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The IMA in Egypt, Part 2: Have Gun – Will Travel

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.

Figure 1. A Bruker Tracer III-V portable XRF spectrometer positioned vertically in a bench top stand alongside a Bruker Alpha FTIR spectrometer. Dr. Smith uses the FTIR to analyze the organic binder in small fragments of paint.

Figure 1. A Bruker Tracer III-V portable XRF spectrometer positioned vertically in a bench top stand alongside a Bruker Alpha FTIR spectrometer. Dr. Smith uses the FTIR to analyze the organic binder in small fragments of paint.

An X-ray gun that is! In a previous post, I described a collaborative project with the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the American Research Center in Egypt that sought to find a better means of excavating, stabilizing, and preserving beautifully-decorated, but incredibly fragile painted funerary artifacts. My role in the 2013 field season was to identify the materials of these coffins, statues, and wooden objects in order to better inform the approaches to their conservation. To do this, I needed to transport several scientific instruments to our field site in Abydos, Egypt. The IMA’s X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer, a.k.a. the X-ray gun, was one of those analytical tools, ideal for determining the elemental composition of the objects’ inorganic components (metals, minerals, stone) and small enough to be easily transported to a dig site lab (see Figure 1).

Figure 2. The Abydos dig house wet chemistry laboratory was used to test for proteins and polysaccharides in the paints used to decorate wooden funerary objects.

Figure 2. The Abydos dig house wet chemistry laboratory was used to test for proteins and polysaccharides in the paints used to decorate wooden funerary objects.

For the organic components (paint binders, wood, resins, waxes, textiles, glues), a Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer loaned by Bruker Instruments complemented wet chemical tests conducted in our makeshift field lab, shown in Figure 2.

Figure 3. Blue tape solves the persistent problem of loose electrical adapters while a tea kettle and insulated thermos replace a lab hotplate for warming reaction test tubes.

Figure 3. Blue tape solves the persistent problem of loose electrical adapters while a tea kettle and insulated thermos replace a lab hotplate for warming reaction test tubes.

Operating a field lab in the desert requires a good deal of patience and creativity. Daily power outages, loss of the internet, and an omnipresent layer of dust can complicate analyses that would be quick and routine in the IMA’s state-of-the-art laboratories (see Figure 3).  Stay tuned for the final installment describing the results of our research and some future research directions.

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

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