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!

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!

A thousand words: Pixel Party photographers get snap happy in three HMNS exhibits after-hours

After-hours at the Museum on Feb. 23, we had one of our awesome Pixel Parties — where we open select exhibits exclusively to photographers (both amateur and professional). This time around, we opened the entire third floor, giving our photographers access to the Hall of The Americas, Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux, and the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Here are some of our favorite shots from that evening:

HALL OF THE AMERICAS

Photo by Jerry Klumpp

Photo by Jerry Klumpp

Photo by Robin Merrit

Photo by Robin Merrit

Photo by Jonathan Parker

THE CAVE PAINTINGS OF LASCAUX

Photo by Gary Woodard

Photo by Jerry Klumpp

Photo by Jerry Klumpp

Photo by Alan Wilson

Photo by Alan Wilson

Photo by Jonathan Parker

HALL OF ANCIENT EGYPT

Photo by Kinjo Yonemoto

Photo by Kinjo Yonemoto

Photo by Sergio Garcia Rill

Photo by Sergio Garcia Rill

Photo by Gary Woodard

Photo by Gary Woodard

Photo by Kinjo Yonemoto

Photo by Kinjo Yonemoto

 

 

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.