Ptah-Sokar-Osiris and Treating Painted Surfaces

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.

As a conservation intern working in the Artifact Lab, I was able to go shopping through shelves of Egyptian objects and scope out interesting treatment projects. A painted wood statue, depicting the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, immediately caught my eye. The figure has intricate painted designs decorating the mummiform figure and its base, as well as gilded details in the face and headdress.

Ptah Sokar Osiris Statue, L-55-29A-C

L-55-29C, detail of paint and gilding

High-status burials in 19th dynasty Egypt often included this type of mummiform statue. Comparable examples of the popular object type exist in collections worldwide, such as the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Common characteristics include carved wood, a preparatory gesso layer, polychrome design, and in some cases, a coating of varnish. Ptah-Sokar-Osiris statues also frequently feature small compartments carved into the wood figure or base. These cavities could contain small papyrus scrolls or textile wrappings. While examining the object with this in mind, I noticed a faint rectangular shape on the reverse of the figure’s head.

X-radiography, a non-destructive imaging technique that helps clarify construction details, was perfectly suited for the question of the compartment. Without disturbing the delicate painted surface, we were able to observe that a rectangular cavity is in fact cut into the head of the figure. Although the cavity appears to be empty, this interesting construction detail is consistent with similar Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures.

L-55-29A detail (left) and X-radiograph (right). Image captured from 55 kV, 2 mA, and 6 second exposure.

The statue has several condition issues, such as actively flaking paint and significant darkening over the front surface. Additionally, the figure is unable to stand upright in the base, and the components do not fit together securely. Upcoming treatment aims to address these issues, and I will be searching for the right approach to cleaning and consolidation. The complex surface made of wood, gesso, and paint will require detailed testing to find appropriate solutions.

To further investigate painted surfaces and possible coatings, I used multispectral imaging (MSI), which incorporates multiple light sources to reveal details that cannot be seen in visible light. Interesting findings included the presence of Egyptian blue in the figure’s wig and broad collar, as well as the headdress. This pigment shows up in visible-induced infrared luminescence and is easily distinguishable from surrounding pigments.

Detail of multispectral imaging, highlighting Egyptian blue pigment. Normal light (top), visible-induced infrared luminescence (center) with Egyptian blue shown in white, and false color image (bottom) with Egyptian blue shown in red.

Learning more about the object’s structure and surface will help inform treatment decisions about this complex figure. Check back to see what else we learn and how treatment will proceed!

The heads in color.

If you’ve been following the Artifact Lab blog you are now familiar with the two Egyptian wooden heads and the work in progress on them. Those heads are complex since they are composed of several materials that the conservator has to understand to treat them.

So let’s explore an important but now almost lost of their aspects: polychromy. Indeed, 99% of the colors on the heads are lost but some remains allow us to figure out what colors were originally theirs.

Mapping of E17911 – To show the remaining polychromy on the heads, the colors were enhanced using Adobe Illustrator.

Mapping of E17910 red paint layer.

Mapping of E17910 red paint layer.

Let’s have a look at the real colors left on the heads:

E17911 – On the left: Detail of red paint on the left ear (x 10 magnification) ; On the right: detail of blue paint on the the wig located on the right of the head (x 10 magnification).

E17911 – On the left: detail of black paint on the the wig located on the right of the head (x 10 magnification) ; On the right: Detail of red paint on the left ear (x 10 magnification).

E17910 – Detail of the red paint above and under  left eye and red paint below the right eye (x 10 magnification).

E17910 – Detail of the red paint above and under left eye and red paint below the right eye (x 10 magnification).

The wig is black (even if it looks blue on the picture !). The red is ochre, produced by reducing iron oxides to powder.

All Egyptian statues (and generally statues from other ancient civilizations) were completely painted. Only a few of them had their polychromy preserved, and it is especially rare on wooden artifacts because of many alteration factors that damaged these objects. The two heads were buried in a grave, several feet underground and the groundwater could rise very irregularly and completely overflow the tomb and its contents. The wood suffers a lot from humidity changes: indeed, this material always tries to keep its own moisture content stable, according to the environment moisture. That involves cycles of giving off and taking moisture; if those cycles occur too many times, the wood can’t follow and breaks generally appear.

If the wood is covered with a polychromy layer, it falls off since it can’t follow the movements of the wood. The wood is also susceptible to damage by other substances, like different types of salts and other alkaline substances whose action is increased by humidity.

That’s what explains that on the heads, the few areas of color left are in a bad condition; let’s try to explain what’s going on under the sediment!

To give you an idea, here is a stratigraphic representation of what a nice and undisturbed polychromy (if that exists!) should look like:

stratiThe wood is covered with a preparatory layer; it allows the surface to be even so that the paint layer can stick better to it. That’s it about the theory, let’s see what we have in reality:New PictureA lot less pretty and legible ! We can’t say whether the preparatory layer exists or not, and the paint is covered with a modern application of paraffin wax that wasn’t applied correctly on the wood; indeed the white material that covers some areas of the surface and of the polychromy is a paraffin deposit.

White paraffin deposits on the paint and the wood.

White paraffin deposits on the paint and the wood.

E17911 - The paint layer is poorly attached to the surface and termites didn’t spare it.

E17911 – The paint layer is poorly attached to the surface and termites didn’t spare it.

The paint layer is poorly attached to the wood and the paraffin used to strengthen the heads in the field (during the 19th century) is the only thing maintaining them.

While we are grateful that there is still some polychromy remaining…paraffin isn’t such a good thing ! It will be the topic of a next post to come.