By Julia Commander, Jessica Betz Abel, and Anna O’Neill
We’ve shared a few insights into the monumental limestone we’ve been treating at our Conservation Lab Annex (CLA). You may have noticed a consistent color scheme: tan. The surfaces of the doorways are intricately carved and decorated with faience inlay, although we mainly see a variety of neutral tones.
To get a sense of how these architectural elements would
have looked when they were made in Memphis, Egypt around 1213–1203 BCE, it
helps to understand the materials and their state of deterioration. Luckily, the
Penn Museum Archives has extensive records from the 1920’s Memphis excavations,
which provides some further clues about these objects.
through archival materials, we found detailed notes about each object as it was
excavated, as well as extensive watercolor illustrations. We can see brilliant
colors in the drawings and notes referencing traces of paint and inlay
We even see that the doorways are illustrated with brilliant blue and teal colors.
Some of the
illustrations appear to extrapolate data from small traces of material. Do
these colorful illustrations line up with what we’re seeing now in the material
a little further, we brought the Crimescope out to CLA to investigate using
multispectral imaging. This technique has been discussed on the blog before, and we were
particularly interested in infrared (IR) imaging of the faience inlay. While
there are different types of faience material, some types related to Egyptian
blue pigment produce the same luminescent response induced by visible light.
Searching for IR luminescence pointed us to a tiny area of inlay in the upper corner lintel fragment. The tip of one stripe glowed brightly, which corresponds to a pale green color that’s visible in normal lighting.
This result suggests that we’re seeing a deteriorated state of formerly bright blue/green/teal faience. While we did not see every trace of the degraded inlay light up in infrared imaging, this small hint corroborates what we’re seeing in the archival illustrations.
We plan to continue using multispectral imaging to explore decorated surfaces when we’re back at CLA. Stay tuned!
I am an undergraduate Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology student at Bryn Mawr College and this past summer, I began as a conservation intern within the Penn Museum’s Museum Practice Program. I am continuing this work through an independent study in the Museum’s Conservation Department this Fall. During my time here, I have treated a group of Egyptian faience shabtis.
Shabtis are statuettes that were made to be placed within ancient Egyptian burials for the purpose of assisting the deceased in the afterlife. The shabtis I worked on are made of Egyptian faience, a material made from silica, alkaline salts such as plant ash or natron, lime, and metallic colorants. The faience could be hand-shaped or pressed into molds, that when fired, would self-glaze. Although faience was made in many different colors, it is most often associated with a bright blue/turquoise color (using a copper colorant) as seen in many amulets, beads, and figurines.
The specific group of shabtis I worked with this summer differed in size, shape, and color. Many were previously repaired and some of these old repairs were failing. Unfortunately, these objects had become disassociated from their accession numbers and records, so there is no information on their provenance or previous conservation treatments. I was tasked with documenting their condition, and treating those that were broken or in need of re-treatment, either to remove failing old adhesives or remending those that were previously mended but now broken. As adhesives age, especially those used in the early 20th century, they can become discolored, may shrink or expand, or may become stronger. All of these conditions pose problems to the objects that can affect their future stability and ‘health’.
Since no record of the treatments existed, I used various methods to determine what worked best to remove the adhesives that were used. First, I used UV light to identify the type of adhesives. After observing that it was possibly shellac or animal glue, I spot-tested the adhesives using a variety of solvents. I found that acetone, ethanol, and deionized water worked best, so I left the shabtis in acetone vapor chambers for a few hours to allow the adhesive to dissolve.
After the old joins were taken down, one particular shabti caught my eye immediately. This lighter green-blue shabti had metal adhering one of the joins, with some adhesive underneath as well. After consulting with various conservators about this unexpected find and with help from the handheld pXRF instrument, we found that it was lead solder that was used to join these pieces. This is a very unusual (and outdated) technique for mending pottery and as head conservator Lynn Grant said, it’s likely whoever treated it last “struck when the solder was hot”. In other words, the person who last treated this object might have used the solder because it was nearby and ready to use. This conservation method was not the best way to mend the shabti and doesn’t reflect current methods we use. The body, or core, of faience objects is very porous and absorbs whatever adhesive is applied. When the solder was applied it seeped into the body of the body of the object, and made it very difficult to remove.
Though this conservation treatment doesn’t affect our understanding of the shabti, it got me thinking about how conservation ethics and practices have changed over time. As stewards of cultural heritage, conservators have the important job of fixing objects in a way that is reversible and that doesn’t compromise the object’s cultural integrity or future use. Conservators do their best to maintain the integrity of objects, for both research purposes and to preserve a piece of the culture these objects came from for future study and display. This means that conservators must also apply these ethics to objects that were treated before these standards were enforced, and take caution to prevent any further loss of information no matter how small.
With the shabti group I worked on, I used a technique that is commonly used to repair porous or low-fired ceramics. Before using an adhesive to repair the fragments, I applied a low concentration adhesive solution on the break edges to create a less porous surface and to prevent the adhesive from seeping into the body of the faience. I then used a higher concentration adhesive to put the pieces together. This specific treatment is reversible and will ideally last a century or more!
Mending artifacts can be a slow process in which a conservator attaches one piece a day. While working on this small group of shabtis for many weeks, I’ve grown very attached to them. They are all unique pieces with their own quirks, and I can’t wait to see them back together and ready for future use.
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!
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!
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.
Huh. Not the prettiest object I’ve ever seen. But just wait…
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:
It 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.
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 (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.