The figure you see here, E4893, is an ivory statuette from the site of Hierakonpolis that I am working on as part of an IMLS grant funded project. I have just started the treatment, but thought I would give a brief run through of the initial examination since this is a good example of when and why we use X-radiography in our department to evaluate the condition of objects before treatment.
You may have noticed that the middle of this object is fill, so not part of the object. The fill has some cracks and splits that suggests it is unstable and should be removed. There is no written documentation for when this fill was done or by who, but it’s possible that this was done shortly after it was excavated. The object was accessioned in 1898. Given that the conservation lab at the Penn Museum was not founded until 1966 that leaves a big gap for the possibilities for when this treatment might have been done.
Based on previous experience, I often worry with these old fills that there are unseen things, like metal pins or dowels, lurking below the surface. X-radiography is a great way to check for these types of hidden previous treatment issues. Though in this case, what I found when I X-rayed the object was not your typical pin or dowel.
Here in the X-ray you can see what I found: while this fill did not have any pins or dowels, whoever had done this treatment had decided to reinforce it by putting nails (4 in total) into the fill material. While this makes the figure look like he has eaten a bunch of nails, it is in some ways better news than a pin would be. Pins usually go into the original material, and if they are iron, can rust and expand causing damage to the object. Pin removal can also be risky and lead to damage of the object especially if the pin is deeply imbedded or corroded into place. These nails, on the other hand, appear to be only in the fill and do not look like they go into the original material of the object at all. This suggests that removal of the fill and the nails should be possible without damaging the object. As this treatment progresses, I will follow up with additional posts and updates.
If you don’t work in the Museum or Library field, you may never heard the initials, ‘IMLS’. But to many in those fields, it’s a lifeline and important source of support and information. In 2019, the latest year with information, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded $223.5 million through grantmaking, research and policy development, to advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations. The Penn Museum has received support from the IMLS on many occasions.
In 2015/16, the Museum moved its Egyptian Collections off-site in order to protect it from vibrations associated with the construction of a large building right beside us. This gave us the opportunity to carry out an inventory and examine the objects in storage to determine which needed conservation. But it’s a huge project; we had originally believed the collection was 42,000 artifacts; it turned out to be more like 50,000. In order to fund such a massive undertaking, we break it down into manageable chunks. In 2019, the IMLS awarded the Museum $250,000 to fund the conservation of a group of Egyptian and Nubian coffins and related funerary goods. This enabled us to have two project conservators dedicated to this group of artifacts, as well hiring two conservation technicians to photograph items for the public database. Despite the pandemic, we’ve been working away at this since October 2019 and will complete the work by the end of September. Over the next few months, the project conservators will be sharing some of their work with you. Enjoy!
Like most other Philadelphia residents, the Penn Museum staff are adapting to working from home. As part of this, the Museum staff have recently been posting on the museum’s Instagram feed info on their favorite objects (pennmuseum #VisitFromHome). This got me thinking about the relationship between people and the things we interact with every day. The objects in the museum’s collection, while loved and cared for by the staff, also bear evidence of love and care from before they were in the museum’s collection. One such object recently came across my desk for treatment, E7517A and E7517B, a Nubian wooden box and lid from Karanog. I am not going to talk about the treatment today, so that I can focus on the care it received before it entered the museum.
In the pictures above and the details below you can see that this wooden box has a variety of metal components, including copper alloy straps and a lock plate on the box, and staples on the lid as part of a repair to cracks and breaks through the wood.
Staples like these are a common repair both in antiquity and historically for a variety of materials and are not an unusual feature on objects in the museum’s collections (here are just a few other examples of both types of staples: AF5211, B9220, 2006-15-41, B20014). If you look closely though, you can see that the metal straps and the lock plate go over the inlays on the box. This suggests that these elements were not part of the box originally and were a later addition.
These components are also made from a variety of metals. I tested them using both a magnet to check for iron, and a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (pXRF) and found that they are a range of metals including iron, copper tin alloys (bronze), and copper zinc alloys (brass). Also, parts that appear similar, like the straps are not made up of the same alloying components, some contain lead in addition to the copper and tin, and some have no lead. The staples are also a range of metals including iron, brass, and bronze.
When I started working on the box, I wanted to tease out when these metal components were added as they could have been either ancient or modern. With this type of question, I typically set up an appointment with our archives to look at the original field notes and field photography. However, in this case, much of the data on the excavations at Karanog is online, including pdf’s of the excavation publications. In the museum’s database I found that the box was from a burial: tomb G 445. Going through the publication, I was able to use the context information to find not only a description of where it was found within the tomb, but also a sketch of the burial, a photo of the box, and a detailed description of it in a catalogue of the finds. The box had been found in the burial with two individuals buried one above the other and was found next to their legs.
The textual information from the publication includes some important pieces of information: first that, “it had been considerably restored before being deposited in the tomb, brass binding had been added at the corners and the broken lid had been rudely mended with bronze rivets” (Woolley and Randall-MacIver, 44) and that “it remains in the condition in which it was found, no repairs to it having been necessary” (Woolley and Randall-MacIver, 71). While the language used to describe these metal components seems to me a bit harsh, not only is it described as “rudely mended”, the lock plate is described as “a perfectly useless lock plate”, it does make it clear that these metal components are from when it was in use (Woolley and Randall-MacIver, 44, 71). It should also be noted that the metal identifications given in the publication were not done through analysis, so don’t match with the results I have from pXRF.
Because of the detailed information in the publication, I also know what was in the box when it was excavated: another smaller box (E7510A and E7510B) and two wooden spindle whorls (E7506 and E7507). These are all shown in the image below.
So, all together what does this information tell me about the history of this box? First, the repairs and modifications to this box happened during its use before it was put in the burial of the two individuals in tomb G 445. The fact that the metal components, even similar ones, have different compositions could mean a few things. It could be that it was repaired and modified using scrap metal with the components being made from different scraps, that the repairs occurred at different times and so with different metals, or both. If they were not made using scrap metal, it is possible that some of the straps may have had to be replaced at some point and that may be why some are leaded bronze and some are not. These straps do not appear to have a function and may instead reflect changes in taste. The function of the box may have also changed, and this may be why they needed to add the lock plate. The various metals for the repairs to the lid almost certainly resulted from various treatment campaigns, meaning that it was repaired, used, broken, and repaired again. In any case these modifications and repairs tell a story of care and use and suggest that this box was loved and treasured by the people who owned it. This may also be why it eventually was placed in a burial, perhaps as a particularly prized possession of one or both of the individuals in the burial.
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.