Back to imamuseum.org

The IMA in Egypt, Part 1: Science in the Sand

Today’s blogger is Dr. Gregory Dale Smith, the Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist at the IMA. Dr. Smith is reporting through a series of blog posts on the IMA’s involvement in a new exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor, Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World.

This spring I was part of a multi-disciplinary team tackling tricky archaeology in Egypt. The University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, under the direction of Egyptologist Dr. Janet Richards, excavates a famous cemetery site there, the Abydos Middle Cemetery (AMC). Abydos, positioned mid-way up the Nile River, was the burial site of Egypt’s earliest kings. Archaeologists commonly encounter beautifully-decorated funerary materials at the site, like the painted wood coffin shown below.

Figure 1. A painted coffin being unearthed at the Abydos Middle Cemetery excavation. Photo, S. Davis, courtesy of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Figure 1. A painted coffin being unearthed at the Abydos Middle Cemetery excavation. Photo, S. Davis, courtesy of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Although these artifacts look well preserved, they are anything but! The wood has been attacked by fungi and termites to the point that only a brittle web of debris, insect frass (a.k.a. bug poop), and mud is holding it together. On top of this delicate matrix is an eggshell-thin layer of gesso and paint. How does one excavate and lift these fragile objects without crushing them? Archaeologists and conservators currently use a variety of methods to preserve these artifacts, but none work very well. The goal of this project was to find better approaches that could be used in the harsh desert conditions.

Figure 2. Dr. Smith descending into a cistern at Sepphoris, Israel.

Figure 2. Dr. Smith descending into a cistern at Sepphoris, Israel.

So why me? To develop new conservation methods, the AMC conservators needed to understand the paints, pigments, and other materials present on the artifacts. Any new conservation treatment they designed would have to be sympathetic to these materials and not cause unexpected harm. Since no artifacts, or even samples of artifacts, are allowed to leave Egypt, the scientist and the necessary equipment would have to travel to Egypt with the project team. As it happens, I have a background in both chemistry and archaeology. While a chemistry graduate student at Duke University, I spent my summers excavating at Sepphoris in Israel’s Galilee region (Figure 2). With my conservation science expertise, the necessary portable instruments, and previous experience in archaeology, I was a natural fit.

ima_egypt_fig3_101513The project team would spend several days in Cairo consulting with local conservators and visiting museums with artifacts similar to those at the field site. Then we were off to Abydos for a week of analysis and conservation trials. Our group, pictured below in front of the modern-day Abydos village, consisted of:

  • AMC/Kelsey Museum conservators Suzanne Davis and Claudia Chemello
  • Smithsonian Institution conservator Rae Beaubien, a specialist in the excavation of fragile archaeological materials
  • The MFA Boston’s Pamela Hatchfield, who has considerable expertise in the conservation of Egyptian antiquities
  • Dr. Robert Blanchette, professor of plant pathology and specialist in archaeological wood at the University of Minnesota
  • Mycologist Dr. Ahmed Abdel-Azeem, from Egypt’s University of Suez Canal, who has studied the fungi of North Africa

Stay tuned for part two of the story as I discuss working in the field!

 

Filed under: African Art, Art, Conservation, IMA Staff, Travel

Comments are closed.