Making scarab amulet impressions – part 2

Update – this post contains outdated language. We no longer use the term “mummy” and instead use “mummified human individuals” to refer to Ancient Egyptian people whose bodies were preserved for the afterlife. To read more about this decision, follow this link.

As I described in my previous post, I have had some company in the lab lately (and I don’t mean the mummies – I’m sorry, but I don’t consider them to be company, exactly!) – several of our conservation interns have spent some time up here making impressions of scarab amulets from our collection.

What is conservation intern Cassia Balogh listening to on her ipod? I’d like to think that it’s a special playlist for this job, perhaps including Queen’s “Under Pressure” (p.s. Cassia’s not the one under pressure here).

The purpose of making these impressions is so that our curators can use them as “dummy” artifacts for teaching students how to read the inscriptions, as they would in the field. Again, see my previous post for more info on that.

Why have conservation interns work on this project? Well, it’s a job that requires someone to examine an artifact, assess its condition, and then prepare and handle it without risk to the artifact-all skills that are important in conservation!

We have hundreds of these amulets in our collection, many of them with inscriptions on one, and sometimes both, sides. To make impressions of these inscriptions, we’ve chosen to use Sculpey, a polymer clay that, once shaped to form, is then baked in the oven to harden. Sculpey works well because it is soft enough to form quickly around artifacts in good condition, so requires very minimal contact time, it’s easy to work with and widely available, and it doesn’t require very high temperatures nor very much time in the oven to set. Furthermore, it doesn’t shrink much upon setting, which is important since we’re capturing fine details in the amulets.

To start, Sculpey of the desired color is chosen (with input from our curators, we chose “Hazelnut” since it looks a lot like mud). A chunk is removed from the package and by rolling it between our hands, it is warmed and softened slightly, and then rolled out to the desired thickness using a rolling pin (a pasta machine works well too!).

Before taking an impression, the amulet is first examined, often under the binocular microscope. It is important to examine each one – first, to inspect the inscription for signs of dirt or other concreted products which would prevent a good impression from being taken, and most importantly, to ensure that the amulet is in good enough condition to be pressed into the Sculpey. Amulets with cracks or flaking surfaces may need to be stabilized prior to taking an impression, or they may be deemed too fragile altogether. If there is dirt built up in areas on the amulet, it should be removed before taking the impression.

After examining the amulet, the surface is coated by brush with a thin layer of talc-the talc acts as a separator, and will prevent the amulet from sticking to the Sculpey.

Cassia brushing talc onto the surface of the amulet

The talc-coated amulet is then pressed gently and evenly into the Sculpey and then removed.

Pressing the amulet with even pressure into the Sculpey

The Sculpey can be cut around the impression to the desired shape, and the talc can be brushed off the impression, and the amulet, with a soft brush. Any excess talc on the surface of the amulet can be removed by swabbing gently with ethanol.

One of the amulets next to its Sculpey impression. Note the excess talc on the impression, which can be brushed off with a soft brush.

Once a batch of impressions are made, they are placed in a glass pan and popped in the oven according to the Sculpey baking instructions. After they’re set, they are done, and ready for use in the classroom!

As I said, we are grateful to our conservation interns for helping us with this project. Earlier this week, our very first Artifact Lab-dedicated conservation intern started working with us, and I have a feeling that you’ll be hearing more about, and from, her in the upcoming weeks.

Making scarab amulet impressions – part 1

Our Conservation Department is fortunate to have several interns and technicians, and two of them have spent some time in the Artifact Lab lately, working on a project to make impressions of scarab amulets for the Egyptian Section.

Conservation intern Naomi Shohami working on making the amulet impressions

We have hundreds of these amulets in our collection-here is an image of one, and a link to it’s record in our online Collections Database.

Bottom (left) and top (right) views of one of the scarab amulets in our collection. This one is inscribed with a cartouche of Men-kheper-re (Tuthmosis III).

Amulets have been used throughout Egyptian history and were made in a variety of shapes, materials, and colors. The amulets that we’re working on in the Artifact Lab right now (as pictured above) are scarab amulets, and many are made of glazed steatite, a relatively soft stone. Although the first scarab amulets appeared as early as the Sixth Dynasty, they became more popular during the Middle Kingdom-this is also the period that the heart scarab, the “classic mummy amulet” was introduced. (For more information on amulets and other topics related to mummies and ancient Egyptian funerary practices, check out Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson’s book, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity).

Many scarab amulets are made to represent the scarab beetle (Scarabaeus sacer), a species of dung beetle which collect dung into balls and then roll them to a desired location, often to lay their eggs in them. The ancient Egyptians associated scarabs and the dung ball rolling with the new-born sun-god Khepri, who rolled the sun across the sky each morning.

Amulets were often used for funerary purposes – they were placed among the wrappings of the deceased person during the mummification process, with the belief that the amulets would provide protection for the person in the Afterlife. Amulets were also given as gifts and were used administratively.

Of particular interest to archaeologists and Egyptologists is that many of these amulets bear inscriptions – sometimes a spell, a decorative symbol, and sometimes the names and titles of officials. And it’s not just the amulets that they’re interested in-when used administratively, the amulets were used to seal boxes, letters, etc. in clay or mud. Archaeologists often find these seals – which look like little lumps of mud – in the field, with traces of their impressions. In fact, two of our Curators are currently in Egypt, excavating in South Abydos, and they have recovered thousands of mud seals. In the field, they are doing “micro-epigraphy” on these mud lumps to record any of the designs or glyphs found.

Here is an example of what one looks like:

One of the mud seals found during excavations in South Abydos. In this case, all that is visible is a spiral border decoration. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Wegner

In the Artifact Lab, we are making impressions of the amulets from our collection so that our curators can use the impressions to teach students how to “read” the mud seals before they encounter the real thing in the field. My next post will describe how we make these impressions, and how we do this without causing any damage to the amulets themselves.