A Columnar Matter Part II: The Conservation Treatment of a 3rd Millennium BCE Mosaic Column from Al ‘Ubaid

By Marci Jefcoat Burton

As a follow up to my previous blog post, conservation treatment of the second of four sections comprising a mosaic column from Tell al-Ubaid, Iraq is well on its way! For a quick recap, the column is dated to 2400 – 2250 BCE (Figure 1). After centuries of burial, the triangular and diamond shaped shell, pink limestone, and shale tesserae (also referred to as tiles), were excavated in 1919 – 1924. The original wooden column interior did not survive the centuries of burial, so after excavation, the tesserae were mounted with plaster to four hollow cylindrical supports of metal mesh covered with burlap. After nearly 100 years, shifts in the internal support have caused structural instability to each section.

Figure 1: (left) Before treatment image of the four column sections stacked together to make a complete column. Image 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) (right) Column section 2 detail, before treatment.

First step of treatment: Remove tesserae from the current support.

The plaster was softened with distilled water applied by brush, then carved away to expose the sides of the each tessera. The tesserae could then be separated from the plaster and burlap backing one by one (Figure 2). Like the first slice of pie, the first piece was the most difficult to remove. Once extracted, access to adjacent tesserae became easier.

Figure 2: (left) Removing plaster surrounding the tesserae with a scalpel blade. Plaster was first softened with distilled water. (middle) Carefully extracting a shell tessera from the plaster. (right) Shell tessera after removal from column section.

The tesserae were removed from the support and placed on an enlarged reference photo in a tray to maintain the order of composition (Figure 3).

Figure 3: All tesserae were removed from the support and placed on top of a rolled out image of the column section to maintain their original placement. All that remains on the exterior of the cylindrical support is a layer of grey plaster and previously filled areas. As a bonus, the Egyptian female child mummy named Tanwa can be seen in the background, just outside of the Artifact Lab window!

Second step of treatment: Cleaning

After removal from column section 2, all tesserae were covered with a layer of powdery plaster, which was removed with distilled water applied with hand-rolled cotton swabs. Medical scalpels were used to gently lift and remove thick remnants of plaster as well as adhesive from previous repairs. In addition, years of dark-brown dirt, dust and grime were removed with distilled water, and Stoddard solvent (a petroleum-derived organic solvent) was applied to the pink limestone and shell pieces to remove greasy grime trapped in the surface (Figure 4).

Figure 4: (left) Removal of adhesive and plaster remnants from a diamond shaped tesserae using a medical scalpel. (right) Shell tesserae being cleaned with distilled water. Note the dark grey-brown grime picked up on the cotton swab.

Third step of treatment: Repair

Once cleaned, tesserae that exhibited breakage such as cracks, detachment, and delamination were repaired with a thin layer of a semi-viscous solution of Paraloid® B-72 (ethyl methacrylate (70%) and methyl acrylate (30%) copolymer) resin in acetone. The majority of the shell tesserae experienced separation between the layers comprising the shell. Some even separated into several pieces, making their reassembly somewhat of a puzzle (Figure 5)!

Figure 5: (left) A triangular shell tessera delaminated (separated) into six pieces. (right) The same shell tessera with all pieces adhered together with Paraloid® B-72.

The shale was even more temperamental to remove from the column section (Figure 6). Shale is a soft sedimentary rock composed of mud, clay, and minerals, such as calcite and quartz. The inherent nature of the shale causes breakage and crumbling. Water can remove particles from the shale surface, therefore these pieces were cleaned with dry brushes and if needed, cotton swabs lightly dampened with distilled water.

The most resilient material was the pink limestone. While some pink limestone tesserae are weathered on the surface, most likely from centuries of burial, these tiles exhibited very little breakage and cleaned up nicely with distilled water and Stoddard solvent (Fig. 6).

Figure 6: (left) A diamond shaped shale tessera exhibiting a lack of cohesion, best observed around the edges, which caused cracks and areas of material loss. (right) A resilient triangular pink limestone tessera with a weathered surface, noted by the lighter, speckled locations. The pink limestone tesserae have strong cohesion and required very little repair.

After a month of cleaning and repair of the shell, pink limestone and shale tesserae, their overall appearance is quite transformative. The tesserae look brighter and truer to their original colors (Figure 7). This is especially the case for the pink limestone, which went from a dark peach-brown, to a brighter light-pink hue.

Figure 7: (left) Shell, pink limestone and shale tesserae after removal from the former support, and kept in their original arrangement. (right) All tesserae after cleaning and repair, ready for re-mounting to a new support.

…..What’s next?

The next phase of treatment for section 2 of the mosaic column is to mount the shell, pink limestone, and shale tesserae to a new solid cylindrical support. More information and updates on the column treatment progress will be featured in an upcoming post, so please stay tuned!

BIG changes, little details

On November 1, our Museum announced the commencement of our  Building Transformation  campaign, a monumental project which will include a full renovation of our building structure and reinstallation of many of our signature galleries, including our iconic Egyptian Galleries.

The first glimpse of this work will be the opening of our Middle East Galleries in April 2018. This is not news for readers of this blog – you have been hearing about the conservation work for this project for awhile now (for reference, see these related blogposts).

Graduate intern Marci Jefcoat Burton (standing) and pre-program interns Fallon Murphy, Jennifer Mikes, and Alyssa Rina during an open window session in the Artifact Lab (with one of the al-Ubaid mosaic columns in the foreground)

In fact, you can get a glimpse of several exciting projects that are underway for our Building Transformation right now, on a daily basis, in either of our 2 public conservation labs.

In the Artifact Lab, you will mostly see objects being conserved for the Middle East Galleries and for our Mexico and Central America Gallery, opening in November 2018.

An assortment of artifacts for the Mexico and Central America Gallery in various stages of conservation treatment.

Our other public lab is down in our Lower Egyptian Gallery. Work in that space is dedicated exclusively to conservation treatment of the carved and painted limestone blocks from the Old Kingdom tomb chapel of Kaipure.

A view of the Kaipure tomb chapel lab space in Lower Egypt

Project Assistant Anna O’Neill at work on a block in the Kaipure lab

While you can watch the conservation team at work most days in the Kaipure lab, unlike the Artifact Lab, it does not include open window sessions. But have no fear – the Kaipure team has promised to write some blogposts about aspects of their work, so stay tuned for more information on this project!

Big projects like the Building Transformation campaign come down to a lot of little details, and no one knows details like the Conservation Department. We hope you visit us to learn more about these details, and all the work underway to make these big changes possible.

Sometimes you just can’t get close enough (intern Celine Wachsmuth in the Kaipure lab)

To learn more about the vision of our Building Transformation, check out this ~3 minute video which captures the grandeur of the project (and features Project Conservator Tessa de Alarcon!).

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.

Laser cleaning a trio of birds

In addition to the frieze of 6 bulls (which we are still working on in the Artifact Lab), we are also treating a frieze of 3 birds, in preparation for our new Middle Eastern Galleries, scheduled to open in April 2018.

B15883, frieze of 3 birds before treatment

This is a section of a frieze from the site of Al-Ubaid, Iraq which was excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the early 1920s. The birds are the only original pieces of the frieze – the rest is a modern reproduction. The birds (possibly doves?) were carved from limestone and each has a pair of drill holes at their center which would have served as an attachment point. Copper alloy twists would have been used to secure the birds in antiquity – fragments of the original copper remain in one of them.

Due to structural stability issues in the modern reproduction, we needed to disassemble the entire frieze. Once the birds were removed, it was evident that their surfaces were very grimy, related to both the burial environment and time in museum storage. A variety of cleaning methods were explored and tested, but none worked better than using our laser.

One of the birds, after removal and before cleaning

The Conservation Department purchased a Compact Phoenix Nd:YAG laser several years ago, and we are still learning about all of its possible applications. We recently had a workshop with conservator and laser-guru Adam Jenkins, which helped us further develop some testing and health and safety protocols.

Essentially, the Nd:YAG laser works like this: the laser emits a beam of light, typically with a wavelength of 1064 nm (in the infrared), which selectively irradiates and removes unwanted dirt and surface coatings without damaging the object (a process called laser ablation). This type of laser cleaning works well for removing dark substances from light-colored objects, so trying it on one of the birds made a lot of sense.

Easy for me to say. I didn’t do this treatment – project conservator Madeleine Neiman did. So she gets all the credit for this.

After testing, Madeleine carried out her first laser cleaning treatment on the bird in the image below. Here she is getting set up to carry out the work:

And here is a shot of the bird after the surface was partially cleaned: (WOW!)

I think the process and results are best displayed in a gif, or a video, so I’m including the gif below, and here is a link to the video.

Go Madeleine! I think this was a really rewarding treatment to carry out. Please take note of all of the PPE (personal protective equipment) involved, including special eyeware and ventilation.

A lion relief from Nippur

Yesterday we received a new artifact in the lab: this terracotta lion relief from Nippur, Iraq.

B20014: the lion relief in fragments

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.

Illustration from William Steig’s “Rotten Island”. Image courtesy of scienceblogs.com

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.

The staple-like wire tires used to repair the relief are visible in this view of one of the break edges.

More evidence of the old repairs on this fragment.

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.

Two human figurines from Tureng Tepe

Preparations for the opening of our new Middle Eastern Galleries are well underway. Take a peek into either of our lab spaces (both the Artifact Lab and our main lab spaces) and you’ll see a multitude of artifacts being treated for this upcoming exhibition.

I recently treated two ceramic human figurines which will be going into a case with several other figurines from Tureng Tepe, a site in northeastern Iran.

Map of archaeological sites in Iraq and Iran, with a red star next to Tureng Tepe. Base map image credit: University of Chicago.

One is female, and mostly complete, and the other is a male torso.

Like most objects for the Middle Eastern Galleries, both of these objects needed treatment. And they represent two different reasons for treatment, which we commonly seen in our lab.

The female figure had a couple different problems. First, and most obviously, her head was detached.

A detail of 32-41-68, before treatment.

The other problem stemmed from the fact that she had been treated before. In the 1980s, she was desalinated by soaking in water, and consolidated with PVA-AYAF, a polyvinyl acetate resin. Both of these interventions were important for the long-term structural stability of this piece. But the problem related to old treatment was an aesthetic one – there were areas on the body that were very discolored/gray, which made for a splotchy appearance overall. You can see these gray patches in the images above. These gray patches were also very shiny, and were related to a coating that had been applied to the figure at some point – possibly the old PVA consolidant.

Treatment of this figure included removing the darkened coating by swabbing with acetone, and some mechanical removal with bamboo skewers. The head was reattached with Paraloid B-72. There were some areas where the ceramic body was flaking and these areas were consolidated with a dilute solution of Paraloid B-72 in acetone and ethanol.

32-41-68 before (left) and after (right) treatment

In contrast, the male figure had never been treated. When I first laid eyes on him, I thought to myself, “Terrific! This piece looks like it will just involve documentation. It will be in and out of the lab within a day or two.” Well, looks can be deceiving, and I quickly realized that the male figure had a soluble salt problem, related to the burial environment. I actually haven’t discussed soluble salts on this blog before. You can read a nice explanation of soluble salts, how they affect archaeological objects, and what we do about them, in Tessa de Alarcon’s blogpost on the Penn Museum blog.

The most obvious signs of soluble salts were the small flakes of ceramic sitting under the figure in its storage support. A quick spot test for chlorides was positive, so I made the decision to desalinate the figure by immersion in water for several days. After desalination, I readhered the small flakes, and the treatment was complete.

Before (left) and after (right) treatment images of the male figure from the side. Small flakes were reattached in the area indicated by the red arrow.

32-41-62 before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

As I mentioned, these artifacts will go into a case with several other human figurines from Tureng Tepe. We have, or will be treating a number of figurines from several different sites for the Middle Eastern Galleries. I am including images of some of these figurines below. Personally, I like the ladies with their hands on their hips.

Human figures. Link to larger images and more information by clicking on their numbers (listed from left to right): 32-41-25, 31-43-450, 43-29-3, 58-4-3, 31-16-733, 31-16-734

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.


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).

B15880, frieze of 6 bulls.

B15883, frieze of 3 ducks

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:

The bull frieze after 2 days of treatment.

One week later, even more progress has been made:

The bull frieze after 1 week of treatment.

Detail of the first bull freed from the frieze, 7.5X magnification. The bulls are made of shell and are in excellent condition.

Prior to treatment, the friezes were x-rayed to provide a better understanding of their construction and previous repairs, and to guide conservation treatment.

A digital x-ray radiograph of a portion of the bull frieze showing ancient methods of attachment (some are circled in red), modern nails (circled in blue), and a large fill made as part of a previous conservation treatment (circled in green).

Check back for updates on this exciting and complex treatment.