Ptah-Sokar-Osiris and Treating Painted Surfaces

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.

As a conservation intern working in the Artifact Lab, I was able to go shopping through shelves of Egyptian objects and scope out interesting treatment projects. A painted wood statue, depicting the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, immediately caught my eye. The figure has intricate painted designs decorating the mummiform figure and its base, as well as gilded details in the face and headdress.

Ptah Sokar Osiris Statue, L-55-29A-C

L-55-29C, detail of paint and gilding

High-status burials in 19th dynasty Egypt often included this type of mummiform statue. Comparable examples of the popular object type exist in collections worldwide, such as the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Common characteristics include carved wood, a preparatory gesso layer, polychrome design, and in some cases, a coating of varnish. Ptah-Sokar-Osiris statues also frequently feature small compartments carved into the wood figure or base. These cavities could contain small papyrus scrolls or textile wrappings. While examining the object with this in mind, I noticed a faint rectangular shape on the reverse of the figure’s head.

X-radiography, a non-destructive imaging technique that helps clarify construction details, was perfectly suited for the question of the compartment. Without disturbing the delicate painted surface, we were able to observe that a rectangular cavity is in fact cut into the head of the figure. Although the cavity appears to be empty, this interesting construction detail is consistent with similar Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures.

L-55-29A detail (left) and X-radiograph (right). Image captured from 55 kV, 2 mA, and 6 second exposure.

The statue has several condition issues, such as actively flaking paint and significant darkening over the front surface. Additionally, the figure is unable to stand upright in the base, and the components do not fit together securely. Upcoming treatment aims to address these issues, and I will be searching for the right approach to cleaning and consolidation. The complex surface made of wood, gesso, and paint will require detailed testing to find appropriate solutions.

To further investigate painted surfaces and possible coatings, I used multispectral imaging (MSI), which incorporates multiple light sources to reveal details that cannot be seen in visible light. Interesting findings included the presence of Egyptian blue in the figure’s wig and broad collar, as well as the headdress. This pigment shows up in visible-induced infrared luminescence and is easily distinguishable from surrounding pigments.

Detail of multispectral imaging, highlighting Egyptian blue pigment. Normal light (top), visible-induced infrared luminescence (center) with Egyptian blue shown in white, and false color image (bottom) with Egyptian blue shown in red.

Learning more about the object’s structure and surface will help inform treatment decisions about this complex figure. Check back to see what else we learn and how treatment will proceed!

Examination of Wooden Tomb Models

Hi everyone! This is Alexis North, and I’m the project conservator at the Penn Museum working on the Egyptian storage move project, which has been referenced here on the blog a few times. I wanted to give a brief introduction on one of the projects I have been working on most recently in the Artifact Lab.

We recently received several new objects in the Artifact Lab. They are a collection of painted wooden models, depicting various aspects of daily life, which date to the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom (2130-1784 BCE). Many of the models we have were excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie and the British School of Archaeology, through excavations the University of Pennsylvania supported.

Photo of tomb models on display, prior to deinstallation.

Photo of tomb models on display, prior to deinstallation.

These models had been on display in our Egyptian Daily Life gallery for quite a long time. However, due to the vibrations caused by the construction going on right outside the museum, the entire case had to be deinstalled and the objects moved for their protection. The models have very fragile painted surfaces, and are made of multiple pieces which could separate, fall over, and be damaged if exposed to vibrations within the case. They also in most cases have not be examined by a conservator since their acquisition.

Therefore they were all brought into the Artifact Lab for documentation and treatment. We started by photographing all the individual pieces, and assessing the condition of the painted surfaces. Many of the models have actively lifting and flaking paint, and the horizontal surfaces are also quite dirty.

The model most in need of treatment is this boat:

Detail of E14260.1, boat model, before deinstallation.

Detail of E14260.1, boat model, before deinstallation.

Boats have a lot of significance in ancient Egyptian culture and religion. They were the primary means of long-distance travel along the Nile, and the Egyptians believed that the gods traveled across the sky and through the underworld on boats. Boats were also used for fishing. This model depicts a transport boat, with oarsmen, a mast and rudder, and a canopy painted in a cowskin pattern where the tomb owner would have been represented sitting and enjoying his travels.

This model has some of the most serious flaking paint and discoloration, especially on the top and sides of the boat:

Detail of lost and lifting paint on top of boat, and grimy surface.

Detail of lost and lifting paint on top of boat, and grimy surface.

I began treating this model by taking detailed photos of the surface, then using those images to map different condition issues. Then I chose different treatment materials and techniques which work best for those issues.

Come back for the next post to see more about what we learned from examining this model, and how I chose to treat it. See you soon!



Fleming, S. (1980). The Egyptian mummy: Secrets and science. University of Pennsylvania.

Taylor, John H. (2001). Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. The University of Chicago Press.


Alexis North is the Project Conservator for the Egyptian Storage Move Project, Penn Museum.


Treating Nespekashuti’s coffin

Many of you may be wondering about Nespekashuti, our New Kingdom mummy whose remains are quite a jumble under his wrappings. As you can imagine, Nespekashuti is presenting some interesting conservation challenges for us. So far I have focused on surface cleaning and trying to understand the extent to which his linen wrappings are damaged. I decided that before I can deal with stabilizing Nespekashuti any further (and making the decisions necessary to do this), I need to address the damage to his coffin.

Overall view of the proper left side of Nespekashuti's coffin (before treatment)

Overall view of the proper left side of Nespekashuti’s coffin (before treatment)

Nespekashuti’s coffin is quite interesting. I’ve only been able to examine the lower half (which he is contained in) so far. It is made of several pieces of wood doweled together, followed by coating with gesso in areas, then the exterior surface is entirely covered with a single layer of linen, which was coated with gesso and painted, and then finally varnished, likely with pistacia resin. Overall, the painted surface of the coffin is in great condition. But there are some structural concerns, including breaks in the wood, separation and movement between different pieces of wood, and separation of the linen, gesso, and paint from the wood substrate.

Detail of the exterior foot of the coffin, showing separation of the linen, plaster, and paint from the wood.

Detail of the exterior foot of the coffin, showing separation of the linen, plaster, and paint from the wood.

Detail of damage on the proper left side of the coffin.

Detail of damage on the proper left side of the coffin.

I’m starting out my treatment by readhering areas where the linen is lifting away from the wood and plaster below. To repair these areas, I’m using a tried-and-true combination of methyl cellulose, methyl cellulose bulked with glass microballoons, and Japanese tissue paper.

Treatment in progress - I'm using clamps to hold areas in place while the adhesive dries.

Treatment in progress – I’m using clamps to hold areas in place while the adhesive dries.

During treatment - image detail showing the same area at the foot of the coffin (seen before treatment in the second image in this post).

During treatment – image detail showing the same area at the foot of the coffin (seen before treatment in the second image in this post).

This is just the beginning! Once I finish working on the areas I can access, I’ll have to move the coffin to a support that allows me to access the underside/back, so that I can better evaluate and treat those areas as well.

X-raying fragments of a painted wooden coffin

I recently completed the treatment of these coffin board fragments.

E12617A-C, boards from a painted wooden coffin, before treatment

E12617A-C, boards from a painted wooden coffin, before treatment

In addition to the cleaning, which I blogged about before, the treatment involved stabilization of loose and powdery gesso and paint, filling losses where needed for structural support, and x-radiography, multispectral imaging, and portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) analysis. It has also enabled a translation of the text. I’m going to write a few shorter posts to highlight the different components of this project, starting with the x-radiography.

During my initial examination of the boards, I could see that the boards represent just a portion of the front, head end of the coffin. The rest of this side of the coffin would have continued much further to the left, but at some point these pieces were cut down and finished off on the left side to a smooth edge. This is most evident when you look at the hieroglyphic text, which obviously should continue to the left.

I could see that these 3 boards were originally joined with wooden dowels, because there are wooden dowels protruding from the join edges. I also noted some large cracks in the painted surface of the largest (center) piece in the image above, which led me to realize that this central piece was made of more than 1 piece of wood. I turned to x-radiography to get a better understanding of what is going on below the surface.

Here is a composite image showing the radiographs of the 3 boards:

E12617A-C x-ray image

E12617A-C x-ray image

The dowels joining the 3 pieces together are very clear in the x-ray image above. There are some darker (almost black) areas, which represent the holes that were drilled out for inserting the dowels. The denser (whiter) areas within those voids are the wooden dowels themselves. I’ve outlined these areas in green in the image below.

E12617xraymapped-1The x-ray image also helps clarify how the center piece is constructed, with 3 pieces of wood, which I’ve outlined in red above. Where those 3 pieces of wood join correspond directly with the cracks observed in the painted surface on the exterior.

Also visible in the x-ray image are two small nails driven into the lower edge of the bottom board. These nails are historic additions, likely added at the time when the boards were cut down and modified, although their purpose is unknown.

In my next post, I’ll focus on what cleaning, pXRF, and multispectral imaging has revealed about the painted surface, and I’ll include some after-treatment images.


Observations of a stola coffin lid

As if there is not enough up here (see our recent post about the Egyptian storage move and associated conservation work), this week we brought another quite large object into the lab, and it might be my new favorite object up here.

The lid of our yellow stola coffin

The lid of our* yellow stola coffin

This is the lid that belongs to the late 21st/22nd Dynasty yellow coffin base which we recently treated here in the Artifact Lab. Due to its previous location in storage, I hadn’t been able to take a close look at it until this week. Now that I’ve gotten to spend a few days with the lid, I’ll tell you that it’s total eye candy. If you were impressed by the painted decoration on the base, the lid will give you even more to get excited about.

I only just started to examine and document the lid and I will continue to update the blog as I work on this object, so today I’m just going to mention a few things about it, and some of my favorite details so far.

First of all, you may have noticed that I referred to this as a “stola” coffin in the image caption above. The term “stola” refers to the narrow red band depicted on the coffin that encircles the neck and crosses over the chest and over the oversize collar. Both the presence of the stola and the oversize collar have been recognized as distinctive of the late 21st/early 22nd Dynasty (see other examples and explanations here and here, and special thanks to Dr. Kara Cooney at UCLA for information as well).

The figure depicted on this coffin used to have a beard, which is now missing, but there is a hole in the chin indicating that it was once there.

Detail of the hole in the chin

Detail of the hole in the chin

The arms are depicted as being crossed over the chest and the hands are made of separate pieces of wood. The hands on this coffin are clenched and I have read that this is reserved for male coffins while females are depicted with hands open and lying on their chests. I’m assuming the fisted hands mean that this coffin belonged to a man, but I’ll have to check with our Egyptologists to confirm, since I cannot translate any of the text myself. I also really like the fact that the thumbnails are painted in:

Detail of the left hand

Detail of the left hand and thumb

What else can I say about it? Well, it is beautifully painted and also varnished just like the base with a yellow-colored pistacia resin. This pistacia resin causes many of the areas painted blue to appear green:

Much of the blue lines on the wig appear green, but in areas where there is no varnish, you can see the blue color of the paint.

Many of the lines on the wig appear green, but in areas where there is no varnish you can see the blue color of the paint.

There is a thick layer of dust on the surface of the coffin, but I can tell it’s going to clean up well. Check out the embossed details in this raking light image, which were built up with gesso:

Detail of the embossed designs on the central part of the lid

Detail of the embossed designs on the central part of the lid

This is going to be a fun object to work on! I’m looking forward to getting started with the treatment.

* I should clarify that this coffin technically belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) but has been on long-term loan to us for nearly a century. We received this coffin as part of an exchange of objects between our 2 institutions in the 1930s. I am carrying out the treatment in close consultation with the conservators at the PMA.

Spring cleaning?

It may be a little early for spring cleaning, but no matter what time of the year, there is not much that I find more satisfying than a good, deep clean (on a grimy artifact). Last week, Tom Stanley (the museum’s Public Relations/Social Media Coordinator) posted this image on the museum’s Facebook page, which shows some cleaning in progress on an Egyptian painted wooden coffin here in the Artifact Lab:

coffin board cleaningHe also posted this on our Instagram page.

Here is a before treatment image of the coffin board (which is in 3 separate fragments):

E12617A-C, boards from a painted wooden coffin

E12617A-C, boards from a painted wooden coffin

While Tom was in the lab taking photos, I promised him that I’d put some additional information about this project on the blog. I thought this would be a great opportunity to take another video with our binocular microscope, kind of like the video I captured of the paint consolidation on the shabti figures I worked on awhile ago.

To see the process of how we go from


corner before after

click on the link below.

Cleaning an Egyptian painted wooden coffin from Molly Gleeson on Vimeo.

In the video, you’ll see (at 7.5X magnification) that I first used a soft-bristled brush to remove loose sediment and dust from the surface, by brushing directly into the nozzle of a variable suction HEPA-filtered vacuum. Then I used a cosmetic sponge to further, gently, lift away grime from the surface. Finally, I used a kneaded rubber eraser to remove the grime that is more embedded in the painted surface.

Okay, so I’ll admit that this may not be as cool as the video of Conservator Tessa de Alarcon laser cleaning a stone table from Ur (this one is hard to top), but it’s pretty gratifying nonetheless.

I’m currently trying to learn more about this object too, by checking into our museum records. I’ll keep you posted.

Putting the finishing touches on the shabti box

I have put a lot of work into our troubled shabti box, including investigating and analyzing the varnish (more on the analysis in an upcoming post), doing some pretty cool imaging, and consolidating all flaking and unstable varnish and paint with methylcellulose. After consolidation of the surfaces, the box does not look much different than it did when I started the treatment (and this is a good thing). As a reminder, here is an image of the front of the box before treatment:

shabti box frontAt this point, I could call the treatment done, or take it a step further, by filling in some of the losses of the painted surface, which appear bright white since those losses expose the gesso below. After consulting with Dr. Jen Wegner in the Egyptian Section and with Lynn Grant, the head of our department, I decided to fill in some of the larger losses which really make it difficult to appreciate the object and “read” the designs. I have even heard some visitors refer to the box as “that badly damaged piece of wood”, and that is not what we want people to be thinking when they eventually see this on display. While I know I can never return the box to its original condition, I can reduce the appearance of some of the damage. But how to fill the losses on such a fragile surface, in a way that will be reversible/retreatable?

After some hemming and hawing and some failed tests, I ultimately decided to fill the losses by first placing a small piece of Japanese tissue paper into the loss, then applying a tinted fill mixture over the paper. I did this by doing the following:

1. I took a quick snapshot of the surface I was about to work on. I then downloaded the image and copied it into a Word document. Using the scale in Word, I was able to resize the photograph in order to print it approximately true to size, and then I printed the image in black and white. This took no more than 5 minutes.

2. I placed a piece of Mylar over the B&W print-out and traced the losses I wanted to fill with a black marker.


B&W image with Mylar template moved off to the right side

3. After trimming the Mylar around one of the tracings, I taped it to a piece of Japanese tissue paper with a small piece of blue tape.

L-55-23A_template34. I cut out the Japanese tissue paper and adhered it into the loss on the shabti box with a small amount of 5% methylcellulose.

5. I then applied a fill mixture over the Japanese tissue paper. The fill mixture is made of 5% methylcellulose, glass microballoons, and powdered pigment.

Fill mixture (in the jar and on the spatula)

Fill mixture (in the jar and on the spatula)

This may sound tedious, but the whole process works very smoothly and relatively quickly. It also minimizes the amount of time I need to spend touching the object and therefore minimizes damage that might be caused by touching the very fragile surface.

I’m not finished, but so far I’m pretty happy with how the front of the box is looking:


Front view, during filling

It’s subtle, but to see the difference that filling makes, here are views before and after, side-by-side:


Before treatment (left) and during treatment (right)

The only problem is, I feel like I’ve opened a can of worms. There are so many losses and I am not going to fill them all, but as soon as the larger losses are filled, I start seeing all of the small ones! I think it’s looking better though and I will get some feedback from my colleagues before proceeding further.


Tawahibre, front and center

As promised, Tawahibre’s coffin lid is now on display, front and center, in the Artifact Lab.

Tawahibre's coffin lid on display at the entrance to the Artifact Lab

Tawahibre’s coffin lid on display at the entrance to the Artifact Lab

Getting this Late Period painted wooden coffin lid ready for display required months of treatment to clean the surface and to stabilize the flaking paint, powdery and crumbly gesso, and loose wood components. I blogged rather extensively about the treatment – follow this link to view some of my previous posts.

Here are some treatment images that were posted on the museum’s Facebook page last week, showing details of the head/upper body before, during, and after treatment:

E885CbeforeduringafterCome visit Tawahibre in the lab, where you can examine the coffin lid up-close, read the conservation treatment report (which includes some materials identification reports), see more before, during, and after treatment images, and discuss the treatment with the conservator during open window times.


I spy with my little eye…

A long time ago I posted an image of our Mummy Gallery, circa 1930s. Well, I find myself returning to this photograph again and again as I work on new objects in the lab.

The "Mummy Room" ca. 1935

The “Mummy Room” ca. 1935

Can you find two of the objects that we’re working on right now, the beautifully preserved painted wooden coffin and the shabti box and shabits, all from the New Kingdom? Here are images of these objects, just to help you out:

Overall view of the interior of the coffin from above

Overall view of the interior of the coffin from above

The shabti box and one of its associated shabtis

The shabti box and one of its associated shabtis

Did you find them? I’ll post the image of the mummy room below, with these objects circled in red.

mummy room with coffin and shabtis circledAnd here is a cropped version of this image, to better show these objects:

31011_mummyroom_1935-croppedWhile it’s just cool to see an image of these objects in a previous display, it’s also helpful to me as a conservator. I can see how they were mounted for exhibit (the coffin is standing upright, the shabtis are on little platforms) and I can also get a sense of condition at this time (for instance, the middle lid of the shabti box is missing in this image, and I can see some losses to the painted surface as well).

I’m am nearly finished working on the shabti box and shabtis, and the coffin will also be completed this year, so we will finally be able to put these objects back on exhibit.

Coming up next week, I will be posting some multispectral images of the shabti box and shabtis, which is helping us better understand the original colors and also to see some of the painted details, which are now largely obscured by the orange pistacia resin varnish.


Consolidating a painted wooden shabti

This one-minute video captures what I did at work today, times about 250.

Shabti paint consolidation (click on the link to view the video)

To put it into context, I was working on this painted wooden shabti, which I’ve mentioned on the blog before.

The area blocked out in yellow is the area I'm working on in the video.

The area blocked out in yellow is the area I’m working on in the video.

Here is a still shot of the area I’m working on in the video, taken at 10x magnification using our binocular microscope:

IC800006The paint is actively flaking in many areas on this object. In the video, you can see me applying a 2% solution of methyl cellulose in water by brush to a loose flake of paint, and then after allowing the flake to relax, tapping it into place using a silicone colour shaper. It’s slow-going, but it’s working!