First step for the heads

Last week I introduced you to two wooden statue heads that I’m working on and promised to share the step by step process of their conservation.

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A first step in understanding these objects is gathering information about their past. As we said in the previous post, they are from Dendera and were discovered in 1898. The other questions were: Who discovered them? How and when did they arrive in Philadelphia? And more…

To address these questions, the best place to begin is the Museum Archives. I first checked Clarence Fisher’s field notebooks, since we know that he excavated in Dendera for the museum from 1915-1918, continuing the work begun by Charles Rosher and Flinders Petrie. An afternoon looking at (all!) of his notebooks revealed no leads. The other possibility was to refer to Petrie’s own field records; and here I found reference to the heads, or more precisely the “statuettes”, noted in his field notebook.

This page notes the “2 statuettes” at the foot of the coffin.
From Petrie Notebook n.15, p.30, courtesy and copyright of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

That mystery solved, we moved onto the next one. Included in the storage drawer with the wooden heads, we found a note indicating “2 wooden statuettes nearly consumed by white ants”.

laura blog 2 image2After a little more digging, I found that this was a quote from Petrie’s publication about Dendera, on p.10, paragraph 2…and the rest is still meaningless to us! In this publication Petrie indicates that the heads came from a secondary burial, belonging to a woman, under Adu II’s own funerary chamber.

Moreover, it unveiled a new clue: Petrie wrote that he discovered “statuettes” and not only their heads. That could imply the fact that they were still complete statues at the time of the excavation. It is possible that they were in such a poor condition that the archaeologist left the bodies and only took the heads. We definitely do not have any more parts of these statues in our collection – after checking, no “spare bodies” are registered in the Egyptian storerooms of the Penn Museum.

All of this may seem to be only details but it is essential information for a conservator: the fact that W.M.F. Petrie discovered the heads is highly interesting, because he most likely treated them in the field. He published a book where he explains his practical way of applying a “first-aid” treatment to damaged artifacts (Methods and aims in Archaeology, 1904) which may provide critical information for us! Indeed, knowing this will allow the conservator to be aware of what kind of material was added to the original object and how to deal with it.

My investigation into these old treatment materials will be the topic of a post to come!


About two wooden Egyptian heads…

“You have a wonderful job!” It’s a sentence that a conservator often hears. But what is really this incredible job? I propose to you to have a closer look at what a conservator usually does by following step by step the conservation of two artifacts recently arrived in the Artifact Lab.

Laura blogpost1Not really the glamorous objects you imagine when you think about Ancient Egypt, right? But they can reveal so many things to us.

Let’s begin with all what we knew when they arrived in the Lab: these artifacts are two Egyptian wooden statue heads. They bear remains of polychromy (blue and red painting) and have inlaid eyes. In their storage drawer were three labels: one quoting a publication about Dendera (the place where they were excavated) describing the heads, and two others mentioning a previous treatment in 1965 with an adhesive called Vinylite.  Other information about these objects came from our curators, who knew that the heads are from the site of Dendera, more precisely the mastaba of Adu II, excavated by Flinders Petrie, a famous British archaeologist. Moreover, the heads are from the Sixth dynasty (2374-2140 BCE). That’s all we knew about those two heads before beginning our work !

Let’s have a closer look at them…

Left: one of the wooden heads viewed in profile Right: a front view of the other wooden head

Left: one of the wooden heads viewed in profile.  Right: a front view of the other wooden head.

A long quest is ahead and we’re only starting to think about an appropriate conservation treatment. Indeed, before any scalpel reaches their surface, we need to gather as much information as possible about the artifacts. Stay tuned to hear more about our discoveries and the decisions that we make based on what we learn.


Is that…real??

One of the most common questions we get asked in the Artifact Lab is, “is that … real?”.

And our answer is always, yes. Everything that we’re working on in the Artifact Lab is indeed real, and from ancient Egypt. Objects in the lab right now range from between 4000-2000 years old and many were excavated and came into the Penn Museum collection over 100 years ago.

Collecting Egyptian materials was of great interest to the Penn Museum from the very beginning, when it was founded in 1889. The Egyptian and Mediterranean Section was created a year later, and Sara Yorke Stevenson was named the first curator of this section-she was also the first female curator of an Egyptian collection in the US! Her goal was to build this collection quickly and through excavation as much as possible, and objects came into the collection through expeditions funded by the museum, including projects run by Sir William M. Flinders Petrie. Because so many objects were acquired in this way, we can be sure of their authenticity and provenience.

In a few months, however, we will have to modify our answer to the “is it real?” question slightly. There is one object currently on display that will soon be replaced with a replica.

A painted linen mummy shroud currently on display In the Artifact Lab.

This painted linen mummy shroud is now on display In the Artifact Lab. Due to its sensitivity to light, it can only be safely displayed for 3 months at very low light levels. After this time, a replica of the shroud will take its place.

The control of light exposure is an important part of any preventive conservation program. Preventive conservation refers to actions taken to minimize the rate of deterioration of collections and objects, and this includes managing the museum environment, including temperature, relative humidity, light, and pests. To prevent or reduce light damage, many museums have an exhibition lighting policy, which provides guidelines for the allowable light levels and cumulative light exposure for objects based on their light sensitivity (textiles for instance are more sensitive to light than stone objects).

While we will have many interesting things to see throughout the duration of this exhibit, now is the chance to come and see this incredible funerary shroud-the real thing-before it is returned to storage to prevent light damage.