‘What’s wood glue doing there?’ Connecting the dots to repair an ancient join

Hello again, and welcome to the third post in my series on the conservation of a Third-Intermediate-Period coffin lid at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

As our team in the lab has seen, many times repairs of ancient objects are not well-informed or sensitive to delicate surfaces and structures. In the case of this coffin lid, this can not only disrupt our appreciation, but also our interpretation of the material.

Egypt

While examining the back of the object, it was clear to my supervisor, Renée Stein, and myself that the surface had been coated in a thick layer of wood glue (yes, the type of stuff you can buy at the Home Depot).

It wasn’t clear just how extensive this coating was until we interrogated the construction of the object. How were the many wooden boards put together? What does this tell us about the object original appearance? Were the structures stable after 3,000 years?

As we asked ourselves these questions, we also noticed something else that wasn’t quite right: The two scarph joins at either shoulder were not symmetrical, and we were wondering why…

A view of the scarph joins in question, with the correct orientation circled in purple and the troublesome example in green.

A view of the scarph joins in question, with the correct orientation circled in purple and the troublesome example in green.

 

A close up of the join in question.

A close up of the join in question.

It turns a component of one of these joins was very rotten, and after millennia of burial, it was essentially turning into powder! This spongy material had been encased in wood glue and attached back in place in the wrong way. The component was jutting out, held in place by a thin strip of soft wood and very, very vulnerable to breakage.

After the join was poulticed, the messy wood-glue to be removed shows white.

After the join was poulticed, the messy wood-glue to be removed shows white.

 

A close-up of the coating.

A close-up of the coating.

 

A view of the extensive coating on wooden piece.

A view of the extensive coating on wooden piece.

To restore the original appearance of the join and to stabilize the deterioration observed. The glue had to be softened with a poultice of cotton soaked with acetone. I then meticulously cleaned the surfaces of as much coating as possible, stabilizing large flakes and powdered wood as I went.

The wood, partially cleaned, and a fragile sliver waiting to be attached.

The wood, partially cleaned, and a fragile sliver waiting to be attached.

This was then reattached in the correct position, and a soft fill was inserted to support the join. The adhesive was left to dry overnight.

The fill supporting the newly corrected join.

The fill supporting the newly corrected join.

 

Ancient Egypt

The adhesive, bulked with cellulose powder, is applied.

 

Ancient Egypt

A padded clamp is opposed around the repair.

 

The stabilized clamp is left as the adhesive dries.

The stabilized clamp is left as the adhesive dries.

The result was a more accurate representation of the original– and beautiful!–construction scheme.

 

 

Off With Its Head! The “De-restoration” of the MCCM Coffin Lid

Greetings, and welcome to my second post on the conservation of a Third-Intermediate-Period coffin lid at the Michael C. Carlos Museum. If you missed the first installment, you can hop over here to catch up.

Cut-away diagram of restoration over

Cut-away diagram of restoration over

After the documentation, research and planning stage, the treatment of the Third-Intermediate Period Coffin Lid is well underway. Solvent tests, chemical spot tests, and pre-restoration photographs helped us to design the treatment. The goal is to reverse all but the most necessary, stabilizing additions to the object.

It is clear that this object has, like other fragile polychromed wooden objects from ancient Egypt, suffered from flaking and powdering of its painted decoration. Indeed Egyptian funerary furniture, if not recently excavated, is likely to have been treated for one of these conditions during its lifetime.

Graphic by Kate Brugioni.

Before-treatment photograph of Coffin Lid (left) and condition-map overlay (right).

However, this particular object was restored with an excessively heavy hand, as is visible in the orange-and-blue head piece. Constructed in modern materials around the ancient head, the tripartite-wig form was glued tightly (and messily) to the ancient wood. On top of the wood, a composite material made of saw dust and wood glue was smeared over the top portions of the object. Where it was pealing away, it was taking ancient painted surface with it!

Photograph by Kate Brugioni.

From the reverse the lighter modern wood at the head contrasts with the darker ancient planks.

 

Photograph by Kate Brugioni.

Detail view of the reverse of the coffin lid, showing the excess of yellow wood glue attaching the modern construction to the ancient wood.

Not only was this “restoration” causing damage, but it also impaired a visual appreciation of the object.The modern paint looked incongruously plastic-like and the combination of orange, pink, and blue colors were unsuited to an Ancient Egyptian object.

It was easy enough to call for the removal of the headpiece, but the actual procedure would be challenging and time-consuming.

First, I undertook a micro-excavation to uncover the joint between the modern and ancient structures.

A view of the modern headpiece after partial clearing of the top layers of paint and saw-dust fill.

A view of the modern headpiece after partial clearing of the top layers of paint and saw-dust fill.

 

Photograph by Kate Brugioni.

A section through the top of the modern headpiece construction, showing acrylic filler (white), wood glue and wood-flour (dark brown), wood glue and saw-dust (pink and light brown), and paint (orange and blue).

After establishing the stratigraphy and working through a few (hard!) layers with a scalpel, I established the boundary between ancient and modern. Many of the joints were still inaccessible, however, and to reverse them we reached for a saw.

Face and lapet stratigraphy diagram_w KEY

 

Kate using a coping saw to free the ancient from the modern wood.

Kate using a coping saw to free the ancient from the modern wood.

 

Detail of proper-left shoulder of coffin. As the modern (lighter) wood is being sliced away, the ancient surface is revealed.

Detail of proper-left shoulder of coffin. As the modern (lighter) wood is being sliced away, the ancient surface is revealed.

 

Detail of proper-right shoulder of coffin. By slightly off-setting the kerf (width of saw cut) from the ancient wood, the bulk of the modern (lighter) wood can be removed.

Detail of proper-right shoulder of coffin. By slightly off-setting the kerf (width of saw cut) from the ancient wood, the bulk of the modern (lighter) wood can be removed.

We first tried a coping saw, and then we graduated to a shiny, new Japanese double-blade hand saw. Although versatile enough for most applications, it was difficult to maneuver into tight spaces. Furthermore, using the hand saws was very time consuming.

Renée Stein maneuvering the

Renée Stein maneuvering the hand saw

Finally, after carefully excavating all of the tracts to be cut, we unveiled the one tool to rule them all… the Fein Multitasker FMM 250Q, a variable speed tool for sanding, scraping and cutting. 

IMG_0964_1

Photograph by Kate Brugioni.

Tracts cut around the ancient material, as viewed from the proper-right side of the coffin lid.

 Tune in next time to see our continued progress with the MCCM Coffin Lid!

Conservation student Kate Brugioni blows the lid off the restoration process for ancient Egyptian artifacts

Editor’s note: This fall some changes are coming to the HMNS Hall of Ancient Egypt. Some artifacts will leave and others are coming in on new loans. As we prepare for this, NYU third-year art conservation student Kate Brugioni will take us through the restoration process for ancient artifacts. 

When you walk around the Hall of Ancient Egypt, you see some pretty old stuff — actually some really old stuff. We’re talking thousands of years here, folks. But have you ever wondered how everything stays in top condition? 

Well that’s my job (rather, summer internship, but it will be my job soon)!

I’m Kate Brugioni, rising third-year art conservation student at the Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. My education combines a study of art history, archaeology, museology and science. After completing this rigorous four-year program, I will graduate with a Master’s degree in Art History and an Advanced Certificate in Conservation.

As a student with a particular interest in painted wood surfaces, I am excited to be treating the Carlos Museum‘s polychrome-wood coffin lid, dated to the 22nd–24th dynasties of Ancient Egypt (943–720 BCE). More than 500 hours of documentation, study, and treatment will be completed over the course of this project, and I would like to share something of the sense of excitement and discovery this opportunity has brought me.

Photograph by Ashley Jehle.

Kate Brugioni and Renée Stein examining the reverse side of the coffin lid.

One of the most striking features of this anthropoid coffin lid is the ancient wood, largely left uncovered to showcase its fine texture; the painted wsh (“broad”) collar; and offertory inscription down the center. Of special interest are the features original to the coffin construction, such as dowels, mortise and tenon structures, an ochre-colored preparation layer and painted decoration. Over the course of treatment, these will be carefully documented, cleaned and stabilized.

Although the arid Egyptian climate preserved much of the wood substrate, diffuse fungal deterioration, abrasion, and flaking has affected the structure and appearance of the coffin lid. Additionally, a number of invasive “restoration” campaigns has damaged the ancient surface and structure.

The important second step of this project will be to locate and characterize these restoration materials, and deciding how they could be best reversed, where appropriate

Photo by Kate Brugioni.

Ancient Egyptian Coffin Lid (obverse). 22nd-24th Dynasty (MCCM.2011.01). Before treatment.


Photo by Kate Brugioni.

Ancient Egyptian Coffin Lid (reverse). 22nd-24th Dynasty (MCCM.2011.01). Before treatment.

Thank you for reading, and please stay tuned to this blog for up-to-date information about our findings over the course of treatment.

Oh, and one more thing! I would like to thank the Houston Museum of Natural Science for so generously supporting my summer internship at the Parsons Conservation Laboratory at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, where I am preparing an ancient Egyptian coffin lid for long-term loan to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS.

Huh? Nope, it’s Heh: How the Egyptians measured time and thought about eternity

The week is finally over! While only five days long, the workweek can certainly feel like an eternity. Which got me thinking (as many things do) about how the Egyptians measured time and thought about eternity.

Houston HehBarely an inch in height, this small hammered gold object depicts a man kneeling, wearing a knee-length pleated linen kilt and a long wig which comes down in two lappets on either side of his face – the typical get-up of Egyptian gods. His right hand stretches out to grasp a tall element with a curving top; his missing left hand originally did the same.

His pose and accessories identify him as the god Heh. Larger, more detailed representations show that the curved objects he holds are palm ribs, notched to tally up the years. The ‘years’ often rest on crouching frogs or tadpoles, the hieroglyphic sign for ‘100,000;’ these in turn sit on top of tied rings, symbolizing enduring protection.

Big HehWith all this in mind, it’s no surprise that Heh was considered the god of eternity, and was himself used as the hieroglyphic sign for ‘1,000,000’ – the largest number the Egyptians wished to write. Images of Heh in temples and on royal objects provided an eternal framework for the rituals that surrounded them. Tutankhamun was buried with a mirror in a Heh-shaped case, keeping him forever safe and youthful.

Our Heh is smaller and less finely worked than these, but is still made from expensive gold and would have been a cherished possession of its owner. A loop soldered to his back allowed him to be attached to a cord, where he would have served as an amuletic charm on a necklace, or possibly an element of a diadem.

Excavated parallels to our Heh date to the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period (which we Egyptologists abbreviate to ‘FIP’) of Egyptian history (Dynasties 6-10, around 2300-2000 BC), and illuminate the problems we can run into when studying the past. Literary accounts of the First Intermediate Period describe it as a period in which the legitimate king was unable to exercise his authority: chaos, fighting, and famine ensued until the kings of the Middle Kingdom were able to reunite the country.

Excavations of FIP cemeteries, however, reveal a different picture. Valuable metal objects like weapons and our Heh are preserved in far higher quantities from FIP graves than Old Kingdom graves. If the FIP didn’t benefit the king and his court, less privileged people used the weakening of royal control as an opportunity to enrich themselves in this life and the next.

The amulet of Heh will go on display in the Hall of Ancient Egypt in the summer. Keep an eye out for him!