Papyri Project

By Jessica Byler

This fall, I started a survey of our Egyptian papyrus collection thanks to an ARCE (American Research Center in Egypt) grant. The goals of the survey include preparing and rehousing the collection to be moved to a new storeroom, identifying unstable papyri that need to be treated, and getting some of the papyri ready for exhibit. The Penn Museum is in the process of redesigning the Ancient Egyptian and Nubian Galleries, and the curators have identified around 70 papyri they would like to include. Part of my job is treating and rehousing these papyri and making recommendations on their display.

E16423, a private letter in Arabic

What is Papyrus?

The papyri in our collection are mostly manuscripts. A sheet of papyrus is made of two cross-laminated layers of thin fiber strips made from the stems of the papyrus plant (cyperus papyrus). One layer of fibers is laid vertically, and the other is laid on top horizontally, creating a sheet with a grid pattern. Individual sheets were then overlapped and joined to create rolls. These rolls could be used as a single, long sheet or could be cut down as needed. The side with the horizontal fibers is called the recto (think “right side”), and the side with the vertical fibers is called the verso (think “reverse”). Scribes often wrote on the recto along the horizontal fibers, though some scribes wrote against the fibers or on both sides of the sheet.

A piece of modern papyrus through transmitted light
E2751, some vertical fibers are missing, revealing the horizontal fibers from the other side

Looking for a join helps identify the recto. Most joins are horizontal fibers to horizontal fibers, though some are horizontal to vertical. Look along the horizontal fibers and see if they continue across the sheet. If they do not line up or if there is a clear overlap, that’s likely a join.

E16323, horizontal to horizontal join. The red lines indicate the direction of the fibers and join.
E16411B, vertical to horizontal join. The red lines indicate the direction of the fibers and join.

Scribes used brushes or reed pens to write on the papyrus sheets. Inks were made from mixing ground up pigments into a binder. The most common ink was carbon black or soot bound with gum to make black ink. Scribes also sometimes used red ink made from red ochre, iron gall, and sepia, among other pigments. Some papyri are thickly painted with gypsum, metal oxides, and earth pigments.

E3068, a painted papyrus manuscript
83-1-1I, a manuscript with both carbon black and red ink

Penn Papyrus Survey

The Penn Museum has around 1200-1800 papyri featuring a wide range of personal, legal, administrative, literary, and religious texts in six languages: Arabic, Greek, Coptic, Hebrew, Demotic, and Hieratic. The collection spans around 4000 years, from the Old Kingdom to Islamic Egypt. These include Books of the Dead, Homer’s Iliad, and the Gospel of St. Matthew. There are also groups of small fragments which have not been reconstructed or studied. The Penn Museum’s collection of papyri has never been the subject of a concerted conservation campaign – until now.

Most of the collection is currently encapsulated in Mylar and stored flat in manila folders or sandwiched between two glass plates. I am surveying the collection at the object-level, one by one. I examine, measure, and record each piece, noting the structure of the papyrus, how it is housed, old mends or treatments, condition issues, and if it needs to be rehoused or conserved. I follow the examination and documentation with photography. Images are available on our Digital Collections webpage.  Hopefully with the new photos and documentation, this collection will be more accessible to papyrologists and scholars around the world.

Photographing papyrus using a copy stand

More Information

Eventually, the information on the Penn Museum papyri collection documented in this survey will be included in the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) database, where only a small fraction of our collection is represented today. There are a number of great resources if you would like to know more about the structure and conservation of papyrus. The University of Michigan, which holds the largest collection of papyri in North America, is active in papyrological research and education. The Brooklyn Museum and NYU have both recently done similar projects and have great blogs about their collections as well.

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).

Beloved Objects

be Tessa de Alarcon

Like most other Philadelphia residents, the Penn Museum staff are adapting to working from home. As part of this, the Museum staff have recently been posting on the museum’s Instagram feed info on their favorite objects (pennmuseum #VisitFromHome). This got me thinking about the relationship between people and the things we interact with every day. The objects in the museum’s collection, while loved and cared for by the staff, also bear evidence of love and care from before they were in the museum’s collection. One such object recently came across my desk for treatment, E7517A and E7517B, a Nubian wooden box and lid from Karanog. I am not going to talk about the treatment today, so that I can focus on the care it received before it entered the museum.

E7517A and E7517B after treatment.

In the pictures above and the details below you can see that this wooden box has a variety of metal components, including copper alloy straps and a lock plate on the box, and staples on the lid as part of a repair to cracks and breaks through the wood.

The detail of E7517A, the box, on the left shows the lock plate and one of the metal straps, and the detail on the right of E7517B shows the staples on the lid.

Staples like these are a common repair both in antiquity and historically for a variety of materials and are not an unusual feature on objects in the museum’s collections (here are just a few other examples of both types of staples: AF5211, B9220, 2006-15-41, B20014). If you look closely though, you can see that the metal straps and the lock plate go over the inlays on the box. This suggests that these elements were not part of the box originally and were a later addition.

These components are also made from a variety of metals. I tested them using both a magnet to check for iron, and a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (pXRF) and found that they are a range of metals including iron, copper tin alloys (bronze), and copper zinc alloys (brass). Also, parts that appear similar, like the straps are not made up of the same alloying components, some contain lead in addition to the copper and tin, and some have no lead. The staples are also a range of metals including iron, brass, and bronze.

When I started working on the box, I wanted to tease out when these metal components were added as they could have been either ancient or modern. With this type of question, I typically set up an appointment with our archives to look at the original field notes and field photography. However, in this case, much of the data on the excavations at Karanog is online, including pdf’s of the excavation publications. In the museum’s database I found that the box was from a burial: tomb G 445. Going through the publication, I was able to use the context information to find not only a description of where it was found within the tomb, but also a sketch of the burial, a photo of the box, and a detailed description of it in a catalogue of the finds. The box had been found in the burial with two individuals buried one above the other and was found next to their legs.

Drawing of tomb G 445 from Woolley, Leonard, and David Randall-MacIver. Karanòg: The Romano-Nubian Cemetery. Vol. 3. University museum, 1910: 44. The blue highlighting is an addition to point out the location of E7517A and E7517B in the burial.
Plate 22 from Woolley, Leonard, and David Randall-MacIver. Karanòg: The Romano-Nubian Cemetery. Vol. 3. University museum, 1910.

The textual information from the publication includes some important pieces of information: first that, “it had been considerably restored before being deposited in the bomb, brass binding had been added at the corners and the broken lid had been rudely mended with bronze rivets” (Woolley and Randall-MacIver, 44) and that “it remains in the condition in which it was found, no repairs to it having been necessary” (Woolley and Randall-MacIver, 71).  While the language used to describe these metal components seems to me a bit harsh, not only is it described as “rudely mended”, the lock plate is described as “a perfectly useless lock plate”, it does make it clear that these metal components are from when it was in use (Woolley and Randall-MacIver, 44, 71). It should also be noted that the metal identifications given in the publication were not done through analysis, so don’t match with the results I have from pXRF.

Because of the detailed information in the publication, I also know what was in the box when it was excavated: another smaller box (E7510A and E7510B) and two wooden spindle whorls (E7506 and E7507).  These are all shown in the image below.

Objects found inside E7517A: a box and its lid (E7510A and E7510B) and two spindle whorls (E7506 and E7507)

So, all together what does this information tell me about the history of this box? First, the repairs and modifications to this box happened during its use before it was put in the burial of the two individuals in tomb G 445. The fact that the metal components, even similar ones, have different compositions could mean a few things. It could be that it was repaired and modified using scrap metal with the components being made from different scraps, that the repairs occurred at different times and so with different metals, or both. If they were not made using scrap metal, it is possible that some of the straps may have had to be replaced at some point and that may be why some are leaded bronze and some are not. These straps do not appear to have a function and may instead reflect changes in taste. The function of the box may have also changed, and this may be why they needed to add the lock plate. The various metals for the repairs to the lid almost certainly resulted from various treatment campaigns, meaning that it was repaired, used, broken, and repaired again. In any case these modifications and repairs tell a story of care and use and suggest that this box was loved and treasured by the people who owned it. This may also be why it eventually was placed in a burial, perhaps as a particularly prized possession of one or both of the individuals in the burial.

Treatment of a parchment scroll from Ethiopia: an objects conservator changes dimensions

by Teresa Jimenez-Millas

During the past month I have had the great opportunity of working on a parchment treatment under the supervision of Sarah Reidell, the Margy E. Meyerson Head of Conservation, Tessa Gadomski, Conservation Librarian, and the rest of the fantastic team in the Steven Miller Conservation Lab at the Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

The parchment is an Ethiopian prayer scroll (29-94-123) in our Museum’s collection that we are treating for the opening of the Africa Galleries this November 2019.

In The Walters Art Museum online catalogue, there are similar scrolls to this one. The Walters describes them as, “Ethiopian prayer scrolls were made to be the length of the person who commissioned them, thereby protecting the owner from head to toe.”

This scroll is made of three sections of parchment sewn together using parchment strips/thongs (0.5 cm) from the same kind of animal. Parchment is a sheet material that is made from the skin of domesticated animals such as calves, sheep, and goats, cleaned of their hair and flesh and then dried under tension on a frame. It is a mechanical process and the skin is not chemically tanned. Further analytical methods such as scanning electron microscopy (SEM) or Peptide Mass Fingerprinting (PMF) would give us more information as to the kind of protein and other features that would help us to identify the type of skin.

The first step on this new and exciting project was a close examination of the object under a stereo binocular microscopic (Leica IC80HD). In my examinations, I noticed some interesting features that I would not have been able to understand without Sarah’s expertise, and I’d like to share some of these cool details here.

At first glance, the third section of the scroll has a 9 cm stitched repair that one might think was made after the parchment was manufactured. But as I learned, the process of manufacturing parchment involves drying the material under tension, which leads to marked changes in fiber orientation, and inevitably involves some degree of breakage of certain fibers in the dermal network.

The stitched repair is circled in red

Observation under magnification with Microscope LEICA IC80D we can see that the sewing holes are very round but are not punched. The holes appear to have been pierced when the skin was wet, and the parchment dried around the stitching creating ridged folds that are now keeping the split closed.

The thread is still present in about 25% of the repair. The edges of the thread are not cut but are frayed. At some areas we can still see some remains of black ink that also indicate that the scribe probably wrote over the repair. All these observations indicate that this repair was made during the manufacturing process of the parchment, while still wet.

I will write more about the treatment of this object in a future post!

An Answer to the tough question: What is your favorite thing?

By Tessa de Alarcon

A question we often get asked in the Artifact Lab is, “what is your favorite thing that you have worked on?” Usually I find this question hard to answer because we work on so many different and fascinating objects, but at the moment, it’s a no-brainer. The trumpets from the Democratic Republic of Congo that are slated to go into the new Africa Galleries are by far some of the coolest objects I have ever worked on. As an example, here is AF5211:

After treatment photo of AF5211

This trumpet is carved from elephant ivory (identifiable by the clearly visible Schreger lines).

Detail of AF5211 showing Schreger lines: a feature used to identify elephant ivory

There is some type of reptile skin wrapped around one end and stitched together on the side, and animal fur that literally makes this object look like a rock star.

detail of AF5211 showing the reptile skin and fur

All these details make this object beautiful, but what makes it special is what is hiding beneath the skin. In a few spots where the reptile skin has shifted you can glimpse repairs.

Detail of AF5211 showing plant fiber repairs

The repairs are even more visible from the interior of the object. It seems that at some point, probably when this object was in use, the ivory split. It was then repaired by drilling holes into the ivory and stitching it together. There is also some type of resinous mixture that was put into the join.

Overall view of the interior of AF5211 showing repairs

Detail of the interior of AF5211 showing the repairs

The reptile skin may have been added to both hide the repair and support it so that the object could continue to be used. It is these glimpses of the life of the object that make it so special. It tells not just the story of its craftsmanship but also the people who used it and cared for it.

To see this object in person, visit the new Africa Galleries when they open in November of this year!

When is cleaning coins not like cleaning coins?

Alexis North, Williams Project Conservator

 

This sounds like a joke that only archaeological conservators would enjoy, but it’s actually an honest question! The answer is (in this case at least), when those coins are reused in other objects.

Before treatment photo of 42-35-370.

This necklace comes from Coban, Guatemala. It is made from black glass roundelle beads, interspersed with 144 coins from Guatemala, Mexico, and Spain. It was collected in the early 20th century, but the coins all date to before 1900.

photos of the obverse and reverse of a Guatemalan 50 cent coin, 1870; a Mexican 2 Reales coin (date illegible); and a Spanish 2 Reales coin, 1835.

There are also a number of other beads and charms, including two crosses, two round silver beads, and a black faceted stone charm in a silver bezel. The necklace is in good condition, and the only treatment it needs is a nice overall cleaning.

This necklace is being prepared for display in our new Mexico and Central America gallery, along with this necklace, also made from coins:

Before treatment photo of 42-35-41.

The pendant on this necklace is made from a large 1 Sol coin, dated 1892, surrounded by 8 small 1/4 Real coins, all from Guatemala. On top of the 1 Sol are two small deer, and suspended below are 2 quetzal birds, and a cross.

Coins are important in Guatemalan culture. These necklaces would have been symbols of wealth, and be passed down from mother to daughter within a family. Even today, when a couple decides to get married, the groom will often give the bride a gift of 13 coins in a small box, called an arras.

Come see these pieces when they go on display in our new gallery!

Ancient faces in the Middle East Galleries

Our new Middle East Galleries open next week and they will feature over 1200 artifacts from our collection, including many iconic objects like the Ram in the Thicket, the Bull-headed lyre, and Queen Puabi’s headdress. Oh, and for those of you who are always asking about our cuneiform tablets, do we have a treat in store for you – there are dozens and dozens in the galleries. The majority of the objects in the exhibition were excavated by Penn archaeologists, many nearly a century ago.

ALL of these objects came through our Conservation Labs to prepare them for the galleries and many needed significant treatment in order to ensure their stability for long-term display. Our Middle East Galleries (MEG) team has worked diligently and tirelessly on this project – you can read more about some aspects of this work on the Penn Museum blog here.

The triumphant column team poses next to the 4 recently conserved mosaic column drums from Tell al-‘Ubaid, Iraq. This project took months to complete.

In just over a week, visitors to the Museum will have the opportunity to get up close and personal with these newly-conserved objects. Everyone will be drawn to the highlight pieces mentioned above and here, but the other pieces are worth lingering over too. It’s usually impossible to see them as closely as we do during the conservation treatment process, so I thought I’d give you the opportunity to see 2 small but beautiful objects closer than you can in the galleries.

B8997 (left) and B9026 (right)

These 2 female figures, both excavated from Nippur, Iraq, will be on display in the same case in the Middle East Galleries. They’re small, just several inches long. The figure on the left was likely a doll which would have had articulated arms; you can see the holes where they were once attached. Fortunately, both artifacts required very little treatment. B8997, the figure on the left, does have a large, but stable crack that did not require any treatment. Examination under the binocular microscope revealed small amounts of burial dirt on both figures which had escaped previous cleaning campaigns, so both were carefully surface cleaned to remove this soil.

Detail of B9026 before (left) and after (right) cleaning, 7.5X magnification

As I worked on these figures, I captured some images with the camera attachment on our Leica microscope. Both objects are made of bone and are delicately carved. The reverse side of the doll’s head has an unworked area that nicely shows the cancellous (or spongy) bone features.

B8997 detail of front (left) and reverse (right), 7.5X magnification

Their time in the lab was brief – they only stayed for a day or 2. But in the midst of the hustle and bustle of preparing for these galleries, it’s nice to take a moment to appreciate the details.

The Middle East Galleries open to the public on Saturday, April 21. Our department has a few loose ends to wrap up with that project (and a few loose ends on the blog – stay tuned for a last blogpost on the mosaic column treatment) but we’re already turning to our next big tasks – the renovation of our Mexico & Central America Galleries, Africa Galleries, and Egyptian Galleries.

Many new faces in the lab…

by Williams Project Conservator Alexis North

Yesterday, I was able to make several new friends, when the American section brought these objects up to the lab, in preparation for the reinstallation of our Mexico and Central America gallery:

 These are a group of Zapotec ceramic effigy vessels from Mexico. These types of vessels are usually found in tombs, and their meaning depends on where and how they were buried. They are often found in groups, and with other associated burial materials.

Each of these effigy vessels is elaborately and uniquely decorated. Some have human faces, some are wearing masks, and some even have animal features.

These two vessels (NA6361; 29-41-707) depict humans wearing masks.

Most of these vessels are in good condition, intact or with only small losses. At least two, however, will need a little more conservation to get them ready to display. This vessel was originally covered with a white stucco coating:

Vessel 29-41-702, depicting a masked seated figure.

The stucco is now starting to lift from the surface, and any handling can cause small pieces of the stucco to fall off. It will need to be carefully stabilized before the vessel can go on display.

Detail of the headdress of 29-41-702. The red arrows show areas where the stucco is lifting off the surface of the ceramic.

And this vessel shown below has some loose fragments which will need to be rejoined. Thankfully the amazing duck bill on his face is still intact!

Before treatment photo of 31-26-1.

For (a lot) more information and other examples of these types of vessels, check out the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., and their database on Zapotec effigy vessels.

A Columnar Matter Part I: The Technical Examination of a 3rd Century BCE Mosaic Column from Al Ubaid

Marci Jefcoat Burton

My first project as a curriculum intern with the Penn Museum Conservation Department involves the conservation of a mosaic column from the Ninhursanga temple site of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Tell al-Ubaid in Iraq (column in digital collections: (B15887.1 – 15887.4). Dated as 2400 – 2250 century BCE, the column was excavated sometime between 1919 – 1924 as a pattern of alternating triangular and diamond shaped shell, pink limestone and shale tiles. Fortunately, the years of resting in the compacted dirt of the burial environment preserved the shell and stone tesserae and maintained their original conformation. The original column interior, more than likely palm logs, did not survive the centuries of burial.

Figure 1 (left): Before treatment image of the four column sections stacked together to make a mosaic column.
Figure 2 (right): Reconstructed façade of the Ninhursanga temple of Tell al Ubaid. The columns were originally believed to be outside the entrance of the temple doorway, although it is not certain if both columns were on the exterior or interior of the building. (Both images courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (2003). Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York)

Without a support, the delicate tesserae were lacking a method of storage and display. Working with the materials available on site and with technology available in the early 20th century, the archaeological team constructed four drums to mount the tesserae into four stackable sections. Although reports attribute the original 3rd century BCE binding medium as bitumen (i.e., asphaltum, tar, pitch) to hold the tesserae in place on the original wooden supports, the 20th century excavation team reconstructed the shell and stone mosaic pieces with a grey plaster. In addition, only half of each drum holds original tesserae, and the remainder of each section is filled with a painted plaster reconstruction.

Figure 3: c. 1920s, on-site with the recently assembled tesserae onto the wire mesh and wood drums. (Image courtesy of http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/tombs/story/page07b2.html).

X-radiography of one of the drum sections revealed that each drum is constructed as a hollow metal mesh cylinder with wooden caps on each end, and several nails to keep the cylinder together. After 100 years in this conformation, the drums have become problematic for the long-term display of the tesserae. Fluxuations in temperature and humidity, as well as the weight of the tiles and the thick, rigid plaster have caused opposing shifts in the internal structure, leading to the formation of cracks in the plaster and several tiles to dislocate and fall from the support.


Figure 4: X-radiographs of column section B15887.3 detailing the inner drum structure consisting of an open wire mesh and hollow interior. (Left (a)): X-radiograph of the column section side reveals the radiopaque grid pattern indicative of a metal mesh. (Right (b)): X-radiograph of the column section top, revealing numerous nails in various locations that hold the cylindrical drum together. (X-radiographs courtesy of Julia Commander (2016)).

The column, with all four sections, is one of the many objects selected for exhibition in the upcoming Middle Eastern Gallery (scheduled to open in Spring 2018). Therefore, it was decided it was time for the over 4,000 year old tesserae to be removed from the hollow wire mesh supports and then remounted onto a structured, solid support made with materials that will prevent structural damage and be sustainable for its preservation and long-term display in the gallery. Following a treatment protocol implemented successfully on one of the four column sections by Julia Commander (WUDPAC, Class of 2017), I will deconstruct the tesserae from the current supports, clean and repair each piece, and remount the tesserae in their same arrangement to new cylindrical supports made from solid, very dense Ethafoam measured to the exact shape for each section awaiting treatment. Stop by the Artifact Lab to see the progress of the column treatment, which is already underway, or stay tuned for a follow up blog post!

Figure 5: Start of the disassembly of the shell, pink limestone and shale mosaic tesserae from column section 2. Note the color difference of the large painted plaster fill on the left versus the original tesserae on the right. Several breaks are also observed in the inlays (most notably the beige shell pieces) and a layer of dark, brown grime has accumulated on the surface overall.

Update on one of the Al-Ubaid Friezes

The treatment of the two Al’Ubaid Friezes has progressed since the last post. This post is going to focus on what we have been doing with the marching bull frieze (B15880). This frieze is made up of shell pieces for the bulls (probably made from large conch shells) on a background of black stone pieces with copper alloy borders at the top and bottom of the frieze.

B15880, frieze of 6 bulls

The archaeologists who excavated these materials in the 1920’s set the mosaic into plaster over a wooden backing. Overtime, this support had started to flex, causing the plaster to separate from the wood. This lead to movement of the mosaic frieze casing pieces to loosen and detach as well as causing breaks in the stone. Over the years detached pieces were re-adhered using a variety of different adhesives depending on when the work was done.

Diagram of B15880 showing the 1920’s backing materials in relation to the copper, shell, and stone materials of the frieze.

Because of these issues the mosaic has now been removed from the 1920’s support. One of the perks of having the pieces free from the support, is that we can see both sides of each piece. While we knew from the X-ray that in antiquity they had been attached to the original support using copper alloy wire twists, we can know see those twists.

Detail of the shell showing the remnants of a copper alloy twist/fastener

Detail of the stone showing the remnants of a copper alloy twist/fastener

Now we are working to stabilize each individual piece. The shell bulls are in very good shape, so that has just been cleaning to remove the plaster, areas of over-paint, and adhesive residue. The stone pieces are, however, in much worse shape. We have been consolidating them to restore the cohesion of the stone, joining broken fragments, and cleaning to reduce plaster and old adhesives.

Image showing the progress on cleaning and stabilizing the mosaic pieces.

The next step will be to adhere the clean and stable pieces to a new backing with new grouting around them to keep them in place. Exactly what materials we will use and how that will be done is something we are still working on, but here you can see some of the test tiles that we are making to help make that decision!

Test tiles with bone beads and different possible grouting materials.

 

Moose hair and birch bark

Moose hair and birch bark. Those are 2 materials that we have not written about on this blog before. But now that we are working in the Artifact Lab on objects for all of our upcoming exhibitions and loans, we are seeing a wider variety of artifacts and materials in the lab.

This embroidered birch bark case will be installed in our Native American Voices gallery later this month, so it is in the lab for examination and treatment.

Views of both sides of a small birch bark and moose hair case (45-15-1328) 

The 2-part case (the lid is a separate piece) was purchased by the museum in 1945. It is attributed to being Huron and from Canada.

The case itself is made of birch bark and it is embroidered with moose hair. The intricate details are difficult to appreciate without being able to see them up close. So, let’s take a closer look at the decoration:

Details of the moose hair embroidery, 7.5X magnification

Details of the moose hair embroidery, 20X

The case and lid are edged with bundles of moose hair attached with thread:

Details of the moose hair embroidery, 7.5X magnification

As you can see in the image above, some of the threads attaching the moose hair bundles along the edges are missing, causing hairs to become lost. These areas, as well as splits in the birch bark, will have to be stabilized before this case can go on display.

Check back for post-treatment photos, and visit the museum to see this case on exhibit by the end of May.