Laser training for our monumental projects team

Our department has owned a Compact Phoenix Nd:YAG laser for several years now and we have successfully used it to clean objects like this trio of birds for our Middle East Galleries. While there are a lot of possible applications, we have found the laser to be especially effective for cleaning stone objects with coatings, stains, and surface grime that are not easily removed using other tried and true cleaning methods including solvents, steam, and gels.

Did somebody say “stone objects with coatings, stains, and surface grime”? Because we have tons of those (literally) in our Conservation Lab Annex (CLA) where we are working on monumental projects for the Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries. But the last time we held a laser training session was before we hired our CLA team. Lasers are not found in all conservation labs, so it is not unusual for experienced conservators to have little to no experience with lasers.

A small Egyptian limestone stela mid-treatment. Many cleaning tests were carried out on this piece with very little success in removing some of the grime and stains. It is a good candidate for some laser cleaning tests.

In order to ensure a safe set-up and to get everyone trained on the equipment, we brought in Philadelphia-based conservator Adam Jenkins to provide the team with a full day of training. Adam specializes in laser cleaning and also conducted our last training session at the Museum in 2017.

Adam demonstrating use of the laser

After a classroom session covering the fundamentals and science of lasers, and the necessary safety protocols and PPE, we moved to the lab to try the laser on a few objects. We had success with several, which is very promising! The team is now set up to continue laser testing and cleaning on their own. We are grateful to Adam for his expertise and support and for this professional development opportunity. We are excited to incorporate this tool into the work out at CLA!

CLA conservation technician Kyle Norris testing the laser on an Egyptian stela

Laser cleaning a trio of birds

In addition to the frieze of 6 bulls (which we are still working on in the Artifact Lab), we are also treating a frieze of 3 birds, in preparation for our new Middle Eastern Galleries, scheduled to open in April 2018.

B15883, frieze of 3 birds before treatment

This is a section of a frieze from the site of Al-Ubaid, Iraq which was excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the early 1920s. The birds are the only original pieces of the frieze – the rest is a modern reproduction. The birds (possibly doves?) were carved from limestone and each has a pair of drill holes at their center which would have served as an attachment point. Copper alloy twists would have been used to secure the birds in antiquity – fragments of the original copper remain in one of them.

Due to structural stability issues in the modern reproduction, we needed to disassemble the entire frieze. Once the birds were removed, it was evident that their surfaces were very grimy, related to both the burial environment and time in museum storage. A variety of cleaning methods were explored and tested, but none worked better than using our laser.

One of the birds, after removal and before cleaning

The Conservation Department purchased a Compact Phoenix Nd:YAG laser several years ago, and we are still learning about all of its possible applications. We recently had a workshop with conservator and laser-guru Adam Jenkins, which helped us further develop some testing and health and safety protocols.

Essentially, the Nd:YAG laser works like this: the laser emits a beam of light, typically with a wavelength of 1064 nm (in the infrared), which selectively irradiates and removes unwanted dirt and surface coatings without damaging the object (a process called laser ablation). This type of laser cleaning works well for removing dark substances from light-colored objects, so trying it on one of the birds made a lot of sense.

Easy for me to say. I didn’t do this treatment – project conservator Madeleine Neiman did. So she gets all the credit for this.

After testing, Madeleine carried out her first laser cleaning treatment on the bird in the image below. Here she is getting set up to carry out the work:

And here is a shot of the bird after the surface was partially cleaned: (WOW!)

I think the process and results are best displayed in a gif, or a video, so I’m including the gif below, and here is a link to the video.

Go Madeleine! I think this was a really rewarding treatment to carry out. Please take note of all of the PPE (personal protective equipment) involved, including special eyeware and ventilation.

Considering Cleaning

Julia Commander is a third-year graduate student in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She is currently completing a curriculum internship at the Penn Museum.

It’s time to check back in with the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure. In my last post, I mentioned a few of the condition concerns including a significant darkening over the front surface. The uneven surface poses interesting challenges for cleaning, and there are multiple approaches and methods to consider.

Before cleaning proceeds, it is important to understand both the nature of the surface discoloration and the properties of the paint layers. Egyptian objects are not always straightforward, and Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures have a broad range of condition issues and treatment histories. Check out the British Museum’s online collection for a fascinating look at comparable figures. Discolored or yellowed varnishes have been observed on Egyptian painted surfaces, such as the shabti box described in a previous post. One way to assess surface discolorations is ultraviolet (UV) light illumination, a non-destructive lighting technique. In the UV portion of the energy spectrum, aged coating materials including varnishes and adhesives often fluoresce brightly. Areas that absorb more UV light appear darker in comparison. For this figure, areas of fluorescence do not appear to correspond to the pattern of discoloration, which is most noticeable on the platform under the feet.

L-55-29. In normal light (left), you can see the darkened surface of the front of the figure. In ultraviolet (UV) illumination (right), specific areas fluoresce. The pattern of UV fluorescence does not correspond to the discolored areas or suggest an overall coating.

Additionally, the surface darkening extends over large areas of damage and paint loss, suggesting that it occurred later in the object’s history. In an attempt to understand the darkened surfaces, I will take cross-section samples, which involve tiny (less than 1 mm) flakes of the paint layers. By looking at the edge of a paint flake under magnification, I can observe the stratigraphy from surface down to ground level. One way to visualize this technique is to think about slicing a cake to see the layers inside. To make handling tiny paint flakes easier, they can be mounted in resin for observation under magnification. Through normal light and UV light microscopy, the presence of discrete coating or soiling layers may be observed.

To characterize the behavior of the paint layers, solubility tests were conducted under magnification with small amounts of solvent on cotton swabs. For this painted figure, surfaces appeared to be water sensitive but relatively stable in other solvents. This finding is consistent with typical Egyptian paint binders such as gums or animal glues, which are both water sensitive. Once I know what affects the original surface, I will be able to think about designing a strategy to reduce darkening while avoiding disruption of the paint layers.

Dry surface cleaning is one of the first methods to test for a water sensitive surface. Cosmetic sponges and soot sponges lifted significant dirt and grime, although the appearance of the figure’s surface was not visibly improved. Water-based solutions and small amounts of solvent were tested in discrete locations to assess their efficacy. Water-based, or aqueous, cleaning solutions can be adjusted with buffers and chelators to more effectively lift dirt and break up staining. Chelators, such as citrate and EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) are complex ions that attach to metal ions, a key component of most types of dirt. A citrate solution at pH 8 was found to be very effective for lifting dirt and staining, but I wanted to minimize surface interaction with water. One method to manipulate these interactions is to work through silicone materials. Silicone gels, such as Velvesil Plus, can from stable emulsions that hold aqueous solutions. Silicone solvents, such as cyclomethicone D4, can saturate surfaces and act as a barrier layer to protect from water.

Testing dry surface cleaning with a cosmetic sponge on the figure’s base.

Testing aqueous cleaning solutions to reduce discoloration with a small cotton swab.

Could this be used as an overall cleaning solution? A larger test area suggested that the combination of materials, when applied carefully with brushes and worked over the surface, lifts dirt without visibly disturbing paint layers. However, the cleaning effect is slightly uneven, which raises concerns about whether this technique will significantly improve visibility and legibility of surfaces. Since this object is a long-term loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, continuing discussion with the PMA senior objects conservator, as well as Penn Museum curators, will help clarify these decisions.

In addition to aqueous cleaning methods, I researched the feasibility of laser cleaning. Conservators have successfully employed laser cleaning in many scenarios where discrete layers of soiling need to be removed from surfaces. For Egyptian artifacts, some of the primary challenges include fine control over complex surfaces and slight yellowing after cleaning. While the literature suggests that laser cleaning is unlikely to be the right solution in this scenario, we decided to experiment with a mock-up test panel to gain a sense of the technique’s future applications in the lab. This involved gathering typical Egyptian pigments, including the famous Egyptian blue and green, and mixing appropriate binders to mimic historic surfaces. The panel consists of an animal glue ground with gum arabic paint, coated with an additional layer of mastic varnish for half of the test areas. Mastic, a plant-based resin, is comparable to traditional Egyptian resins such as pistacia. After adding a little bit of “dirt,” a sticky mix of starch powder and pigments, I am ready to start exploring the efficacy of our laser cleaning system for painted surfaces.

Creating a mock-up panel to test laser cleaning on painted surfaces. Materials include Egyptian pigments mixed with gum arabic binder, an animal glue ground, and mastic varnish.

Selected resources:

Korenberg, C., M. Smirniou, K. Birkholzer. 2008. Investigating the use of the Nd:YAG laser to clean ancient Egyptian polychrome artifacts. Lasers in the Conservation of Artworks: 221-226. London: Taylor and Francis Group.

Larochette, Y. 2012. Wolber’s world: A review of a textile wet-cleaning workshop held in Oaxaca, Mexico. Western Association for Art Conservation (WAAC) Newsletter 34(1): 24-26.

Roundhill, L. S. 2004. Conservation treatment considerations for an Egyptian polychrome wood coffin. Objects Specialty Group Postprints 11: 89-102.