Hello again from CLA (or at least from our home offices)! As we’ve mentioned before, conservators love to look at records relating to the objects we’re treating. It helps us to gain insights into the artifact’s history and gives us context for what we see on the bench in front of us. While we don’t always have exhaustive information about every single piece, it’s always interesting to do a little research when we can. One of our recent blog posts discussed how we’ve used archaeological renderings to understand traces of colors on our objects; this post will take a look at how photographic records can inform us about the current condition of the pieces.
Before the CLA team dove into the hands-on work last fall, we took a trip to the museum’s extensive archive collection to do some digging into the history of Merenptah’s palace. With the help of Alex Pezzati, Senior Archivist, we were able to read through the records of the excavation, led by Clarence Fisher from 1915-1920. Our research was also guided by the work of Dr. Kevin Cahail, whose own forays into the archives have revealed a lot of missing details about the site. He was able to provide a lot of insights into what we were seeing in the photographs.
One of the things that impressed us most about the excavation images is the sheer scale of the architecture. While we’re very familiar with our columns and doorways by now, it’s quite another thing to see them in situ. The picture below shows columns and pylons (trapezoidal gateways) from Merenptah’s Coronation Chapel. These objects were previously exhibited at half height because the ceilings in the downstairs gallery were too low, but they’re about 25 feet tall. Part of our project for the new galleries is to figure out how to display these columns at their full height so museum visitors can experience them the way the Egyptians would have. In the meantime, it’s a useful reminder to look at images like this to remind ourselves that they stood for several thousand years!
Another thing you might notice in that image is all the water on the ground. The site is in the Nile flood plain and experienced several very wet seasons. We could tell from the current condition of the stone that it had been waterlogged. Stone is often thought of as being hard and unchangeable, but this particular Egyptian limestone contains a lot of clay, so it becomes very soft when wet. Fisher’s notes talk about how fragile the stone was, and ultimately how they made the decision to bring the pieces back to Penn before they deteriorated even more. The stone was still damp when it was wrapped in linen and packed into wooden crates – which explains the fabric impressions we see in the surface of some of the pieces.
Images from the site are incredibly useful tools when we’re looking at damage to an object and trying to determine the cause – whether the damage occurred before excavation or due to more recent changes. They’re also helpful when we’re trying to figure out the extent of old repairs. When the pylon pieces were installed in the gallery in the 1920s, they were extensively restored with plaster and paint. We could also tell that some lost stone had been replaced with bricks and cement, but it was difficult to tell where the restoration ended and the stone began. Fortunately, there were a lot of pictures taken of the coronation chapel while it was being excavated.
Looking at the original photographs of the left pylon, we could tell that it had already suffered significant surface loss to the bottom and middle sections. We could also see that even though it was still standing, the middle part had broken into several pieces. Using that knowledge during the deinstallation process, we were able to rig around the damaged areas and to remove the old restoration material so the pieces could be separated. When the pylons are reinstalled in the renovated galleries, they will be safely displayed on custom steel support structures. We’re working on how to replicate the decoration, but we’ll make it clear what is original and what is new.
During our time in the archives, we discovered one thing that hasn’t changed much – archaeologists love site dogs.