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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.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Eman | 12/16/2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Impressive work!

  2. Rose Cull | 06/27/2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    This is a great and very detailed report, thanks so much for sharing it. It has helped me with a similar treatment, and the mask looks amazing at the end, good work.

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