Conserving Egyptian mummies…and more

Recent visitors to the Artifact Lab may have noticed this new sign posted on one of the lab windows:

signdsc_0539

Since we opened in fall 2012, you might have occasionally caught us working on non-Egyptian things, but if you visit us now, you will definitely see us working on things from other parts of the collection, especially artifacts that we are preparing for our new Middle East Galleries. Right now, we are focusing a lot of our efforts on treating ceramics and lithics, most from Iraq and Iran.

We have tens of thousands of ceramics and lithics in this museum’s collection, but somehow, in my over 4 years here, I have gotten away with working on only a handful.

tessa4

Conservator Tessa de Alarcon reconstructing a ceramic vessel. This is a common sight in our main lab (behind the scenes) but not so much in the Artifact Lab…until now.

So this is how, after spending over 4 years working on mummies and coffins, working on a small ceramic vessel becomes a novelty. And that is why I am going to walk you through some of the fairly routine steps of treating a ceramic, because I’ve never gotten a chance to write about it on this blog before, and honestly, I’m excited about it.

This small ceramic vessel with a simple striped pattern was excavated in 1931 in Ur, which is a site in modern day Iraq. It dates to the Ubaid Period, so is at least 6000 years old.

31-17-318

31-17-318, before treatment (BT)

As you can see in the above BT image, it was previously broken and repaired. In order to get it ready for exhibition, those old repairs need to be removed. We don’t always remove old repairs (and we never remove repairs that date to when the objects were still in use), but based on observations of the vessel and referencing an old conservation treatment report, I knew that the repairs had to be undone –  if left in place those old materials are likely to fail and possibly cause more damage to the object. Another goal of the conservation treatment is to improve the appearance of the vessel, as there was excess adhesive and overpaint in areas and many of the joins were not well aligned.

Based on that old treatment report and tests in the lab, I knew that the old adhesive is soluble in acetone and that the material used to fill missing areas would soften in acetone enough to allow it to be removed. So the first treatment step, after documenting the piece fully, was to put it in an acetone vapor chamber:

cup-dtdsc_0042

An acetone vapor chamber isn’t anything fancy – in this case it was created with a plastic bag. I placed the vessel and 2 small containers of acetone in the bag and then clamped the open end to prevent the acetone from leaking out. Sometimes an object only needs a few hours in a vapor chamber before it can be taken apart. This little vessel required 24 hours before even one piece could be taken off. The whole thing was finally deconstructed after a week of sitting in the chamber on-and-off and poulticing and swabbing the joins with acetone.

During treatment, after the first piece detached

During treatment, after the first piece detached

During treatment, after about half the vessel was taken down

During treatment, after more than half the vessel was taken down

Success! All the pieces are finally apart, placed on images of the vessel in order to keep track of everything.

Success! All the pieces are finally apart, placed on images of the vessel in order to keep track of everything.

Once the pieces came apart, I had to swab all the joins with acetone to remove excess adhesive and fill material. I’m now at the point where I will start joining the pieces together again.

Swabbing a break edge of a ceramic to remove excess old adhesive

Swabbing a break edge of a ceramic to remove old adhesive

Stay tuned for more posts about our work on these objects, and our continued work on the Egyptian collection and other projects!

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

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!).

A Complete View and a Complete Treatment: Conservation of the Roman Period Mummy Mask

After using humidification and four extra hands, the mask is now unfolded! This complete view of the object provides us a wonderful opportunity to look at the materials used in construction and allowed treatment to finally move forward.

Before jumping into treatment, I had the opportunity to perform Multispectral Imaging (MSI) on the mask, allowing us to analyze some of the pigments non-destructively and with great results.

E2462. From left to right: Visible light, Ultraviolet illumination, Visible induced IR luminescence

E2462.
From left to right: Visible light, Ultraviolet illumination, Visible induced IR luminescence

Under ultraviolet illumination, a bright pink fluorescence was visible (middle), indicating the use of a madder lake pigment in the cheeks and to accentuate the face and hands. I also used visible induced IR luminescence to pinpoint the use of Egyptian Blue pigment in the crown, jewelry, and green leaves (right, Egyptian Blue highlighted in pink). This is a material commonly found in Roman period Egyptian artifacts.

In addition to finding out some of the materials used, I also completed full documentation of the object. Although some of the surface is still intact, the paint layer is in poor condition with areas of flaking and powdering. There is also a large loss to the textile along with some smaller tears and holes.

E2462 During treatment detail of flaking paint

E2462 During treatment detail of flaking paint

As my first order of business, the paint needed to be stabilized. This paint, like many other Egyptian painted surfaces, is sensitive to water and adhesives can cause staining and darkening. This meant a lot of testing was required to find the perfect adhesive for the job.

Using both testing panels and small, discrete areas of the surface, I tested adhesives until I found funori, a seaweed-based polysaccharide. This material preserved the matte and light tones of both the paint and ground layers.

Amaris Sturm, summer intern, consolidating surface of E2462

Amaris Sturm, summer intern, consolidating surface of E2462

As treatments usually go, you sometimes get unexpected bumps along the way. As I was consolidating I discovered that the flesh tones in the face and hands were significantly more sensitive to the water-based adhesive. I quickly had to rethink my approach, ultimately using a methyl cellulose in 50:50 ethanol: water for the hands, face, and larger flakes in the yellow framing the face.

Once consolidation was complete, I moved on to the next hurdle: the molded mud plaster mask. A large gap is present between the fragmented mud plaster crown and the textile below. To support the plaster and its mends, I made a removable fill of carved Volara foam and Japanese tissue, all toned with Golden acrylic paints to make the supports more discrete.

Removable fills to support the heavy mud plaster crown in E2462

Removable fills to support the heavy mud plaster crown in E2462

Fragmented, actively shifting, and detached mud plaster was mended with a 40% AYAT in acetone applied by brush and syringe. Unstable and weightbearing cracks and gaps were filled with a 25% AYAT in acetone that was bulked with microballoons and toned with dry pigments. Fill material was applied with syringed, shaped with a brush and wooden skewer, and  smoothed with a little bit of acetone. A thin toning layer of acrylic paint was applied to fills to make them a warmer tone, but still distinguishable from original material.

Filling compromised gaps on E2462

Filling compromised gaps on E2462

And with that, the treatment is complete! The mask is now stable and will be returned to storage safe and sound.

E2462 Before treatment (left) and After treatment (left)

E2462 Before treatment (left) and after treatment (right)

  • Amaris Sturm is a second-year graduate student in the Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She recently completed her summer internship in the Penn Museum’s conservation labs.

New Mask in the Lab

Amaris Sturm is a second-year graduate student in the Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She is currently completing a summer internship in the Penn Museum’s conservation labs.

I’m excited to introduce a new addition to the objects in the Artifact Lab! This Roman period Egyptian mummy mask and shroud, likely from 220 – 250 AD and excavated from Deir el-Bahri in the late 19th century, will be one of my primary treatment projects during my summer at the Penn Museum.

E2462- Overall before treatment

E2462- Overall before treatment

Meant to be placed over the upper body of a mummy, this mask is constructed of multiple pieces of coarsely woven linen sewn into a long shroud.  At the top of the shroud is a hollow, molded mud plaster mask in the form of a man’s face with a jeweled crown. The entire front surface has a white ground with colorful painted decoration. Additionally, gilding is present on fragments of the crown.

Sadly, the mask was folded at some point in its history, obscuring most of the linen shroud. Although there are no records of the complete decorated surface and little is known about the history of the mask in our collection, other similar examples from Deir el-Bahri give great insight into what may be hidden beneath the folds.

Comparable mask in the Louvre collection

Comparable mask from the Louvre collection

Comparable examples, including this mask from the Louvre, show the continuation of the man’s white tunic with a goblet in one hand and a plant stem in the other. A lower register is likely present containing Sokar, a falcon-headed god, on a boat and flanked by two jackals. One jackal is visible on an exposed corner of the Penn Museum’s mask.

E2462- Crown before treatment

E2462- Molded mud plaster crown before treatment

Apart from being folded, the mask has other condition issues that will be treated over the course of my summer internship. The textile support of the crown has sagged, causing the mud plaster to break and crumble. Additionally, the exposed painted surface is flaking and the linen fabric has started to tear and unravel.

I hope to start treatment in this coming week and unfold the shroud, allowing us to better understand the construction, decoration, and condition of this mummy mask. Check back to see what it revealed and for more on the mask’s treatment!

Sources:

Panel Portrait of a Man. Louvre Museum. Accessed June 25, 2016. http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/panel-portrait-man

Riggs, C. 2000. Roman Period Mummy Masks from Deir el-Bahri. From The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 86. Egypt Exploration Society. 121-144.

Treating Djed-Hapi’s wrappings

Djed-Hapi’s mummy is in good condition overall. The outer linen wrappings are mostly stable and retain some flexibility, although folding or heavily manipulating them would cause them to tear. Several of the ends of the linen bands are loose, and some are slightly frayed. The linens around his feet, however, are more significantly damaged. You can see in this detail photo the bottom of his big toe is exposed where the linens have been damaged at the bottom of his feet.

View of the bottom of Djed-Hapi's feet. The red arrow points to his exposed toe!

View of the bottom of Djed-Hapi’s feet. The red arrow points to his exposed toe!

There are also lots of metal pins visible, which were used to secure areas of loose or falling linen. These pins belong to at least two campaigns of treatment. One set is of steel pins with flat heads, some of which were painted beige to hide them, but not until after they were already inserted in the linens and are now in some places stuck to the fabric. The other set is of black insect pins with brass heads. There is also evidence of adhesive used in a few places to secure loose linen pieces.

Detail of the linens on the right side of Djed-Hapi's body. The red circle highlights a metal insect pin, and the green oval shows where adhesive was used to reattached broken linen.

Detail of the linens on the right side of Djed-Hapi’s body. The red circle highlights the brass head of an insect pin, and the green oval shows where adhesive was used to reattach broken linen.

Archival photos of an old display case here at the museum reveal that Djed-Hapi was removed from his coffin and displayed separately at least once. Currently, there are areas of hislinen wrappings which are folded back or otherwise misaligned, and it is likely this occurred when he was replaced in his coffin after being removed.  I was concerned about the condition of these areas of Djed-Hapi’s linen wrappings, and I decided that removing him once again from his coffin would give me much better access to assess and treat these areas properly.

It took 5 people – one at the head, two at the shoulders/torso and two at the lower legs/ankles – working together to lift Djed-Hapi out of his coffin and on to a foam-covered board support. We took special care to support his loose ankles, and to keep the head from shifting.

Left and right views of Djed-Hapi, after removing him from his coffin base.

Left and right views of Djed-Hapi, after removing him from his coffin base.

To begin the conservation treatment, the exterior linens and cartonnage pieces were cleaned using a HEPA-filtered vacuum with variable suction and soft brush. Next, the pins in the linen wrappings were removed systematically. In total, 16 steel pins and 42 insect pins were removed!

Folds and creases in the linen wrappings were humidified and flattened using GORE-TEX fabric, which acts as a moisture barrier, allowing water vapor to permeate to the linen wrappings but preventing any liquid water from wetting and staining the linen. The linen was allowed to humidify for ~10-15 minutes. Then the areas were either lightly weighted, or clamped between sheets of Volara to flatten.

During (left) and after (right) humidifying and flattening creases in Djed-Hapi's linen wrappings.

During (left) and after (right) humidifying and flattening creases in Djed-Hapi’s linen wrappings.

These areas could then be realigned, and were stabilized using nylon bobbinet fabric. The bobbinet was painted out using acrylic paints to match the color of the linen, and cut into bands which were long enough to reach from one side of the cartonnage pieces, around the back and to the other side. These bands were secured using tabs of Japanese tissue also toned with acrylics. These tissue tabs were adhered to the bobbinet using 3% Klucel  in ethanol, then secured to the mummy using 5% methylcellulose in deionized water. The tabs were tucked under either the cartonnage chest and leg pieces, or the top layer of linen. A few small sections of lifted linen, particularly along the sides of the mummy, were realigned and adhered using Japanese tissue and 5% methylcellulose in deionized water.

On the left, a detail of tissue tabs on bobbinett. On the right, before (top) and after (bottom) humidification and realignment, followed by a bobbinett support.

On the left, a detail of tissue tabs on bobbinet. On the right, before (top) and after (bottom) humidification and realignment, followed by a bobbinet support.

Because of how damaged and distorted the cartonnage foot covering was, it was removed from the mummy and treated separately (I’ll talk about this in the next blog post). This also allowed me to better see the linen wrappings around Djed-Hapi’s feet, and treat them more successfully. The linens around the feet were also encapsulated using toned bobbinet. Separate strips were used to support the linen around the ankles, under the heels, around the tops of the feet and around the toes. These bands were stitched together using hairsilk toned with acrylic paint.

Before (left) and after (right) using toned bobbinet to stabilize and secure the linen wrappings around Djed-Hapi's feet.

Before (left) and after (right) using toned bobbinet to stabilize and secure the linen wrappings around Djed-Hapi’s feet.

Here is an annotated image showing the bobbinet bands, and the locations of all the removed pins:

After treatment annotated image of Djed-Hapi.

After treatment annotated image of Djed-Hapi.

You may notice this image also gives away a big decision I had to make regarding the treatment of Djed-Hapi’s mask….stay tuned for the next post to learn all about it!

 

  • Alexis North, Project Conservator

Say hello to Djed-Hapi

I apologize in advance for those of you who might be waiting for more updates on the Middle Kingdom boat model I started working on a while ago. That object was put aside temporarily to make room for all the pieces that recently came into the Artifact Lab when we deinstalled our Mummy Room and Secrets and Science galleries. While the cases in those galleries were reinforced to better withstand vibrations from the hospital construction next door, and new mounts designed and made for many of the objects, we were working hard to assess the condition of all the pieces, and treat them as necessary before the galleries reopened. This was a pretty short turn around, and several of us in the Conservation Department here chipped in to help make sure every object was looked at properly before they went back on display.

While most of the objects are in good condition, and only needed a little surface cleaning to remove accumulated dust, some needed much more complicated and detailed treatments. I began by looking at our mummy Djed-Hapi, who is the first mummy you see when you enter the Secrets and Science gallery.

Djed-Hapi, with his coffin lid and base (E3413A-C), in the Egyptian Mummies: Secrets and Science gallery.

Djed-Hapi, with his coffin lid and base (E3413A-C), in The Egyptian Mummy: Secrets and Science gallery.

As you can see, In the original case design Djed-Hapi rests in his coffin base, while the lid is suspended above on a metal shelf. Unfortunately, the coffin lid will not be returning to the case, as the shelf it used to rest on cannot withstand the level of vibrations which may occur. Don’t worry though! It will remain in the Artifact Lab and be conserved as part of a future treatment project.

As for Djed-Hapi himself, we know that he dates to the Ptolemaic period (305-30 CE). We know his name, and in fact the names of several of his family members, because of the hieroglyphs written on his coffin lid. Here is an archival image of Djed-Hapi’s coffin lid and base, and you can see all the text written on the lid:

Scan of an archival negative showing E3413B-C.

Scan of an archival negative showing E3413B-C.

He was x-rayed in 1980, and from these images we can tell that he was a man who lived into his 50s before he died. While these old x-ray images were serviceable, we decided to re-x-ray him in our digital x-ray suite here at the museum, because we felt we could get a better level of detail with the digital system.

Djed-Hapi getting his x-rays taken in 2016 (left) and 1980 (right).

Study of these x-rays revealed some very interesting facts about Djed-Hapi’s mummification. His head is completely detached from his body, cleanly separated between two of the vertebrae in his neck.

Detail of the 1980 x-radiograph of Djed-Hapi's head. The red arrow shows where his spinal column stops.

Detail of the 1980 x-radiograph of Djed-Hapi’s head. The red arrow shows where his spinal column stops.

This was not his cause of death, but happened during mummification, and seems intentional. Starting in the Ptolemaic Period, the mummification process shifted from removing the deceased’s brain through the nose, to removing it through the base of the skull. The x-rays also show that Djed-Hapi’s nasal cavity seems to be intact, so this change in the mummification process may be the reason Djed-Hapi’s head was removed, then replaced and carefully wrapped with the rest of the body. The decapitation is not visible from the exterior, and in fact his head and neck area are quite stable.

The x-rays also reveal a bit about the condition of Djed-Hapi’s body underneath the wrappings. His skeleton is well-articulated (except for his head of course), including all his finger and toe bones, and you can even see the soft tissue preserved, which implies the body is in good condition. However, a closer look at his ankles shows that there is a rather large gap between the distal ends of his tibiae (shin bones) and his tarsals (ankle bones). While there is no evidence of damage to the exterior of the linens, we can tell whenever we have to move the mummy that the ankle area has some movement. This is an issue which could lead to further damage in the future, so careful handling is required.

2016 x-ray of Djed-Hapi, showing well-preserved soft tissue. The red rectangle highlights the gap between the bones in his ankles.

Next up, I’ll discuss the conservation treatment of Djed-Hapi’s mummy, and his coffin base.

Alexis North is the Project Conservator for the Egyptian Storage Move Project, Penn Museum.

References:

Fleming, S. (1980). The Egyptian mummy: Secrets and science. University of Pennsylvania.

Reattaching a mangled “ear”

If you read our blogposts back in February and March about x-raying our animal mummies (see Animal Mummies: contents revealed part I and part II) you will see that the cat mummy we x-rayed actually has no cat remains inside the wrappings. Here is the image of the cat mummy and radiograph:

50-17-1: mummy paired with radiograph

50-17-1: mummy paired with radiograph

Just because there is no cat inside, it doesn’t mean that we don’t treat it just like any of our other animal mummies. (And it doesn’t mean that these empty mummies were any less significant in ancient times either – check out this article which we’ve linked to in previous posts about the Manchester Museum and University of Manchester project which found that 1/3 of the 800 mummies they imaged have no remains inside.)

In the case of this cat mummy, it was in the lab for treatment so that it could be reinstalled in our Secrets and Science gallery. One of its major problems was that its right ear was mangled and partially detached.

Two views of the cat mummy's head, with red arrows pointing to the mangled ear

Two views of the cat mummy’s head, with red arrows pointing to the mangled ear

Repairing this area was slightly complicated because so much original material had been lost. I ended up flipping the cat mummy over and working on it from the back, and secured the ear using Japanese tissue paper toned with acrylic paint, adhered with 5% methylcellulose in deionized water.

Our little kitty patient wrapped in tissue paper and being supported on its belly for treatment

Our little kitty patient wrapped in tissue paper and being supported on its belly during treatment

This treatment worked well and will prevent further damage in that area in the future.

Two views of the cat mummy's head after treatment

Two views of the cat mummy’s head after treatment

Besides the ear, there were unraveling and torn areas of linen wrappings that needed to be secured. These areas were stabilized with strips of nylon bobbinet, toned with acrylic paint. The bobbinet was secured with hair silk toned with acrylic paint.

Overall view of the cat mummy before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

Overall view of the cat mummy before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

It doesn’t show up so well in some of these images, so here is a detail of the cat’s face, just because it’s so cute!

Detail of 50-17-1

Detail of 50-17-1

This cat mummy is now happily reinstalled in the Secrets and Science gallery, so you can see it anytime you visit the museum.

Tiny discoveries

As conservators, we derive great joy from the tiny discoveries we make every day as we carry out our work. Since Alexis North joined our Conservation Department as the Project Conservator for the Egyptian Storage Move Project, I have had a regular companion in the Artifact Lab, and so she and I get to share these tiny discoveries with each other on a regular basis. Not a day goes by without one of us yelping with surprise, or delight, when we see something unexpected, or beautiful, or just really, really cool.

Today, Alexis started working on our mummy Hapi-Men. I’ve posted a video of his CT-scan awhile ago on the blog, and he has been on exhibit here in the museum for decades. A mummified man dating to the Ptolemaic Period (30th Dynasty), he was excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie in cemetery G at Abydos in 1902.

Alexis carefully removing accumulated debris from Hapimen's beautifully wrapped fingers

Alexis carefully removing accumulated grime from Hapi-Men’s beautifully wrapped fingers

Just a few minutes ago, over the hum of the HEPA vacuum, Alexis exclaimed, I think I found an amulet! She has been cleaning accumulated grime and dust from the surface of Hapi-Men’s wrappings, and underneath all of that grime she indeed revealed an amulet that appears to be a scarab. We know from his CT-scan that he has many amulets included in his wrappings, but we didn’t expect that we’d be able to see one from the outside.

A detail of the amulet (highlighted with the yellow box) just below Hapi-Men's right hand

A detail of the amulet (highlighted with the yellow box) just below Hapi-Men’s right hand. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Super cool! More about his treatment soon.

Report from the field: Conservation in the burial chamber of king Woseribre-Senebkay

I’m back from Abydos! I thought I’d follow up on my last blogpost about my time in the field with some more specific information about the conservation work I was carrying out in the burial chamber of king Woseribre-Senebkay.

King Senebkay’s tomb was discovered and excavated in the 2013-2014 winter field season. The tomb dates to the later Second Intermediate period, to the Hyksos era, ca. 1650-1600 BCE, is in close proximity to the tombs of Senwosret III and Sobekhotep IV, and is part of a larger cluster of Second Intermediate period tombs. It consists of 4 chambers, the final being a limestone burial chamber with painted decoration. Based on observations and interpretation by Drs. Wegner and Cahail, the tomb was built fairly quickly and the painted decoration does not appear complete.

View of the exposed burial chamber with temporary wooden structure on day 1 of the conservation project

View of the exposed burial chamber with temporary wooden structure on day 1 of the conservation project

Another important feature of the burial chamber is that the limestone blocks were reused and much of the previous decoration is still visible. The blocks were disassembled from a group of mortuary chapels of high-ranking officials of the mid-late 13th Dynasty.

The previous decoration on the resused blocks is visible in many areas (indicated with red arrows in the image on the left) and in some areas there is still paint remaining (circled on the right)

The previous decoration on the reused blocks is visible in many areas (indicated with red arrows on the image on the left, surrounding the paintings that date to Senebkay’s burial) and in some areas there is still paint remaining in the previous decoration (circled on the right)

I won’t go into any more detail about the significance of Senebkay’s tomb and these features – this has been written about extensively elsewhere and I’ll provide links for more information below.

I was asked to join the team this season to work on the painted decoration in the burial chamber. During the previous season, the burial chamber needed to be stabilized (new mortar joins between blocks and replacement of missing blocks). In order to protect the paintings, another conservator was able to carry out some consolidation of the paintings and then covered the painted areas with cyclododecane and aluminum foil. At the end of the season, the tomb was backfilled.

Protective foil over the paintings on the east wall of the burial chamber, day 1

Protective foil over the paintings on the east wall of the burial chamber after the backfill was removed, day 1 of the conservation project

My goal for this season was to continue paint consolidation, to reattach detached stone fragments, to inpaint the new mortar fills in select areas, and to prepare the tomb for backfilling. A permanent structure will be constructed around the tomb later this year, but in order to protect the tomb until this can happen, it needed to be filled back in with sand and completely covered.

When I arrived on site, the first thing that I did was to remove the aluminum foil from the paintings and to examine them carefully. Due to timing/logistics it was not possible to uncover them before I arrived, so what I found under the foil was that there was still a lot of cyclododecane left on the surface of the paintings.

A detail of one of the goddesses - the hazy white substance over the surface is the cyclododecane, applied during the previous field season

A detail of one of the goddesses – the hazy white substance over the surface is the cyclododecane, applied during the previous field season

I’ve never mentioned cyclododecane (CDD) on this blog before. CDD is a cyclic hydrocarbon (C12H24), a solid wax that slowly sublimes at room temperature and it is used as a temporary consolidant, to protect fragile and sensitive surfaces during treatment, and it has become a very useful material for archaeological conservators to help with lifting fragile materials in the field. Check out this link for a video to learn more about it and how it is used.

While I tried several techniques to speed up the sublimation of the CDD in the end I wasn’t able to remove it everywhere because the painted surface below was so fragile and susceptible to abrasion. So, like anyone who has worked on an excavation must do, I made it work! With the help of my Egyptian conservator colleague, I focused on consolidating all of the exposed painted decoration, on cleaning select areas, and on the repair and inpainting work I mentioned previously. I’m going to show some of this work in photos below.

Senebkay's cartouche before removal of hornet's nest remnants (left, indicated with red arrow) and after cleaning (right)

Senebkay’s cartouche before removal of hornet’s nest remnants (left, indicated with red arrow) and after cleaning (right)

A detail of a column in the burial chamber before (left) and after repair of a detached fragment (right)

A detail of a column in the burial chamber before (left) and after repair of a detached painted stone fragment (right)

One of the goddesses (Isis or Nephthys) before (left) and after (right) inpainting and replacement of detached fragment (red arrow)

One of the goddesses (Isis or Nephthys) before (left) and after (right) inpainting and replacement of detached fragment (red arrow)

Two days before we were set to leave, I consolidated the most vulnerable painted decoration with CDD, and then we carefully draped cotton fabric over all of the painted areas.

Heating the cyclododecane over a small portable stove on site

Heating the cyclododecane over a small portable stove on site

Cotton fabric draped over the tomb walls (left) and a shot during backfilling (right)

Cotton fabric draped over the tomb walls (left) and a shot during backfilling (right)

On our last day in the field, the chamber was backfilled with the sand that was removed from it previously, which will protect the tomb until the next season.

In addition to my work on site, I had the opportunity to work on some of the small finds from previous and ongoing excavations while in the dighouse in the afternoons, and the team generously made it possible for me to do some sightseeing during my time there as well, which rounded out the experience nicely.

A view walking into the Temple of Seti I (left) and a shot of Dr. Jen Wegner inside one of the chapels in the temple (right)

A view walking into the Temple of Seti I (left) and a shot of Dr. Jen Wegner inside one of the chapels in the temple (right)

After 3 years of working on the Egyptian collections at the Penn Museum, I was so grateful to have had this opportunity to go to Egypt – this experience not only allowed me to expand my conservation skills and understanding of our significant collection, but it gave me a much deeper appreciation for the exciting work that is ongoing in Abydos. I hope there will be an opportunity to return!

For more information about the excavations in Abydos, check out these articles:

Wegner, Josef. 2014. “Discovering Pharaohs Sobekhotep & Senebkay” Expedition Magazine 56.1 (April 2014). Penn Museum. http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=20698>

Wegner, Josef and Kevin Cahail. 2015. “Royal Funerary Equipment of a King Sobekhotep at South Abydos: Evidence for the Tombs of Sobekhotep IV and Neferhotep I?” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 51, pp. 123-164. http://lockwoodpressjournals.com/doi/pdf/10.5913/jarce.51.2015.a006

Wegner, Josef. 2015. “A Royal Necropolis at South Abydos: New Light on Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 78, No. 2 (June 2015), pp.68-78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5615/neareastarch.78.2.0068

Cahail, Kevin. 2015. “A Family of Thirteenth Dynasty High Officials: New Evidence from South Abydos.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 51, pp. 93-122. http://lockwoodpressjournals.com/doi/abs/10.5913/jarce.51.2015.a005