After all this work, I had an opportunity to see how the new light would perform in less than ideal settings. I have been working on a study of one of the coffins in the collection, 2017-20-1.3, to examine the coatings and pigments. VIL is the perfect method of identifying blue areas on the coffin but the coffin is too big to fit in the department photo studio. The set of images below were taken in the Artifact Lab (our public lab in a gallery space) where there is IR from the windows (daylight) as well as from the gallery lights. I hoped that a short exposure with the new very bright MEGA PAR would reduce the effects of IR in the image. As you can see in these photos below, the 99% reflectance spectralon is slightly visible but not as clearly as the Egyptian blue on the coffin. These results are much better than what we used to get in the Artifact Lab using our old light, so I am very happy with these results.

Detail from the coffin 2017-20-1.3 with a visible reference image (left) a VIL image with Egyptian blue in bright white (center) and a false color image created by combining channels from the visible reference image with data from the VIL image resulting in the Egyptian blue showing up as red (right).

El cartonaje finalmente se relaja

por Teresa Jiménez-Millas

Durante el pasado mes, he tenido el privilegio de poder trabajar en un cartonaje egipcio, y ¡no menos es la suerte que tengo de poder escribir este artículo en mi lengua materna! Me han consentido mucho en este equipo.

Poco o nada sabemos de la procedencia de la obra, fue una donación a la colección egipcia del museo por parte del Sr. Thomas A. Scott en el siglo XIX, y es un estupendo ejemplar para estudiar tanto la técnica del cartonaje como el tipo de intervenciones que se hacían en el pasado.

La nomenclatura es una derivación del francés “cartonnage”, término usado en egiptología para hacer referencia a la técnica en la que finas capas de yeso se aplicaban sobre un soporte que podía ser fibra (lino) o papiro, permitiendo la flexibilidad suficiente para moldear y obtener las formas deseadas de la silueta del difunto, algo parecido al papel maché para que os hagáis una idea. Sobre este aparejo de yeso se elaboraban la policromía y el dorado.

Esta pieza ocupaba la zona pectoral de la momia. La imagen representa una figura alada con el disco solar sobre la cabeza, posiblemente Nut, quien junto a su hermano Geb eran los padres de Isis, cuya historia es central en la resurrección de los extintos.

En cuanto al proceso de restauración de esta obra, lo primero que nos llamó la atención fue el soporte adherido al reverso, que no formaba parte del original, y por otra parte el gran número de fracturas y pérdidas que presentaba el anverso.

Por la tipología de esta obra sabemos que no era plana y que tenía cierta curvatura, pues su función era decorar y descansar en el pecho de la momia. En este caso, parece que la persona que intervino la pieza en el pasado no tuvo en cuenta esto y añadió un cartón con mucho adhesivo en el reverso, de manera que la pieza ¡quedó completamente aplanada!

En este tratamiento de conservación lo fundamental era eliminar ese soporte trasero para relajar la obra, pese a que esto supusiera que los fragmentos antes unidos quedaran sueltos y desprendidos. Este paso se hizo mecánicamente con la ayuda de un bisturí y bajo las lentes del microscopio.

Se quiso evitar cualquier contacto con un medio acuoso, pues ante una obra tan frágil cualquier fluctuación de humedad podría afectar negativamente al soporte, a las capas pictóricas y al dorado.

Con el paso de los días se pudo observar cómo cada fragmento iba recuperando su forma primigenia, recobrando cierta curvatura y relajándose. Esto determinó el resto del proceso, pues se decidió no forzar la unión de las diferentes áreas. Cada una presentaba en este momento un diferente perfil y tratar de reunirlas provocaría mucha tensión innecesaria.

Se consolidaron y protegieron todas las zonas por el reverso y se estudió la mejor manera de realizar un soporte para cada una de ellas que permitiese también su futuro montaje y exposición.

Tras muchas pruebas, preguntas y mucha paciencia de mis colegas, se decidió que lo mejor sería hacer tres soportes para las tres áreas con resina epoxídica de madera; de esta manera cada uno soportaría un fragmento, un planteamiento respetuoso para la obra que nos hace entender que el paso del tiempo y las intervenciones del pasado dejan su huella.

Photos showing various trials for constructing a support for the fragile cartonnage pieces. The support in the third image (far right, made of wood epoxy) was the winner.

Tengo que agradecer a Jane Williams, jefa de conservación y restauración del “Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco” por sus consejos y su ayuda inestimable para el tratamiento de esta obra que tanto respeto me causaba.

Con mucha gratitud por haber tenido la suerte de trabajar con tan generosas personas y haber aprendido tanto en este fantástico proyecto, ¡espero algún día poder ver este cartonaje expuesto en el museo!

Este proyecto ha sido posible en parte por el Instituto de Servicios de Museos y Bibliotecas.

A little tip

This week, I just have a quick “tip” to offer. A lot of the work that we do in the Artifact Lab involves repairing very fragile organic material and consolidating delicate painted surfaces, and these treatments often rely on the use of adhesives that take awhile to fully set (dry).

To ensure that the areas that we glue together set in just the right position, we rely on the use of gentle finger pressure while the adhesive dries. But instead of sitting there with our finger on an artifact for minutes, if not hours (totally impractical), the finger pressure we apply doesn’t involve our hands at all!

Let me introduce to you the finger weight:

2 finger weights applying gentle pressure to the painted surface of a cartonnage pectoral

2 finger weights applying gentle pressure to the painted surface of a cartonnage pectoral

These little weights are made by snipping off the fingers of nitrile gloves, filling them with the material of your choice (sand, glass microbeads), and then tying off the open ends with a small piece of thread. In our field, we use a wide variety of weights and clamps, many of them fancy and custom-made, but these simple, cheap finger weights are often just the ticket when it comes to finding the right amount of weight and pressure for a fragile, delicate surface or mend.

I can’t take any credit for these – I’m sure many conservators use them, but I was introduced to them by my colleague Alexis North, who has been making them for use in the Artifact Lab. Now she is going to know who is stealing all of the wonderful little weights she makes!

Coolness vs. cuteness

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 have been carrying out our work in front of the public here in the Artifact Lab for nearly 4 years now. Despite the fact that visitors can peer in from various points around the room and watch us working for as long as they have the patience for it, it’s not always clear what we are doing, especially when the work is very detailed and only requires us to make the smallest of movements for hours on end (several of us have overheard museum visitors quietly whispering “is she real?”).

So even though we are “demystifying” our work by bringing it out in full public view, we sometimes have to rely on labels, signs, a slideshow we have running here in the lab, and, hey! this blog, to describe what it is we are doing.

For example, I have been working on this Ptolemaic pectoral cartonnage piece, and most recently started backing and filling losses and tears in the linen support. Most of what I’ve done so far is really difficult to see or appreciate, even though I’m working right by one of the lab windows.

Detail image before (left) and after (right) filling a loss

Detail image before (left) and after (right) filling a loss

These images above show a detail of an area that I backed and filled. There is nothing elaborate or dramatic about this work. As you can see, the fills are small and subtle, mimicking the surrounding areas of paint loss. These repairs were made by backing the losses with Japanese tissue paper and filling with a mixture of Klucel G, alpha cellulose powder, glass microballoons, and powdered pigments.

There are a few areas that I could not access from the front, so I decided to flip the piece over to continue the treatment. In order to protect some fragile areas while the piece is turned over, I temporarily faced them with small pieces of Japanese tissue impregnated with Paraloid B-72.

A detail of the upper half of the pectoral showing facing in progress

Below, you can see what the piece looks like from the reverse. Unfortunately, this means that for the time being, visitors will not be able to see the beautiful painted decoration.

Reverse of E352

Reverse of E352

But have no fear! We have other interesting things on view, and to keep us company as we do this detailed, subtle work. We have our mummy Hapi-Men, who is front-and-center in the middle of the lab, and for those visitors who may not see the “coolness factor” of the mummies, there is this little guy who is currently sitting right by one of the lab’s windows:

E11474: Ptolemaic cartonnage cat head from Abydos

E11474: Ptolemaic cartonnage cat head from Abydos

Because who can resist a cute kitten? We sure can’t, which is why we figure that if this adorable kitty is in the window, even if our work doesn’t appear particularly exciting at the moment, there will be something interesting for everyone to see (and the cat head actually does need treatment and a new storage support, so he is up here for a real reason too!).

Examination and treatment of a cartonnage pectoral

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 have had this object in the collection since 1890:

E352, overall before treatment

E352, overall before treatment

This painted cartonnage pectoral (E352) was made as a covering for the chest of a mummy, and dates to the Ptolemaic Period (ca. 200 BCE). We don’t have the mummy or any other items from the person’s burial, so we don’t know anything about who this belongs to other than that they were buried with this beautiful piece (and likely an equally nice mask, and leg and foot coverings).

This artifact was previously on display in our Secrets and Science gallery and is now in the lab for conservation treatment. It was displayed vertically for over three decades, but since it has come into the lab, we have removed it from the old mount to allow for a full examination, documentation, and treatment.

Multispectral imaging allowed us to identify the Egyptian blue paint used for all of the blue decoration:

An overall image of the pectoral in visible light (left) and a visible-induced IR luminescence image, where the Egyptian blue pigment appears white

An overall image of the pectoral in visible light (left) and a visible-induced IR luminescence image, where the Egyptian blue pigment appears white (right), and everything else is black

We have written about the unique luminescence of Egyptian blue before on this blog, and in the image on the right, above, we can clearly see where it was used to decorate this pectoral.

Conservation treatment so far has included consolidation of the flaking paint with methyl cellulose, carried out under the binocular microscope.

A detail of the pectoral, 7.5X magnification

A detail of the pectoral as viewed through the microscope, 7.5X magnification

I have also been filling small losses with a mixture of Klucel G and glass microballoons, and backing weak areas with Japanese tissue paper.

Here is a link to a mini-slideshow that shows a small section of the cartonnage under 7.5X magnification (the same section seen in the image above). The slidehow shows how I filled a tiny hole with the Klucel mixture, which then allowed me to readhere a tiny fragment of red paint. The change is subtle – see if you can spot where I reattached the paint flake!