Casey analyzing the surface of the child sarcophagus using a portable XRF analyzer. Photo by Vanessa Muros
I have a special treat for our readers today – I recently had an interesting discussion with Casey Mallinckrodt, a current graduate student in the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials (which is also my alma mater!).
As part of her graduate studies, Casey has been working on a rare example of an Egyptian child sarcophagus, and instead of recounting the conversation for everyone, I asked her if she’d be willing to answer a few questions for our blog. Read on to hear more about Casey and this fascinating project.
1. First, tell our readers a little more about yourself.
I am a second year MA student in the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials. This is a career shift for me having received an MFA in sculpture in 1988 and having had a career in fine arts and education. I did pre-program internships in conservation at the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History in New York before applying to this program.
I am working on this project with Dr. David A. Scott and Prof. Ellen Pearlstein, both of whom are faculty in our program. Marie Svoboda, a conservator of antiquities at the Getty Villa, and Dr. Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist at UCLA are advisors.
A view of the upper half of the sarcophagus
2. Tell us more about this child sarcophagus that you’re working on and why it is so unusual (that’s assuming that it is!!)
The sarcophagus (or coffin) lid is on loan for this project from the San Diego Museum of Man. It was given to the museum in 2001 and it dates to the Ptolemaic period, 305 – 30 BCE although the exact date of this object is not known. It is unusual because sarcophagi were costly and rarely made for children. This is supposed to be one of only seven from this period known to exist. It seems to have been for a girl, and scholars I consulted suggest she may have been a child wife, which would justify the expense. Many people have asked about the mummy and the base of the coffin but these are unknowns.
It is made of a carved out section of a tree trunk with pieces added to create the chest, face and foot. Wood dowels were used to secure the pieces in place. The exterior is completely covered with a polychrome layer made up of a base of a brown granular paste, then a white “gesso” layer and the paint applied onto that. The interior is unpainted.
A side view of the sarcophagus in the UCLA/Getty labs
3. What is your ultimate goal for this project?
The project is a technical analysis of the structure and materials, and development of a treatment plan. The treatment goal is to stabilize the structure and fragile paint layer, and reduce or removal modern fills that may be damaging the original materials. If the museum approves I will carry out treatment in selective areas to establish a protocol so the museum can continue the work after the coffin returns to San Diego in June.
4. Since I get asked this question almost every day, I’m going to turn around and ask you – what is the most interesting and/or unexpected thing that you’ve found so far in your work on the sarcophagus?
It is a fascinating project in so many ways, but two things come to mind. One involves the manufacture, and the other a mysterious surface condition.
The ancient Egyptians frequently reused parts of coffins and I have found evidence of reuse here. X-rays reveal empty dowel holes that indicate changes in the structure, and there are modern metal screws holding the foot block in place.
X-radiographs of the head (left) and foot (right) of the sarcophagus. Note the modern screws holding the foot together.
Scholars I have consulted find the carving of the face more consistent with earlier periods. I am examining the types of wood and indications of changes in the construction, and analyzing the pigments, gesso, fill materials, and coatings to identify differences that might point to different sources for the different parts.
The most unexpected development was the emergence of small waxy exudates on the lower front of the “torso”. I am doing chemical tests on samples, and FTIR (Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) is being carried out by Getty Conservation Institute Scientist Herant Khanjian to identify the substance and determine whether it poses a threat to the original materials. This is probably the result of a coating or consolidant that was put on the object, but there is no record of its treatment before SDMM acquired it.
Thanks Casey! This is a terrific project, and a great example of how conservation is often a very collaborative process, involving conservators, scientists, archaeologists, and other specialists.
I will be keeping up with Casey as her work progresses. For more information on the UCLA/Getty Conservation Program and other student projects, follow the links I’ve included in the text above.