Horus gets a facelift

By Anna O’Neill, Alice and Herbert Sachs Egyptian Collections Conservator

When I last wrote about transforming a stela, I wrote about removing an old coating on a small stela fragment. Well, stelae come in all shapes and sizes, and I just finished treating another one!

We just opened Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display, which highlights some of the Penn Museum’s Egyptian artifacts while our larger galleries are being renovated. This was the perfect time for some of the pieces that have always been on display to come into the conservation lab for a little bit of TLC (tender loving conservation).

This stela is a black quartzite monument for the pharaoh Qa’a, the last king of the First Dynasty in Egypt, around 2910 BCE. It is about five feet tall and shows a falcon representing the god Horus standing atop a serekh (a boxy decoration representing a palace) containing the hieroglyphs for Qa’a’s name.

The Penn Museum Qa’a stela (E6878) before treatment with old restored areas outlined in red (left) and the Cairo example (right). A letter from Penn Egyptologist Sara Yorke Stevenson to the archaeologist William Flinders Petrie in 1901 declares that the restoration “gives an idea of life”.

As you can see in the image above, the stela was heavily restored with cement in the early 1900s to make it look whole. Unfortunately, the restoration had given Horus a somewhat comical expression. With a big beak and tiny eye, he looked perpetually disappointed and definitely not stylistically appropriate for his time. Fortunately, our statue has a mirror twin in the Cairo Museum, which it would have been paired with on site in Abydos. Because the one in Cairo is mostly intact, we can use it as an example of what ours would have looked like. The head and beak are much smaller and simpler, giving Horus the look of a bird of prey. With the curators, we decided to give Horus a facelift based on the Cairo Museum example.

First, we did some digital mock-ups of how the head would look before I painted the outline directly onto the restored area. Using a Dremel rotary tool with a grinding stone attachment, I shaped Horus’s head and beak to more appropriate proportions, which was a very dusty but very satisfying process. Since we didn’t have any good examples of what the eye might have looked like (the Cairo Museum face is damaged), I filled this area using Paraloid B-72 and glass microballoons. I also sanded down the squared-off edges of the restored border so they sloped down into the background, again like the Cairo Museum stela, and smoothed some of the rougher areas of restoration.

Horus’s reconstructed head before treatment (left), with rough digital sketch (center), and during reshaping with the Dremel (right). Please note that I only reshaped what I knew was the restoration material! Conservators never make changes to original parts of objects.

Once the curators were happy with the shape of Horus’s head, it was time to move on to painting. The previous paint that covered the cement was a color that didn’t quite match any of the tones in the stone – fine for display in a dim gallery, but the stela’s new home would be more brightly lit. Finding the right color was challenging because the top fragment, which was found a few years after the bottom pieces, is a slightly darker color than the rest of the stela. I decided on a mid-tone that worked with the base color of the surrounding original stone, and then used a sponge to layer lots of highlights and darker shades to blend in with the actual artifact. I also used paint to create the optical illusion of “finishing” the bottom left corner of the serekh so that it appears complete from a distance.

The Qa’a stela after reshaping and repainting the old restoration.

You can now see the Qa’a stela and lots of other amazing Egyptian artifacts in Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display. The Artifact Lab has also reopened, and we look forward to being able to talk to everyone about the work we’re doing to prepare for all the exciting changes at the Penn Museum.

#Transformation Tuesday: New Year’s Edition

By: Céline Wachsmuth

It’s Tuesday and that means it’s time for another transformation story. This one comes from an object going into the Middle East Galleries (click here for more information on the exciting new galleries, opening this April!).

It’s hard to believe the first month of January is almost over! Many people make resolutions for the New Year, hoping to make an improvement, big or small (myself included, I have a Google doc with a list of resolutions). Most resolutions are easier said than done, including the prevalent resolution to shave a few pounds. This bowl had similar thoughts, but made losing some weight look like a piece of cake!

Bowl before treatment (left) and after treatment (right)

This bowl had been repaired in the past, but the joins needed to be taken down because the old adhesive was failing. The bowl was pretty clean when it came into the lab so it wasn’t long before I began solvent testing the adhesive in order to make a vapor chamber. The adhesive was soluble in acetone and most of the sherds separated with gentle prodding after eight days in a vapor chamber. The old fills (made of plaster), however, did not budge. This was probably due to the likelihood that they had been cast in place.

Outlines of Old Fills
Fill outlined in dark blue was dremeled out
Fills outlined in light blue were softened with deionized water and then removed

These ounces had to go! When a fill resists detachment by solvent, other, usually mechanical, methods have to be implemented. One mechanical treatment is to use a dremel, just like the one you might use at home for some smaller detailed work, to carve away the fill. This is tricky because the dremel can put the object at risk if used improperly. Once I was all set up and had been shown the proper technique, I slowly moved around the entire area of the fill.

using the dremel to remove the fill

two of the sherds sitting in a bed of glass beads while the adhesive sets

Once the large fill was removed and those ounces had been shed, it was time for some TLC. I cleaned the break edges on each sherd with acetone (for the sherds previously joined with adhesive) or deionized water (for the sherds adjacent to the old fills). All the break edges were then coated with a dilute solution of Paraloid B-72 (ethyl methacrylate methyl acrylate copolymer) and the sherds were put back together with a 50% solution of Paraloid B-72 in 1:1 acetone:ethanol. Two small areas of the bowl had some gaps that needed to be filled; one for added structural stability and one to help complete the shape. This was done using a mixture of 3M microballoons, Paraloid B-72 in 1:1 acetone:ethanol, acetone, and some dry pigment to approximately color match the fill to the bowl. The fills needed some additional color to help blend in more and they were painted with light washes of acrylics.

This bowl made losing a couple ounces look easy even though we all know how much work really has to go in to something transformative! Thankfully, it’s only the beginning of the year and there is plenty of time to make your own transformations. Just like there’s plenty of time for another transformation to happen in the labs before our next Transformation Tuesday post – stay tuned!

PS – If you’re looking for some “ancient workout tips” check out these fun suggestions