During the current pandemic, we are no longer able to offer ‘Open Window’ sessions at the Artifact Lab.  Instead, we hope you will ask any questions you have via our ‘Ask Us” tab on the main blog page.
People ask lots of questions-here are some of the more frequently asked (or just plain interesting) ones.

If you have a question, please leave a comment for us.

Questions about Conservation:

What do we use to clean the artifacts?

  • What we use depends on the material that the artifact is made of and the substance that we’d like to remove. To remove accumulated dust and grime from the surface of objects, conservators often use soft-bristled brushes and variable-pressure, HEPA-filtered vacuums. A variety of other materials and tools are also often necessary, including special sponges and solvents. Determining the best method to clean an artifact requires testing different materials and methods, and working under magnification, so that the affects of cleaning are clearly visible.

What do we use to repair artifacts?

How long does conservation take?

  • The length of time for a conservation treatment depends completely on the type of treatment required as well as the nature of the object-it’s condition, size, etc. Before carrying out a conservation treatment, conservators write treatment proposals, detailing the work that will be carried out, the types of materials to be used, as well as the estimated length of time for the treatment. It is easier to estimate time when working on groups of similar objects with similar condition issues. In the Artifact Lab, we have a wide variety of objects and some objects require extensive treatment, and estimating the time required for these treatments will be difficult until further testing and research is carried out.

How do you become a conservator?

  • The standard route to becoming a professional conservator is to complete a graduate degree in conservation. Conservation graduate degree programs generally require 2-4 years of study. In order to be admitted into one of these programs, candidates must complete prerequisites in chemistry, art history/anthropology/architecture/archaeology, and in studio art, and often must have significant practical experience working in the field. Click here for more information about becoming a conservator. For more FAQs and information about conservation, please visit the American Institute for Conservation’s website by following this link.

Questions about the Penn Museum and In the Artifact Lab:

When was the museum founded?

  • The Penn Museum was founded in 1887. You can read more about the museum by visiting the website.

Where did these objects come from?

  • All of the objects in the Artifact Lab are from the Museum’s collections.. The majority of the objects were obtained through archaeological investigations funded or carried out by the museum.

How old are these objects?

  • Objects  in the Artifact Lab can range in date from the Egyptian Predynastic Period (circa 4000 BCE) through historic periods to current times.

How much of the museum’s collection is on exhibit and where is the rest of it?

  • Less than 5% of our total collections are ever on exhibit at one time. Everything else is in storage. To learn more about the museum’s storage areas and to get a “behind-the-scenes” glimpse, check out Senior Conservator Lynn Grant’s blogpost on the topic.

Is that a real mummy?

  • Yes! Everything that you see in the Artifact Lab is real.

Why does the museum use BCE/CE instead of BC/AD?

  • BCE stands for “Before the Common Era” and CE is the abbreviation for “Common Era.” These terms are alternatives, but numerical equivalents to BC (Before Christ)/AD (Anno Domini). So 2012 CE is the same as AD 2012. BCE and CE provide a religiously neutral way to reference dates within the Gregorian calendar and are increasingly becoming the standard terms used in academia and museums, so you’ll probably start noticing this in other places as well.

I’ve never been this close to an artifact before-can I touch it?

  • Sorry-no! Even though you’ll see conservators, curators and other researchers handling the objects In the Artifact Lab, we don’t allow museum visitors to touch the objects. All of these objects are very fragile and susceptible to damage from handling and movement, so we try to minimize handling as much as possible.

Can I volunteer?

  • Volunteers are a critical component of the Penn Museum. If you are interested in volunteering, you can find more about the museum’s volunteer opportunities and contact info here.

Questions about Ancient Egypt and mummies:

What was the mummification process?

  • We have a good graphic in the gallery to explain this-so come in and check it out! Mummification was practiced throughout most of Egyptian history for the purpose of preserving the body after death, and the specifics of this practice varied over time. In general, mummification was a long process that may have taken up to 70 days after death. The internal organs (except the heart) were removed and the body was placed in a salt-like substance called natron (see below for more on that) until it was desiccated (dry). It was then removed, cleaned, anointed with oils and spices, and wrapped in strips of linens bandages. Distributed throughout the wrappings were scarabs and other amulets believed to facilitate the individual’s entrance to the afterlife. The internal organs that had been removed from the body were preserved in canopic jars. The deceased was then placed in a coffin (or series of coffins) and buried in a well-prepared tomb along with possessions he or she would need in the afterlife. This information is from Egypt: A New Look @ an Ancient Culture, a Penn Museum website that provides an overview of the museum’s excavations and collections from Egypt.

Were all people mummified?

Are the mummies completely dry?

  • Well, yes and no. As you read above, the mummification process aimed to desiccate the bodies completely-this prevented the bodies from naturally decomposing. But, now that the mummies are away from the arid environment of the tomb, they are susceptible to changes in relative humidity (moisture in the air)-during sustained periods of high relative humidity, these organic objects will absorb moisture from the air. In the Artifact Lab, we will be examining the mummies to make sure that they are stable and not being adversely affected by this change in environment.

What is natron?

  • Natron was an important part of the mummification process. The embalmers would pack the body with it to dry out the body to help preserve it. Natron is a natural mineral consisting of a mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate with sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, and sodium sulfate. One of its natural characteristics is that it easily absorbs water. This is why it works so well to dry out the body. At the same time as it absorbs water, it also increases pH. Since bacteria thrive in acidic (low pH) environments, the high pH helps to prevent bacteria from attacking the mummy.
  • Natron wasn’t only used for making mummies though. It was also mixed with oil to act like soap, used to clean teeth, used as bleach, and more. It was even part of the process to make the pigment Egyptian blue. See our blogpost on pXRF for more on Egyptian blue.

How did these people die?

  • X-radiography and CT-scanning can tell us a lot about health, disease and injuries, but understanding the exact cause of death is not always straightforward. For some of the human remains in the Artifact Lab, we need to document and stabilize them first, before they can be sent over to the hospital for x-rays and CT-scanning. We’ll be sure to provide updates as we learn more about these mummies. You can read more about life expectancy, disease, cause of death, and medical treatment in Ancient Egypt in Joyce Filer’s article Health Hazards and Cures in Ancient Egypt.

Can you figure out how old the mummies are, and how?

  • Well, if you mean, how old were the mummies when they died, yes. Again, x-ray and CT-scanning technology assists in determining age. Examination of skeletal development and teeth are commonly used for estimating age at death.
  • And if you mean, how old are the mummies (like what era do they date to), it is possible to determine that too. Most of the objects in the museum’s Egyptian collections came into the museum through excavation, so the age of mummies recovered from these excavations is known based on their archaeological context. The specific burial and mummification practices used are also helpful in determining age. Radiocarbon dating is a technique that can also be used to estimate age of organic materials from archaeological sites, including bone, plant materials and wood.

Were Egyptian tombs booby trapped?

  • Well, no, not in the way we see in movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “The Mummy”.  There were no giant rolling balls, pits of snakes, or flesh-eating bugs.  The ancient Egyptian tomb builders went to great lengths to protect the mummy and the funerary goods buried in the tombs.  There are tombs (and pyramids) with one or more giant portcullis stones that were lowered down to block access to interior parts of the tomb when the tomb was sealed up.  But, it’s not like they were set on a trip wire to crush anyone who might have entered the tomb afterwards. There are also things like well-shafts or pits in some underground royal tombs, but these serve a religious function and were not meant to trap potential tomb robbers (although, I suppose a few could have fallen in by accident crawling through the tomb corridor in near darkness).  They were known as “the hall of hindrance” in later New Kingdom tombs and were supposed to represent the burial place of Osiris-Sokar.

How did Ancient Egyptians see when they were working in the tombs?

  • Tourists visiting Egypt today know how important having a flashlight is when visiting some tombs and temples. The ancient Egyptians didn’t have flashlights, so we can assume that oil lamps of various kinds were the main way that the tombs were lit while workers were cutting out and decorating the tombs. Some oils (like olive oil) burn cleaner than others, and if one puts salt in the oil, that makes the oil burn with less smoke/soot. We do have ancient Egyptian written evidence indicating that workers were issued wicks for their lamps.