An Ivory Figure from Hierakonpolis

By Tessa de Alarcon

The figure you see here, E4893, is an ivory statuette from the site of Hierakonpolis that I am working on as part of an IMLS grant funded project. I have just started the treatment, but thought I would give a brief run through of the initial examination since this is a good example of when and why we use X-radiography in our department to evaluate the condition of objects before treatment.

Before Treatment photograph of E4893

You may have noticed that the middle of this object is fill, so not part of the object. The fill has some cracks and splits that suggests it is unstable and should be removed. There is no written documentation for when this fill was done or by who, but it’s possible that this was done shortly after it was excavated. The object was accessioned in 1898. Given that the conservation lab at the Penn Museum was not founded until 1966 that leaves a big gap for the possibilities for when this treatment might have been done.

Annotated before treatment photograph of E4893 indicating the large fill at the waist of the figure.

Based on previous experience, I often worry with these old fills that there are unseen things, like metal pins or dowels, lurking below the surface. X-radiography is a great way to check for these types of hidden previous treatment issues. Though in this case, what I found when I X-rayed the object was not your typical pin or dowel.

Before treatment photograph of E4893 (left) and an X-ray radiograph of the object (right). The X-ray was captured at 60kV, and 6mA for 6 seconds. There are four nails visible in the fill.

Here in the X-ray you can see what I found: while this fill did not have any pins or dowels, whoever had done this treatment had decided to reinforce it by putting nails (4 in total) into the fill material. While this makes the figure look like he has eaten a bunch of nails, it is in some ways better news than a pin would be. Pins usually go into the original material, and if they are iron, can rust and expand causing damage to the object. Pin removal can also be risky and lead to damage of the object especially if the pin is deeply imbedded or corroded into place. These nails, on the other hand, appear to be only in the fill and do not look like they go into the original material of the object at all. This suggests that removal of the fill and the nails should be possible without damaging the object. As this treatment progresses, I will follow up with additional posts and updates.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services

A Puzzle without all the Pieces: Treating Papyri

By Jessica Byler

The condition survey of our papyri collection is complete – I counted almost 4,300 fragments of papyrus and vellum, more than we realized were there! The papyrus ranged in size from a few millimeters to 9 feet long. Now, I have moved on to treating a few of the papyri that will be on display in the new Egyptian galleries.

Many of the papyri are sandwiched between pieces of Mylar. Static from Mylar can lift off friable ink or even split the two layers of the papyrus fibers and damage the papyrus. In order to safely remove the papyrus, I use a MinION 2 Ionizing Blower to eliminate the static charge. After removing the papyrus from the Mylar, I can then remove old repairs, realign fragments and fibers that are out of place, and apply new tissue paper bridges. Using a light box can help me identify joins and keep fragments in alignment. Papyrus fibers have different thicknesses, widths, and orientations, so transmitted light from a light box reveals the unique fiber pattern.

Left: Removing papyrus (49-11-1) from a Mylar enclosure using an ionizing blower
Right: Using a light box to realign fragments

Let’s look at one papyrus I am currently treating: a Temple robbery papyrus (49-11-1), dated to the 20th Dynasty or 11th century BCE. Along with removing old materials that might harm or obscure the papyrus, a key reason I am treating this particular document is to make sure the joins are right. It is fragmentary and there have been several treatment campaigns to repair it using a variety of materials, including Scotch tape, Japanese tissue, and Document Repair Tape.

Temple robbery papyrus (49-11-1), before treatment

I removed the old repairs where possible and reassessed the location of the fragments. At some point, several of the fragments have become misaligned or detached. In several instances, the fragments were just slightly out of line and could easily be nudged back into place. However, I quickly noticed some issues with a long fragment on the far left (on the right in the photo of the back below), and a small rectangular fragment at the bottom.

Left: detail of the back of the right section before treatment
Right: Section under transmitted light from a light box, with red arrows pointing to the two fragments in the wrong spot

On the long fragment, there are ink marks either side of the join which do not meet up. If the fragment was in the correct location, you would expect the writing to extend over the break. On the smaller fragment, the color, curvature, and thickness were different than the surrounding fragments. Using transmitted light, it is clear the fibers of these fragments do not actually line up correctly. Although at first glance they might not look out of place, they clearly do not belong there.

Left: Detail of front, with red arrows pointing to ink which does not meet up
Right: Detail under transmitted light, with red arrows showing that the fibers do not line up

The long fragment has two lines of writing at the top, so the number of locations it could join was limited. The small fragment at the bottom did not have any writing on it, so it was harder to determine its orientation and position. To add to this complicated puzzle, these pieces also might not join to any of the extant fragments.

Left: Detail of back during treatment, with the two fragments, indicated with red arrows, properly aligned
Right: Detail of back during treatment, with red arrows pointing the two fragments, and blue arrows pointing to some of the new bridges; areas of white residue from the old materials is also visible

Thankfully, their proper locations were easy to find using a light box. As you can see in the detail photos above, the fibers of the papyrus were a perfect match. The tissue paper bridges I used were around the size of a grain of rice and are clearly visible but blend in nicely with the papyrus. The Temple robbery papyrus is now ready for display!

Temple robbery papyrus (49-11-1), after treatment

This project is funded by the Antiquities Endowment Fund (AEF).  The AEF is supported by an endowment established with funds from the United Stated Agency for International Development (USAID).

The Desalination Station II: The Salty Pot Field Diaries

by Tessa de Alarcon

So I have written before about desalination to stabilize ceramics with soluble salts, but this time I’m going out into the world, and setting up a desalination station for the Naxcivan Archaeological Project in Azerbaijan.

I had been given a heads up from colleagues Brittany Dolph Dinneen (the previous conservator on site) and Jennifer Swerida (project registrar), that soluble salts may be an issue with the ceramics from the project’s excavations. Salts can be tricky to identify with freshly excavated material, as the ceramic vessels won’t have visible issues until a while after their excavation; once the salts from the burial environment have had time to go through a few cycles of crystallization and deliquescence.

Before treatment image of QQ.15.155: the white haze is from soluble salts

Here at on the Naxcivan Archaeological project, the salts are mostly manifesting as a white haze over the surface of ceramics.

Detail of QQ-15-193 showing small salt crystals, rather than just hazing, on the surface.

A few are also showing clear crystallization, but the hazing has been the more frequent symptom of the salt problem, especially as this hazing was not observed when they were first excavated.

Detail of QQ-15-155: the poultice in place.

To confirm that what we were seeing was in fact soluble salts, I poultice the surface.

Detail of QQ-15-155: after the poultice was removed

Once the cotton poultice was dry, I removed it from the surface, re-wet and checked the conductivity, and tested it for nitrates and chlorides with test strips (there are lots of other types of soluble salts, but these are two common ones that are easy to test for). The results were positive, and as you can see the poultice also removed the white haze clearly showing how soluble these salts are.

Here Calypso Owen and I are filtering water from the sink with a deionizing column to get salt free water.

The next step is getting the water, and while we used to use a similar system at the museum to make deionized water, the scenery is pretty different.

Salty ceramics soaking in deionized water: the tags outside the buckets are being used to help track the objects during treatment.

The pot then soaked for a day, while I checked the conductivity until it reached the end point of the desalination process.

Desalinated ceramics after they are removed from the water and are now drying: again the tags are moving with the objects so we can track them.

Once it was removed from the water I rinsed it with fresh clean water, blotted it dry, then left it to air dry.

QQ.15.155 after treatment: white haze free!

Finally, here is the bowl after desalination. As you can see it is now white haze free. Most importantly, it can now be handed over to the Naxcivan Museum with no risk of damage from ongoing salt cycles.

View from the current excavation: Azerbaijan is beautiful

As a final note, it has not been all work, I did get to hike up to the current excavation and I wanted to end on this photo taken from the site, as Azerbaijan is stunning, and I can’t resist the opportunity to share.

A Complete View and a Complete Treatment: Conservation of the Roman Period 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.   

After using humidification and four extra hands, the mask is now unfolded! This complete view of the object provides us a wonderful opportunity to look at the materials used in construction and allowed treatment to finally move forward.

Before jumping into treatment, I had the opportunity to perform Multispectral Imaging (MSI) on the mask, allowing us to analyze some of the pigments non-destructively and with great results.

E2462. From left to right: Visible light, Ultraviolet illumination, Visible induced IR luminescence

From left to right: Visible light, Ultraviolet illumination, Visible induced IR luminescence

Under ultraviolet illumination, a bright pink fluorescence was visible (middle), indicating the use of a madder lake pigment in the cheeks and to accentuate the face and hands. I also used visible induced IR luminescence to pinpoint the use of Egyptian Blue pigment in the crown, jewelry, and green leaves (right, Egyptian Blue highlighted in pink). This is a material commonly found in Roman period Egyptian artifacts.

In addition to finding out some of the materials used, I also completed full documentation of the object. Although some of the surface is still intact, the paint layer is in poor condition with areas of flaking and powdering. There is also a large loss to the textile along with some smaller tears and holes.

E2462 During treatment detail of flaking paint

E2462 During treatment detail of flaking paint

As my first order of business, the paint needed to be stabilized. This paint, like many other Egyptian painted surfaces, is sensitive to water and adhesives can cause staining and darkening. This meant a lot of testing was required to find the perfect adhesive for the job.

Using both testing panels and small, discrete areas of the surface, I tested adhesives until I found funori, a seaweed-based polysaccharide. This material preserved the matte and light tones of both the paint and ground layers.

Amaris Sturm, summer intern, consolidating surface of E2462

Amaris Sturm, summer intern, consolidating surface of E2462

As treatments usually go, you sometimes get unexpected bumps along the way. As I was consolidating I discovered that the flesh tones in the face and hands were significantly more sensitive to the water-based adhesive. I quickly had to rethink my approach, ultimately using a methyl cellulose in 50:50 ethanol: water for the hands, face, and larger flakes in the yellow framing the face.

Once consolidation was complete, I moved on to the next hurdle: the molded mud plaster mask. A large gap is present between the fragmented mud plaster crown and the textile below. To support the plaster and its mends, I made a removable fill of carved Volara foam and Japanese tissue, all toned with Golden acrylic paints to make the supports more discrete.

Removable fills to support the heavy mud plaster crown in E2462

Removable fills to support the heavy mud plaster crown in E2462

Fragmented, actively shifting, and detached mud plaster was mended with a 40% AYAT in acetone applied by brush and syringe. Unstable and weightbearing cracks and gaps were filled with a 25% AYAT in acetone that was bulked with microballoons and toned with dry pigments. Fill material was applied with syringed, shaped with a brush and wooden skewer, and  smoothed with a little bit of acetone. A thin toning layer of acrylic paint was applied to fills to make them a warmer tone, but still distinguishable from original material.

Filling compromised gaps on E2462

Filling compromised gaps on E2462

And with that, the treatment is complete! The mask is now stable and will be returned to storage safe and sound.

E2462 Before treatment (left) and After treatment (left)

E2462 Before treatment (left) and after treatment (right)

  • Amaris Sturm is a second-year graduate student in the Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She recently completed her summer internship in the Penn Museum’s conservation labs.