An Ivory Figure from Hierakonpolis

By Tessa de Alarcon

The figure you see here, E4893, is an ivory statuette from the site of Hierakonpolis that I am working on as part of an IMLS grant funded project. I have just started the treatment, but thought I would give a brief run through of the initial examination since this is a good example of when and why we use X-radiography in our department to evaluate the condition of objects before treatment.

Before Treatment photograph of E4893

You may have noticed that the middle of this object is fill, so not part of the object. The fill has some cracks and splits that suggests it is unstable and should be removed. There is no written documentation for when this fill was done or by who, but it’s possible that this was done shortly after it was excavated. The object was accessioned in 1898. Given that the conservation lab at the Penn Museum was not founded until 1966 that leaves a big gap for the possibilities for when this treatment might have been done.

Annotated before treatment photograph of E4893 indicating the large fill at the waist of the figure.

Based on previous experience, I often worry with these old fills that there are unseen things, like metal pins or dowels, lurking below the surface. X-radiography is a great way to check for these types of hidden previous treatment issues. Though in this case, what I found when I X-rayed the object was not your typical pin or dowel.

Before treatment photograph of E4893 (left) and an X-ray radiograph of the object (right). The X-ray was captured at 60kV, and 6mA for 6 seconds. There are four nails visible in the fill.

Here in the X-ray you can see what I found: while this fill did not have any pins or dowels, whoever had done this treatment had decided to reinforce it by putting nails (4 in total) into the fill material. While this makes the figure look like he has eaten a bunch of nails, it is in some ways better news than a pin would be. Pins usually go into the original material, and if they are iron, can rust and expand causing damage to the object. Pin removal can also be risky and lead to damage of the object especially if the pin is deeply imbedded or corroded into place. These nails, on the other hand, appear to be only in the fill and do not look like they go into the original material of the object at all. This suggests that removal of the fill and the nails should be possible without damaging the object. As this treatment progresses, I will follow up with additional posts and updates.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services

A Puzzle without all the Pieces: Treating Papyri

By Jessica Byler

The condition survey of our papyri collection is complete – I counted almost 4,300 fragments of papyrus and vellum, more than we realized were there! The papyrus ranged in size from a few millimeters to 9 feet long. Now, I have moved on to treating a few of the papyri that will be on display in the new Egyptian galleries.

Many of the papyri are sandwiched between pieces of Mylar. Static from Mylar can lift off friable ink or even split the two layers of the papyrus fibers and damage the papyrus. In order to safely remove the papyrus, I use a MinION 2 Ionizing Blower to eliminate the static charge. After removing the papyrus from the Mylar, I can then remove old repairs, realign fragments and fibers that are out of place, and apply new tissue paper bridges. Using a light box can help me identify joins and keep fragments in alignment. Papyrus fibers have different thicknesses, widths, and orientations, so transmitted light from a light box reveals the unique fiber pattern.

Left: Removing papyrus (49-11-1) from a Mylar enclosure using an ionizing blower
Right: Using a light box to realign fragments

Let’s look at one papyrus I am currently treating: a Temple robbery papyrus (49-11-1), dated to the 20th Dynasty or 11th century BCE. Along with removing old materials that might harm or obscure the papyrus, a key reason I am treating this particular document is to make sure the joins are right. It is fragmentary and there have been several treatment campaigns to repair it using a variety of materials, including Scotch tape, Japanese tissue, and Document Repair Tape.

Temple robbery papyrus (49-11-1), before treatment

I removed the old repairs where possible and reassessed the location of the fragments. At some point, several of the fragments have become misaligned or detached. In several instances, the fragments were just slightly out of line and could easily be nudged back into place. However, I quickly noticed some issues with a long fragment on the far left (on the right in the photo of the back below), and a small rectangular fragment at the bottom.

Left: detail of the back of the right section before treatment
Right: Section under transmitted light from a light box, with red arrows pointing to the two fragments in the wrong spot

On the long fragment, there are ink marks either side of the join which do not meet up. If the fragment was in the correct location, you would expect the writing to extend over the break. On the smaller fragment, the color, curvature, and thickness were different than the surrounding fragments. Using transmitted light, it is clear the fibers of these fragments do not actually line up correctly. Although at first glance they might not look out of place, they clearly do not belong there.

Left: Detail of front, with red arrows pointing to ink which does not meet up
Right: Detail under transmitted light, with red arrows showing that the fibers do not line up

The long fragment has two lines of writing at the top, so the number of locations it could join was limited. The small fragment at the bottom did not have any writing on it, so it was harder to determine its orientation and position. To add to this complicated puzzle, these pieces also might not join to any of the extant fragments.

Left: Detail of back during treatment, with the two fragments, indicated with red arrows, properly aligned
Right: Detail of back during treatment, with red arrows pointing the two fragments, and blue arrows pointing to some of the new bridges; areas of white residue from the old materials is also visible

Thankfully, their proper locations were easy to find using a light box. As you can see in the detail photos above, the fibers of the papyrus were a perfect match. The tissue paper bridges I used were around the size of a grain of rice and are clearly visible but blend in nicely with the papyrus. The Temple robbery papyrus is now ready for display!

Temple robbery papyrus (49-11-1), after treatment

This project is funded by the Antiquities Endowment Fund (AEF).  The AEF is supported by an endowment established with funds from the United Stated Agency for International Development (USAID).

Conservation Confidential: Tools galore!

Today’s Conservation Confidential, Tools of Every Trade: Conservation Ingenuity with conservator Lynn Grant can be viewed at You can also catch up with others in this series by looking in the Conservation Confidential section at Many of today’s stories and images were drawn from our 8 years of Artifact Lab blogging. If you want to know more, here are links to the relevant posts:

  • Molly’s tools:
  • Gel Cleaning:
  • Restringing:
  • Kitchenwares:

Cuneiform Conservation Conundrum


One of the earliest known forms of writing is cuneiform, a wedge-shaped script developed by the Sumerians, around 5000 years ago. It is preserved on stone carvings and clay tablets. The survival of the clay tablets is amazing, given that most were of unbaked clay – essentially mud. Today’s Conservation Confidential (1 pm EST on Penn Museum’s Facebook page) will feature conservator Tessa de Alarcon discussing the preservation of these earliest written records.

The right tools for the (monumental) job

Greetings from the Penn Museum’s Conservation Lab Annex (CLA)! You may remember from our first post the scale (large!) and types of objects we are going to be working on over the next few years. We are mostly working on architectural elements like doorways, windows, and columns that were part of the palace complex of the Pharaoh Merenptah, who ruled Egypt from Memphis from 1213–1203 BC. To put things in perspective, the doorway we are currently working on is over 12 ft tall and many of its fragments weigh hundreds of pounds. That means we have had to add a few new tools that are not typically found in a museum’s conservation lab. Most recently we’ve started utilizing a lot of new tools including a forklift, a gantry, and large-scale sandboxes.  

  • Forklift – A few weeks ago, the whole Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries Team attended a certification workshop in forklift operation. The certification course taught us the basics in how to safely operate our electric forklift. Having our own forklift onsite allows us to easily move some of the large stone fragments in and out of the lab, reorganize the layout of the warehouse to create space for rigging and lifting, and organize all of the Merenptah Palace pieces into one area.   
Egyptian Section Curator Dr. Jennifer Wegner smoothly maneuvering the forklift during our training session.
  • Gantry – At CLA we have a gantry crane in the warehouse which allows us to rig and lift some of the heaviest objects and fragments. This is especially important when we are trying to dry-fit pieces together before making more permanent joins. There are lots of different ways to rig or strap a fragment for lifting, but we’ve found that using shorter straps with a choke hitch is the safest way to lift our artifacts. In the photo below you can see that’s exactly what we’ve done. Once we have the straps secured and fully supporting the object, we begin to slowly lift, making sure the straps settle and don’t slip or re-adjust, dropping the object.  
CLA team using the gantry to lift part of the lintel from Doorway 1.
  • Sandbox – Sandboxes are often used in conservation to support objects during joining. Using a sandbox, we can place an object inside at whatever angle we need to in order to support the object on top with nothing but the weight of gravity. At CLA, our objects are quite large, so we are using old shipping crates and converting them into large sandboxes to accommodate our needs. In the photos below you can see the process of moving a fragment into the sandbox and then in the second photo you can see that fragment has been placed in such a way that it can now support the weight of the second, joining fragment on top of it. The blue tape serves as a guide to help us know exactly how the two pieces fit together once we have applied the adhesive and are ready to do the final joining. 
CLA team moving part of the lintel from Doorway 1 into a sandbox.
Fragments of Doorway 1 lintel being dry-fit together in the sandbox prior to joining.
  • Dremel – Lastly, and on a much smaller scale, we’ve been using a few different power tools. The most helpful so far has been the Dremel. While the Dremel is not a completely foreign tool to many conservators, it is most often used for making mounts or sanding fills and/or cross-sections. In this case we are using the Dremel to cut and remove all restoration pins that have become heavily corroded over the years, expanded, and are causing damage to the stone.   
Corroded ferrous pins from a previous restoration being cut and removed from Doorway 1 fragments.

As with any job, having the right tools is really important, for success and safety! We look forward to continuing to share the progress we’ve made on this project from our home offices, as we continue to work from home.

Lessons Learned: You Cannot Treat Dry Wood Like Wet Wood

by Tessa de Alarcon

Documentation of conservation treatments undertaken in the lab is a very important part of what we in the conservation department do at the museum. One of the main reasons we document our treatments is so that conservators in the future don’t have to try to figure out what was done to an object. Instead those future conservators can read our reports and start off knowing the treatment history.  

An array of treatment reports, and log book entries, from the conservation department at the Penn Museum

We are also sometimes those future conservators, looking back at previous treatments. This means that not only can we see an object’s treatment history, we have the opportunity to evaluate and learn from the decisions made by conservators decades ago. Some of these treatments were successful, and some were not. Now we know to avoid those treatments that clearly did not work.

I recently completed a treatment on an object that is a good example of this process. E11151 is a carved wooden figure from Nubia. It was treated before I worked on it by a conservator in the 1970’s. The photo below is how the object looked when it entered the lab at the end of last year.

Before treatment image of E11151 taken in 2019

In the case of this object, it was noted in the 1970’s as having a slightly powdery surface. The conservator conducting the treatment decided to apply a consolidation method that is frequently used on waterlogged wood: immersion in a solution of PEG (polyethylene glycol). PEG treatments are still done today and are very effective at consolidating and stabilizing waterlogged wood before it dries out. But because of this treatment and others done at the museum around this same time period, we have learned that consolidation with PEG is not effective on dry wood, even if it once was waterlogged. E11151 was dry wood and did not come from a waterlogged context.

E11205, E11187, E11203, E11151
E11151 is on the far right.
This publication photo was taken before the object was treated in the 1970’s.

The photo above is a publication photo of the object before it was treated in the 1970’s. While there is no photography with the 1970’s treatment report, there is a sketch which suggests that the object looked similar to this photo when it entered the lab at that time. As you can see there are quite a few differences in the object’s appearance as it entered the lab in 2019 and how it looked before it was treated in the 1970’s.

Before treatment photo of E11151. The red arrow is pointing to an area of thick, white, and hard high molecular weight PEG and the blue arrow is pointing to soft and sticky low molecular weight PEG

Two different molecular weights of PEG were used on this object, a hard high molecular weight one that was used to consolidate the powdery wood and looked white on the surface where it was very thick, and a low molecular weight one that was used to join pieces of the object together and left the surface tacky and sticky. The sticky PEG also trapped a lot of dirt and dust on the surface of the object.

After treatment detail of the top of E11151

The detail above shows the top of the head of the object. The report from the 1970’s states that during treatment the object began to crack and fragment. PEG is typically dissolved in water or ethanol. Both solvents were used in the PEG treatment of this object. These two solvents can be mixed together and during a normal PEG treatment the wet wood starts with PEG in water and then moves to PEG in ethanol: this helps start the drying process. As the waterlogged wood is also already wet, the PEG can penetrate fully into the swollen wood. However, in the case of dry wood, these solvents (ethanol typically has some water in it) introduce moisture into the object, and it starts to swell as wood is very responsive to moisture. It then has to dry out again after the treatment, causing the wood to shrink. This is stressful for the object. This stress is what likely caused the cracking documented in the report and visible in the image above.

E11151, after treatment photo from the treatment completed in 2020

Here you can see what the object looks like now that I have finished my treatment. Consolidation is a very permanent and tricky to reverse treatment, even when adhesives that remain soluble, like PEG, are used. There is currently no way to remove the PEG from this object. All I have done is reduce the PEG on the surface by cleaning it with ethanol. I also used the previous documentation to figure out where small detached fragments went so that it looks more like it did originally. While the treatment that was undertaken in the 1970’s seems to be over-treatment as it caused new problems, some more severe than the problems the object had to begin with, I do also want to recognize that it is because of past experiments like this one that I know not to use PEG on dry wood.

Because wholesale consolidation is a fairly permanent and risky treatment, I think long and hard when I choose a consolidant. I also remain aware that there is a chance that someday, some future conservator, will deem some of my treatments mistakes as well. Hopefully my mistakes will be ones that they can learn from too.

To learn more about PEG treatments for waterlogged organic materials, check out these links:

Ellen Carrlee Conservation blog: High Molecular Weight PEG for basketry

Queen Anne’s Revenge blog: Waterlogged wood – Gotta bulk it up!

Cardiff University Conservation: Newport Ship Workshop

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Monumental but gentle

by Anna O’Neill, Julia Commander, and Jessica Betz Abel

Hello from the Penn Museum Conservation Lab Annex (CLA)! Since Lynn’s introduction, we’ve had a little bit of time to settle into our new, off-site facility and get started on some seriously big projects. Our primary task here is working on architectural elements that were part of the palace of the Pharaoh Merenptah, who ruled Egypt from Memphis from 1213–1203 BCE. We have doorways, windows, and other objects from the palace which will be displayed in the new Ancient Egypt & Nubia Galleries to give visitors the experience of being in an ancient Egyptian building. But first, we have to put them together!

The warehouse section of CLA, with pallets of fragments from the Merenptah palace complex.

We have four doorways that will go into the galleries, all of which are very large and in many pieces. They are made of limestone and intricately carved, with traces of inlay and paint. Our first project is Doorway 1, which will be about 12 feet tall once it’s all together. It’s never been displayed before, but it was partially treated in the past. Some fragments are joined together with adhesive and metal pins, and we can tell that some of the decorated surfaces were coated with a consolidant. The fragments are also very dark and dirty from almost 100 years in storage.

Doorway 1 is in thirteen major pieces, which were all on different pallets when they were moved to CLA. With a little bit of effort and a lot of maneuvering with pallet jacks, we grouped the fragments together. It was very satisfying to figure out how all the pieces fit together and form a door!

Doorway 1 coming together on pallets in the lab section of CLA.

Since we’re using Doorway 1 as our pilot project to figure out how we’ll treat the rest of the palace objects, we’ve spent a lot of time testing different conservation approaches. Since the doorway is discolored with dirt and one or more old coatings, we’ve been experimenting with gel cleaning and found two methods that work well for what we need – hot agar and Nanorestore gels® Peggy. We’ve talked about using other kinds of gel before.

Agar is a product of red seaweed and contains a polysaccharide called agarose. When it’s dissolved in water and heated, agarose forms long molecular chains – that means that when it sets, agar becomes a rigid gel that can be peeled up as a sheet without leaving problematic residues behind. The long agarose chains create pockets that hold solvents on the surface of the object, allowing them to work on grime or coatings without soaking in too deeply. You can add different cleaning solutions to agar, but plain deionized water gave us the results we wanted. We dissolved agar in deionized water and heated it in the microwave to form the solution, then poured it directly onto the surface of the stone and allowed it to cool. Applying it as a liquid means that the gel conforms well to the irregularities in the object and lets us get into all the nooks and crannies.

Action shots showing the application of agar to the surface of Doorway 1.

The Peggy 6 gel is made of poly (vinyl acetate) and comes as a thin polymer sheet. It feels a little like the gummy hands you can stick on windows – stretchy and flexible but strong. Like agar, the Peggy gel can be used with different cleaning solutions but we stuck with deionized water. The gel is laid on the surface of the stone to let the water do its work on the grime. Because the Peggy is a stretchy sheet, it can skim right over delicate carvings that might contain pigment. Another advantage of the Peggy gel is that it’s reusable – we just rinse it out in deionized water and use it again.

The Peggy 6 gel in action.

To clean Doorway 1 we used a combination of the agar and Peggy gels. Both gels soften the dirt and coating, and often looks pretty grimy when they’re peeled up. Once the gel is removed, the stone is wiped with cotton and more deionized water to remove even more dirt. We were pretty pleased with the difference between the cleaned and dirty surfaces, and using the gels meant that the process was much more efficient and gentler on the stone than using swabs.

Other parts of the treatment include reversing old repairs (or deciding when to leave them be), assembling fragments, and figuring out how to display the doorway in the gallery. We’ll check back in later with more monumental updates!

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.

Should one strike when the solder is hot?

By Tatiana Perez

I am an undergraduate Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology student at Bryn Mawr College and this past summer, I began as a conservation intern within the Penn Museum’s Museum Practice Program. I am continuing this work through an independent study in the Museum’s Conservation Department this Fall. During my time here, I have treated a group of Egyptian faience shabtis.

Egyptian faience shabti prior to treatment.

Shabtis are statuettes that were made to be placed within ancient Egyptian burials for the purpose of assisting the deceased in the afterlife. The shabtis I worked on are made of Egyptian faience, a material made from silica, alkaline salts such as plant ash or natron, lime, and metallic colorants. The faience could be hand-shaped or pressed into molds, that when fired, would self-glaze. Although faience was made in many different colors, it is most often associated with a bright blue/turquoise color (using a copper colorant) as seen in many amulets, beads, and figurines.

The specific group of shabtis I worked with this summer differed in size, shape, and color. Many were previously repaired and some of these old repairs were failing. Unfortunately, these objects had become disassociated from their accession numbers and records, so there is no information on their provenance or previous conservation treatments. I was tasked with documenting their condition, and treating those that were broken or in need of re-treatment, either to remove failing old adhesives or remending those that were previously mended but now broken. As adhesives age, especially those used in the early 20th century, they can become discolored, may shrink or expand, or may become stronger. All of these conditions pose problems to the objects that can affect their future stability and ‘health’.

Since no record of the treatments existed, I used various methods to determine what worked best to remove the adhesives that were used. First, I used UV light to identify the type of adhesives. After observing that it was possibly shellac or animal glue, I spot-tested the adhesives using a variety of solvents. I found that acetone, ethanol, and deionized water worked best, so I left the shabtis in acetone vapor chambers for a few hours to allow the adhesive to dissolve.

After the old joins were taken down, one particular shabti caught my eye immediately. This lighter green-blue shabti had metal adhering one of the joins, with some adhesive underneath as well. After consulting with various conservators about this unexpected find and with help from the handheld pXRF instrument, we found that it was lead solder that was used to join these pieces. This is a very unusual (and outdated) technique for mending pottery and as head conservator Lynn Grant said, it’s likely whoever treated it last “struck when the solder was hot”.  In other words, the person who last treated this object might have used the solder because it was nearby and ready to use. This conservation method was not the best way to mend the shabti and doesn’t reflect current methods we use. The body, or core, of faience objects is very porous and absorbs whatever adhesive is applied. When the solder was applied it seeped into the body of the body of the object, and made it very difficult to remove.

Lead solder between first and second fragment (top). 60X magnification of the lead solder (bottom).

Though this conservation treatment doesn’t affect our understanding of the shabti, it got me thinking about how conservation ethics and practices have changed over time. As stewards of cultural heritage, conservators have the important job of fixing objects in a way that is reversible and that doesn’t compromise the object’s cultural integrity or future use. Conservators do their best to maintain the integrity of objects, for both research purposes and to preserve a piece of the culture these objects came from for future study and display. This means that conservators must also apply these ethics to objects that were treated before these standards were enforced, and take caution to prevent any further loss of information no matter how small.

With the shabti group I worked on, I used a technique that is commonly used to repair porous or low-fired ceramics. Before using an adhesive to repair the fragments, I applied a low concentration adhesive solution on the break edges to create a less porous surface and to prevent the adhesive from seeping into the body of the faience. I then used a higher concentration adhesive to put the pieces together. This specific treatment is reversible and will ideally last a century or more!

Mending artifacts can be a slow process in which a conservator attaches one piece a day. While working on this small group of shabtis for many weeks, I’ve grown very attached to them. They are all unique pieces with their own quirks, and I can’t wait to see them back together and ready for future use.

Shabti group after treatment (left). Shabti after treatment (right).