Poultices and Tourniquets: Medical Terminology in Conservation

by Tessa de Alarcón

Recently, while working in the Artifact Lab, I was reminded how often conservation borrows terminology from other fields, often in unexpected ways. Two great examples are the terms “poultices” and “tourniquets”. Both are medical terms, and kind of unusual ones. I recently used both methods on this ceramic lion relief (B20014) from the site of Nippur.

B20014 before treatment (left) and after treatment (right)

If you google “poultice” (which I just did) you would get some intriguing images of herbal substances on peoples’ skin sometimes with gauze in between (and sometimes not). A dictionary definition is “a soft, moist mass of material, typically of plant material or flour, applied to the body to relieve soreness and inflammation and kept in place with a cloth.”

Screenshot of a Google image search for “poultice”

In conservation, poultices are typically moist masses, but they are usually made of gauze, cotton, paper, or clay, and thankfully our objects don’t usually need relief from soreness or inflammation. Instead, poultices are usually used to draw foreign substances out, for example drawing out stains, soiling, or salts. These poultices can be moistened with all types of different solvents, depending on the treatment goal. In the case of the lion relief, I used cotton poultices to draw out ingrained sooty soiling to clean the surface.

Cotton poultice on the surface of the lion relief

Now if you google “tourniquet” you will find images of much more modern medical technologies, mostly of different types of straps. The dictionary definition is “a device for stopping the flow of blood through a vein or artery, typically by compressing a limb with a cord or tight bandage.”

Google image result for “tourniquet”

Since I don’t typically need to worry about museum artifacts bleeding, it might be difficult to imagine what this type of device could be used for during a conservation treatment. Tourniquets are often used in conservation as a controlled way to apply pressure and hold something in place. In the case of the lion relief, I used tourniquets made of cling film tightened around paint brush handles to hold the joins of the relief together and aligned while the joins set. The adhesive I used took a few weeks to cure, and until cured the adhesive did not have the tack or strength to hold the joins together without the support of a tourniquet.

Tourniquets holding the adhesive joins of the lion relief

One of the things I love about working in the Artifact Lab are the questions I get asked. I was recently working on the lion relief in the lab and realized that I had to explain the poultices and the tourniquets I used in this treatment. I use these terms so often, I had forgotten that for most people they mean something quite different.

A lion relief from Nippur

Yesterday we received a new artifact in the lab: this terracotta lion relief from Nippur, Iraq.

B20014: the lion relief in fragments

Some may argue that this object could be a candidate for the Ugly Object of the Month club. Well, we like him, and one of our conservators pointed out that he looks a lot like one of these wonderful characters from William Steig’s Rotten Island.

Illustration from William Steig’s “Rotten Island”. Image courtesy of scienceblogs.com

This relief was excavated in the University of Pennsylvania’s Babylonian Expedition to Nippur in 1899. Like the Nippur slipper coffin currently on display in the Artifact Lab, it was previously repaired with metal staples and (at least one type of) adhesive, likely around the same time as the slipper coffin.

The staple-like wire tires used to repair the relief are visible in this view of one of the break edges.

More evidence of the old repairs on this fragment.

Getting this relief ready for exhibition in the Middle Eastern Galleries will not only require significant conservation treatment, but also a custom mount so that it can be displayed safely. We will provide updates as we work on this.

Back in business

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.   

Saturday April 8th is the official reopening of the Artifact Lab, complete with a modified name and some new objects on exhibit and in the lab.

View of the Artifact Lab, ready for reopening on Saturday April 8th

The Artifact Lab: Conservation in Action looks a lot like it did before we closed in December, but as you can see from the shot above, our focus has shifted from Egyptian mummies and funerary objects to a wider range of artifacts, with a special focus on objects being prepared for installation in our Middle East Galleries next year.

This glazed clay slipper coffin from Nippur, excavated by our museum in the late 19th century, is front and center in the Artifact Lab:

The slipper coffin (B9220) on display in the Artifact Lab

It has a fascinating history, including its restoration here at the museum in the 1890s, which is noted on its catalog card as being carried out by the restorer William H. Witte. The restoration work allowed this coffin and several others to be displayed for the opening of the new museum building in 1899, where they remained on display for 40 years. We are particularly tickled that this coffin was displayed in this very same gallery where the Artifact Lab is now housed, the Baugh Pavilion.

The Baugh Pavilion, one of two galleries devoted to the museum’s Babylonian expeditions, as it appeared in 1899 with four slipper coffins on display. UPM Neg. #22428

118 years later, the slipper coffin has once again been installed in this space. It’s exhibition this time would not be possible without the extensive treatment carried out by conservator Julie Lawson in 2005. You can read more about its history and her work in her article in Expedition Magazine. For those interested in a more in-depth discussion of the conservation treatment, Julie also wrote an article that was published in the American Institute for Conservation’s Object Specialty Group Postprints, Volume 13, 2006.

There are many more stories to share about the objects and work being done and we’ll continue to write about them on our blog. In the meantime, come visit us now that we are open again! Our open window times also have changed slightly – they are now as follows:

Tuesday – Friday 11:00 – 11:30 and 1:30-2:00

Saturday – Sunday 12:00-12:30 and 3:00 – 3:30