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?

31-27-303, after the first restringing

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!

King Tut’s mask (left), Metropolitan Museum of Art broad collar, 26.8.102 (center), Old Kingdom Mereruka relief image (right)

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.

Rowe’s field register (left) and a field photo (right)

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.

Broad collar after second restringing

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: Complex Restringing

By Jessica Byler


Sometimes beading objects can be quite complex! A cool Egyptian broad collar (31-27-303) came into the lab and needed to be restrung. The collar has six alternating rows of blue and black faience beads and a final row of teardrop beads with falcon-headed terminals.

Although the beads are in excellent condition, they are on modern cotton thread which was starting to degrade. In several areas, the string had broken and been reknotted or tied to other close by strings. To make sure the collar was stable enough for display, it was decided to restring the broad collar.

Egyptian collar 31-27-303, before treatment

Four strands of white braided Dacron (polyester fiber), each about 6 meters long, were used. To keep track of the strings, the ends were color coded using markers and each strand used a different dental needle. Half of each strand was wound onto color coded spindles made from bamboo skewers so that restringing began in the middle of each strand. The spindles were stuck into the side of the foam tray to keep them out of the way.

The collar was restrung from top to bottom, moving across each row. Two strings moving in opposite directions were passed through each of the beads in the row to create a ladder-like system to hold them vertically. I cut and removed the old cotton string as I worked across each row in order to keep the beads in place.

The top two rows and the left side of the third has been restrung on the white braided Dacron string; the lower beads are still strung on the old beige cotton string

Restringing map: each color is a different string

After all the rows were restrung across the collar, additional string was passed through to connect the columns of beads. The flexible dental needles we use for restringing were key here – they can bend at odd angles to pass the string through a column even when the beads were not lined up exactly. The larger teardrop beads at the bottom were also attached by running the string up to the top of the collar and back. Finally, the strings were knotted at the terminals.


In the end, the collar was restrung using approximately 25 meters of braided Dacron string!

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Wax on, wax off

In my last post, I briefly described the Egyptian storage move project currently underway. And I also promised to feature some of the objects that are in the lab as a part of this project. As conservators, we get excited by lots of things, so I really can’t post images of every single object that comes into the lab, but we will try to post as much as we can here, on Twitter, and on the museum’s Facebook page.

Earlier this week, Alexis brought a drawer of beadwork up to the lab, and this is one of the pieces she found in that drawer:

A piece of beaded fringe that recently came to the Artifact Lab for conservation/re-housing.

A piece of beaded fringe that recently came to the Artifact Lab for conservation/re-housing.

Huh. Not the prettiest object I’ve ever seen. But just wait…

Partially cleaned beadwork

Partially cleaned beadwork

Under that dark material (which is wax) the beadwork is beautiful! We actually see a lot of beadwork in our collection that has been coated with wax, which has now discolored to a dark brown, completely obscuring the colors of the beads. Coating beads with wax was a method used by archaeologists to remove beadwork from mummies during excavation, in order to maintain the correct arrangement of the beads, since the original linen threads were usually mostly deteriorated. In the case of this beadwork, shown above, it was not only waxed, but affixed to a piece of cardboard. Alexis is currently cleaning the wax off the beads and she will eventually re-house this piece for safe transport to the off-site storage location.

Another cool detail – she found this, written on the back of the cardboard:

HapimenbeadsIt says: “E16220B. Bead fringe of Hapi-men, Pl. LXXIX Abydos. From mummy buried with his dog.” This small piece of beadwork belongs to our mummy Hapi-Men, who is currently on exhibit with his dog! Hapi-Men and Hapi-puppy were excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie from Abydos in 1902. You can read more about Hapi-Men and some of our research about him here and here.


Treasures from Egyptian storage

If you have visited the Artifact Lab in the last couple weeks, you may have noticed that we have a few more objects out than usual, and often, an additional conservator working in here.

A few objects that were brought to the Artifact Lab recently for conservation treatment before they are moved off-site.

A few objects (stone, cartonnage, ceramics) that were brought to the Artifact Lab recently for conservation treatment before they are moved off-site.

The new objects were recently brought up from Egyptian storage by conservator Alexis North, who was previously here as a graduate intern, and now is working as the new Project Conservator for the inventory and move of our Egyptian collections to an off-site facility.

Due to construction that will be happening at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), which is adjacent to the museum, certain storerooms and galleries will be affected and as a result, the entire Egyptian collection in storage (with some exceptions) must be moved off-site for the duration of the project. This move requires a new inventory of the collection and also that everything be examined and stabilized, through conservation treatment and/or packing solutions, which will benefit the collection greatly. In addition, emptying the Egyptian storerooms will allow us to carry out a much-needed renovation of these areas, so that when the collections return, they will be housed in a much better protective environment.

We will try to feature some of the more interesting objects that come up to the lab as a part of this project on the blog, but if you do have a chance to stop by the Artifact lab this summer, you’ll be in for a treat, I assure you, because we will be working on some pretty amazing things.

This faience beaded collar is just one of the beautiful beaded objects that came into the lab recently as part of the move project.

This faience beaded collar is just one of the beautiful beaded objects that came into the lab recently as part of the move project.


More about those beads

Hello fellow readers! My name is Melissa Miller and I am pleased to say I recently began interning in the Artifact Lab here at the Penn Museum. I am currently a junior at the University of Delaware studying art conservation and anthropology. Needless to say when I heard about the In the Artifact Lab project, I jumped at the opportunity to help out in any way I could. Who wouldn’t love the opportunity to work with 4,000 year old human remains and funerary objects?

Melissa working at the binocular microscope, as viewed from outside of the lab

So far I have spent my first two weeks here doing everything from making support cushions for PUM I’s chest wrappings to making impressions of scarab beetle amulets. Currently, I am examining the beads Molly and the other conservators found in PUM I’s coffin and remains. There are two kinds; tubular and circular. Molly also pointed out to me several areas on the leg and face wrappings of PUM I where there are distinctive impressions of beads in a diamond shaped pattern. This has led us to believe that PUM I had a beaded shroud! Beaded shrouds became popular in the 25th dynasty and continued until the Roman period, and both men and women have been found with these decorations.

Being buried with a beaded shroud would have been very expensive due to cost of materials and labor, and imitations were sometimes made by painting the diamond pattern on the mummy or with a net of knotted string. It is evident, however, that PUM I had a real beaded shroud, which indicates that he was probably wealthy in his lifetime. This surprised me because PUM I is in pretty poor condition and his coffin (which admittedly may not be his original burial case) has little to no decoration.

Three tubular beads recovered from the bottom of PUM I’s coffin

The beads themselves, especially the tubular beads, are encrusted with some mysterious substances and soil particulates. On some of the larger tubular beads, there is a white crystalline substance on the exterior – likely salt. Were it not for small sections on the tubular beads without this encrustation it would be difficult to see the material underneath. The material below is glassy and dark blue in color. This leads me to think that they are made of Egyptian faience, which is defined as a glazed, non-clay ceramic. To me that means that faience is a sort of cross between ceramic and glass technology. The smaller beads also appear to be faience, but in different colors, including this red bead:

As seen in the image above, some of the beads also have a granular, slightly waxy, light-dark brown substance on their surfaces-this mysterious substance is also present in some areas on the surface of PUM I’s wrappings. It can be removed rather easily from the beads, especially with the help of some mineral spirits, and as you can see it tends to come off in substantial chunks.

There are at least a few possible scenarios that would explain its presence.

1) It could have been a part of the technology of the time to adhere the beads to the mummy. In fact, there is 1 circular bead adhered/stuck to the surface of PUM I’s wrappings, which we found after some initial cleaning! However, it seems to be stuck on in kind of a strange location, and we are finding that it was more common to sew or tie these beaded shrouds in place.

A red circular bead stuck to the linen on the side of PUM I’s chest

2)  It could be the remains of a wax or other adhesive method that was known to be used by Petrie, and likely other archaeologists, to fix the beads in place during excavation and recovery. As was usually the case, their original thread had long since disintegrated, so this method would allow the beads to be removed from the mummy in one piece, without losing their organization. To compare, we examined some beads in storage that are stuck together with wax-they were most likely acquired this way.

Beads stuck together with wax – note the dark, shiny appearance of the wax, quite different from what we’re seeing on PUM I’s beads.

3) The substance may be related to a material intentionally applied to the mummy at the time of mummification.

4) The substance accumulated sometime after burial.

As of right now I am not sure what this substance is and what purpose it may have served, but Molly and I will be investigating the beads and this mystery further. I will keep you updated as we learn more!


Traces of a beaded shroud

Holiday lethargy? Blustery, wintery weather? No matter-it’s business as usual this week in the Artifact Lab. I really enjoy my job, so I don’t feel like I need any extra motivation to come to work, but it helps that this week I’m working on a pretty interesting recent discovery-something that we found following the removal of PUM I from his coffin last week (see our earlier blogposts on this).

Action shot of our conservation team lifting PUM I from his coffin

PUM I is an unidentified individual, who, until last week, was lying in his rectangular wooden coffin. He had been removed before, for autopsy in 1971/72 (the details are a bit sparse), and his body has been significantly disturbed, cut into, and many of his internal remains are now removed from his body. Needless to say, he doesn’t look his best, and I assumed that any associated burial items were long gone by now. Our hope is that CT-scanning will reveal anything that may have been included or left behind in his wrappings that wasn’t disturbed through this previous work.

So we were pretty surprised when, after lifting his body from the coffin, we found a small bead on the bottom of the coffin, and then another, and now we have recovered 21 small beads. Some of these beads are tubular and others are circular, all with a hole through the center.

20 of the beads found in PUM I’s coffin (shot taken before the 21st bead was found)

Having the mummy out of the coffin also allowed us to examine the wrappings much more closely-it is now evident that there stains and impressions on the wrappings that show a diamond-shaped pattern:

The diamond-shaped pattern visible on the surface of the linen wrappings

This diamond-shaped pattern is a typical design for many beaded shrouds-we have a portion of a beaded shroud here on exhibit in the museum which has this pattern. You can see a photo of this object, along with more information, on our online collections database.

Finally, we returned to look at some old x-rays (from 1932) that we recently had scanned from the museum archives, which showed that the beads were indeed once lying on the wrappings.

1932 X-ray of PUM I. The beads appear on the film, indicated here with red circles.

Looks like the beads that we just found were part of a beaded shroud that once covered PUM I’s wrappings. THIS IS VERY EXCITING!

We will continue to examine these beads to determine what they are made of-they are definitely made of a glassy substance-probably faience. We are also carefully documenting the impressions on the linen wrappings so that we can try to reconstruct what the beaded shroud may have looked like. We will provide updates as we learn more.