This week’s CC will feature Julie Lawson discussing some monsters she grew fond of while working for the exhibition “Beneath the Surface” Julie will be available to answer questions via the Penn Museum Facebook page between 1 and 2 pm EDT on Friday, October 30.
Category Archives: excavations
Hello again from CLA (or at least from our home offices)! As we’ve mentioned before, conservators love to look at records relating to the objects we’re treating. It helps us to gain insights into the artifact’s history and gives us context for what we see on the bench in front of us. While we don’t always have exhaustive information about every single piece, it’s always interesting to do a little research when we can. One of our recent blog posts discussed how we’ve used archaeological renderings to understand traces of colors on our objects; this post will take a look at how photographic records can inform us about the current condition of the pieces.
Before the CLA team dove into the hands-on work last fall, we took a trip to the museum’s extensive archive collection to do some digging into the history of Merenptah’s palace. With the help of Alex Pezzati, Senior Archivist, we were able to read through the records of the excavation, led by Clarence Fisher from 1915-1920. Our research was also guided by the work of Dr. Kevin Cahail, whose own forays into the archives have revealed a lot of missing details about the site. He was able to provide a lot of insights into what we were seeing in the photographs.
One of the things that impressed us most about the excavation images is the sheer scale of the architecture. While we’re very familiar with our columns and doorways by now, it’s quite another thing to see them in situ. The picture below shows columns and pylons (trapezoidal gateways) from Merenptah’s Coronation Chapel. These objects were previously exhibited at half height because the ceilings in the downstairs gallery were too low, but they’re about 25 feet tall. Part of our project for the new galleries is to figure out how to display these columns at their full height so museum visitors can experience them the way the Egyptians would have. In the meantime, it’s a useful reminder to look at images like this to remind ourselves that they stood for several thousand years!
Another thing you might notice in that image is all the water on the ground. The site is in the Nile flood plain and experienced several very wet seasons. We could tell from the current condition of the stone that it had been waterlogged. Stone is often thought of as being hard and unchangeable, but this particular Egyptian limestone contains a lot of clay, so it becomes very soft when wet. Fisher’s notes talk about how fragile the stone was, and ultimately how they made the decision to bring the pieces back to Penn before they deteriorated even more. The stone was still damp when it was wrapped in linen and packed into wooden crates – which explains the fabric impressions we see in the surface of some of the pieces.
Images from the site are incredibly useful tools when we’re looking at damage to an object and trying to determine the cause – whether the damage occurred before excavation or due to more recent changes. They’re also helpful when we’re trying to figure out the extent of old repairs. When the pylon pieces were installed in the gallery in the 1920s, they were extensively restored with plaster and paint. We could also tell that some lost stone had been replaced with bricks and cement, but it was difficult to tell where the restoration ended and the stone began. Fortunately, there were a lot of pictures taken of the coronation chapel while it was being excavated.
Looking at the original photographs of the left pylon, we could tell that it had already suffered significant surface loss to the bottom and middle sections. We could also see that even though it was still standing, the middle part had broken into several pieces. Using that knowledge during the deinstallation process, we were able to rig around the damaged areas and to remove the old restoration material so the pieces could be separated. When the pylons are reinstalled in the renovated galleries, they will be safely displayed on custom steel support structures. We’re working on how to replicate the decoration, but we’ll make it clear what is original and what is new.
During our time in the archives, we discovered one thing that hasn’t changed much – archaeologists love site dogs.
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.
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.
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.
The textual information from the publication includes some important pieces of information: first that, “it had been considerably restored before being deposited in the tomb, 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.
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.
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
The Desalination Station II: The Salty Pot Field Diaries
by Tessa de Alarcon
So I have written before about desalination to stabilize ceramics with soluble salts, but this time I’m going out into the world, and setting up a desalination station for the Naxcivan Archaeological Project in Azerbaijan.
I had been given a heads up from colleagues Brittany Dolph Dinneen (the previous conservator on site) and Jennifer Swerida (project registrar), that soluble salts may be an issue with the ceramics from the project’s excavations. Salts can be tricky to identify with freshly excavated material, as the ceramic vessels won’t have visible issues until a while after their excavation; once the salts from the burial environment have had time to go through a few cycles of crystallization and deliquescence.
Here at on the Naxcivan Archaeological project, the salts are mostly manifesting as a white haze over the surface of ceramics.
A few are also showing clear crystallization, but the hazing has been the more frequent symptom of the salt problem, especially as this hazing was not observed when they were first excavated.
To confirm that what we were seeing was in fact soluble salts, I poultice the surface.
Once the cotton poultice was dry, I removed it from the surface, re-wet and checked the conductivity, and tested it for nitrates and chlorides with test strips (there are lots of other types of soluble salts, but these are two common ones that are easy to test for). The results were positive, and as you can see the poultice also removed the white haze clearly showing how soluble these salts are.
The next step is getting the water, and while we used to use a similar system at the museum to make deionized water, the scenery is pretty different.
The pot then soaked for a day, while I checked the conductivity until it reached the end point of the desalination process.
Once it was removed from the water I rinsed it with fresh clean water, blotted it dry, then left it to air dry.
Finally, here is the bowl after desalination. As you can see it is now white haze free. Most importantly, it can now be handed over to the Naxcivan Museum with no risk of damage from ongoing salt cycles.
As a final note, it has not been all work, I did get to hike up to the current excavation and I wanted to end on this photo taken from the site, as Azerbaijan is stunning, and I can’t resist the opportunity to share.
The power of social media
By Jessica Byler
The power of social media, which brings together so many people with diverse interests and knowledge, has helped in a conservation treatment! In a previous post, the restringing of a faience Egyptian broad collar (31-27-303) was discussed. A couple of eagle-eyed readers pointed out that the falcon head terminals should face outwards, whereas our terminals are looking at each other. The falcons have been facing inwards for as long as we have had the piece, so what was going on?
Almost immediately, Egyptian Section curator Jen Wegner got to work, digging in the Archives and looking at other collars, including beaded and gold collars as well as painted ones. In all of them, the falcons faced out, not in. Our terminals were on backwards!
We have Alan Rowe’s field notes from the excavation in 1930 (Coxe Expedition to Meydum) which shows how this happened. When the collar was excavated, the falcon head terminals were separate from, but in the same context as, the hundreds of barrel beads. The terminals and beads were drawn separately in the notes but were reconstructed by the time they were photographed.
Since 1930, the collar has been on display, gone out on loan, and published. No one had noticed (or had gone so far to comment on) the incorrect placement of the falcon head terminals. Because the collar was restrung for purely conservation reasons, the placement of each of the beads had been retained. Now that it has been pointed out, it was decided to switch the terminals to face outwards.
Fortunately, I was able to switch the terminals without fully restringing the collar. First, the knots were unpicked from each side. Then, the thread was unstrung so that the top and bottom rows could be removed, which mostly released the terminals. Finally, two of the strings had to be cut. Once the terminals were removed, they could be swapped, and the collar restrung.
The collar has a few more knots than before, but for the first time the falcon-headed terminals are facing the right way.
Thanks again to our attentive audience! A very special shout-out to our Egyptological colleagues, Tom Hardwick and Peter Lacovara, who pointed this out in the first place. Who knows, maybe someone reading this right now will contribute to a future mystery!
Beaded Necklaces: Restringing to Secure the Past
By Tessa Young
Who doesn’t love a beaded necklace? They’re sold commonly today, but did you know that they were popular in the Ancient Middle East? There are a number of fabulous pieces of beaded jewelry on display in the new Middle East Galleries, and several beaded items from our collection will be featured in the Museum’s Jewelry of Ur lecture and workshop scheduled for June 14th!When beaded artifacts are unearthed during excavation, typically the floss, or string, which held the beads has disintegrated in the burial environment. To ensure that the beadwork does not lose its original design, archaeologists will document their findings both photographically and through written records, and sometimes, they will string the beads onto a new piece of floss. This floss was usually good enough to get the pieces back to the museum, but it is not up to our modern conservation standards!
Here at the Penn Museum, when beadwork is destined for loans, display, or requires handling for programming, the Conservation Department wants to be sure that these objects are secure. For the upcoming Jewelry of Ur program, fellow conservation technician Alyssa Rina and I were tasked with restringing several pieces of beaded jewelry, including B15918, pictured above. The floss on this piece was previously broken and then tied off in a quick repair. The plan for this conservation treatment was to restring the beads in a loop with a more durable floss.
Depending on the piece, we restring using two different weights of braided nylon floss, which has the strength necessary to hold the beads securely while also being capable of holding knots. Monofilament (fishing line) is another popular choice, but we have found that knots can come undone rather easily with this material.
Penn Museum Conservators have developed several tactics to keep the beads in place during the restringing process. First, we always keep the beads contained within a padded box, preventing the beads from rolling away and getting lost. Second, as seen in the photograph, we typically use a small clamp to secure the floss to the edge of the box. This keeps everything from shifting and rolling around. Finally, we thread the floss onto a small needle to aid in the efficiency of stringing the beads. These beads had large and regular enough holes to use a standard sewing needle, but thin, flexible beading needles are also an option.
Conservators also want to be sure that the stringing will remain in place. The first bead on the string is tied into place with two half-hitches (more-or-less a fancy double knot), and then the rest of the beads are strung into place with the help of a thin, flexible needle. If the beadwork is supposed to be a loop, at the end of the strand, the floss is threaded back through the first bead, and again tied off with two half-hitches. If the beadwork is supposed to be linear, the terminal bead is tied off with two half-hitches, making sure that the beads are tight but comfortable on the strand. Once this is done, the beads are stable enough to be handled or put on display without any fear!
A lion relief from Nippur
Yesterday we received a new artifact in the lab: this terracotta lion relief from Nippur, Iraq.
Some may argue that this object could be a candidate for the Ugly Object of the Month club. Well, we like him, and one of our conservators pointed out that he looks a lot like one of these wonderful characters from William Steig’s Rotten Island.
This relief was excavated in the University of Pennsylvania’s Babylonian Expedition to Nippur in 1899. Like the Nippur slipper coffin currently on display in the Artifact Lab, it was previously repaired with metal staples and (at least one type of) adhesive, likely around the same time as the slipper coffin.
Getting this relief ready for exhibition in the Middle Eastern Galleries will not only require significant conservation treatment, but also a custom mount so that it can be displayed safely. We will provide updates as we work on this.
Update from the Gordion Excavations
Julia Commander is a third-year graduate student in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She is currently completing a curriculum internship at the Penn Museum.
In my last post, I introduced the Gordion Archaeological Project and what I’ve been up to as a conservation intern here. The season has continued at a quick pace, with a steady stream of incoming small finds and projects at the Gordion Museum.
While some objects only require a light cleaning, others can take a few days to process. I mentioned two pairs of copper alloy tweezers, and second pair has now been fully treated. In addition to mechanical cleaning, the copper alloy object was treated with the corrosion inhibitor benzotriazole, also called BTA. Objects are immersed in the solution and placed in a vacuum chamber to ensure effective application. The corrosion inhibitor is then protected by a coating of dilute acrylic resin. After these treatment steps, any structural breaks can be reconstructed and joined with an adhesive. For objects with weak points that may be susceptible to further breakage, small supports can be added to the housing. Here I included an Ethafoam support with a cavity cut out to hold the pair of tweezers.
Another example is this small ceramic figurine fragment. In this case, the female figure has a stable structure but a very delicate pigmented surface. The pigment was consolidated with a dilute adhesive mixture, applied by pipette to avoid any action on the surface. To further protect the surface, the figure was cavity packed with a layer of smooth Tyvek, which will prevent abrasion and further pigment loss.
Processing small finds often involves unexpected discoveries. While working on a small ceramic vessel, I was interested to learn what was contained inside. One of the best parts about working on site is the opportunity for immediate collaboration. After talking about the soil samples with an archaeobotany student, I knew to expect small bones in the vessel interior, potentially from a mouse. After pulling out many, many vertebrae and rib bones, I consulted our zooarchaeologist to figure out what the bones may be. There were no signs of a skull, which likely deteriorated further due to its fragility. However, the other bones indicated not a mouse but a snake coiled inside the vessel. We can’t say what the snake was doing there, but all the associated bones and soil will be kept for potential further study.
During the season, we’ve also had some very large finds in the active excavation areas. This includes a large ceramic pithos that was found almost completely intact. In this case, conservation made several site visits to consult about techniques for supporting and lifting the object. After padding the interior of the vessel, we added supportive wrapping over a thick layer of dirt that was left as protective casing. This process helps minimize damage from physical forces and also keeps fragments in place if they happen to detach.
As I get ready to wrap up my time here at Gordion, I was lucky to have the opportunity to see the site from a new perspective. Along with several colleagues, I was able to take a hot air balloon ride over Yassıhöyük and some of Gordion’s many burial mounds.We enjoyed magnificent aerial views of our workspace!
Two Al-‘Ubaid friezes
There will be a heavy rotation of objects from Iraq and Iran in the Artifact Lab as we work on objects that will be installed in our new Middle Eastern Galleries, scheduled to open in April 2018. Two of the newest pieces to come into the lab (but 2 of the oldest things in here) are these friezes from Tell Al-‘Ubaid, a site located west of Ur in Iraq, which date to the Ubaid period (ca. 6500-3800 BCE).
These frieze fragments were excavated by Charles Leonard Woolley in 1924 as part of the British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Al-‘Ubaid. They both have been heavily reconstructed, displayed a lot, and loaned several times, so this is not their first time in the conservation lab. Due to some condition issues and because we are preparing them to go on long-term exhibition here at the museum, we have decided to deconstruct the old repairs and reassemble the friezes using materials that we expect will last longer and provide greater protection for the original pieces.
Conservation treatment of the frieze with the bulls began a week ago:
One week later, even more progress has been made:
Prior to treatment, the friezes were x-rayed to provide a better understanding of their construction and previous repairs, and to guide conservation treatment.
Check back for updates on this exciting and complex treatment.
Back in business
Update – this post contains outdated language. We no longer use the term “mummy” and instead use “mummified human individuals” to refer to Ancient Egyptian people whose bodies were preserved for the afterlife. To read more about this decision, follow this link.
Saturday April 8th is the official reopening of the Artifact Lab, complete with a modified name and some new objects on exhibit and in the lab.
The Artifact Lab: Conservation in Action looks a lot like it did before we closed in December, but as you can see from the shot above, our focus has shifted from Egyptian mummies and funerary objects to a wider range of artifacts, with a special focus on objects being prepared for installation in our Middle East Galleries next year.
This glazed clay slipper coffin from Nippur, excavated by our museum in the late 19th century, is front and center in the Artifact Lab:
It has a fascinating history, including its restoration here at the museum in the 1890s, which is noted on its catalog card as being carried out by the restorer William H. Witte. The restoration work allowed this coffin and several others to be displayed for the opening of the new museum building in 1899, where they remained on display for 40 years. We are particularly tickled that this coffin was displayed in this very same gallery where the Artifact Lab is now housed, the Baugh Pavilion.
118 years later, the slipper coffin has once again been installed in this space. It’s exhibition this time would not be possible without the extensive treatment carried out by conservator Julie Lawson in 2005. You can read more about its history and her work in her article in Expedition Magazine. For those interested in a more in-depth discussion of the conservation treatment, Julie also wrote an article that was published in the American Institute for Conservation’s Object Specialty Group Postprints, Volume 13, 2006.
There are many more stories to share about the objects and work being done and we’ll continue to write about them on our blog. In the meantime, come visit us now that we are open again! Our open window times also have changed slightly – they are now as follows:
Tuesday – Friday 11:00 – 11:30 and 1:30-2:00
Saturday – Sunday 12:00-12:30 and 3:00 – 3:30