Preserving Egypt’s cultural past: A conversation about conservation with Dina Aboul Saad

Editor’s Note: Today’s post was written by Dina Aboul Saad, Director of Development at the American Research Center in Egypt.

ARCE Collage

Ancient Egyptian, Roman, Coptic and Islamic sites further our understanding of the rich cultural history of Egypt, but there’s much more to Egypt than digging up artifacts. Have you ever thought about what happens to the sites and objects once they are uncovered? And why do we endeavor to preserve Egypt’s cultural past?

The American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) answers these questions through the most extensive program of conservation and training in Egypt today. In recent years the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) has conducted large-scale preservation and training activities at important archaeological sites throughout Egypt in collaboration with Egyptian colleagues and the Ministry of State for Antiquities.

On Nov. 7th at HMNS, you have an opportunity to see some of the iconic sites ARCE works to conserve and document.

fruitcake egypt

Working in Egypt since 1948, ARCE supports scholarly research in Egypt in a variety of areas including archaeology, training, site documentation and mapping, and conservation.

Brian Eno, the British rock musician and avant-garde artist, once remarked, “We are convinced by things that show internal complexity; [things] that show the traces of an interesting evolution. That is what makes old buildings interesting. Humans have a taste for things that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which also show they are still part of one. They are not dead yet.”

We feel disconnected when the opportunity to involve ourselves with cultural history, even from a distance, is taken away.

Don’t miss Dina’s presentation, where she will give an overview of ARCE’s archaeological projects and the impact these projects have in Egypt. This event is co-sponsored by the Egyptian American Society of Houston here at HMNS on Thurs., Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m. For advance tickets, call 713-639-4629 or get them online.

Copper, corrosion and curbing the damaging effects of Bronze Disease

Editor’s Note: Alexis North is a third-year graduate student in Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials at UCLA. She specializes in the conservation of archaeological objects and is working at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University this summer, preparing a group of objects for display here at HMNS. Read the first blog from her series here.

You may think of metal as a strong, impervious material. It’s used in bridge and building construction, and many of the tools we use today are made of metal (like silverware, hammers and screwdrivers, medical scalpels, etc.). Despite its strength, however, metal can be one of the more fragile materials found in archaeological sites. This is because different types of metal can very easily corrode in the presence of moisture and salts, both of which are found in the burial soils of archaeological sites. If you’ve ever seen red rust on an iron fence, or an old penny turn green, then you’ve seen what corrosion can look like.

Five of the objects I am working on this summer are made of copper alloy. An alloy is a mixture of metals. Copper is most often alloyed with silver, tin, arsenic or lead (or any combination of those) and the resulting mixture will have different strengths and working properties depending on the components and the proportions of those components. Here at the conservation laboratory at the Carlos Museum, one way we can determine which metals are present in an alloy is by using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF).

XRF analysis uses X-rays to excite the electrons within a material. These electrons jump to a higher energy level when they come into contact with the X-rays. The electrons of each element give off a characteristic amount of energy when they return to their unexcited state.

By measuring the amounts of energy emitted, we can determine which elements comprise a certain object. Here, the XRF spectrum of the cat figurine seen in my first blog post shows that the metal is an alloy of copper (Cu) and lead (Pb), with a possible trace amount of silver (Ag). The iron (Fe) most likely comes from the burial environment.

Copper, corrosion and curbing the damaging effects of Bronze DiseaseXRF spectrum of 1999.001.043, revealing copper and lead as major components.

Copper and its alloys are susceptible to several different types of corrosion, some of which are good or protective corrosion, and some of which can be very damaging to the objects. After a copper alloy object is buried, it forms a protective layer of copper oxide (cuprite) on its surface. Cuprite can be bright to deep red in color, and will preserve the original surface of the object, even when additional corrosion layers form on top. That upper layer of corrosion is usually made of copper carbonates, called malachite and azurite. These compounds are bright green and blue in color, respectively, and have historically been used as pigments, in Egypt and elsewhere.

The real bad boys of copper corrosion are the copper chlorides. These appear as a pale turquoise green compound, usually in spots on the metal’s surface. When copper metal comes into contact with chloride anions, it forms deep pits full of copper chlorides. These pits disrupt the metal’s surface, damaging the original appearance of the object and obscuring surface details. These pits are also autocatalytic, meaning that once one appears, it will continue to grow and form additional pits until the copper chlorides are removed. This cycle of corrosion is commonly called “Bronze Disease,” like a kind of copper Chicken Pox!

Copper, corrosion and curbing the damaging effects of Bronze DiseaseSchematic diagram of copper alloy object with various types of corrosion products.

All five copper alloy objects that I am working on show evidence of Bronze Disease, as well as malachite and cuprite formations. The cat figurine has very little corrosion, and will not require much treatment at all before it will be ready to pack up and ship to the HMNS. This mirror, on the other hand, has significant corrosion all over its surface. In the detail image on the right, you can see where I’ve found an area of Bronze Disease, and the powdery light green copper chlorides are erupting onto the surface.

Copper, corrosion and curbing the damaging effects of Bronze DiseaseBefore treatment image of copper alloy mirror (left) and close-up image of Bronze Disease pit with copper chloride corrosion products (right).

Treating Bronze Disease is a two-step process. First, the copper chlorides must be mechanically removed. I do this using a variety of tools, including scalpels and dental tools (if they work for cleaning your teeth, then they should work for cleaning copper!). The copper chlorides are gently scraped away, while making sure that I don’t damage the rest of the mirror’s surface. The pits made by the copper chlorides are carefully cleaned out, so they can then be chemically treated to help prevent the formation of new copper chlorides. Once the corrosion products have been removed, the objects are treated with Benzotriazole (BTA), a corrosion inhibitor that forms a stable coating with the superficial copper ions, so they cannot react with any chloride ions which may come around.

Corrosion cannot be stopped completely, but these treatments help to significantly slow down the deterioration process, allowing the objects to continue to be displayed and studied. While the corrosion may not be vanquished entirely, with careful consideration the right conservation treatment can be undertaken, allowing these objects to be enjoyed both by scholars and museum visitors like you for many years to come!

References:
“Benzotriazole,” Conservation and Art Material Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, http://cameo.mfa.org/wiki/Benzotriazole, accessed 7/16/2013
Scott, David A. Copper and Bronze in Art: Corrosion, Colorants, and Conservation. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2002.

The Chiddingstone Chronicles: What do a castle, collector, countess & our Hall of Ancient Egypt have in common?

Pour yourself a spot of tea, loves, have a biscuit and brace yourselves for a story of utmost British-ness.

If you’ve visited our esteemed new Hall of Ancient Egypt, you may have noticed that many of the items on display are on loan from Chiddingstone Castle in the United Kingdom.

The historic house is the former home of antiquarian Denys Eyre Bower, an avid collector and consummate gentleman, as you’ll soon see.

Bower bought the castle and its surrounding 35 acres in 1955 for 6,000 British pounds. Although the castle was rundown, Bower — 50 years old at the time — was attracted to its potential. It had the space to house and display the many artifacts he’d collected over the years, and before long, he had made it something of a local destination, opening a makeshift ticket window for passersby and manning tours himself.

Chiddingstone Castle

By and by, Bower found himself in love with a young girl who lived a few miles way. She was only 19, but she managed to convince Bower that she was a French countess.

When he sensed that her affections might not match his own, Bower brought an antique revolver from his collection ’round to her apartment and threatened suicide if his love wasn’t reciprocated. During the ensuing confrontation (these things are always dramatic), the revolver went off and the “Countess” was wounded. Beside himself with grief and ever the gentleman, Bower shot himself to even things out. Neither were mortally wounded.

When he had recovered, Bower asked how his Countess was faring and was informed that she was neither dead nor a countess — she was the daughter of a Peckham bus driver.

A six-year stint in a notorious London prison — Wormwood Scrubs — followed on charges of attempted murder and attempted suicide (a punishable crime in those days), but it was during this time that Bowers befriended a woman named Ruth Eldridge.

Over many visits, Eldridge worked on Bower’s behalf to organize his release from prison, recruiting her sister to restore and guard the castle at Chiddingstone in the meantime. Bower and Eldridge remained friends until Bower’s death in 1977, and it was Ruth and her sister who set up the trust that still exists today — from which all of our objects are on loan.

Pretty crazy story, isn’t it? Just the sort one can’t make up.

Cracking the code: Deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs with the Rosetta Stone

As you walk through our new Hall of Ancient Egypt, you might wonder how we know so much today about a civilization that thrived thousands of years ago. Here is how we got there: For most of the Middle Ages and even during the Renaissance, ancient Egypt was a vague concept in the Western world, most often associated with Biblical history. All of that changed in 1798.

Napoleon in Egypt and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone

Less than 10 years after the French revolution, Napoleon invaded Egypt. His army was accompanied by scientists, scholars and artists, who collected artifacts and mapped a good number of sites. With the support of Napoleon, this group of people known as the “Savants” started a center for the study of ancient Egypt, the Institut d’ Égypte. Sadly, in 2011, the Institut was severely damaged and most of its library destroyed.

The work by the French scholars culminated in a magnificent and monumental multiple-volume publication, the Description de l’Égypte, which appeared between 1809 and 1828. These volumes unleashed a wave of Egypt-o-mania in European art and design. This wave eventually reached American shores.

The month of July 1799 was of utmost importance in the history of deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Sometime around the middle of that month, Pierre François Xavier Bouchard, an officer of the Engineers, found what we now call the Rosetta stone. He was working on reinforcing the defenses of a small fort on the west bank of the Nile, near the small port of el-Rashid (the ancient Rosetta).

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Map of the Nile Delta, identifying the location of Rosetta, where the famous inscription was found. Image courtesy of michelhoude.com

Bouchard realized that the stone slab he had found was part of a larger stela inscribed in three scripts. The stone was cleaned, and the ancient Greek text of the inscription translated. Among other things, the Greek text conveyed the order that the inscription be recorded in three different scripts: ancient Greek on the bottom portion, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in the top portion. The middle portion was initially thought to have been ancient Syriac; we now know that it is demotic.

News of the Stone’s discovery spread fast. By August 1799, the inscription was in Cairo, at the Institut d’ Égypte. Copies of the text reached Paris by the fall of 1800. We should not forget, however, that there was still a war being fought in Egypt. French forces, initially successful in the conquest of Egypt, were slowly being defeated by an Anglo-Turkish army. After Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet at anchor in the bay of Aboukir, and after Napoleon ignominiously slipped through a British blockade on one of the few surviving French ships, a French defeat was inevitable.

By August 31, 1801, the last French units to offer resistance surrendered in Alexandria. By then, the Rosetta Stone had been transported from Cairo to Alexandria to keep it in the hands of French explorers and out of the hands of anyone else. But it was not to be. The victorious British forces took possession of the Stone, after allowing the French scholars to make a cast of the monument. A British warship carrying the Rosetta Stone arrived in Portsmouth in February 1802. It was placed in the London-based Society of Antiquaries, where several plaster casts were made. Engravings made of the inscription were made and widely distributed throughout Europe and even the United States.

The easiest portion of the inscription to translate and publish was the ancient Greek text. The translation, made in 1802 and presented as a paper, was published 10 years later in 1812. The Stone itself was officially donated to the British Museum by King George III in 1802; a painted text on one of the stela’s sides commemorates this act. With only two exceptions, it has remained in the British Museum ever since. Towards the end of the First World War, in 1917, when the Museum was concerned about heavy bombing in London, they moved it to safety along with other portable, ‘important’ objects. The Rosetta Stone spent the next two years in a station on the Postal Tube Railway 50 feet below the ground. Other than during wartime, the Rosetta Stone has left the British Museum only once. In October 1972, it was displayed at the Louvre in Paris alongside Champollion’s Lettre to mark the 150th anniversary of its publication (p. 23).**

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
 Cover of Champollion’s Lettre a M. Dacier. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Even though the inscription is known as the Rosetta Stone, referring to the ancient settlement of Rosetta, it is most likely that the stela fragment was brought to Rosetta as construction material from a more ancient site further inland. It is also probable that it was already broken by the time it was moved to the site of its discovery (p. 26).**

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Reconstruction of the Rosetta Stone. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Based on similar decrees of the same period, it is likely that the original shape of the Rosetta Stone included a rounded top, as can be seen in the reconstruction drawing (p.26).** The shape of the monument can also be seen toward the end of the last line of the hieroglyphic text.

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Black and white drawing of the Rosetta Stone. The original shape of the monument is shown in the final portion of the last sentence written in hieroglyphs. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

The original shape of the monument is shown in the final portion of the last sentence written in hieroglyphs.

Deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and the role of the Rosetta Stone.

The decipherment of the Rosetta stone involved the contributions of many individuals. Among these were Swedish scholar Åkerblad; two British men, Bankes, a collector of antiquities, and a linguist, Young. Across the Channel, there were two Frenchmen, the orientalist de Sacy and a fellow by the name of Champollion.

An initial step towards reading ancient Egyptian texts came when de Sacy, working on the demotic portion of the text, identified the name of Ptolemy. In 1802, Åkerblad identified the demotic equivalents of “Egypt”, “temples”, “king”, and “Greek.” Unfortunately, both men were hampered in their attempts to crack the hieroglyphic portion by firmly believing that this script was alphabetical, a premise that proved to be false (p.31).**

In 1816, the British scholar Thomas Young, identified the name Ptolemy inside a cartouche on the hieroglyphic section of the stone. Using insights from the demotic text, he assigned the correct values of p, t, ma/m, i, s to five hieroglyphic signs (p.31).** In 1821, in a similar exercise, Bankes correctly translated the name “Cleopatra” inside a cartouche on an obelisk from Philae.**

It was a French scholar, Champollion, who by 1822 truly broke the code. Working with an engraving of the stone and a rendering of it in the Description, Champollion managed to go further than other researchers of his time. By 1822, he was aware of the work done by Young and Bankes. Working with a total of fourteen signs, he deciphered cartouches of other members of the Ptolemaic dynasty and even some Roman emperors. All of this led to Champollion writing his report, the Lettre à M. Dacier, which was read at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris on September 27, 1822 (p.35).** In 1824, Champollion’s letter was published. Subsequent application of Champollion’s insights on Egyptian texts in the British Museum collections proved that he was correct(p. 38 – 39).**

Champollion did not live long to savor his achievement. He was appointed curator at the Louvre in 1830. He held this position until 1832, when he died from a stroke (p.40).**

We all benefit from the hard work of these pioneers and those who came after them. They made it possible to read a vast corpus of ancient Egyptian texts. Texts carved in stone, like the Rosetta text, as well as those painted on pottery shards and shell, or carved in wood, are on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Each in their own way lift the veil of this distant past. Their messages vary from prayers on a papyrus to a medal issued to a soldier; all help us to understand what it must have been like to walk and talk like an ancient Egyptian.

What did the text on the Rosetta Stone say?

The inscription dates to 196 BC. It is an official document, with a message of thanks – in triplicate – from some priests to the ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy V. Its content is interesting for those who like Hellenistic history; others might think that reading a part of the IRS code is equally interesting. A translation of the demotic portion of the inscription can be read here.

At the end of each text portion, we read that “the decree should be written on a stela of hard stone, in sacred writing, document writing, and Greek writing, and [that] it should be set up in the first-class temples, the second-class temples and the third-class temples, next to the statue of the King, living forever.” It is therefore very likely that several copies of the Rosetta Stone exist, as yet undiscovered.

**Dates and other factual information sourced here, for further reading: Parkinson, Richard, 1999. Cracking Codes. The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment. University of California Press, Berkeley.