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That’s a wrap

For once, I’m not talking about mummies. This weekend marks the end of “The Conservator’s Art” exhibition here at the Hearst Museum. As the gallery residency ends, I’ll be heading back down to the basement to work on an upcoming collections move.  Over the next two years, the museum will be moving large portions of the collection into upgraded storage facilities and transforming the gallery into an improved exhibition, community engagement and learning space.

Now that “The Conservator’s Art” has wrapped up, future blog posts (about conservation, The Move, and all sorts of other things) will be appearing on the museum’s own website, here. (This is where you’ll soon be able to see another round of my blog posts from the conservation laboratory at the MVAP Poggio Colla excavation in Italy.)

Thanks to all of the amazing colleagues, visitors, and blog readers who made “The Conservator’s Art” such a wonderful experience!

PAHMA 6-20100

Croc mummy PAHMA 6-20100 says goodbye.

Reconstruction of a copper alloy ewer

Nope, I didn’t especially like to do jigsaw puzzles as a kid. Go figure…Based on the frequency with which visitors in PAHMA’s gallery have asked about my childhood jigsaw puzzle proclivities, the reconstruction of this ancient Egyptian (Dynasty II or III) copper alloy ewer seems to have reminded people of a complicated 3D jigsaw puzzle.

PAHMA 6-2652 before treatment. Photo: Elizabeth La Duc.

Archaeologist George Reisner excavated the ewer from a tomb at Naga ed-Deir in 1901. Reisner’s early photos show that the ewer was fragmentary but nearly complete, with a loss along the midsection of the wall where the ewer appeared to have been dented in antiquity.  Early records state that it was in 33 pieces, which were being held together by interior dirt in the photographs below.

PAHMA 6-2652 in situ at Naga ed-Deir, c. 1901. The ewer (lodged underneath a stone offering table) is marked with a black arrow.

PAHMA 6-2652 shortly after excavation.

Based on studies of similar Old Kingdom copper and copper alloy spouted ewers, the vessel was probably manufactured by raising (hammering) the walls and mechanically attaching a separately cast spout (See Deborah Schorsch’s 1992 article “Copper Ewers of Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom Egypt – An Investigation of the Art of Smithing in Antiquity,” in Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts. Abteilung Kairo (48): 145-159). X-ray fluorescence analysis of the ewer surfaces revealed that arsenic is present in the alloy, consistent with Egyptian metal technology of the period. These spouted ewers are frequently found and depicted alongside small basins, and although excavated examples of the ewers and basins all come from funerary contexts, they are believed to have been used for hand washing in everyday life.

Over the past century, the thin-walled and corroded ewer had broken into many fragments of varying sizes, 91 in total. During the summer of 2011, conservation graduate intern Elizabeth La Duc began treatment of the ewer here at PAHMA. Elizabeth researched the excavation history and fabrication techniques of the vessel, and mechanically cleaned some residual burial dirt that was obscuring the ewer’s surfaces. While most of the corroded surfaces appeared to be stable, powdering light green corrosion on parts of the ewer’s interior was characterized as an aggressive copper chloride compound. To mitigate this corrosion, Elizabeth removed the powdery material with a scalpel and applied a dilute solution of BTA, a corrosion inhibitor. In order to stop the fragile fragments from continuing to break down into even more pieces, she began to reassemble the puzzle-like vessel with Paraloid B-72, a reversible acrylic copolymer, dissolved in acetone at a 40% concentration.

PAHMA 6-2652 during treatment; reconstructed base. Photo: Elizabeth La Duc.

This spring I revisited the ewer to finish reconstructing the fragments, using the same methods. Attaching the heavy spout to the almost paper-thin walls posed a potential challenge, but luckily the joins between the spout fragment and the vessel walls were quite good. (Or, to continue with the jigsaw puzzle analogy, the puzzle pieces fit together very tightly and cleanly, which is not always the case with corroded archaeological metals.) Because I wanted the asymmetrical ewer with the heavy spout to be as structurally stable as possible,  I filled the losses near the spout with B-72 bulked to a paste-like (when applied) consistency achieved by mixing in glass microballoons and cellulose powder in a 1:1 ratio. I did not fill the loss in the dented area, where the join edges didn’t even come close to “lining up,” meaning that I would have been trying to recreate a damaged section of the walls whose exact shape was unknown.

PAHMA 6-2652 during treatment; filling losses surrounding the spout.

After the bulked adhesive had dried, I surfaced the fills and proceeded to inpaint the bright white fill material so that the viewer’s eye will not immediately be drawn to the contrast between the modern white fills and the ancient green corroded surfaces.

PAHMA 6-2652 after treatment.

Now that the ewer has been reassembled, additional measures for its preservation will include the construction of small storage support so that it can be moved and examined without direct handling, and storage in desiccated cabinet to slow corrosion.

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Resurrecting a “Pretty Lady”

One of the most complex treatments undertaken in the gallery as part of “The Conservator’s Art” was the reconstruction of a crushed and broken cartonnage mummy mask, PAHMA 6-20106.

PAHMA 6-20106 before treatment.

The mask was purchased by museum founder Phoebe A. Hearst around the turn of the twentieth century. It depicts a young woman wearing a blue wig bound by a headdress decorated with a vulture and small rosettes. Stylistically, we can date the mask to the Ptolemaic Period (305 BC-30 BC). Due to the delicate painted design, the mask earned the nickname “Pretty Lady.” While the mask was being treated in the gallery, visitors often inquired as to whether such a  mummy mask would have been a luxury item affordable only to very elite members of ancient Egyptian society. The mask appears to be a high quality cartonnage piece, probably one that could have adorned the mummy of an upper middle class woman.  As Near Eastern Studies PhD candidate Elizabeth Minor explained, the mask was something a person would buy at (the ancient Egyptian equivalent of) Neiman Marcus, rather than Kmart.

PAHMA 6-20106 before treatment.

Condition-wise, the mask was not at all pretty. It was crushed, broken, torn, dented, flaking, and missing sections. The interior linen surfaces had been partially lined with coarse burlap in a failed undocumented repair effort. The first order of business was to retrieve cartonnage fragments and burlap lining from the interior of the head cavity.

PAHMA 6-20106 before treatment.

This revealed that the linen core on the back of the head was badly torn, creased and delaminating.

PAHMA 6-20106, detail of torn linen before treatment.

The back of the head was stabilized prior to beginning work on the fragmentary face. Creased linen and flattened cartonnage were relaxed with local humidification. Select areas were humidified by placing them in contact with pieces of Gore-tex, a water vapor permeable fabric, and placing a moisture source on the other side of the Gore-tex. Once the torn linen was rendered flexible and the tear edges realigned, the tears were mended and backed with Japanese tissue paper adhered with BEVA 371 film (a flexible heat-set synthetic adhesive that provided strong yet reversible joins).

Once the back of the head had been stabilized, the mask was lifted from the support and placed on a form in order to assess the back surface and work towards reconstructing the face. Yet more fragments of cartonnage and flakes of detached painted surface were found beneath the back of the wig. Most of the flakes of blue wig surface were reattached with methyl cellulose, a water-soluble cellulose ether.

PAHMA 6-20106 during treatment in the gallery, after stabilization of the back of the wig and before reattachment of flakes of painted surface.

The face was then reconstructed using the Japanese tissue paper and BEVA backing technique, along with occasional tacks of the acrylic copolymer Paraloid B-72 along join edges. The vulture headdress and sides of the face were attached directly to the head. The central portion of the face was assembled as a separate unit, which required casting “facing” and “backing” supports that conformed to the contours of the face so that it could be safely inverted to work on the interior surface.

PAHMA 6-20106 during reconstruction in the gallery.

PAHMA 6-20106 during reconstruction in the gallery.

After all of the extant fragments had been reassembled, a number of gaps in the face remained.

PAHMA 6-20106 during treatment, after of reassembly of the face.

In order to stabilize the fragile reassembled mask, the larger gaps were filled with a lightweight mixture of 5% Klucel G in ethanol bulked with approximately 1:1 glass microballoons and Whatman cellulose powder. The fills were painted with acrylic paints in order to decrease the contrast between the white fill material and surrounding surfaces.

PAHMA 6-20106, face after treatment.

A storage mount made out of archival materials like ethafoam (polyethylene foam) and Tyvek (smooth spunbonded olefin fabric) supports the mask and allows it to be moved without direct handling.


Put a bird on it

Or rather, put a bird back on it. Reattaching the carved wooden bird to the lid of this Ptolemaic canopic box (receptacle for mummified organs) constituted one phase of the box’s conservation treatment. The other main phase of treatment involved stabilizing the flaking painted surfaces so that the box could be safely handled, studied and displayed.

PAHMA 6-21008. Painted wooden canopic box, lid and bird figurine before treatment.

Carved and painted wooden falcon before treatment, PAHMA 6-21008

The box was collected by British papyrologists Grenfell and Hunt, who conducted excavations on behalf Phoebe A. Hearst and the University of California at Tebtunis in 1899 and 1900. It is thought to represent a shrine, with one wall depicting a set of double doors, and other walls portraying funerary deities and symbols. The bird figurine that sat atop the lid represents a mummified falcon associated with the god Sokar. There are similar canopic boxes at the British Museum and Boston Museum of Fine Arts. PAHMA’s box has been treated at least once before, based on the presence of modern adhesive in a repair and an unidentified coating on much of the painted surface.

Before treatment views of exterior side walls of PAHMA 6-21008. The walls are painted with funerary iconography (Imsety and Hapi, Djed pillar, Duamutef, shrine doors).

The separately carved box elements were attached to each other via wooden dowels, and two loose dowels were found in the box’s interior.

Interior of box (PAHMA 6-21008) before treatment. Loose dowels, drips of ancient residue, and modern restoration materials are visible.

The exterior surfaces were smoothed with a calcium carbonate-based preparatory layer before being painted. The painted ground had detached from the underlying wood throughout the wall surfaces, obliterating parts of the design. In many areas where the painted ground was intact, it was separating from the wood below, threatening to flake off and cause further destruction of the imagery.

Lifting painted ground on the back of the bird figure, proper left side, PAHMA 6-21008.

In order to prevent continued loss of the painted surface, lifting flakes were consolidated, or secured to the wood below with a dilute adhesive.  A 3% solution of methyl cellulose, a cellulose ether, in 1:1 deionized water and ethanol was used to consolidate the flaking surface. By introducing small amounts of consolidant to the undersides of the lifting flakes with a fine brush, I was able to relax the painted ground and reattach it to the wood.

Consolidated painted surface on the back of the bird figure, proper left side, PAHMA 6-21008.

After surfaces on the bird and on the box walls had been consolidated, the bird was reattached to the top of the lid. One of the loose dowels originally found in the interior of the box (see above) fit the hole in the underside of the falcon’s base and the central hole in the top of the lid. A strip of surface down the longer axis of the lid fluoresced differently in long-wave UV light than surrounding surfaces, suggesting that the bird had been attached in that orientation when a coating was applied to the lid during an earlier restoration campaign.

Top of the lid of canopic box PAHMA 6-21008 in long-wave UV. There appears to be an uncoated strip of surface down the center of the lid.

These clues and comparison to similar boxes suggested that the bird was originally oriented facing the box wall decorated with the double doors. Using the peg found in the interior, the bird was reattached to the lid in this position. A foam support was created to pad the underside of the lid, and the lid was replaced on the box to illustrate how it would have originally appeared.

PAHMA 6-21008 after treatment.

Put a bird on it!



Coins, coins, coins. So far, the conservation lab has treated eight copper alloy coins this season, most of which were found in a single trench at Poggio Colla.

Coins can provide chronological information about the contexts in which they were found. Being able to identify (and thus date) a coin depends in part on being able to see the design elements on its surfaces. Dirt and corrosion usually obscure these features, which where the conservators come in.

Coin from trench PC 45 before treatment. Burial dirt completely obscures the surfaces. Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project: Poggio Colla.

Coin cleaning is a delicate operation. Often the surface in which design features are preserved is very thin and fragile. We use a binocular microscope and various tools to remove material from this surface without disrupting it, revealing the images on the surface without damaging the fragile patina.


MVAP conservation field school student Carly Hoey treats a copper alloy coin with the aid of a binocular microscope. Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project: Poggio Colla.

Characters are revealed on a coin’s surface during cleaning. This type of legend tells us where the coin was minted. Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project: Poggio Colla.

Coin from trench PC 45 after treatment. The same surface pictured at the top of the post, after cleaning. Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project: Poggio Colla.

After coins have been cleaned and stabilized, we craft small storage supports for them place them in sealed containers with silica gel, a desiccating (drying) agent. Storage in a dry microenvironment slows the metal corrosion process, helping to preserve the coins.


Mystery materials

What is this?

We get that question a lot. Trench supervisors and students bring unidentified finds down from the field for closer examination in the conservation lab. With help from tools like a binocular microscope, we are able to observe diagnostic features and characterize materials.

This one stumped us for a little while though:

One exterior surface of the "mystery find." Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project: Poggio Colla.

Another view of the exterior surface of the "mystery find." Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project: Poggio Colla.

Break edge revealing the interior of the "mystery find." Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project: Poggio Colla.

The combination of serrated edges, asymmetrical curvature, one flat side and one convex side, and clear differentiation between an inner “core” and darker outer layer was…weird.

A stone blade? Glass ornament? Ceramic even? These were all suggested, but nothing quite added up. Then one of our knowledgeable colleagues suggested something else.

A fossilized shark’s tooth! We checked some comparanda online, and found that fossilized shark teeth do indeed exhibit all of the strange features mentioned above. You never know what will turn up out here, and we will now be able to identify fossilized shark teeth right off the bat in the future.


Hello Kitty

In the MVAP conservation lab, we spend a lot of time cleaning excavated finds, carefully removing dirt (and sometimes alteration products) from objects. We clean the finds in order to reveal their forms and surfaces, and to remove material that could cause deterioration. Cleaning is an invasive and permanent action, so we select methods appropriate for the type of object to be cleaned, and work slowly and carefully.

MVAP field school conservation student Emily Ricketts uses a binocular microscope while cleaning a find. Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.

As we clean, we are very careful to only remove only what we want to remove, primarily dirt. We want to ensure that we don’t remove original material like pigment, glazes, or gilding, or evidence of how something was used, like ancient residues or signs of associated organic materials such as wood or textiles.

Last week, cleaning this ceramic sherd revealed a surprise.

Bucchero sherd from trench PC 41, before treatment. Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.

As I carefully reduced the dirt sticking to the surfaces of the sherd, the partially obscured incised design emerged. The sherd has a depiction of a feline, perhaps a spotted leopard, unlike anything found at this site!

Hello kitty! Partially cleaned bucchero sherd from trench PC 41, during treatment. Cleaning the sherd revealed a charming feline face. Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.

Now that the sherd has been cleaned and the design is visible, the find will be studied by the team’s Bucchero specialist and drawn by the professional illustrator.

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Field dispatch: reporting for duty

Curious about what happens to archaeological objects before they enter a museum collection? Over the next month I will be blogging from Vespignano, Italy, sharing how the conservation team at MVAP’s Poggio Colla dig cares for recently excavated artifacts. Poggio Colla is a 7th-2nd century BCE Etruscan site, located about an hour outside of Florence. The project is a field school where students learn about all aspects of excavation, including archaeological conservation.

Upon arrival, we began by setting up a field conservation laboratory at Guardia, a farmhouse not far from the site. Finds are brought here for cleaning, stabilization and rehousing.


The doors to the Poggio Colla conservation laboratory at Guardia. Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.

Once the lab was set up, we began to tackle objects from the end of the 2010 season. Thus far we’ve treated metal items and a lot of ceramics, including many Bucchero pieces. Bucchero is a distinctive dark grey Etruscan ceramic fabric, sometimes decorated with stamped and incised decoration.

MVAP conservation interns at work

Pre-program conservation interns and Poggio Colla Field School alums Morgan Burgess and Avery Bayard at work in the lab, cleaning Bucchero sherds. Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.


Pre-program conservation intern Avery inspects a ceramic spindle whorl in the lab. Courtesy of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.

We can’t wait to see what emerges from the dirt in week two!

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We’re hooked: Preliminary CT results for crocodile mummy PAHMA 5-513

Cut-through rendering of PAHMA 5-513, created by eHuman Inc. Images acquired by Dr. Rebecca Fahrig, Department of Radiology, Stanford University, using a Siemens SOMATOM Definition, Siemens Healthcare.

By CT scanning PAHMA 5-513, an unwrapped mummy group composed of an adult Nile crocodile with juvenile crocodiles massed on its back, we learned more about how the adult and baby crocodiles lived, died and were mummified.

We hoped that imaging the interior of the mummy group would reveal if the adult had been eviscerated (had its entrails removed) as part of the mummification process, how the crocodiles died, the gender of the large crocodile, and other surprises. Like wrapped crocodile mummy PAHMA 6-20100, 5-513 underwent two sets of scans at Stanford University. First we scanned the mummy with a clinical CT scanner to identify features of potential interest, and then followed up with high resolution scans using the C-arm scanner in the lab of Dr. Rebecca Fahrig, Department of Radiology, Stanford University

PAHMA 5-513 awaits CT scanning in Dr. Rebecca Fahrig’s lab, Stanford University.

The last supper?

No signs of blunt force trauma were visible on the cranium, vertebrae and other bones, ruling out some modes of death. The CT scans also revealed intact organs, indicating that the adult crocodile had not been eviscerated.  One of the organs visible in the CT renderings is a full stomach. The crocodile’s stomach contains the bones of small prey, round radiopaque objects that appear to be rocks, and a manmade object…

Cut-through rendering of PAHMA 5-513 with dense, radiopaque material visible in stomach. Created by eHuman Inc. Images acquired by Dr. Rebecca Fahrig, Department of Radiology, Stanford University, using a Siemens SOMATOM Definition, Siemens Healthcare.

Initially, the concentration of round dense objects in the stomach was slightly puzzling. However, it turns out that crocodilians actually consume stones that remain in their stomachs. The stones help to crush and grind food, which crocodiles do not chew. Acidic stomach fluids also break down the food chemically. Biologists believe that the ingestion of stones may have a secondary function as well, providing additional weight that aids the crocodile in floating just below the surface of the water.

Many small animal bones are mixed in with the rocks.

Fish skeletons in the stomach of PAHMA 5-513. Images acquired by Dr. Rebecca Fahrig, Department of Radiology, Stanford University, using an Axiom Artis dTA with DynaCT, Siemens Healthcare. Created using High Definition Volume Rendering® software by Fovia, Inc.

Claw (?) bones of an unidentified animal in the stomach of PAHMA 5-513. Images acquired by Dr. Rebecca Fahrig, Department of Radiology, Stanford University, using an Axiom Artis dTA with DynaCT, Siemens Healthcare. Created using High Definition Volume Rendering® software by Fovia, Inc.

The high resolution scans performed at Dr. Fahrig’s lab revealed a final surprise in the crocodile’s stomach. Amidst all the bones and the rocks, there is a metal hook.

Stomach contents of PAHMA 5-513, with radiopaque metal hook (shown in yellow) and round objects that appear to be rocks. Images acquired by Dr. Rebecca Fahrig, Department of Radiology, Stanford University, using an Axiom Artis dTA with DynaCT, Siemens Healthcare. Created using High Definition Volume Rendering® software by Fovia, Inc.

The J-shaped hook, with a barbed tip and eyelet, resembles fish hooks from Greco-Roman Egypt. The compact surface and lack of voluminous corrosion products suggest that the hook may be made of a copper alloy rather than of iron.

How did the hook end up in the crocodile’s stomach? Based on its location inside of the stomach and proximity to fish skeletons, the hook may have been lodged in a fish consumed by the crocodile shortly before its death.

The hook may also have been deposited inside of the crocodile during mummification. At the 2011 AIC conservation conference, a conservator from the Field Museum shared CT images of a Ptolemaic period gazelle mummy. There is a very similar metal hook in the gazelle’s hindquarters, suggesting that such hooks were used by embalmers in the course of animal mummy preparation.

5th century BC Greek writer Herodotus offers yet another possible scenario. His Histories includes a section on Egyptian customs, including crocodile worship and mummification, and techniques for capturing and dispatching the dangerous beasts. Herodotus claims that the Egyptians had numerous ways of catching crocodiles, and details one method that involves luring a crocodile out of the water with bait on a hook:

They bait a hook with a chine of pork and let it float out into midstream, and at the same time, standing on the bank, beat a live pig to make it squeal. The crocodile makes a rush towards the squealing pig, encounters the bait, gulps it down, and is hauled out of the water. The first thing the huntsman does when he has got the beast on land is to plaster its eyes with mud; this done, it is dispatched easily enough-but without this precaution it will give a lot of trouble.

(trans. de Sélincourt, 1954)

Of course we can’t know exactly how the hook ended up in the stomach of the mummified crocodile, but it’s fun to imagine a Herodotean turn of events!

Many thanks to Dr. Rebecca Fahrig (Stanford University), eHuman Inc., and Shay Kilby of Fovia, Inc. for their assistance with scanning the mummy and rendering images!












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Talking shop: A conservator and an Egyptologist discuss the reconstruction of a stone vessel

Welcome to guest blogger, PAHMA gallery guide, and UC Berkeley Egyptology PhD candidate Elizabeth Minor! We’re going to discuss a stone vessel from Naga ed-Deir that I recently reconstructed in the museum gallery. When conservators and archaeologists put their heads together, we can both learn more about the objects with which we work.


PAHMA 6-313 after reassembly.

AL: Hi Elizabeth, thanks for providing some expert knowledge about this stone vessel. I have lots of questions about the site and tomb in which it was found, as well as about how this type of vessel would have been used.

EM: Hi Allison, thanks for giving me a chance to geek out about ancient Egypt! 

AL: Anytime! To start things off, please tell us about Naga ed-Deir and George Reisner’s work there.

EM: Naga ed-Deir is a really interesting site. There is an extensive cemetery along the desert cliffs, ranging from some of the earliest periods of Egyptian history to some of the latest.  The site is the cemetery for the ancient town of Thinis.  This area is what is considered a regional center, not with the same kind of gigantic monuments that you find just up the Nile at Thebes, like Karnak Temple or the Valley of the Kings.  Ancient Egypt was split into smaller administrative regions called nomes, which are kind of like modern American states.  Thinis was the capital city of the 8th Upper Egyptian nome, called “Ta-wer”.  That means the people buried at Naga ed-Deir provide a unique look at provincial Egyptians, not just the pharaoh and his court which we hear so much about.

This pot came from tomb N1523, which means that it was the 23rd tomb found in Cemetery N1500.  This part of the site was used for burials in the Early Dynastic Period, mainly Dynasties 1 and 2.  Ancient Egyptians and modern Egyptologists use dynasties, or groups of related pharaohs, for dating.  If you surprise an Egyptologist and ask for an absolute date, we usually have to think about it for a while.  Dynasties 1 and 2 are roughly 2920-2649 BCE, but we are always perfecting how we calculate the exact years for dynasties.  The earliest finds at Naga ed-Deir are from the Predynastic Period (starting around 4000 BCE), and show a long history of increasing wealth among some individuals in the area.  Other sites in Upper Egypt show the same pattern, but eventually the nearby rulers at Abydos seem to take over the whole region, and then all of Egypt.  This is the beginning of Pharaonic Egypt, so Dynasties 1 and 2 are when cultural traditions are developed that will be continued by Egyptians for millennia.  What’s really interesting about Naga ed-Deir is that you can see the whole development of Egyptian culture, with tombs used even in the Greco-Roman period (332 BCE-AD 395), all through people who lived and died in the same local area.

The site of Naga ed-Deir was excavated by Dr. George Reisner starting in 1901.  Reisner was a young Egyptologist who happened to be in the right place at the right time.  He was finishing up a job at the National Egyptian Museum when Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst decided to start sponsoring scientific archaeological expeditions all around the world.  She hired him and gave him complete control to decide where to excavate, and even told him she didn’t want him to just look for beautiful objects for her museum.  Dr. Reisner took her forward-thinking to heart, and developed careful record-keeping techniques, especially taking photographs of all the steps of his excavation and finds.  Over a hundred years later, researchers can still use his notes and photos to analyze his sites, like we are right now.

PAHMA 6-313 in situ at Naga ed-Deir.

AL: How would this jar have been used; what type of contents would it have held?

EM: A stone jar like this wouldn’t have been used for everyday eating and cooking. This jar would have been used to hold some sort of liquid for the deceased to use in the afterlife, probably some kind of oil or fatty substance that could have been as valued as the stone itself.  Perfumed oils were used in mummification, or just cosmetically to make people smell better. Ancient Egyptians believed that your soul lived for eternity in an afterworld, and you’d have a chance to enjoy all the things you liked to do while you were alive.  That meant that you needed to have a supply of anything and everything you could think of.  Earlier on in Egyptian history, they took this very literally and tried to pack actual examples of items.  This jar also had a dual purpose in that the stone vessel itself was valued.  The beautiful banded stone, the elegant shape, and all the work that went into making it meant made it a luxury item.

AL: What can this vessel tell us about the social status of the person with whom it was interred?

EM: Looking at this vessel on its own, we can tell that the person who owned it was an elite who wanted to have the best provisions for the afterlife.  We can tell a lot more about the person by looking at in the context of the whole tomb.

Thanks to Reisner’s great recording skills, we know exactly what this tomb looked like and what else was found in it.  It’s interesting that he thought it was a smaller imitation of the larger tombs in the cemetery, and with some similarities to Dynasty 3-4 tombs.  That means that the tomb was probably built in the later part of the Early Dynastic Period.  There were five stone vessels found in the tomb, but the rest of the tomb was disturbed.  These types of stone vessels are also more like, but not completely like, Dynasty 3-4 vessels at the site.  In other words, this is an in-between tomb in almost all ways.  Not quite Dynasty 2 or 3, not extremely wealthy or poor.  Also, by Dynasty 3 most of the highest elite Egyptians, the ones who were closest to the pharaoh, would build their tombs in the area right around the king’s burial.  This was moved from Abydos in Dynasties 1 and (part of) 2 from nearby Abydos, to much further north at Sakkara.  So by Dynasty 3, Naga ed-Deir was much further removed from the cultural capital of Egypt.  The people who lived and died there probably had much less access to wealth.


Field photograph of stone vessels found together in tomb N1523 at Naga ed-Deir.

AL: Is PAHMA 6-313 a typical size/shape for a valuable Early Dynastic jar that would have held equally valuable liquid products?

EM: This is a large and wide example of this type of cylindrical stone vessel (personally, I think that it looks kind of like a top hat).  There are a variety of forms and stones used for vessels in the Early Dynastic Period, and they seem to have been a favorite burial item at the time.  Alabaster seems to be a favorite due to its relative softness and bands of color.  Reisner had 26 classifications of stone vessels at Naga ed-Deir, ranging from these upright cylindrical vessels to thin plates.  Archaeologists use typologies of vessel forms to track subtle changes in design over time.  Consistent patterns of change, or types that are often found together, can then be used as benchmarks to date the context in which an object is found.

Chart illustrating part of Reisner’s stone vessel typology for Naga ed-Deir.

AL: So chronologically, this jar is pretty early, even by Egyptian standards. Did the ancient Egyptians continue to create and inter vessels like this in later periods as well?

EM: Stone vessels were one of the earliest types of luxury burial goods in Egypt.  They are found in Predynastic graves at Naga ed-Deir, and continue on into the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom.  The most complex and numerous examples from around Dynasty 2 and 3.  The pharaoh Djoser of Dynasty 3, the first king with a pyramid, had underground chambers packed with stone vessels.

But by Dynasty 4, Egyptians started using substitutions for stone vessels, rather than putting all the resources and labor into them.  Prince Kawab at Giza, for example, wanted to have the complete set of one-thousand stone vessels in for his afterlife.  He used a magical loophole though, and had many mini model alabaster vessels made instead.  Other Egyptians just had a list of all the goodies they wanted a thousand of (a thousand was more of a concept of abundance, like a ‘bagillion’ or ‘gazillion’ or ‘infinity-plus-one’), like Prince Wepemnofret’s stela also on display in the Hearst gallery.

Stone vessel carving skills weren’t forgotten, though.  Pharaohs in the New Kingdom, like King Tut, had extremely intricate alabaster vessels with openwork designs.  They’re so thin and translucent that they glow orange around the painted designs if you put a light inside of them.  Although the vessels are what’s left for us to study today, you always have to remember that equally valuable oils and unguents were contained in them.  When Tut’s tomb was robbed in antiquity, the thieves went straight for the jar contents, even before rummaging through the golden jewelry.

AL: Thanks Elizabeth! It’s so helpful to learn all about Naga ed-Deir, Reisner’s work there, as well as about the history of use and manufacture of stone vessels in ancient Egypt. Your turn to ask me some questions…

EM: What did the vessel look like before conservation?

AL: Before conservation, the vessel consisted of upwards of 20 fragments of varying sizes, in addition to a collection of very small chips, flakes and particles.


PAHMA 6-313 before treatment.

EM: What is the vessel made of?

AL: The vessel is carved from a dense calcium carbonate stone, variously referred to as limestone onyx, travertine or calcite (technically a mineral rather than a type of stone). It has large, well-defined crystals and orange, grey and white banding caused by iron and perhaps other mineral impurities. Testing a tiny sample with hydrochloric acid, which effervesces when in contact with calcareous material, confirmed that the stone is primarily calcium carbonate.

Now this question can actually get confusing because of the ways different people use the term “alabaster.”  If you ask a geologist what alabaster is, he or she will tell you that it is a type of stone composed of hydrated calcium sulfate, or gypsum. Both true alabaster and some types of limestone are creamy in color and translucent. The ancient Egyptians used both types of stone to carve vessels, but many Egyptologists use the word “alabaster” to describe any light colored translucent stone regardless of its composition.

EM: If the vessel was almost complete in the excavation photos, why was it in pieces when you started working on it?

AL: While there was breakage at the rim when Reisner excavated the piece (visible in those great field photos), the major damage took place sometime after it was photographed in Egypt. We don’t know exactly when or how the vessel shattered into so many pieces. It was in San Francisco by 1906, and may have been damaged in the great earthquake that took place that year. Museum record keeping has become much more thorough since the early twentieth century. Now we record any changes to an object’s condition so that in the future, people will know exactly what happened and when.

EM: Did you find out enough by analyzing it to be able to make one today? How long do you think it would take?

AL: I’m not sure that I could make one today, but by looking at marks on the stone surface and researching ancient Egyptian stone carving technology, I have a general sense about how it was made. The center of a block of stone was probably roughed out with a man-powered drill called a “twist-reverse-twist drill.” Once the basic shape had been carved, additional shaping and smoothing of the surfaces was performed with abrasive materials like sand, polishing stones and maybe copper tools. You can see fine striations on both the interior and exterior surfaces that were probably left by abrasive polishing. Not sure how long it would have taken!

EM: Why reassemble it?

AL: Remember that collection of small chips, flakes and particles?


Detached chips, flakes and particles from PAHMA 6-313 before treatment.

In the vessel’s fragmentary state, the stone was at risk of gradually breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. Object handling and storage methods can exacerbate this problem. When groups of fragments are stored in cramped bags, boxes, trays, drawers etc., the fragments can abrade and jostle each other, causing additional breakdown. Reassembling the extant pieces slows down this process, so reassembling the vessel is a means of preserving it.

Reassembly has another important benefit. Now people can immediately see the jar’s shape and size, which as you mentioned above, can provide important archaeological information about both the individual object and the context from which it was excavated.

EM: How did you reassemble it?

AL: I worked from the base up, joining fragments with an acrylic copolymer called Paraloid B-72, dissolved in acetone. B-72 is a popular adhesive for ceramic and stone reassembly because it is very stable over time and remains reversible. I want to make sure that whatever adhesive I use will remain easy to remove without any risk to the vessel, even many years in the future.  In addition to remaining soluble, B-72 will not soften and slump, discolor, or release any unwanted by-products that could harm the stone.  B-72 has another nice property in that it is thermoplastic, or becomes slightly malleable when heated. This allows a conservator to make minute join adjustments by applying localized heat (frequently with a hair dryer) while reconstructing an object. It’s important to get the joins as perfectly aligned as possible because each slight misalignment throws neighboring joins off, and multiple minor misalignments can accumulate to create larger misalignments down the road. In order to keep the fragments positioned while the adhesive set up (as the acetone evaporated), I used clamps or tape to hold fragments in place. When joining smaller fragments together, I placed them in a bowl of plastic pellets so that the joins were parallel to the ground, allowing gravity to help hold the fragments in place.


PAHMA 6-313 during treatment.

EM: How did knowing more about the Egyptological and excavation background of the vessel help with your reconstruction?

AL: The more I know about an object, the better. No matter what type of object I work on, understanding how it would have been made and used, what it meant to the people who made it, and what it may mean to people today allows me to make the best treatment decisions possible. Regarding technical issues, knowing the vessel’s expected shape expedited figuring out how the fragments joined together. Knowing that the vessel probably once held some sort of precious oil or fatty substance helped me to look for any residues or stains on the walls, and avoid cleaning possible residues. Having early photographic documentation and knowing when it was excavated and transported helped me to figure out approximately when damage and prior undocumented restorations had occurred, which in turn helped me to make an educated guess about old restoration materials that may have been used.

EM: What should I do if I find a broken stone vessel while I’m excavating?

AL: First of all, document it before trying to remove it from the ground. Photographs and sketches will aid a conservator in reconstructing an artifact if additional breakage occurs. You may want to block lift it, or lift both the vessel and the  surrounding dirt as a unit in order to keep the vessel as intact as possible. Conservators and archaeologists frequently employ different sorts of reinforcing material like bandages and plaster to secure the “block” in which the fragile object is lifted. Once taken out of the ground, the block can be carefully excavated in a more controlled setting. Be mindful of the possibility that there may be residues of the vessel’s original contents on the interior, traces of added decoration on the surfaces, or other subtle types of evidence that can be unintentionally cleaned off during any dirt removal.

EM: What are you going to work on next?

AL: A painted wooden funerary stela! Thanks again for all of your input Elizabeth, and I can’t wait to discuss the stela and other objects.

Elizabeth is frequently on gallery guide duty at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology on Friday afternoons between 2:00-4:00 PM. If you’re in the area, come by and chat with us about ancient Egyptian objects on display in The Conservator’s Art.


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