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!

C’mon, get snap happy! Grab your camera (any camera) and Pixel Party with us on Sunday

Oh yes, photographers, it’s that time once again. Time to dust off ye olde DSLR, point-and-shoot, or even that fingerprint-smudged smartphone — and pony up to a photo party at your favorite science museum after hours.

In case you haven’t heard by now, our Pixel Party is the next generation of photography soirees from HMNS, where photographers of all cameras can set up shop in our latest and greatest exhibits — and get a crowd-free glimpse of the goods.

This month, we’re lifting the veil off three (!!!) major titans for your photographic pursuits: the stunning new Hall of Ancient Egypt, the intriguing Scenes from the Stone Age: the Cave Paintings of Lascaux exhibition, and the timeless Hall of the Americas (where photography is traditionally prohibited — until now).

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In order to get the opportunity to snap those masterful exhibits, we ask that you meet three simple requirements:

(1) Register for the Pixel Party

Yup, register. It’s totally free, but we’ve gotta know you’re coming. You can do that registration thing if you point your little mouse right here and click. After you register, you’ll receive an email confirmation that your registration is good to go.

Oh, and you might wanna take note of the deadline, because there is one. Registration must be received by 5 p.m. on Fri., Feb. 21. We won’t accept registrations after that, no matter how hard you beg or how many barrels of cupcakes you promise to bring. Sorry. Them’s the breaks.

(2) Bring a camera

Maybe that goes without saying, since this is a photography party and all, but hey, we’re saying it anyway. This means that everyone in attendance must have a camera in hand. We actually don’t care what kind of camera — smartphone, fancy camera, credit card-sized camera, and the like — but whatever you’ve got has to be capable of taking photos.

But this also means no +1. It means no family, no friends, and no one without a click-click-clicker in hand. Just photographers.

(Now if your loved ones take photos, too, that’s another story. So, um, psst. Make ‘em register.)

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(3) Have an active photo sharing profile on the Interwebs

You know, we wanna check out the spectacular photos you take of our exhibits. Let’s face it: you make us look good. And maybe we’re a little vain, too. But we wanna see ourselves in the glow of your adoring gaze. So, indulge us.

To that end, you must have an active Flickr, Instagram, 500px, or other photo sharing account; a dedicated Facebook Fan Page for your photography; or an active photography portfolio online.

We have to make sure that you are who you say you are — a photographer. Because why show up to a picture party if you don’t really like to take them?

That’s it. Capisce?

Doors will open at 5:30 p.m., and you can chill in the Grand Hall until the event begins at 6 p.m. We’ll have kibbles for you on our front patio from The Hungry Lumberjack (so bring cash), and, of course, the chance of a lifetime to explore three fabulous exhibits after hours.

Think you can hang with some snap-happy folks at the Museum? Then register, why dontcha?

Family time & me time: Have the best of both at HMNS this holiday season

It’s the holiday season – full of food, festivities and family. Sure, you look forward to this month year-round, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get sick of it. Conversations start to get stale, your mother (or worse – mother-in-law) won’t let you stop stuffing your face, and you begin to worry that none of your pants will fit anymore.

This is enough to make some shout, “Bah humbug!” at every passerby, but it needn’t be so! All you need is some way to divert your family’s attention away from your new piercing, lack of promotion, the boyfriend or girlfriend that they loathe, or whatever childhood embarrassment they still insist on using to regale holiday guests (or worse yet, reenact).

What better way than an outing to the Houston Museum of Natural Science! Not only is this the perfect excuse to get out of the house, but with all of our exhibition halls, there are plenty of places to ditch your family — if only for a short while.

THE MORIAN HALL OF PALEONTOLOGY

The stunning views of fossilized dinosaurs, giant sloths, woolly mammoths and more will buy you just enough time to slip over to the John P. and Katherine McGovern Jurassic Bark Gallery (in a separate room towards the back, on the left). Here you will find sanctuary amongst the remains of a petrified forest – clearly terrified of your family too.

You might also head up to the Morian Overlook. Just as your family’s entering the hall, slip back out, and take the elevator up to the second floor. Be careful they don’t see you, because from here, you can take in the whole hall from above.

THE HALL OF ANCIENT EGYPT

There’s a lot to see in this hall. Rush to the back as you enter while the fam plods along. Here you’ll find the mummies and sarcophagi. And we have great, dim mood lighting – which means you could totally lay out on one of the benches, and people will just think you’re another exhibit! Chill here for a while until your family catches up.

THE COCKRELL BUTTERFLY CENTER

A Rainforest, butterflies, an iguana – let your clan to take it all in while you scope out your next spot.

As you enter the Rain Forest Conservatory, head all the way to the bottom level – into the cave. You can remain unseen from above and chill with all the cool butterflies that are trying to be as exclusive as you.

If you enter the Hall of Entmology from here you’ll be right by the “Land of BEEyond.” Please understand that this area is meant for children, so let them play in peace if they get there first – but after all, you’re a kid at heart, right? Why not chill here? You might even get to meet the queen bee.
THE MINERAL HALL AND SMITH GEM VAULT

This hall is lit perfectly to enhance the natural beauty of the minerals and gems on display — and also perfect lighting for a quick escape from your tribe. Walk briskly, and stick close to the wall on the left. As you round the corner, you’ll come up on the Smith Gem Vault, which, if you’re wearing dark colors, makes you nearly invisible. The only light in this room is focused on the perfectly carved diamonds and other jewels on display. It seriously looks like they’re emitting light themselves.

Hang out here for a while, and if you do it right, you can slip back into the mineral hall as the fam goes in the gem vault. You just bought yourself another 20 minutes of freedom!

Other options for some solace in the Museum:

Wortham Giant Screen Theatre: They won’t be able talk to you in here!
Burke Baker Planetarium: With the added feature of looking up, idle chit-chat is discouraged
The Museum Store: Nothing takes the edge off quite like a bit of retail therapy

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.