The “conservation story” of Nefrina’s Funerary Mask, Part 1: Condition

Now that Nefrina is on display, I thought it might be helpful to discuss the condition of the mask as well as the treatment it underwent in 2011. Just as a bit of background, the mask has been in the Penn Museum’s collection since 1893 and was recently on display at the Reading Public Museum in Reading, PA.  Below you can see the mask before treatment.

nefrina image 1When the mask arrived to the conservation lab in 2011, it was a return visit. In 1993, the mask was stabilized for in-house photography, but this treatment did not address the many structural and surface issues that really needed to be taken care of before the mask could travel to Reading or be displayed.

As was mentioned in the previous posting about Nefrina’s funerary mask, it is made of cartonnage which is a composite material consisting of layers of linen and papyrus impregnated with glue that has been covered with plaster and painted. This type of material is prone to damage because of the differences in properties of the layers: the linen is flexible and the paint and gesso layers are rigid and brittle. As a result, when the mask is moved or stored unsupported the textile will bend causing damage to the gesso and paint layers.

The damage that the mask had sustained is highlighted in these condition maps, prepared during examination prior to the 2011 conservation treatment:

nefrina image 2nefrina image 3As you can see the cracking and loss to the paint is worse on the sides; this is likely because prior to 1993 the mask had no storage mount and probably rested flat on its back with the face pointing up. This position would have allowed the linen to flex and bend on the sides causing the paint to crack and detach from the surface. Areas on the front and back of the mask were also distorted and dented, also likely as a result of lack of proper support.

In addition to these surface issues, the mask also had tears and losses to the linen support. The tears and losses were temporarily stabilized in 1993 with the addition of internal patches made of spun bonded polyester lightly tacked in place with an adhesive. Again, these details are highlighted in the condition map below:

nefrina image 4The goals of the treatment in 2011 were to stabilize and realign the tears, compensate structural losses, and stabilize cracks, which will be discussed in an upcoming post.

– posted by Tessa De Alarcon


Coming Soon: Nefrina’s Mummy Mask

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.

In 2011 I had the privilege to work on the mummy mask shown below, and I am excited that it will soon be on display In the Artifact Lab! Since this mask will be a new addition to the gallery, it seems fitting the mask have an introduction to the blog as well.

mask croppedFunerary masks, like this one, were placed over the wrapped mummy as an idealized representation of the deceased. This mask is made of cartonnage which is a complex composite material. It was made by wrapping a head shaped core (probably made from mud or straw) with layers of linen and papyrus impregnated with glue. The exterior of the mask was then covered with plaster and painted. To help you visualize the stratigraphy of the mask, here is a diagram:


A diagram showing the multiple layers that make up Nefrina’s mask, with the inner linen layer represented in blue at the bottom and the outer paint layer(s) represented in black at the top

The face of this mask has a slightly different preparation from the rest of the head, as it has gold leaf and required a predatory layer called red bole.  Bole is a fine clay ground layer that is applied before putting down gold leaf as it creates a richer color and provides a good surface for burnishing the gold. Once finished, the mask would have been removed from the core and be ready for use.

This mask belonged to a woman from the Ptolemaic period (300-30 BC) named Nefer-iin-e (Nefrina). Nefrina’s mummy and coffin are on display at the Reading Public Museum, just about an hour from Philadelphia in Reading, PA, and it is from the translation of the text on her coffin that her name is known in addition to information about her parents. Her father, Irthrrw (Irethorrou) and mother, Ir(ty)-r-w (Irty-rou), both served in the temple for the Egyptian fertility god Min.

The Reading Public Museum has made this great video where you can learn more about Nefrina:

In 2012 the mask was reunited with the coffin and mummified human remains at the Reading Public Museum for the first time in 82 years as part of an exhibit called Nefrina’s World. Now that the mask is back at the Penn Museum, we are excited that it is going to be on display here too! Once it is in the gallery we will follow up with a post about it’s conservation treatment.

– posted by Tessa De Alarcon